Friday, November 8, 2013

Sir Henry Morgan and the Golden Altar

Once again I find myself being entertained by a long-winded tour guide.  At the Iglesia de San Jose in Panama City's Casco Viejo district, this gorgeous gold-plated baroque altar is the star attraction.  With it, comes a charming story about how a priest covered the altar with mud, fooling the buccaneers who marched into the city in 1671 and burned it to the ground.  The altar was spared and moved from the old city to the new.

Our guide went on and on about this feisty little priest.  Not only did he manage to camouflage the gold, but he had the audacity to ask Henry Morgan for a thousand coins in order to rebuild his church.  When the pirate handed over the money, his fellow ruffians were shocked.  But Morgan only joked.  "Hey, guys, who's the pirate now?"

Of course, I love these stories.  They always motivate me to read more upon my return home.  The truth is, Henry Morgan became a legend in his own lifetime.  Recruited as a young man, along with "the most profane, debauched persons that we ever saw," (according to Commander Sir Robert Venables) to join an expedition to Hispaniola and Jamaica, he quickly rose through the ranks as captain and then as admiral in command of 2,000 buccaneers and 36 ships.  England and Spain were at war, so Morgan was given commissions to loot and level as many Spanish strongholds as he could.  Although historians question the authenticity of the signatures he carried, he took his assignments to heart.  He and his fellow privateers became very wealthy men.  Every time they returned to Jamaica, he was met with a hero's welcome. 

He was a brilliant seaman and a crafty fighter.  At first, his strategy was to sneak into previously unmolested towns and catch the people by surprise.  However, he grew bolder and bolder.  His greatest coups were the sacking of Granada in Nicaragua and then the siege of the Iron Fort in Portobelo, Panama.  He had local Indians (no lovers of the Spaniards) to help him find his way through jungles and to serve as spies.  In 1669, a truce had been established between Spain and England, but it soon fell apart.  Back in Central and South America, the Spaniards wanted revenge.  English ships were being seized and Morgan, once again, was given a commission "to land in the enemy's country as many of his men as he shall think needful and then accordingly take, destroy and dispose of; and to do and perform all manner of exploits."  It was a license to kill, rape, pillage and plunder.
      By now, the Spaniards were so terrified of Morgan that when word got out that he and his buccaneers were hacking their way through the jungle to Panama City, two-thirds of the Spanish army fled.  Morgan had used nuns and priests as shields in past attacks and had burned Spanish prisoners alive.  And this is precisely why I have a hard time believing a little priest could march up to such a brutal man and demand a thousand coins.  It simply does not ring true.

The people of Panama, however, did have time to stow away a lot of treasure on the galleons or to hide barrels of silver in the jungle.  The truth is, the attack on Panama City was not the coup Morgan had anticipated.  He is often cited as burning the city to the ground, but historians have questioned this fact, as well.  Most of the city was already a pile of ash by the time he arrived.  No one knows for sure who started the fire.  The buccaneers had to scavenge through smoldering ruins to find any remaining treasure.     

When he returned to Jamaica, he found out that a treaty had been signed between England and Spain, prohibiting either party from pillaging and privateering in the West Indies.  Oops.  The King had no choice but to send both Morgan and the Governor of Jamaica back to England to be punished.  The governor ended up in the Tower of London for two years, but Morgan's exploits were now the stuff of legend.  Not only did the man become an adviser to the king, but he was knighted!  Unreal!

Sir Henry Morgan returned to Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor.  But once a pirate, always a pirate.  He could no longer pillage and plunder, but by George, he could drink.  And that's precisely what he did.  He drank himself to death, dying at the age of 53.

I know.  I know.  Who's being long-winded now?  I guess the moral of this story is that tour guides need not embellish.  Truth is stranger (and often more exciting) than fiction.  This is certainly the case with Sir Henry Morgan and the Golden Altar.

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