idd wasn’t more than a lad, back then; Teach himself wasn’t even a gleam in the Devil’s eye, not yet.
Thirty-six captains anchored together at Cape Tiburon, summoned by Harry Morgan, bound on gold and revenge.
There never was such an assembly of the Brethren before, nor ever afterward until that last wild party Teach held at
Okracoke; and that was a sad business, at the end of it all.
But when Morgan was in his prime, a man might muster the ships and men to go looting the Spanish Main, and
gentlemen called it privateering. That was, if a man’s commission was in order.
That was the trick, you see; for the British ministers of state, off in London, blew hot and cold on the question of
peace with Spain. A man might set off on an expedition legal as you please, and come home to find the rules had
changed, with some Madrid grandee in Whitehall screaming to have him clapped in irons. So it required a fine and
careful hand, that game.
Nobody played it better than Harry Morgan.
He came out to Barbados in old Cromwell’s time, a young ensign from a family of hard men, mercenaries who’d
served with distinction. You mark that; Morgan was no bond-slave boy. Hendrick Smeeks started that story out of
spite, and paid dearly for it later, because Morgan sued him. Oh, Ned Teach roared and blazed, and Kidd was a
mean hand with a bucket, but a Welshman with an attorney-- there’s a thing to frighten you!
What was Morgan doing in Barbados?
It started because Spain had the New World and its gold all to itself, like a boy locked in a room with the biggest
fruitcake you ever saw. England and France, and the Dutch too, all knocked on the door politely, asking if they
mightn’t come in and share a slice or two; but no, Spain kept that door locked, and gobbled away at the rich stuff
until it was so sick it was pissing sugar.
Sooner or later there were pinprick outposts of other nations on all the little leeward islands in the Caribbean
anyway, looking enviously over at Hispaniola and the mainland where the gold was. Oliver Cromwell planned
an expedition to take Hispaniola. Sir Francis Drake had taken it, a long generation before; why shouldn’t the
New Model Army do it too?
Ah, but Drake hadn’t kept it; Drake was out for loot and revenge, not settlements and plantations and careful
account-books. He’d come and gone from Hispaniola. Cromwell intended England should invest in the Caribbean.
So he sent his generals out to Barbados to muster an expedition. That was in 1655. Young Harry Morgan went with
those generals, and served in their ranks, and watched as they made a hash of the job. And learned from their
Having failed to take Hispaniola (and what a failure it was: supplies held up, messages crossed, storms, fever,
cowardice, infighting…), the generals looked around for some sop, any sop, to offer Cromwell, so as to keep their
heads on their shoulders when they got home.
What about Jamaica, they must have said. It was an easy grab; had some arable land, didn’t it? Nice harbor too.
Not much of a defense force stationed there, either.
They took it in a day. The Spanish governor surrendered, packed his bags and got out. He likely caught hell when
he got home to his king; the English generals Venables and Penn fared not much better, for they both of them wound
up in the Tower at Cromwell’s displeasure.
But Jamaica was in the hands of the Commonwealth now. And if the presidentes, gubernadors and alcaldes of the
Spanish Main weren’t waking up with night terrors and forebodings of doom, if their rosaries weren’t squirting out
of their sweaty hands whilst they prayed for deliverance from evil-- they should have been.
It was a merry time! Spain demanded Jamaica back, and Cromwell recovered his temper enough to see clear that his
generals had grabbed a plum for him. So, a fig for the dons and the Pope; the Commonwealth went to war with Spain.
Cromwell’s navy had a secure base in Jamaica from which to prey on the Spanish plate fleet. All those timid galleons
beating to windward with their holds stuffed with gold and emeralds... why, the Commonwealth could make a fortune.
And anyone could play! Private gentlemen who could outfit a ship had but to apply for a commission from Jamaica’s
governor, and they became privateers, duly licensed to attack enemy shipping.
And if a man wasn’t a gentleman, or if his crew had too much the look of thieves and murderers for the governor’s taste,
it was no matter. Privateering commissions were also being handed out by the somewhat-less-discriminating governor of
Tortuga. The French issued them. The Dutch issued them. Anyone could play…
And then the news came that Cromwell was dead, and King Charles had come out of exile to be welcomed back to England.
The new Privy Council, bless their peace-loving little hearts, desired to negotiate a treaty with Spain. Think how many black
slaves could be sold to the Spanish, if only there wasn’t a war on!
So negotiations began, and England called its navy home. Jamaica was left out in the Caribbean with no defenses but what
she could think up for herself, and all those Spanish presidentes, gubernadors and alcaldes were stroking their beards, and
grinning at her thoughtful-like.
Jamaica did what any prudent innkeeper would do, with her man away and Spanish thieves peering round the shutters;
she woke up the English thieves that had passed out on her own hearth, fired them up with more rum, and bid them prey for
They were the Brethren of the Coast.
So much is history, for anyone to read in books.
This, now, is rumor:
There were once two young officers come out from London with Venables, and they wandered through the streets of
Barbados with their mouths open, falling under the spell of the West Indies. One thought it looked like a good place
to earn a name of his own; one had only known paved streets all his life, and couldn’t get over such flowers, such
fireflies, such blue water. One was blackavised as the Devil himself, and the other had a pale countenance like a
One had luck, and the other hadn’t.
They learned to drink rum together in a grog shop kept by an old seaman. The seaman had a pretty daughter. The
blackavised fellow fancied her, but the pale fellow became infatuated with her, went so far as to write her a poem.
Then they both shipped out to conquer Hispaniola, and you know how that went.
The dark fellow’s luck stood by him. He stamped, he swore, he beat the Newgate scum he’d been given into fighting
troops, he rallied his men to charge when others fled, he survived starvation and storm and the haplessness of his
The poet caught fever and died, and was buried on Jamaica.
Well, so the dark one was left in charge of a regiment when Venables departed Jamaica. He sailed over to Barbados
for fresh troops and supplies, and as his friend had just been laid in the ground, he took himself to the grog shop for
old time’s sake, and had a stiff drink in memoriam.
The girl waited on him and wept at the unwelcome news, for she had loved her poet. The dark one comforted her.
He was climbing from her bed next morning when he looked out and saw the sail coming in, the cutter that must have
been just hull-down behind him the whole way from Jamaica, following him hard. He swore, thinking it was some
message of disaster that had befallen as soon as he’d been over the horizon. Pulling on his breeches and his boots,
he rushed down, to learn that it was only last-minute messages about things forgotten until after he’d sailed. Oh, and
His friend had come back from the dead.
It had been known to happen. Overworked, incompetent army doctors failing to notice little details like pulses.
Hasty burials under cold, cold clay that brought a man’s fever down wonderfully. Clawing his wild-eyed way out of
a shallow grave, the poet had seen his life pass before his eyes and found only one thing of value therein: his love for
the girl in Barbados.
He’d staggered back down into camp, filthy, half-naked, and the black men muttered and the white men flinched.
Altogether it was thought best to let him have a bath, a suit of clothes and passage back to Barbados, because no one
wanted him in camp. It was thought he’d bring bad luck…
What tears of joy the girl wept at her true love’s return! What nervous glances she cast at his dark friend, who bowed
gravely, kissed her hand and kept his silence. He was best man at their wedding. He stood godfather to the little girl,
born nine months to the day after the joyful reunion.
It’s only a rumor, you see.
Jamaica flourished. Sugar cane was planted, planters grew prosperous. Merchants established themselves. The sandy
point that thrust out into the harbor was fortified and a little town built there, a lure to welcome in privateer captains
and their crews and keep them happy. Taverns and brothels in plenty, gambling dens, eating-houses, pipe-shops with
good tobacco, other shops with anything a drunken sailor on a spree might look for: gowns of silk for whores, maybe,
or pretty things that had belonged to some great lady of Spain, just what was wanted to reward a wife who welcomed
you home from sea and didn’t ask questions.
Oh, the Brethren of the Coast might take their prizes to Tortuga now and then, if the diplomatic wind from London
was foul, if infighting politicians decided to hang a poor captain or two as a gesture of good will toward the Spanish.
For the most part, though, Port Royal was their own city.
Its governors came and went, but Harry Morgan ruled there.
He’d learned the privateering trade under little Commodore Mings, as legal as you please, before the Navy was
withdrawn. They took Santiago de Cuba and sailed home in triumph, leaving the King of Spain the poorer by six fine
prize ships and no end of silver plate, cannons, bales of hides, barrels of wine and church bells. If it hadn’t been
nailed down, it was stolen; the rest was blown up or set afire. Campeche fell next, with her little stone houses. She
yielded up fourteen prizes, and plunder enough for a celebration that lasted days and days.
Morgan wasn’t the best seaman in the world—in fact he wasn’t especially good at sailing at all, he was always more
of a soldier. But he could command, by God, with those coal-black eyes of his. You looked into them and the idea of
crossing him never once entered your head, no matter how drunk or cowardly or depraved you were.
Somewhere in all the blood and flame and smoke, Morgan picked up the knack for inspiring men too, as opposed to
just scaring them into obeying. He learned all the actor’s craft of putting a throb in his singsong Welsh voice and a
flash in his eye, he learned how to stand six inches taller than he really was, and he learned the words that fired men
up like hot rum.
Men listened to his voice and followed him through the swamps of the Mosquito Coast, three thousand miles to sack
Villahermosa, and Trujillo, and Gran Granada with its seven churches. The Spanish said he was Drake come again,
or the Devil, which was nearly as bad.
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