In the opening days of 1669, a cataclysm of events off the tranquil sandy, palm treed island of Isle a Vache, changed the course of world history. It was during the time period of ENGLAND’S monarchy woes and of SPAIN’S continuing conquests in the New World. A time of wooden tall ships and of a hardy breed of men that lived and died by the sword forever chasing that precious soft metal – gold. A time when the King of England, looked the other way, while “loyal” subjects, called buccaneers, no matter how scruffy or indifferent to the code of “Bristol fashion”, kept the nations enemies busy with fears of dreaded brutal attacks.
On the morning of January 2, 1669, HMS OXFORD was busying readying its’ decks for a recently announced war council to take place on board. The day was clear, with a full silvery hot sun slowly making it way up in the east. A stiff breeze was building from the North East, which was a typical weather pattern for this time of year. All 10 ships anchored in the waters off Isle a Vache pointed directly into the breeze, little affected by the morning ebb tide. Along each side of OXFORD two other ships soon rafted to the larger mother ship in anticipation of the meeting. That day it would be decided where a bloody battle would take place in a not too distant land owned by the SPANISH KINGDOM.
The OXFORD, a newly commissioned, sleek, English Warship, had just recently arrived in the Caribbean. At the time it was the biggest English Warship stationed in this area. Sir Thomas Modyford, the Lt. Governor of Jamaica, urgently sequestered it from the Royal Navy and assigned it to the now famous Admiral Henry Morgan. Morgan at this time of his fame was considered by many to be one of the most powerful men in the world. He had the most powerful nation on its knees, living in fear and literally directed the will of the British Nation, as he felt fit.
The OXFORD left Port Royal Jamaica and sailed over to the motley fleet tucked in the lee of the island off of Haiti, known by the English as Isle de Ashe. She stood out among this crowd of smaller ships being a 5th rate ship, around 150 feet long, with her 34 guns and 240 tons with new solid English oak. It was a prized vessel and a very welcome addition to the tattered fleet of English and French ships readying to battle the Spanish. Henry Morgan could not have been more pleased to have this beautiful craft for his flagship. He was best known for his marine tactics using ships to launch his famous land campaigns.
The meeting did not last long that day, for Henry Morgan had already decided to attack the most defended Spanish town Cartegena in Columbia. The other Captains and crew thought at first this too great a prize but Morgan’s gift of negotiating won the day. A vote was taken among all present and it was decided easily. Besides, all the men would share in the loot that would be realized and the loot was estimated to be enormous in this major Spanish enclave.
After the meeting, the OXFORD and the other tethered vessels to its sides hosted a pig roast. Jamaican rum and wine flowed freely among the 800 of so men who gathered to celebrate their last day before heading out to do battle. Late in the day another vessel sailed in which was smaller than Oxford but bigger than all present in the total gathering. Henry Morgan knew this vessel, Le Cerf Volant (The Kite). It had months ago issued a bogus IOU to an English ship, which in those days was paramount to piracy. Piracy against their glorious King, which had to be dealt with. Buccaneers even though a rag tag group had high standards amongst their own. It was one of the most democratic groups on the face of the Earth at the time. Along with the Crown, each man got his share or willed it to another and each man had a vote. Henry Morgan invited the French Captain and crew over for a drink and after they had a few drinks too many threw them all in the brig down in the hold. He now had another vessel of good size to do his bidding. In his zest for revenge he renamed this ship the SATISFACTION. Truly good fortunes awaited in their destiny. Truly the upcoming battle would make them all rich beyond belief with some of the spoils making the English King a happy monarch, even though his father King Charles 1st was beheaded for treason.
As the sun set in a fireball in west, the balmy wind was still stiff and the OXFORD tugged on its anchor chain played out in the deep water. The British Admiralty anchors held well in the sandy coral strewn bottom. It had anchored out from the island so as to protect the small fleet from any Spanish ships sailing by. It wanted to have a clear escape route so as it could be quickly repositioned into battle readiness. The men were busy enjoying their freedom, as many knew more than ½ would most likely be killed or wounded in the upcoming campaign. They all respected their leader, as they all knew he was a vicious fighter who loved the use of the pike. For Morgan himself prided the fact he could run his pike thru 2 Spaniards at one time. As they roasted some local pigs and told tales of their many adventures the odd cannon would bark out a report in the wild celebration. It was a night to cast aside responsible behavior in lieu of drunken revelry. But such was the life of the Brethren in this New World.
The OXFORD was a vessel built hardily for her mission. She carried her cannons well and was still fast enough to command the sea. These fifth rates where known as frigates and they had a good speed. Henry Morgan invited the other Captains to dine in his quarters in the stern of his new flagship. He was seated with a Captain to his left and his right. Across from him it was reported more Captains were seated. It was a joyous occasion for all saw great glory coming their way in the upcoming days. Sitting in the aft quarters these gutsy souls felt victory was at hand for their leader was cunning as a fox and fearless in battle.
The OXFORD carried new fresh provisioning from England. In her lower holds she had two magazines, one forward and one aft. These magazines carried wooden barrels of gunpowder, which the powder monkeys (normally young boys) would bring on deck to re-supply the cannon in action. Fresh gunpowder is dangerous in the best of conditions. Even the dust that hung in the air was as volatile as coal dust in any mine. Most likely during the festivities, matters got sloppy in a hurry and lids where not properly reinstalled on the powder barrels in use on deck or flame ventured where it should not of, possibly from the pig roast. It is not known the chain of events that was to alter history but no matter how it happened, the OXFORD suddenly blew up in a massive fiery explosion. Parts of men, cannon, chunks of ship etc; went flying hundreds of feet into the air. Instantly over 100 men where vaporized into steam including the 50 or so French prisoners in the brig. Many more were thrown into the water with ugly tormented wounds and drowned. The ship must have cracked like a giant egg as her belly blew out into the sea in a hurry. In the mass confusion of shrieking men and groaning sinking ship the OXFORD broke up into several sections all burning furiously out of control. The ships tethered to the sides most likely suffered the same fate adding more wreckage and debris along the seafloor. As the fires spread and the men fled for their lives, sections of the disaster began to float away in the strong winds out of the North East. The main ballast of 70 tons or more of small round rock located in the lowest parts of the OXFORD most likely was pounded down hard into the sea while the explosion ripped apart the upper gun deck into large chunks. These chunks would have been buoyant enough to float away cannons, anchors and the dead. In the time after the explosion the other men would have been trying to rescue their injured, floating shipmates. Little heed would be paid to what floated where.
Henry Morgan again showed he had many lives. He and the two men on either side of him were blown backwards right out the stern windows. Small boats that came from the other anchored ships later rescued these three. It is reported the other men sitting across the table from Morgan, were crushed by a beam that fell on top of them. Due to this fact we can only assume it must have been the forward magazine that blew up or Morgan too would have been vaporized in the hellish blast. This forward magazine would have been somewhere underneath the area of the pig roast as the cooking facilities were normally by the forward mast. It is possible both magazines eventually blew up but the fact the aft magazine would have been right under Morgan leads to the idea the forward one went first, saving Morgan for more adventures.
As the fires burned deep into whatever was left floating, the rest of the ship strained with gravity to go to the bottom. Most likely the remaining gunpowder blew up as the ship burned, causing parts of the ship to spread over a wide area. The wind or tide would then catch whatever pieces separated and carried them to their final resting areas. If the ballast was released to the bottom quickly, bow and stern sections could have floated downwind. It must be remembered the ships hull was nearly a foot thick and the keel contained massive amounts of solid oak. The mighty OXFORD would have ended up with a main area of ballast near the actual explosion with some cannon and the anchors used at the time. The rest of the ship would have floundered far a field, up to miles from the original disaster due to wind and current. Or if the ship sunk in big pieces, over time it would have broken up underwater and pieces could have floated away. It is known shipwrecks can be spread over many miles.
It is reported over 200 men died from the maelstrom and as many as 300 could have eventually perished from burns and wounds. Being wounded was in most cases worse than death as different types of infections set in with no way of controlling them but removing the limbs involved and cauterizing the blood flow with hot steel. The next day some of the locals relieved the drifting flotsam of dead of their rings, necklaces and whatever valuables found. Not much would have been salvaged from the deep for sharks would have been drawn into the area for days or even weeks. It would have been a feast for all the creatures of the deep. It was also in an area of strong currents and during most of year strong trades winds stirred up the bottom reducing visibility to within feet. Morgan had lost many of his good Captains, almost 1/3 of his men and at the least his prized ship the OXFORD. In true Morgan fashion he failed to give up. He just changed his plans and attacked a town not so well fortified. This was to be one of his most brilliant and daring ventures known as the Maracaibo Lagoon. It should be noted here though many historians feel he was down to only 400 men by then. Somewhere Morgan had lost half of party before he reached this destination. For awhile he was highly criticized for loosing the OXFORD and so many men. Mollyford took away the SATISFACTION and sent it on patrol to protect JAMAICA. Morgan’s loss of appeal was short lived though and in short order he was once again in full control of the area. In less than 5 years, due to his services to the Crown, King Charles the 2nd knighted him and Morgan gained the title Sir Henry Morgan.
The OXFORD would not have had any great amount of wealth on board other than some of the men’s personal fortunes from other campaigns. This might explain why over the last 20 years why gold coins have been found in the area of this tragedy. It is also thought more buccaneer gold is buried all over the island. This is because Isle a Vache was a favorite gathering place by Morgan for many years. Men would have wanted to bury their loot before any new expeditions, as ships were easily lost. In many cases those that did the burying did not live to dig it back up. It is also probable much more is to be found from as many as three ships lost that night in January. Certainly some historical artifacts are yet to be located, along with many parts of these ships. History waiting to be found understood and told. Tales of old with tales of gold.
Years later when the newly knighted Sir Henry Morgan was on his way to Port Royal to become the new Lt. Governor, and to take possession of an estate given to him by the King, to be reportedly of nearly 1000 acres with up to 100 slaves, Morgan tried to stop in at Isle a Vache. This is when the wreck of the Jamaica Merchant came to be. In 1676 it is reported that pilot error sent the Jamaica Merchant crashing into the Recif de le Folle (Reef of the Crazy) or better known to the English as the Great East Reef. This dangerous, razor sharp coral outcrop which projects over 4 miles due north from the eastern tip of Isle a Vache even by then had claimed many ships. It is one of those deadly areas of the world that even claims modern day ships. Today remnants of Spanish Galleons, British frigates and of course the JAMAICA MERCHANT can be found scattered about. At the time Morgan once again escaped with his life by making his way to the island to await rescue from Port Royal a week later. They salvaged up to 20 large cannon and nearly 200 cannon balls along with most of the cargo from England. Some feel he was coming back here at the time to see if the Oxford could then be salvaged. Who knows what might have been stored deep in the dark bilges of the Oxford. Many pirates and buccaneers are known to have spiked a cannon with lead just after loading it up with booty of looted gold, silver and gems. In those days it would have been like the Captain’s personal safe which no one but a few would know about. Or maybe Morgan was just hoping to meet up with some old friends to warn them of the new anti buccaneering and piracy laws he was sent to enforce. It is well documented that the gallows on the docks in Port Royal where always full of men hanging for piracy after this point on. Just as in battle Morgan took his work seriously and even old friends ended their days swinging in the balmy breezes with a noose around their necks. No matter his reasons for trying to visit Isle a Vache at the time, you can be sure something was afoot in his mind from his years of using this area. Surely it had much more to do than some locals living there. He was not known to be the friendliest character as many of his so-called shipmates he later executed.
Since 1999, Bruce Leeming, a native of Guelph, Canada, has led several expeditions with different professionals to locate whatever is left of this famous ship and of many others lost in this area of the world. He helped coordinate several TV documentaries of these finds. Along with CANADAS’ BLUENOSE, the famous Morgan wreck mentioned earlier, the JAMAICAN MERCHANT has been well documented. Strict controls have been imposed so as to protect the rights of the Haitian people who own territorial rights to any finds. This is not a treasure hunting program but a historical study where some good returns are hoped for the proud country of HAITI. It is in the hope of creating interest in these historical finds that will help establish a new business greatly needed in HAITI. This new business of using the natural resource HAITI has to offer, namely it’s extensive New World history. Jobs can be created and tourism encouraged from this maritime past. HAITI, for over 150 years was the richest nation in the New World. What better way for it to gain a foothold back on the world stage than using its colorful past.
After spending a great of time and money looking where history says the OXFORD blew up it has been recently realized recorded history is wrong. A full report is available on our expeditions to date. History states the ship blew up in a bay that simply could never have happened as the OXFORD drew up to 17 feet of water and could have never sailed into the bay in question. Besides there are too many reefs in this area and the OXFORD would have never been risked like this. It would also never have sailed into a bay to get trapped by the Spanish. A bounty was on Morgan’s head and the Spanish were desperately out looking for Morgan and his men. A site located in a different location has been found that contains evidence of what might be this ship. Some scorched ballast rock has been found, anchors, cannons, glass fragments, lead shot and other items that lend credence to the tale of this loss long ago. Several items have been tested and analyzed to be from the time period of this wreck. It is in a logical area where this accident would have most likely taken place. Anyone with some mariner skills would see the reasoning behind our recent conclusions
In the coming years more expeditions are being organized to continue this historical study. In the coming years also we hope to fully establish ISLE A VACHE MARINE PARK. This underwater park will be owned by Haitians and operated by Haitians. Sponsors are presently sought to get involved with financing different areas of this truly unique operation. Our research and all our findings will be donated to this quest. None of the sites will be disturbed or damaged. History can be told and understood by passive techniques so that a future for the Marine Park is guaranteed.
We ask you to get involved in this historical event. It is only a few times in a lifetime that something of this nature comes along. Not only will it make a difference in our personal knowledge of this exciting time period but also it will help a nation make the best use of a resource so vitally important to their future. Some countries mine for gold; let us help Haiti gain strength from their historical tales of men, for centuries, chasing this elusive metal in their waters. This is the land of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Tales of dreams, tales of old, tales that inspire us to go back in time and relish what it must have been like.
Written by Bruce Leeming
Written by Bruce Leeming