The ship that Captain Morgan lost while sacking Panama City in 1671 had long been thought gone forever. Meet the man who thinks he found it.
WE’RE IN A TURKISH SCHOONER, cruising toward the mouth of Panama’s Chagres River, with captain Bryan Carson at the helm. Carson is tanned, 30-something, a Californian who abandoned a fluorescent-lit corporate existence to “live like a pirate” in the Caribbean. His uniform today is a pair of board shorts adorned with pictures of Bob Marley, and he’s leaning back, steering with his left foot. “I woke up one morning and I couldn’t do the cubicle thing anymore,” he explains, idly scanning the horizon. “It just got to be—”
Suddenly Carson’s eyes go big and his bare soles hit the deck. “Hold on!” he says, giving the wheel a hard nudge with his hand. “You see that?” He points to the depth meter. It reads 1.6 feet, as in 1.6 feet of clearance beneath our hull. “This is an extremely hairy place to maneuver. No wonder Morgan had problems here.”
By “Morgan” he means the British admiral Sir Henry Morgan, a.k.a. Captain Morgan, the most brilliant privateer and pirate of his era. In 1670, Morgan sailed into the Chagres en route to Panama City, the jewel of the Spanish Empire, on his way to successfully sacking it. But mere yards from where we’re cruising, Morgan’s flagship, the Satisfaction, was lost when it smashed into an infamous coral reef by the name of Lajas—which we just missed by 1.6 feet. Three hundred forty-two years after the buccaneer king wrecked here, we nearly staged a reenactment.
As the author of a book on Morgan’s life, Empire of Blue Water, I came to Panama to meet up with Fritz Hanselmann, an archaeologist who believes he’s found what scores of explorers and treasure hunters have failed to locate: the wreck of the Satisfaction on the Chagres riverbed, right under our feet. As his team dives on the remains, the world waits to see if the scientist from Texas State University can prove his claim.
Hours after our close call on the Chagres, Hanselmann and I stroll along the battlements of a ruined fort called San Lorenzo that looks out over Lajas Reef. Before Morgan crashed onto the reef, his men took San Lorenzo in a grisly hand-to-hand fight that opened the way to Panama. We look down on the swirling waters where the Chagres River meets the Caribbean Sea. “I’ve thought about this for a long time,” says the strapping, blond-haired Hanselmann. “When I was growing up I was reading books about Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Empire. Now we’re here trying to bring that adventure to life.”
WHILE IN OTHER PARTS of the world it may seem like all that’s left of Captain Morgan is the rum brand (which sells 100 million bottles a year and is underwriting Hanselmann’s expeditions to find all five of Morgan’s lost ships), the buccaneer’s spirit still haunts the streets of this old colonial city, where he led an army of political refugees and outright criminals in bloody forays against the Spanish.
So, as Hanselmann and his three-man team get their scuba gear ready for their next dive, I head to a gated Panama City neighborhood and the residence of Juan David Morgan, a lawyer with the firm Morgan & Morgan. Ensconced in a richly appointed home overflowing with rare Central American art, the lawyer is putting the finishing touches on a novel about the pirate commander. Morgan is an unusual name in Central America, I point out. Could he be related to Henry Morgan? He laughs. “He had no children, so I don’t think so.” But when Juan was growing up, no one believed that. “I would go to grammar school and when the children heard my name, they would say, ‘You are a pirate. Your family stole all the gold from Panama!'”
Which isn’t to say there’s a consensus here on Captain Morgan’s legacy. If you ask the locals who he was, you’re likely to get a number of different answers: thief, adventurer, traitor, hero and so forth. I ask Juan Morgan which noun he would choose. “He was all of these things,” he says, smiling. “That’s what makes him so fascinating.” Later, a tour guide echoes the sentiment. “To the British, he was a patriot,” he says. “To the Spanish, a villain. But to the slaves of Santo Domingo, a hero.” Dominican slaves, the man tells me, used Morgan’s raids to stage their own revolts against the Spanish. That’s a new one.
I make my way back to the dive site to find Hanselmann and his team eating dinner at a nearby restaurant. Captain Bryan is playing harmonica in a pickup band. I buttonhole a waitress named Juanita and ask her if she knows the notorious Captain Morgan.
“Of course I know him. Everyone does.”
I nod, expectantly. Juanita looks at me.
“And what do they say about him?” “
Captain Bryan is whaling on an Eagles song. It’s hard to hear. “Morgan!” I yell. “Bueno o malo?“
“Ah,” Juanita says, leaning in toward me. “Captain Morgan, he was a baaaaaaaad man. This is what we learn in school.”
Later, I relate the exchange to Hanselmann. “Sure, Morgan stole and pillaged,” he says. “But his ships were among the few democratic societies around at the time.” Indeed, his pirates were some of the first small-d democrats in the Americas: They elected their captains and voted on their mission targets. “These were free men,” says Hanselmann. “And by the way, look at the Spanish! If you compare what Morgan did to what the conquistadors did, it’s not even close.”
WHEN I CATCH UP WITH HANSELMANN on the water the next morning, he’s just surfaced with two new artifacts from the wreck: a sword fragment and a barnacled horseshoe. He’s excited about the first—Morgan and his men would have come to the Chagres armed to the teeth. The sword makes sense. The horseshoe is more problematic. The privateers didn’t bring pack mules with them; they stole what they needed along the way.
Hanselmann places the artifacts in plastic bags and we drive to the Pacific side of the country, crossing the Panama Canal. Soon the Panama City skyline comes into view; it looks as big as Houston’s. We crawl through the traffic and finally arrive at the Patronato Panamá Viejo (Old Panama Trust) in the ancient part of the city, where the artifacts will become part of a major collection of Hanselmann’s discoveries.
Waiting for us is Tómas Mendizábal, a young Panamanian archaeologist who is co-director of the Morgan project. He takes me down to the basement, where the fruits of Hanselmann’s labor are submerged in large plastic tubs, with thin red and blue wires snaking into the water. “We’re extracting the salts,” says Mendizábal, “because when the artifacts dry, the salts crystallize and expand and then, poof, the artifacts split apart.”
I look down into the tubs and spot a big 17th-century French cannon, along with smaller guns whose English brands are visible through the water. Hanselmann pulled these guns off the riverbed two years ago, from a site near the ship that the archaeologists found. They’ve been undergoing electrolysis ever since.
We know that before it became the Satisfaction, Morgan’s flagship was a French sloop that had sailed the Caribbean Sea under the name Le Cerf Volant. The pirates captured it and added four cannons to the ship’s gunnery, bringing the total to 22. Spanish ships of the time most likely would have carried only Spanish-made guns, so these British cannons were probably Morgan’s. It really is a tremendous find. The only other physical artifact we have from the pirate captain is a comb that resides in a Jamaican archive. These iron weapons, however, are intimately connected to who Morgan was.
“When I heard that Fritz had found the cannons, I thought, Cool!” says the boyishly enthusiastic Mendizábal. “We’ve never had any material evidence that he was here, except for Panamá Viejo.” That is, the old city that Morgan burned down, separate from the new city—now populated by skyscrapers—that was founded after the pirates left.
Mendizábal makes his living, in a way, from the buccaneer king. When someone in Panamá Viejo wants to renovate a building, they must first call in an archaeologist to dig the site. Still, Mendizábal isn’t Morgan’s biggest fan. “He was a criminal!” he says, laughing. “Even if he had a huge impact on all our lives, that’s what I believe.”
Hanselmann arrives and we examine the horseshoe. It doesn’t fit with what we know about the Satisfaction. What’s worse, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the 80 chests that were found at the bottom of the ship in the Chagres. “If I’m Morgan and I’m coming into Panama,” says Hanselmann, “I’m coming with an empty ship. Sailing here with a full hold doesn’t make sense to me.” Pirates of Morgan’s era saw their ships as getaway cars. They wanted them to be fast and empty.
After further study, the verdict is unavoidable: The cannons the team found probably belonged to Morgan. The sword did too. But the ship did not. Most likely, it’s a Spanish vessel that sailed at about the same time that Morgan was alive.
We retire to a bar in Panamá Viejo to quietly consider the implications over glasses of rum. “The ship isn’t Morgan’s,” says Hanselmann finally, “but it is a picture of what Morgan was facing. It’s his world.”
We nod. The Satisfaction is still out there, somewhere in the Chagres River. Nevertheless, the team has the cannons, and Mendizábal is thinking about what they will mean to his countrymen. “Panamanians aren’t big on history—at all,” he says. “Most 20-year-olds today don’t even know who Noriega was! But ask any kid in the street, any taxi driver, they know Henry Morgan.” It’s a weird twist, freighted with irony: One of the best hopes of sparking the locals’ interest in Panama’s history is the man who burned their capital to the ground.
So long as the money holds out, Hanselmann will continue his quest. But whether or not he’s successful, it’s clear that Morgan’s legacy goes well beyond whatever may be waiting at the bottom of the Chagres. He’s as alive as any 17th-century pirate could expect to be, still haunting the memories of Central Americans, still serving as a sort of model for adventurers like Captain Bryan, looking for a way out of a humdrum life.
It’s settled: Henry Morgan lives. Or at least his ghost. We raise our glasses—even Mendizábal—and toast the old rogue.
STEPHAN TALTY‘s latest book, Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day, tracks the life of another fearless adventurer.