09/11/2012 08:52 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

Searching for Henry Morgan

Thirty feet below the surface of the Chagres River lay the remains of one of the most important battles in pirate history: an encounter between the Spanish Empire and the greatest buccaneer leader of all time, Captain Henry Morgan. On a recent blazing hot day, four archeologists led by an American named Fritz Hanselmann maneuvered their boat over the treacherous reef that had claimed Morgan's flagship three hundred years earlier, then dropped into the swirling blue water. Down there, among the skeletal wrecks of ships from the colonial and Gold Rush eras, Hanselmann and his team have discovered the cannons that Captain Morgan used to take the city of Panama in a death-defying raid that changed the course of history.

Five of Morgan's vessels, including his powerful flagship, the Satisfaction, sit on the river's bottom, holding clues to the real life of the legendary buccaneer. Hanselmann and his team are the first men to walk among the wrecks in over three hundred years, and as they bring up swords, cannon and other artifacts, they're hoping to help solve one of the most persistent mysteries of the Golden Age of Piracy: how Henry Morgan succeeded where so many others failed.

Only a few hundred yards from where the archeology team is diving sits the ruin of the fort called San Lorenzo. In Morgan's day, the bulwark's lines of defense were so potent that the Spanish estimated it could hold off an assault by 6,000 soldiers. Captain Morgan had only a fraction of that number, but he planned his attack and motivated his men in such a way that he gave the buccaneers a fighting chance of capturing the castle.

In 1669, the fabled city of Panama was considered untouchable. The Spanish kings had ordered that the city be built on the far side of the world to protect it from the realm's many enemies. Between the city and the Caribbean Sea lay a series of dangers that would dampen the courage of even the most audacious privateers, starting with a great fort at the mouth of the Chagres River bristling with cannon, blockhouses, sentry posts and many hundreds of Spanish soldiers.

The Spanish didn't believe anyone could make it past the fort. But when Captain Henry Morgan said something, men believed it. One of Morgan's lieutenants wrote that Morgan "will either win ... manfully or die courageously."

Almost as soon as the Satisfaction had sailed, however, Morgan faced a crisis: the first Spanish fort he had to take, at the island of Isla Chica, refused to surrender. Instead, the defenders raised their drawbridge and "began to fire upon the pirates so furiously that they could advance nothing that day." The buccaneers were growing hungry, their ranks battered by rain and high winds. Rumors reached the Satisfaction that many pirates were planning on deserting the mission.

Captain Morgan faced a dilemma. He either had to act boldly or risk losing everything.

He sent a message to the commander of the Spanish fort: Surrender or face my full wrath. The fort quickly stood down and the pirates marched in, discovering 30,000 pounds of black powder to supply the invasion, as well as informers who knew the intricacies of Panama City down to the last alleyway. The all-or-nothing gamble had paid off.

Next in Captain Morgan's path lay the great fort at San Lorenzo, at the mouth of the Chagres River. San Lorenzo was more of a multi-pronged military installation than a simple fort. The Spanish knew the fort was the key to gaining access to Panama and so had made it into a series of interlocking fort systems. Near the water, engineers had constructed two gun batteries with six cannons that could sweep the river with chain-shot and cannonballs and take down the mast of the Satisfaction and the rest of Morgan's 36-ship fleet. Above the heads of the troops manning the batteries was a sheer stone wall, topped with a tower boasting eight powerful guns aimed at the Chagres. Each wall was reinforced with thick mahogany logs packed with earth that could stop any cannonball. And on the landward side, two sets of deep, 30-foot trenches had been cut into the earth, complete with drawbridges that could be pulled up, guarded by cannon after cannon.

Four hundred and seventy pirates set out in three ships that anchored down the coast from San Lorenzo, then slipped into canoes to make the final approach. Morgan had ordered the canoes in hope of surprising the Spanish defenders, but it soon became clear that a deserter had informed the enemy inside the fort that the pirates were on the way. The element of surprise was gone.

Clever strategy had brought the men to their objective. But now they'd have to fight and fight hard.

Bradley divided his 470 men into three squadrons, one to be held in reserve, the other two chosen for the attack. As the hot sun beat down, the two squadrons suddenly erupted out of the treeline and charged at the walls of the castle. Spanish archers hidden in the jungle sent arrows flying at the invaders, while the fort's musketeers poured down fire on them, leaving several dead on the beach. "Being uncovered from head to foot," reported one witness, "the pirates could not advance without great danger." After a furious few minutes of battle, the outgunned pirates were forced to retreat.

San Lorenzo was proving to be the toughest pitched battle of Captain Morgan's career. His men bound their wounds, drank some water and eyed the castle. How could they possibly take it?

Morgan's leadership philosophy had actually planned for moments like this, when the chips were down and the odds seemed insurmountable. In the pirate articles of confederation that he'd signed his name to, the buccaneer commander had made clear that the bravest of his men would be rewarded with extra loot. The first to toss a grenade at the enemy would get five extra pieces of eight, the first to enter a fort would get fifty, which was good money for a pirate in 1670. The Spanish defenders inside had no such rewards system, giving Morgan a clear advantage.

The pirates emerged from the forest, letting out blood-curdling yells as they charged the fort and tossed grenades over the stone walls. As darkness settled over the Chagres, fires began to sprout inside the fortress. The thatch that the Spanish gunners used for shelter caught fire, and Morgan's sharpshooters used the flames to better pick out their targets. The strategy worked. More Spanish defenders fell as the fighting raged into the night. Finally the last defender fell and the walls of the half-burned castle rang to the shouts of the buccaneers: "Victory, victory." The key domino on the way to Panama had fallen.

Word of the conquest arrived at the Satisfaction and Captain Morgan sailed immediately for San Lorenzo. But as the buccaneers inside the fort watched their leader arrive, they realized with horror that the ship was steering straight for a notorious reef, called Lajas, made of razor-sharp coral. The blustery January weather disguised the danger spot and his flagship sailed right onto the rocks, slicing its hull open. The Satisfaction began foundering in the high winds and four others quickly followed it to their doom.

Morgan reacted swiftly. He ordered the ships abandoned and the men and material transferred to the other vessels. His quick decision saved the fleet and the invasion and Captain Morgan soon entered the castle of San Lorenzo to "great acclamations of triumph."

After celebrating, Morgan set out for Panama, where he and his men were subjected to all the nightmares that had kept pirates off the trails for decades: not only high mountains populated by jaguars and highly poisonous snakes, but festering swamps, crocodile-infested rivers, malaria and bands of Indians armed with bows and arrows. His men nearly starved to death as they marched, with scores falling dead from yellow fever and other jungle diseases. There was talk of revolt, testing Morgan's command to its limit. But the captain drove his men forward, refusing to turn back in defeat. Within weeks, Panama and all its swag was his.

The victory at San Lorenzo, which opened the way to Panama, is the textbook example of pirate leadership in action. No other privateer Captain in the Caribbean could have conceived of it, rallied the hundreds of buccaneers needed to pull it off, or guided his army to their objective with such determination. The Spanish had already met and defeated some of the great military minds of the century; indeed, the great privateer Sir Francis Drake had died off the Panamanian city of Portobello, after a disastrous campaign against the Spanish that had left his fleet in tatters. But Captain Henry Morgan presented England's enemy with something new: a bold, dauntless spirit that was flexible enough to outwit the empire's best commanders at crucial moments and a leader so trusted by his men that they would follow him to the gates of hell. The battle for San Lorenzo exemplifies Morgan at his best.