Captain Morgan’s Treasure is Still Out There

If you stop at the Sailfish Marina on Singer Island, Florida, you’ll find a statue of one of the most famous and successful pirates of all time, Captain Henry Morgan. Perhaps fittingly, Captain Morgan’s statue is chained to the pier so it doesn’t get pirated.

Technically Henry Morgan wasn’t a pirate; he was a privateer, which is basically a pirate with a contract and a sponsor. That didn’t make him any less brutal, though the true extent of the actual bloodshed has certainly been exaggerated. The mid-1600s were awesome times for a pirate working for the British and the Welsh-born Henry Morgan made the most of the opportunity. The British wanted to loosen Spain’s hold on the new world, and privateers like Morgan were one of the instruments the English used. Morgan’s relationship to the Crown was frequently strained, with the privateer captain getting a stern talking-to about his behavior more than once. That was right before Charles II knighted him and Morgan retired to a life of ease and alcoholism that, also ironically, probably included spiced rum.

Morgan and his men, the ones who lived, all got fabulously rich. Morgan attacked ships and ports, holding Spanish cities and citizens for ransom, which was frequently paid and the crown let him keep most of the treasure in lieu of payment. And there was a lot of loot, with 200,000 silver pieces of eight acquired from just one raid on Porto Bello (the city, not the mushroom).

Morgan was a bold and innovative commander and once fought off three Spanish warships that had him trapped in a lake, sinking one, capturing another and running the last one off. Then he ran a long con on the commander of a local Spanish fort, convincing him an attack was coming from land. The fort commander was watching inland while Morgan sailed right past the guns pointing the wrong way. Unfortunately Morgan was a better tactician than navigator.

Here’s what we know. By 1670 Morgan was ridiculously rich and set his sights on looting Panama City. On the way Morgan sailed his flagship, the Satisfaction, and four other ships onto the Lajas Reef at the mouth of the mouth of the Chagres River. We know the Satisfaction was loaded with chests and boxes, although the exact nature of their contents have yet to be discovered. Come on, the man was a pirate captain, it’s hard to imagine him carrying around chests loaded with collectible figurines. The five ships all sank relatively close to shore and at least one of them has been found.

In 2010 a group of Texas State University researchers claim to have found the Satisfaction, a fact that, to this day, has not been positively established. What they did find were the remains of a ship loaded with neat rows of wooden chests and boxes. Over the centuries the chests have become encased in stone through a process called carbonate concretion. There is no record of any of the chests being opened and the dense outer material is resistant to x-rays. Only a handful have been recovered for analysis and the bulk of them are still sitting on the bottom of the ocean, where they’ve been for the last 437 years. Indeed, by this time it may not be possible to tell which ship was which in Morgan’s formation. So, we can say with some certainty, that the researchers can’t get no Satisfaction. No, no, no.

Exploration is also handicapped by the fact that a lot of ships have run into the Lajas Reef over the years, sinking in the same waters and in roughly the same places. So far all that’s been recovered are a half-dozen iron cannons, a sword and some lead seals from the chests.

Morgan and his men went on to overrun the fort of Castillo de San Lorenzo and then to make a perilous journey up the Chagres River where he sacked and burned Panama City. The Spanish, aware that Morgan was on his way, spirited away the city’s treasure before the invaders arrived. What happened to that treasure is also a mystery. It would be just like Morgan to cook up a story about the one that got away just before he retired to a life of drinking himself to death. Not a bad way to go for a pirate.

All that gold, all those silver pieces of eight, much of which has never been fully accounted for, is still out there somewhere. Possibly on the bottom of the ocean just a few hundred meters from shore, or possibly hidden somewhere on the island where Morgan retired. What we know is that all of Morgan’s treasure has never been recovered and is still waiting in its hiding spot nearly 500 years later.