Henry Morgan was born in 1635 in Germany. His father, Robert, was a squire from Wales and his mother was from Germany. After the family returned to England, he was kidnapped in the city of Bristol and shipped to Barbados. There, Henry was sold into slavery, but he eventually escaped and found his way to the island of Jamaica.
In Jamaica, Henry had connections since his uncle, Edward Morgan, was the Lieutenant Governor of the island. Henry married Edward's daughter, Mary, who was also his cousin. In 1666, Morgan was given command of a ship in Edward Mansfield's expedition to seize Old Providence and Santa Catalina. However, once Mansfield was killed by the Spanish, Morgan took command as admiral for the remainder of the expedition.
In 1668, Sir Thomas Modyford, the governor of Jamaica, gave Morgan command of ten ships and five hundred men to go on an expedition to Cuba. The goal of the expedition was to capture Spanish prisoners who supposedly had knowledge about a planned Spanish assault on Jamaica. Morgan's forces sailed to Cuba, capturing the city of Puerto Principe, before moving on to seize Portobelo, Panama. To aid in the attack, Morgan reportedly used Jesuits as human shields from enemy bullets.
After hearing of the invasion of Portobelo, the governor of Panama agreed to pay Morgan a ransom to have his forces evacuate. Henry Morgan and his crew subsequently returned to Port Royal, Jamaica, where they celebrated. Although he had only been permitted to attack Cuba, the British command feigned ignorance of his actions, largely due to their dislike of the Spanish.
Shortly after returning to Jamaica, Morgan was called upon by governor Modyford yet again. This time, Modyford wanted Morgan to destroy Spanish forces in Cuba. Morgan departed with a large expedition and proceeded to bombard and sack the coastline of Cuba. In January of 1669, Morgan had a close encounter with death when a rowdy party accidentally detonated a barrel of gunpowder, causing the largest ship in the expedition to explode.
In March of 1669, Morgan and his forces seized the city of Maracaibo, Venezuela. The town was reportedly so terrified of his reputation that they fled as soon as his ship was spotted. Morgan spent a few weeks at Gibraltar on Lake Maracaibo, where he seized a great deal of booty from the wealthy landowners.
After his vacation, Morgan and his ships returned to Maracaibo, where three Spanish ships were blocking his exit to the Caribbean. Morgan attacked the ships and managed to escape unscathed, but not without searching them for treasure. Afterwards, he and his crew returned to Jamaica, where he was scolded by Modyford for going beyond his orders, but not punished. Instead, he was commissioned to conduct war against Spain in any way possible, receiving pay in the form of any booty seized. Modyford also gave Morgan complete command of all Jamaican war vessels for this venture.
With permission to privateer against the Spaniards, Morgan departed Jamaica for Panama. Along the way, he seized the island of Santa Catalina on December 15, 1670. On December 27, 1670, he seized the castle of Chagres, killing three hundred of the Spanish soldiers in the garrison. With nearly 1500 men, he moved into Panama, following the Chagres River. On January 18, 1671, he arrived at Panama and discovered that about 1500 Spanish soldiers were guarding the city. He decided to split his forces in two, with one marching towards the enemy and the second force moving around to flank them. The poorly trained Spaniards fell for the attack and were slaughtered, leaving the city unprotected.
While ransacking the city, Morgan found treasure exceeding one hundred thousand pounds. It is then said that Morgan proceeded to burn the entire city and massacre the civilians, although some claim that the remaining Spaniards were the ones that burned the city. In any case, the city was destroyed and Morgan returned to Jamaica.
Once in Jamaica, Morgan was arrested for violating a treaty between England and Spain. He claimed that he had no knowledge of such a treaty, but was brought back to England anyways. After a trial in 1672, he proved that he had no knowledge and was commended for his service to the royal crown. In 1674, he was knighted and allowed to return to Jamaica, where he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of the island.
By 1681, Morgan had become governor of Jamaica, but he was removed from this position by the king, who replaced him with Thomas Lynch. Morgan began to lose further political influence in Jamaica and began to develop a reputation as a drunk and brawler. In 1683, he was kicked out of the Jamaican Council, losing his last grip on power. To make things worse, a book about Morgan was published by Alexandre Exquemelin, depicting him as a drunken pirate. Morgan started a libel lawsuit against him, and was able to get the book taken off the market and damages of two hundred pounds.
In 1684, Morgan's political opponent, Governor Thomas Lynch, died and Christopher Monck took his place. Monck took steps to have Morgan reappointed to the Jamaican Council in 1688, but by this time Morgan was suffering from a respiratory illness. He died on August 25, 1688, probably due to liver failure from excessive drinking.
Today, Henry Morgan is remembered for being one of the few pirates to successfully retire from the profession. The most likely cause of his survival was the fact that he plundered under the protective cloak of the crown. Several future pirates tried to use this same strategy, but never succeeded on the scale that Morgan did.