There’s a lot of discussion right now about Sir Francis Drake. Some people argue that he was a dishonorable man, a pirate, that he participated in slavery early in his career (on his cousin’s ship), and that he killed people. Others argue that he was an honorable man, a knight, second in command of the English fleet that destroyed the Spanish Armada, the first captain to complete a circumnavigation of the world. Either way you look at it, he probably landed here in Marin County, making him most certainly a local historic figure.
Maya Angelou once said: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Near my house are streets named after Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, both conquistadors (conquerors), and both terrible human beings, or heroes, depending upon which side of history you come down on. When it comes to our history, here, in this place, Sir Francis Drake is fairly benign. None of the offenses he is criticized for, happened here. In fact, his only other connection to the U.S. is his final unsuccessful attack on Puerto Rico in 1596, resulting in his death from dysentery. An ignoble end for one ennobled. If there is a pirate/privateer to take issue with, maybe there is another we should take aim at first.
Captain Henry Morgan was born in Wales in 1635. Thanks to conflicts between the English and the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors of the New World, young Henry found a career as a privateer (a legal pirate). Much like the Jim Hawkins character from Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” Morgan shipped out to the West Indies to seek his fortune, participating in the successful English conquest of Jamaica in 1655. Drake himself had raided Havana the preceding century, making off with mint, lime, sugar and rum, purely for medicinal purposes (the first two helped with scurvy and motion sickness, and the second two with courage and taste), christening the resulting concoction “El Draque,” but now known as the mojito.
During his privateer/pirate career Morgan established quite a reputation for ruthlessness. In a six-year period beginning in 1655, he sacked 60 Spanish settlements, killed hundreds of settlers, and stole the modern-day equivalent of $100 million!
When the English crown returned to the king’s head in 1660, Morgan was given a commission, a crew, and a license to kill. He and his crew’s barbarism is well documented: torture, murder, rape, and mutilation all became part of their repertoire.
Once, Morgan used priests and nuns as human shields, believing the Catholic defenders would not fire on their own clergy. He thought wrong, and the Spanish settlers opened fire. Upon capturing the town, he locked the survivors in a storeroom, filled it with explosives and blew them up.
Ironically, Morgan was ultimately arrested for violating a treaty between Spain and England, shipped back to England, where he was promptly knighted and shipped back to Jamaica as lieutenant governor.
Morgan retired to a plantation and faced one final battle, suing one of his former co-conspirators, Alexandre Exquemelin for libel, disliking his portrayal in Exquemelin’s book: “History of the Buccaneers of America.” Morgan won, forcing the publishers to pay damages and to issue a retraction stating that, among other things, Morgan did not “hang up any person by the testicles.” This would be the captain’s last victory. He contracted tuberculosis and died on Aug. 25, 1688 at the age of 53. His estate went into probate and counted amongst his property were 131 “African” slaves, of which 33 were listed as boys, girls, or children.
The Captain Morgan Rum Company was started in 1944 by Seagram’s. In 1984, it began producing a spiced version that rocketed the brand to the top of the sales charts. Now it consistently ranks in the top ten of worldwide liquor sales. Liquor giant Diageo now owns Captain Morgan and makes several products under that name, the most popular being Captain Morgan’s Original Spiced Rum.
But, every time I see a Captain Morgan’s commercial, I can’t help think of the real Captain Morgan, those 33 child slaves, those nuns, those priests, and those people defending their community, that he blew to pieces.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
-“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” once wrote Mark Twain.
-We’ve certainly got bigger pirates/privateers to worry about than Sir Francis Drake.
-Captain Morgan’s rum’s annual sales are typically 5 times what the real Captain Morgan stole in his entire career.
-Despite their storied history, spiced rum mojitos are quite delicious.
-Morgan himself may have started out as an indentured servant.
-“Thus great things from small things (come),” Sir Francis Drake’s heraldic motto.
-Pay attention to what’s going on in the present, or before you know it, you might be going to a school named after Benedict Arnold.