Henry Morgan is the guy on the rum bottle, though after publishing The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan I discovered that very few people know this: if I’d had half a brain. I would’ve titled my novel The Man Who Saved Captain Morgan, if only because my vast reading public might then have known what the book was actually about. (As an added bonus, the makers of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum might have sued me for trademark infringement, a nuisance that, I’m told, is a good way to move copies.)
Why Henry Morgan? To date, it’s the only novelistic subject I’ve ever adopted from the Internet, and for this I blame one of my daughters, who needed a costume for a dress-as-your-heritage day at her public school. Given that my mother is Swedish, I decided to dress her up like a Viking. So there I was, looking up Viking dress on line, when I fell into the proverbial rabbit hole that is the World Wide Web. After a bit I leapt from Vikings to pirates, as one naturally does, and from there I came across Henry Morgan, who, despite popular belief, wasn’t a pirate at all. It turns out he was a privateer, which in his case meant he was a British naval captain who was given permission by the King to rob, sack, pillage and harry the Spanish in the New World of the 1600s. His reward? Apart from keeping any money he stole, he’d win the admiration of the King, which was a real carrot for someone as ambitious as Henry Morgan. He promptly started invading Spanish cities with all the excitement of a kid on carnival day.
As far as I could tell, he was good at it for three reasons. The first was his masochistic strategy, whereby he only attacked Spanish cities that were well away from the coast. His reasoning was simple: inland cities were poorly protected, the Spanish reasoning that no one in their right mind would tromp blind through a hundred kilometres of jungle or more to get at them. They were wrong, and there are Monty Python-like stories of Morgan and his men getting lost, getting ravaged by bugs, getting assaulted by natives, getting bitten by crocodiles, contracting jungle-borne infections and running out of food - on their way in to assault Panama, Morgan’s most infamous excursion, he and his men got so hungry they resorted to eating their own clothing. So yes, I liked the bleak funniness of it all: I could picture Morgan and his privateers showing up at the gates of Panama, bug-bit, exhausted, naked and suffered from extreme indigestion, but by God ready to fight.
Then there was the setting. At the time of Morgan’s plundering, Jamaica was Britain’s only holding in a New World held entirely by Spain. There, Morgan and his men set up in a town called Port Royal, which was located on a spit of land that jutted into the ocean. A haven for privateers, rum-runners, buccaneers, assassins, prostitutes, jailbirds and actual pirates, Port Royal was little more than a warren of bars, brothels and opium dens, with a well-used gibbet in the middle. Known far and wide as ‘the wickedest city on earth’, Port Royal split off from the island during an earthquake in the late 1600s, and sank into the ocean. The more religious-minded believed that the town had it coming.
Finally, Morgan’s life had a sublime arc, at least in novelistic terms. When he started raiding Spanish cities, he did it all for God and King, and he followed a strict moral code that forbade him from torturing, from killing innocent civilians, and from destroying the cities themselves. He learned this didn’t work during his very first raid, when his ethical concerns almost got himself and all of his men killed. So he wavered, his behavior worsening with each successive raid, until his attacks on targets like Panama City and nearby Portobello became synonymous with butchery. (Today’s Panama City is about ten miles away from the original Panama City, which Morgan burnt to the ground; all that’s left is a plaque and a blackened fort tower.) Naturally, as his moral being turned to rot, Morgan was rewarded more and more by the King: by the end of his career, he’d been knighted and made Governor of Jamaica, and was inestimably wealthy. He was also morbidly obese, severely alcoholic and sociopathic.
Like most people, I love a good Faustian tale – there’s nothing like a character who sells his soul to get what he wants – and I knew that one day I’d write a novel with either Henry Morgan or a Henry Morgan-like character. Several years went by, and when I finally wrote The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan I served up his legend through the eyes of an illiterate, low-life board-game hustler named Benny Wand who, after getting arrested for ‘running a crooked board’ in London, is deported to Jamaica. There, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Henry Morgan, a friendship that benefits him enormously until, of course, it doesn’t. Of course, I threw in a lot of fireworks and sardonic humour – I always do – but the heart of the novel was a contemplative one. Why, the book asked, do some people go bad and some people don’t?
© Robert Hough 2015