Captain Henry Morgan raids Houston AIA

Capt. Henry Morgan

And here I thought pirates either looked like Johnny Depp or Cap’n Crunch, or maybe like Jerry Seinfeld in a puffy shirt. Thankfully, our AIA-Houston season is off to a great start, and as always, I’m learning more and more. Where should I start…

I’m quite excited about our new INSITES reading group. I ordered all the books, and settled in to read “Empire of Blue Water” by Stephan Talty. I fell in love with the book, and with Captain Henry Morgan, at the end of the first paragraph of the introduction, where Talty describes the British capital ofJamaica,Port Royal, like this: “All that is at the end of this road is the ruins of a very old, and a very wicked, place.” I just had to read more, and attending the first Insites dinner at the Black Lab, Dr. Guillermo de los Reyes of theUniversityofHoustonshed quite a bit of light on how the “other” side, i.e. the Spanish, viewed Capt. Morgan.

Here’s what I learned, or at least SOME of what I learned: Morgan wasn’t a pirate; he was

Empire of Blue Water

a privateer, with a commission from the English crown to attack the enemy (meaning, the Spanish) during war time, and in the 17th century, while the great European powers were vying for empire (meaning, trying to chip away at what Spain controlled), England and Spain were pretty much at war all the time.

I was also fascinated to find out that privateers had a very democratic way of dividing the spoils of their raids. Everybody got something, and if you sustained an injury or suffered a loss of a limb, you got an extra share depending on how serious your loss was. And those who were along on the raids but weren’t privateers, like the doctor or cook, also shared in the spoils. These men had a very sophisticated accounting system, which makes the Halloween comics of “Sherman’s Lagoon”—all about the ghost of a pirate accountant—ring truer than one might believe!

Our first lecture of the season, presented by Frederick (Fritz) Hanselmann of Texas State University, presented an overview of the Spanish Empire in the New World, the English incursions into that empire and Spain’s inability to counteract them, and finally, Morgan’s spectacularly successful attack on Panama City, the point of contact between the fabulous wealth of Spanish South American and the Atlantic trade to Europe.

Dr. Hanselmann diving off Panama

It seems that Morgan was no sailor. He basically took more ships and men and supplies than he probably needed, assuming that he’d lose quite bit of them along the way. As Morgan sailed into theChagresRiverin order to get his ships as close toPanamaas he could, he crashed four of them on reefs. No problem; he just kept on going. Hanselmann says, “He was this really charismatic guy who just didn’t quit.” And as long as he was sending booty back to Charles II inLondon, the king probably didn’t care too much what Morgan did in order to get it.

Bringing a cannon up to the surface

Dr. Hanselmann has been excavating at the site where the ships went down and they’ve found some interesting things, like cannons that just might have belonged to one of Morgan’s ships. They are French made, not Spanish, and Morgan’s ship, the Satisfaction, had been stolen from the French. Also, the cannons were not regulation size, as guns on a military ship would have been. They had no serial numbers, as was normal on guns made in the 17th century, but not for guns made in the 18th century. The cannons will take years of conservation efforts before they can be studied more thoroughly. After all, they’ve been buried in salt water for over 300 years.

I’ve never been toPanama City, but a year ago, when my son was going toChilefor a semester of study, he had to fly throughPanamaand change planes. As luck would have it, an issue of Américas magazine (published by the Organization of American States) arrived with an article about howPanama Cityis a gleaming, bustling capital on the sparkling Pacific. I was entranced by the article and pictures; after all, this is one of the oldest

Panama City today

European cities in theWestern Hemisphere. As it turns out, the “new” city dates from after Morgan’s 1671 raid. He pretty much destroyed the old city, and now Panama Viejo is a ruin and that sparklingnew citysprang up down the beach a piece.

It’s interesting how the past keeps impacting the present. As Dr. Hanselmann says, “Archaeology is all about our shared past. This is a global story.”

How true.