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EMPIRE OF BLUE WATER
“I Offer a New World”
In the winter of 1654, a newly commissioned frigate named the Fagons was dispatched from the ancient city of Portsmouth on a secret mission. Its journey was short; it sailed around the southeast corner of England into the quiet harbor of Deal. There at the dock waited the ship’s only cargo: a forty-four-year-old Anglican rector named Thomas Gage.
It was rare in the Royal Navy of the time that a warship would be sent to pick up a single man, and a mere country pastor at that. But Gage was a unique figure in English life: A long-dreamt-of empire was about to be launched in part because of a book he’d written fifteen years before; the nation was preparing to send thousands of men to attack its archnemesis inspired by things that Thomas Gage, and he alone, claimed to have seen across the ocean. This mysterious man—no portrait survives to this day—was, as befits his role in this story, surrounded in life by controversy and black dread. He had ready access to the most powerful man in the country, Oliver Cromwell; indeed, the Fagons had been hastened around the corner of England “by order of the Protector” himself, and the Venetian ambassador wrote in a letter that Gage “had many secret conferences” with Cromwell in the months leading up to the ship’s arrival. Before and after the mystery man arrived, England’s leader had been found studying maps of far-off places, and a globe of the world had appeared, without explanation, on his desk. All because of the humble rector.
Gage’s past was crowded with ghosts; men had perished with his name on their lips. The pastor came from a line of Englishmen who some considered saboteurs and infidels, while others swore they were the souls of Christian fortitude. Whether heroes or villains, the family had long since disowned Thomas; one sibling said he strove to erase every last memory of the man from his mind, while another wrote to a friend about “our graceless brother,” whose actions “our whole family doth blush to behold.” Thomas’s father had cut off his inheritance years before, warned him never to return to England, even called him a lethal enemy, and Gage claimed that his older brother, a military hero, had made good on his father’s threat and actually tried to have him murdered. All this resulted from Thomas Gage’s years of religious intrigue: On his word, three men had recently been hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn prison, a procedure whose savagery is not suggested by the surgical description of it. The Fagons’ crew would not have welcomed Gage aboard the ship regardless of his past; priests on a ship were a bad omen, as it was believed that the great storm maker Satan sent tempests across the oceans to drown them. The black-suited pastor, the man who hanged his own friends, as the sole passenger? It couldn’t be good luck.
As for the pastor, one can only imagine his thoughts as the frigate appeared on the horizon, sunlight sparkling off the surface of its twenty-two new brass guns. His writing life was behind him, and he wouldn’t live to record his thoughts on this, the most momentous voyage of his life. But surely he was flooded with memories; the ship was to take him back across the ocean to a place of his youth, a place that had disappointed him terribly and was yet now giving him a second chance at glory. As always when trying to dip into Gage’s inner life, one must consider his appetite for power; the black sheep of an illustrious family, he hungered to make his name, and this would be his last shot. In the book that had launched this voyage, he’d written insouciantly to the leader of England, “To your Excellency I offer a New World.” Actually, he meant the New World, and the appearance of the Fagons represented Oliver Cromwell’s silent acceptance of the offer. As the ship touched the dock, Gage said his good-byes to his wife and three children; he would never see them again.
The ship headed back to Portsmouth, where a fleet was being fitted out for the expedition, an audacious spear that would be launched from the shores of England aimed at the vitals of a great world empire. No Englishman returned from its destination, or that at least was the legend: The enemy guarded its treasure house closely, and even natives from the nation that had conquered it needed to go through a long vetting process for permission to set foot there. But Gage had lived and explored in the forbidden kingdoms; it was said he was the only Englishman alive who had done so and came back to tell about it. Still, Cromwell was taking an extraordinary risk by trusting his expedition to the pastor’s stories: The descriptions of the ports, the fortifications, the soldiers whom the English fleet would soon face all originated within the memory of this singular man. As he sailed into Portsmouth harbor after a quick voyage aboard the Fagons, Gage would have looked at the ships spread across the harbor and the feverish activity—the dinghies ferrying men and supplies to the larger ships, the polishing of brass and repairing of rig and sail—with deep satisfaction. I have done this, he must have said to himself. This is God’s work and mine.
M M M
After a century of neglect, Portsmouth was again thriving under the expedition’s demands. Its population of a few thousand people had sided with the Puritan Cromwell and his New Model Army against the forces of Charles I in the recent, savage civil war, and now it was being repaid in hard currency. The fleet of sixty ships was being repaired, outfitted, and manned (but not supplied with food, which would soon present a problem) in its docks. This meant a great deal of work in a time when the oceangoing vessel was one of the most technologically advanced machines Western societies produced; even small ships required the wood of hundreds of trees and carried three miles or more of rope. The port swarmed with activity, and the nautical grapevine hummed with a single question: Where are they headed? It was a major fleet; it must have grand ambitions. The most popular rumor held that Cromwell himself would arrive to lead the expedition on a surprise attack against Rome, seat of the pope, known simply to Protestants as “the Great Whore.”
But when the signal gun was fired, echoing out from the town across the slate-colored sea, and the expedition’s troops began lining up to board the ships, the natives changed their minds. The army of approximately 2,500 men emerged from their lodgings and were judged, and judged harshly: These were not the soldiers of Cromwell’s New Model Army, the famous Roundheads, a force whose ferocity was matched by its discipline; to look at them, these men came straight out of the gutter. Cutpurses, drunks, “knights of the blade,” incipient murderers. “I believe they are not to be paralleled in the world,” wrote Major Robert Sedgwick, who would later command the men, or try to. “People so lazy and idle, as it cannot enter into the heart of any Englishman, that such blood should run in the veins of any born in England; so unworthy, so slothful, and basely secure: and have, out of a strange kind of spirit, desired rather to die than to live.” But there was one man on the ships, anonymous as yet to history, who would give the lie to Sedgwick’s words. In the space of eight short years, this brilliant leader would turn men like these stumblebums into what were perhaps pound for pound the best fighting men in the world. He’d boarded at Portsmouth or would join up later in the islands; the historical record is unclear. Perhaps he even brushed by Gage on the crowded deck as the fleet churned westward. His name was Henry Morgan.
Young Henry had been born in Wales in 1635 to a lesser branch of the illustrious Morgans, growing up in either the village of Penkarne or in Llanrhymney; Welsh genealogists remain locked in battle over which town can claim him. Henry was certainly kin to the great Morgans of Tredegar, members of the uchelwyr class, roughly translated as “the high ones.” A family poet made the relationship between the main branch and the other families clear around 1661:
And so LanRumney yet must bend the knee,
And from Tredegar fetch their pedigree.
The only portrait of the young Morgan (now hanging at Tredegar) shows him as a plump-cheeked teenager, his chubby face framed by the rich brown curls of a wig. He looked like a dandy who might chase low-born maids and sponge off his father. Until, that is, you came to the eyes: They look out of the portrait coolly—appraising, measuring, uninnocent.
The place that Morgan came from would not have gotten him instant respect in London. Wales was considered a rustic outback, peopled by farmers and a few squires connected by complex lines of kinship. To the English the Welsh were “emotional, excitable people,” wrote one historian, “whose taste for toasted cheese . . . was matched only by their devotion to their tedious native patois and their even more tedious pedigrees”; the cliché Welshman was a bumpkin “remote in his mountain fastnesses, surviving on cheese and leeks, surrounded by goats and unpronounceable names.” The English had a great deal of fun with the Welsh, most of it related to cheese, but there was at least one area in which they showed respect: warfare. Milton called Wales an “old, and haughty nation proud in arms,” and the Welsh were known to be crack soldiers. Morgan himself came from warrior stock; his two uncles, Thomas and Edward, were mercenaries who had left home to fight in wars all over Europe. When the Civil War broke out, Henry must have been told that the two brothers had chosen opposite sides to fight on: Thomas enlisted with Cromwell’s New Model Army, and Edward pledged allegiance to the Royalists and King Charles I. As Thomas Gage had grown up hearing about martyrs and Scripture, Morgan grew up in a home filled with stories of war.
Edward Morgan fought close to home, as captain-general of the Royalist forces in South Wales, an important posting. Thomas Morgan was even more successful during the war. This “little, shrill-voiced choleric man” rose to become the right-hand man of Cromwell’s most trusted general, George Monck, and was a key player in the attacks on Scotland and Flanders. He was wounded twice but survived to become one of the heroes of the war. Especially from Edward, who was posted close to Henry Morgan’s home, young Henry would have learned the rudiments of siege tactics, artillery, and attack formations.
Judging from his later life, the young adventurer carried little of Gage’s religious obsessions. The New World was for him a chance at riches and respect. He knew he was never going to earn them in the learned professions, as his meager education prevented those careers. “I left the schools too young . . . ,” he’d later say, speaking of the law. “And have been more used to the pike than the book.” A long wooden stick topped with an iron spike, the pike was a vicious weapon commonly used in the English Civil War, and pikemen were often stationed in the front line of an army formation, ready to bear the brunt of a cavalry charge. Anyone who wielded a pike had undoubtedly seen death up close.
The young warrior was traveling to the New World hell-bent on making his fortune and advancing the fortunes of his family. His name especially was precious to him; he’d later write, “ ‘God preserve your Honour’ is and shall be the daily prayer of Henry Morgan,” and he was famously tetchy about anyone who did not pay him the proper respect. The chip on his shoulder and the fact that he had so little schooling suggests that Henry Morgan did not grow up rich or coddled in Wales; the early exit from school could also indicate the extent to which normal life of the people there was thrown into chaos by the successive civil wars that engulfed En- gland during his boyhood years. In any case, he’d joined the expedition with a burning desire to find the freedom to achieve his ends: adventure, estates, position. The last two were the same things that the lesser Morgans were forced to seek on bended knee from their more illustrious relatives. In the New World, the twenty-year-old Morgan was not going to bend his knee to anyone, unless it was to place it firmly on the neck of a Spanish officer.
Between these two men, Morgan and Gage—one dreaming of a religious empire, the other of gold and vast estates—you have rather neatly summed up the race for the New World.
M M M
The people of Portsmouth watched as the ships sailed, still mystified as to what change this would bring in their nation’s fortunes. In fact, only a chosen few knew the destination. The orders given to the commanders were sealed and not to be opened until the fleet was under sail. Thomas Gage, however, knew that the target lay to the west: on the island of Hispaniola.
The lands across the Atlantic had fascinated Western societies for centuries. The ancient Greeks believed that the spirits of their heroes left their bodies at the moment of death and traveled to the “Blessed Islands” that dotted the distant waters, to reside there forever. To the Englishman of the seventeenth century, the New World combined the wonders of Shangri-la with the remoteness of Neptune. It was a place of gobsmacking riches only hinted at by the laundry list of treasure the Spanish had extracted: a gilded ruby eagle, weighing sixty-eight pounds with enormous emeralds for eyes; the two Mayan orbs representing the sun and moon respectively, one made of solid gold, the other of silver, and both “as large as carriage wheels,” with crisp images of the animals worked into the metal; the emeralds the size of a man’s fist. They’d even discovered a mountain, Potosí, seemingly made wholly of silver, whose gushing-forth of ore served “to chastise the Turk, humble the Moor, make Flanders tremble and terrify England.”
The New World that produced such wonders had been Spain’s for many decades, ever since Pope Alexander VI stroked a line down the middle of a map of the world dividing the non-Christianized territories between Spain and Portugal. In 1494 the line of demarcation was shifted to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, giving Brazil to Portugal and the rest of the lands, known and unknown, to Spain. England, France, and the Netherlands—the other players in the great game of empire—never agreed to the terms. In Cromwell’s justification for his expedition to the New World, the division was called the pope’s “ridiculous gift,” while King Francis I of France remarked acidly, “”I should like to see the clause in Adam’s will that excludes me from a share in the world.”
Spain, however, had the power to enforce its wishes on all comers. It was an unlikely hyperpower, whose lustrous façade hid a faltering ability. But in 1654, as the leaders of the Hispaniola expedition, General Venables and William Penn, set out for the Americas, Spain was still a behemoth, the successor to Rome, and its control of the New World was largely uncontested. For its holdings there, the monarchy had enforced a policy of “no peace beyond the line,” meaning that all territories beyond Pope Alexander’s line of demarcation were not governed by European peace treaties. Spain and its enemies were to be considered in perpetual conflict in the Caribbean and the Spanish Main—the mainland of South and Central America. Although the Spanish kings declared this policy, the truth was that events in the West Indies would influence both relations between European nations and the treaties they negotiated.
Cromwell and his commanders wanted fervently to loosen Spain’s grip on the riches of the Americas. Gage was their happy scout; his biography had become the blueprint for the invasion. But it also told a vicious tale all its own.
Thomas Gage grew up in a time of lethal battles between Protestants and Catholics. His family had been part of the Catholic aristocracy since the time of the House of Tudor; imagine the Kennedys in an age of virulent suppression of the faith and you have their profile. Distantly related to Sir Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, Gage’s forefather Sir John Gage had been one of Henry VIII’s brilliant circle of young, ambitious men; his star dimmed only when he did not fully support Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the flame-haired daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The resulting break with the pope, who denied the divorce, led Henry VIII to found the Church of England. The decision set Catholics and Protestants at one another’s throats for centuries and became the crucial moment for the Gage family: their fortunes would now rise and fall with the Catholic faith in England. The internecine religious wars of the following decades often had a Gage among their cast of characters: Sir John was called back into service when the Catholic Mary rose to power; his son Robert and his wife hid priests in their Surrey estate, at risk of death; Robert’s son was arrested for planning to assassinate the Protestant Elizabeth in the disastrous Babington plot, inspired by the pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth and his offer of absolution for anyone—“cook, brewer, baker, vintner, physician, grocer, surgeon or other”—who would kill her. The conspirator was executed in September 1586 for high treason, setting a standard for family devotion to the faith.
This was the atmosphere in which Thomas Gage grew up: renegade priests from the Low Countries flung into secret hiding places at a knock on the door; forbidden masses celebrated in dripping basements; whispers, intense faith, deadly betrayals. His early life must have had something close to the feeling of the earliest Christians’, and it clearly demanded a high degree of both character and devotion. But Thomas rebelled against it, leaving the Jesuit faith to which his family had devoted itself and joining a hated rival: the Dominicans. He was seeking the truth about God and man, and he believed he’d found it. Afterward he received a letter from his father saying “that I should never think to be welcome to my brothers nor kindred in England nor to him, that I should not expect ever more to hear from him, nor dare to see him if ever I returned to En- gland, but expect that he’d set upon me even the Jesuits whom I had deserted and opposed to chase me out of my country.” If one is to feel sympathy for Gage at any point in his increasingly sordid life, one might as well expend it the night he received his father’s letter, when he sat disowned and nearly friendless in a foreign country. Thomas lay awake that night, unable to sleep, and wept at his father’s words.
By age twenty-five, Gage was studying at a Dominican monastery in Spain. Soon he’d fallen under the spell of a commissary of the pope recruiting young friars for service in the Philippines. The Spanish had centuries before battled the Moors for control of Iberia and won; in their minds the Crusades were still a going concern, and they were sending friars and priests to the New World as soldiers of Christ. Gage signed up for the mission and sailed for the New World in 1625.
The promised land of the Americas turned out to be far different from what he expected. Instead of fighting for God’s kingdom, he’d found the friars drunk and living like pashas. As he’d traveled through the empire, he’d seen up close how its religious men lived; here he writes about the disparity between how another order, the Franciscans, were supposed to dress and what they actually wore:
The rules of the order of the Franciscans demanded that they wear sackcloth and shirts of coarse wool, and that they go bare legged, shod with wood or hemp; but these friars wore beneath their habits (which they sometimes tucked up to the waist, the better to display such splendor), shoes of fine Cordovan leather, fine silk stockings, drawers with three inches of lace at the knee, Holland shirts and doublets quilted with silk. They were fond of gambling, and acquainted with gamblers’ oaths.