Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Captain Morgan and Colonial Panama

The ruins of Fort San Lorenzo, the Rio Chagres, and, 200 meters offshore, Lajes Reef (Captain Morgan Rum Co.)

When most people think of Captain Morgan, they think of cheap rum. However, Archaeology magazine published a fascinating article by Samir Patel, “Pirates of the Original Panama Canal,” about a major underwater archaeology site off of Panama’s Pacific Coast, that reinforces Henry Morgan’s reputation as one of the greatest privateers and naval strategists of his time, while showing that, even at its most single-minded, good archaeology can illuminate whole eras.
Rum Mascot Captain Morgan (wikipedia)

            The site in question is Fort San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Rio Chagres, the head of the old overland route across the isthmus that brought precious metals and the wealth of the Pacific to Spain – as Patel says it was once “the world’s most valuable river.” Morgan began his pillaging of Porto Bello, at the time the third-most important city in the New World, here, as he destroyed the fort before sailing north and looting and burning the city. Unfortunately rough waves and treacherous geography lost him five ships that foundered off Lajas Reef, 200 meters offshore.

Actual privateer Captain Morgan (wikipedia)

            The battle is well documented, but Texas State University archaeologist Fritz Hanselmann is still looking for the remains of the ships, especially Morgan’s flagship Satisfaction  - and his work has the financial backing of the Captain Morgan Rum Company. There has been some success – eight cannons, six of which were raised. If verified, they would be the only surviving material evidence of Morgan’s raid. This is difficult however, as small cannons such as these were extremely heterogenous, even on the same vessel, and were often bought and sold between ships.

            So it raises the question, at least initially, of what the point of the excavation is – certainly no one is denying that the battle of San Lorenzo occurred, and Henry Morgan is one of the most thoroughly documented pirates in history. Since his privateering was sanctioned by the British government it was perfectly legal, and he died wealthy and happy on a 400,000 acre sugar plantation in Jamaica. He had no reason to hide anything.

            The answer is around the edges of the histories. As Hanselmann notes, “If significant portions of ships are found, spatial analysis of their layouts or modifications might reveal some of these social dynamics, such as whether Morgan had his own cabin or shared quarters with his men, as some pirate captains had. The design of the ship itself could reflect its culture.” Similarly, discoveries of other wrecks around Lajas Reef, such as a merchant vessel already found, can tell us much about the nature of Panamanian trade and shipboard and colonial culture at the time. By conducting this sort of investigation under the easy to explain (and easy to obtain funding for) guise of “sexy” archaeology like finding Captain Morgan’s flagship, the archaeological world can benefit in all kinds of ways.

The ruins of Porto Bello today (wikipedia)

Businessweek Article on Captain Morgan Rum's branding and archaeological funding:

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