The Admiral’s Flagship

An early portrait of Sir Henry Morgan

I have always wondered if there is truth to the pirate stereotypes – parrots, eye patches, peg legs, drinking rum. My dad informs me that there is, and that famous pirates of years past did live lifestyles similar to the ones we think of when we hear the word “pirate”. Blackbeard, Barbarossa (Red Beard), and Black Bart are just a few of the most well known buccaneers. There were also several women pirates, most notably Grace O’Malley and Anne Bonny. The Golden Age of Piracy lasted for about a hundred years, spanning the 17th century. This meant that during this time, pirates had world renown and there were “safe places” for pirates and their ships to go around the world where they didn’t have to fear attack or arrest. Parts of the Caribbean were considered safe spots, including Jamaica and Hispaniola (the island containing the two present day nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti).

Most people have heard of the pirate Henry Morgan, and even more people have seen or drank the rum named after him, Captain Morgan. The story of his famed ship, the Oxford, goes as follows. Morgan was a British Royal Army Admiral who made a name for himself in the Caribbean, typically while raiding Spanish settlements. In the late 1660s the Royal Army gave the HMS Oxford to Port Royal, Jamaica as a gift. Port Royal gave this ship to Morgan to help his career, and it became the flagship in his fleet. In 1669, Morgan was planning a large-scale attack on the Spanish port of Cartagena with the intent of weakening one of Spain’s most established Caribbean ports, while making off with a tremendous amount of treasure. He gathered eleven ships and over 900 men on Isle Vaca to plan this attack on a night in 1669, and brought along some French pirates whose ship he secretly coveted. He thought that he could get them to join his fleet, and end up taking their ship in the end. This did not go exactly as planned when the large party ended up drunk on rum. A few inebriated sailors accidentally lit a fuse off that ignited explosives on the HMS Oxford, causing the ship to blow up and subsequently sink. Many lives were lost, and many men abandoned the fleet out of fear of bad luck or a curse on the party. Despite losing his flagship, Morgan managed to frame the French pirates, using a letter aboard their ship to claim that they were responsible for the explosion of the Oxford. They were tried and imprisoned in Jamaica. Morgan ended up with their ship, just as he had wanted.

Over the years to come, Morgan returned to the site of the Oxford’s sinking three times, and was stopped each time by some unfortunate incident. One time one of his other ships sunk and another he was stopped by the Spanish. He never did make it back to reclaim the Oxford’s sunken cargo, but it is likely there was treasure onboard, because as Morgan’s flagship it was probably carrying his most valuable possessions, and otherwise he would not have tried to go back so many times for what was onboard.

Sub Sea Research has done many scans of the area formerly known as Isla Vaca (now called Île à Vache). Their data accounts for every shipwreck in the area, except for the famed HMS Oxford. While in Haiti, they were doing magnetometer scans of an area off the coast. They detected ferrous metals, which are a near-surefire way of locating shipwrecks with treasure onboard. On further inspection, they found that the shipwreck in question had large amounts of burnt timber, meaning it was set on fire or involved in some sort of explosion. This is the only shipwreck in the area with these properties, which has led them to believe that they are looking at the HMS Oxford. Greg Brooks says he would love to return, but that this shipwreck is a historically loaded artifact and would require much work in the way of laws and attaining rights to recover it. He is 99% certain this is the HMS Oxford belonging to Henry Morgan, and says that while many other companies have claimed to have found the same wreck, most of the data he has seen points to other similar wrecks off the same island, which are not in fact the Oxford. He would like to return someday soon, after the completion of the Port Nicholson project.

 

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