Parshat Toledot – Good and evil

Sir Henry Morgan. (CCO/ WIkimedia Commons)
Sir Henry Morgan. (CCO/ WIkimedia Commons)

I would tell you about Henry Morgan’s childhood growing up in Monmouthshire, Wales, in the 17th century, and about how he made his way to the West Indies some time before 1660. But it seems to me that the books and articles written about Morgan’s early life are all based on conjecture at best.

What I will tell you is how Morgan was arrested for committing massacre and torture. But also, how he was subsequently knighted and soon afterwards received a lifetime pension for his good deeds.

Mention of the Caribbean in the 17th century may immediately lead you to think Morgan was a pirate. I’ve written about the pirate Blackbeard in the past. But Morgan was no pirate. He was a buccaneer and privateer.

Privateers were civilians issued with a warrant allowing them to engage in maritime warfare. The privateers were permitted to keep a share of the spoils from any ship they captured.

Vice-Admiral Christopher Myngs. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

It is likely Morgan sailed with Sir Christopher Myngs in the early 1660s, joining the captain as he attacked Spanish cities in the West Indies and Central America. It is likely that Morgan even captained one of Myngs’s ships. Even though England and Spain had formally ended the Spanish-Anglo war in 1660, Myngs, along with Morgan, attacked Santiago de Cuba (in modern-day Cuba) in 1662 and sacked Campeche (in today’s Mexico) in 1663.

In February 1664 Sir Thomas Modyford (who I also mentioned in a previous blog) was appointed Governor of Jamaica, and forbade privateering in June. However, a few months later, the governor realized that the islands few farming communities were not sufficient to keep the economy buoyant, so he began issuing letters of marque, allowing privateers to attack ships of specific countries. In exchange, King Charles II and the governor took a share of the spoils.

By 1667, rumors abounded that Spain was planning to invade the Caribbean, so Modyford promoted Morgan to the rank of admiral and issued him with a letter of marque, “to draw together the English privateers and take prisoners of the Spanish nation, whereby he might inform of the intention of that enemy to attack Jamaica, of which I have frequent and strong advice.”

Modyford had only authorized Morgan to attack ships, but the admiral had a different idea. He attacked and conquered Puerto Principe in central Cuba. He later told the governor that he had evidence of a potential attack which justified his illegal raid. Unfortunately for Morgan, there was not enough bounty in Puerto Principe to satisfy the 500 men serving under him. About 200 French privateers abandoned him, leaving him with a mainly English force with which he attacked Porto Bello, in modern-day Panama.

The heavily fortified city was protected by two castles at the port. Morgan and a third inside the town. Morgan and his men came ashore by canoe to launch a sneak upon the first castle in a pre-dawn raid. He and his men then moved on to the second castle which they also took quickly.

According to Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin’ s1678 book, “De Americaeneche Zee Roovers,” translated into English as “The Pirates of Panama,” Morgan used human shields to defeat the third castle. Rather than risk losing his own men, Morgan sent the priests and nuns they had taken captive and sent them with ladders to scale the castle walls. Many men and women of the cloth were killed before Morgan and his men eventually stormed the castle.

Henry Morgan with a prisoner, in ‘Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates: Fiction, Fact & Fancy Concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main.’ (Public Domain/ WIkimedia Commons)

According to Exquemelin, after taking the city and celebrating with “all manner of debauchery and excess” Morgan and his men took all the loot they could find. But they were sure there was more gold and jewels hidden away somewhere. They took several of their captives and, “resolved to torture them: this they did so cruelly, that many of them died on the rack, or presently after.”

Report from The London Gazette regarding Morgan’s successful libel action. (Public Domain/ WIkimedia Commons)

I must add that Morgan subsequently sued for libel, and the passage about the nuns and priests being used as human shields was edited out of subsequent editions of the book.

For the next few years, Morgan continued raiding Spanish settlements, becoming very wealthy in the process and investing his earnings in plantations in Jamaica. Between 1669-1672 Morgan set out at the instruction of Modyford “”to do and perform all manner of exploits, which may tend to the preservation and quiet of this island.” He captured and plundered many cities in Panama.

Charles II. (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately for Morgan (and Modyford), in July 1670 King Charles II of Great Britain and Charles II, King of Spain, signed the Treaty of Madrid, which banned any British attacks on Spanish settlements. Immediately upon his return to Port Royal, Morgan was arrested and shipped back to London to face trial, along with Modyford.

However, the arrest was mainly to placate the Spanish. While Modyford spent two years in the Tower of London, Morgan was feted around town as the new Francis Drake. Morgan was never actually charged with an offence and gave evidence that he was unaware of the Treaty of Madrid when he attacked Panama.

In November 1674, King Charles knighted Morgan, and a couple of months later he returned to Jamaica, along with Modyford who had just been released from the Tower.

The former buccaneer was awarded an annual salary of £600, “For his good services to the country.” Although Morgan never again engaged in attacks on the Spanish, he did invest in several privateer ships, taking his share of the spoils when they returned to Port Royal.

Morgan took an unofficial role in Jamaican politics but mainly focused on his three large slave plantations which made him extremely wealthy.

When the former privateer died on August 25, 1688, his body lay in state and an amnesty was declared so that pirates and privateers could come and pay their respects. The sailor who had terrorized Spanish towns in the Caribbean for so long – mainly to enrich himself — who had tortured and killed his prisoners, who had been arrested by the crown for his actions, died a hero.

There are geographical features, and hotels and resorts named after him, and since 1944 Seagram has produced Captain Morgan rum. And that is without even mentioning how he continued to profit from privateering, becoming extremely wealthy and at the time of his death owning 131 slaves, including 33 children.

So, was Morgan a villain or a hero? We like our fictional characters to be either goodies or baddies, but real life is rarely as simple as that. People are complex, and often have many motivations for their actions.

In this week’s Torah reading, Toledot, we read that Isaac and Rebecca had two sons, Esau and Jacob. The two boys are portrayed as complete opposites (Genesis 25:27):

They youths grew, and Esau was a man who knew hunting, a man of the field. But Jacob was a naïve man, sitting in tents.

But, despite many midrashim and sermons, it is a mistake to view one as purely evil and the other as entirely good. For one thing, if Esau was a “baddie” Isaac surely would not have favored him. Yet he did (Genesis 25:28):

Isaac loved Esau, because there was game in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.

There is a tradition that the rabbis of the Talmud always try to paint villains as being completely evil (Bava Batra 109b). And the rabbis do a complete character assassination of Esau based on a single verse (Bava Batra 16b):

‘Esau came from the field and he was tired,’ (Genesis 25:27). It was taught: That same day Abraham died, and Jacob made a lentil dish to console his father… Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Esau committed five sins on that day. He had relations with a betrothed woman, he committed murder, he denied the principle of God’s existence, he denied the resurrection of the dead and he despised the birthright.’

That is a bad rap sheet. It implies three of the most serious sins in Judaism, murder, sexual immorality, and idolatry. Yet if we look closer, things are not quite so clear cut. The rabbis removed the context to make Esau seem purely evil.

Sure, Esau killed someone. But the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 63:13) puts that in context.

Esau said, behold I am going to die,’ (Genesis 25:32). Nimrod had tried to murder him because he had a garment worn by Adam.

So, in fact, Esau did not commit murder, but killed Nimrod in self-defense. Furthermore, Nimrod was one of the most wicked people in the Torah. Nimrod was the architect of the Tower of Babel. Nimrod had tried to kill Esau’s grandfather Abraham by throwing him into a fiery furnace. Not only could Esau justify the killing as self-preservation, but he was also righting the terrible wrong done to Abraham.

Esau was accused by the rabbis of having sexual relations with a betrothed woman, but as Tosefot point out (on Bava Batra 16b) this was not actually forbidden at the time. There were no marriage laws and no such thing as betrothal. Just as there was no law against rejecting the birthright. Unsavory behavior, sure, but Esau was following accepted norms of the time.

He denied God and rejected the concept of the resurrection of the dead in the Messianic era. This was on the same day that both his righteous grandfather Abraham and his arch-enemy Nimrod had both died. Can we really blame Esau for his philosophical questioning when he sees the bodies of both the greatest and the worst before him, and in death they are identical?

As a hunter, Esau had much experience with death, and knew that a single arrow or blow could transform a living breathing animal into a lifeless corpse. Would the game Esau had hunted and eaten return to life in some future world? If not, why should he believe that Abraham would come back to life? And if Abraham would, what about Nimrod?

Esau’s heresy could equally be understood as grappling with the deepest philosophical questions – issues which even the author of the Book of Job was unable to resolve, and about which Rabbi Yannai said in the Mishna (Avot 4:15), “We cannot explain the tranquility of the wicked, nor the suffering of the righteous.”

The birthright that Esau rejected was not his inheritance right, but his expected role as family priest. Before the tribe of Levi was chosen to serve in the Temple, it was the firstborn who offered sacrifices. Esau knew he was not the man for that job. Just as King David was forbidden to build the Temple because he had blood on his hands (I Chronicles 28:3), so Esau, who had chosen a life of a hunter, could not become the priest on the family altar.

Perhaps this is all just apologetics. Maybe Esau was truly evil. But maybe the rabbis painted him as evil to prove a point. Certainly, Isaac didn’t view his eldest son as evil, but as someone worthy of blessing, someone who should receive blessings of “The dew of heaven and the delicacies of the earth, grain and wine,” (Genesis 27:4).

Isaac had been passive his entire life. His wife had been chosen for him. His life had been an imitation of that of his father, digging again the wells of Abraham and negotiating the same treaties Abraham had already made.

Isaac saw Jacob, sitting quietly in his tent, and decided that Esau was someone who would be able to lead the family to the next stage of its development, who would not remain passive but could make decisions and take actions. Esau could have protected Jacob studying quietly in his tent, leaving his younger brother without the worries of safety and economic security.

Rebecca foiled Isaac’s plan and ensured Jacob received the blessings, instead of Esau. But as a result, Jacob had to leave his tent and become a shepherd for his future father-in-law in a foreign land.

People are complex. Morgan was both a wicked privateer and a feted knight of the realm. Esau was a questioning man of the field with blood on his hands. But we will never know what would have happened if he had received his father’s blessings and taken on the mantle of leadership, allowing Jacob to remain passively in his tent.

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About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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