He was born in 1635 in Llanrhymny, then a village between Cardiff and Newport, in South Wales, to a prosperous farming family. It is believed he spent his childhood in Wales but how he came from Wales to the West Indies is uncertain.
In one version he was ‘barbadosed’ or kidnapped and sent to work as an indentured servant in Barbados. This version was put forward by Alexandre Exquemelin, Morgan’s surgeon in Panama, in his writings which were translated into English, …the Unparallel’d Exploits of Sir Henry Morgan, our English (sic) Jamaican hero…However when Morgan heard of these publications, he sued and Exquemelin was forced to retract this version. (This book is also responsible for Morgan’s notorious reputation, as Exquemelin alleges horrific atrocities on Spanish civilians by the privateers.)
The most accepted version is that in 1654 Henry joined Cromwell’s troops under General Venables in Portsmouth. Cromwell had decided to send an army to the Caribbean to attack the Spanish.
Morgan arrived at Barbados in 1655 as a junior officer in Cromwell’s forces and took part in the unsuccessful attack on Santo Domingo before taking Jamaica, a then largely undeveloped but strategically positioned island with a large natural harbour, from the Spanish. Life on Jamaica was hard, with diseases such as yellow fever and attacks on the British by Maroons (runaway slaves), yet Morgan survived.
After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Henry’s uncle Edward was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. Henry later married his uncle’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth Morgan in 1665.
By 1662 Henry Morgan had his first command as a captain of a privateer ship involved in an attack on Santiago de Cuba. A privateer was empowered by the British government, or a representative of the government such as the Governor of Jamaica, to raid and attack the Spanish on England’s behalf. Privateers were allowed to keep some of their plunder for themselves. So in a way, privateers could be thought of as ‘legal’ pirates.
After several successful campaigns against the Spanish, by 1665 Morgan was already a wealthy man with sugar plantations on Jamaica, becoming a man of some status on the island. His fame was also spreading, particularly after the successful attack on Puerto Bello in Panama in 1666 during which he took the town, held the residents to ransom and then beat off a force of 3000 Spanish soldiers, to return with an enormous amount of booty.