Alchemy – the Magnum Opus

In the long history of Alchemy in the world, there have generally been two focuses: creating an elixir of immortality, which caused many a person to drink toxic and deadly concoctions over the years, and creating a Philosopher’s Stone, a rock that could turn lead into gold (a process called Chrysopoeia).  The belief was that “the Perfect Stone” could be used to change the properties of any element and draw out the gold in anything.  Not only capable of that, many alchemists believed that grinding the Philosopher’s Stone into a red powder would make it a water soluble panacea capable of granting the drinker eternal life.

The search for a way to create the Philsopher’s Stone (aka, the Tincture, the stone, the perfect diamond, “our delicious stone”, and hundreds of other names) was known as the Magnum Opus, or the Great Work.  It was considered by many at the time to be the greatest life work of all.  So much so that a minor priest named Nicolas Flamel was referenced in a book that made reference to him creating silver from lesser metals by using a Philosopher’s Stone.  Flamel died in the 1300s, and the book mentioning his success was written in the 1600s, but within 100 years, Nicolas Flamel was enough of a household name that he showed up in the writings of Victor Hugo and Isaac Newton.  Simply the idea that he had found the godstone was enough to propel him to legendary status in Europe.

As far as the actual process of creating a stone capable of transmuting things, the origins are found in Greece and India.  Basic beliefs about the world were that all elements were made of a combination of 4 things: Water, Fire, Air and Earth (or Hot, Dry, Wet and Cold in some other systems).  Because it was known that you could take an alloy metal and reverse the alloy process, ancients believed that they could reverse engineer anything, and all things must come from a fifth element.  The thought was that the fifth element was the philosopher’s stone, and it was the prima materia, the first matter, and by forming it, alchemists could in theory create any element.  Alchemy has existed for thousands of years now, with the search for the stone always being paramount.  Spurred forward by interpretations of the bible and legends about people in every society who discovered the skeleton key to the universe kept the art of alchemy relevant for an extreme amount of time.  Beliefs that Adam was told about the existence of the stone by God at the creation, or the reference to a rejected cornerstone of the Temple of Solomon becoming the chief cornerstone in Psalm 118 have persisted for long enough that Alchemists and their study has survived well into the modern era with a wealth of writings and history recorded about them.  When few people know the meaning behind words like Furrier or Cooper, the title “Alchemist” has survived and locked itself in the modern era with books like the Harry Potter series making it common vernacular.


An Alchemist painting from 1771, Joseph Wright of Derby



“To Life, Love and Loot”

The motto of Captain Morgan brand rum is “To life, love and loot”.  The image of the pirate is found on every bottle, clad in red velvet and displaying an air of confidence reserved for drunks and madmen.  Captain Henry Morgan himself however, likely was never a big rum drinker.  He was a famous raider of Spanish and French bases, likely his haul was more wine than it would have been rum.

Morgan himself began life in Wales, a poor peasant child who became an indentured servant to pay for his trip to the New World.  When his servitude was finished, he found himself stranded in the British colonies in Jamaica with no money to his name, no career and few skills.  He joined a pirate crew and began his meteoric rise through the ranks of the pirate realm.  Morgan and a senior Pirate captain named Mansvelt (who was the head of a pirate criminal empire) paired up to raid Spanish colonies and ports throughout Mexico and Costa Rica.  Morgan’s fame and wealth grew with each successful raid, partially attributed to his method of recruitment.  Morgan was said to arrive at new ports dressed in rich red clothes decked out in jewelry and bangles to give off the appearance of extreme wealth and success in his pirating endeavors.  He would wander to the darkest and most dangerous places in each port to hand pick the hardest and best pirates that the port had to offer. When Mansvelt died in 1666, Morgan inherited his pirate empire, making him one of the more powerful naval commanders in Jamaica.

In 1667, Morgan raided Puerto Principe in Cuba, finding a modest 50,000 pieces of eight, Morgan made his next raid a bigger target.  His plan was to attack Porto Bello in Panama, one of the larger and more wealthy port cities in the New World.  There were 2 large fortresses at the mouth of the port, making it exceptionally difficult to attack, so Captain Morgan took a different approach to the raid.  His primary assault was done with canoes by cover of darkness.  The attack on the second fortress was less tactical because by that point, it was known that the pirates were attacking Porto Bello.  Morgan gathered the priests and nuns in the town and used them as human shields in front of his men while scaling ladders to attack the fort.  When all was said and done, Morgan sent a ransom request to the governor of Panama with a pistol attached, saying he took Porto Bello with ease and he would be coming in a year to take the pistol back as well.

In 1669, Morgan’s next major raid was on the city of Maracaibo, where he encountered 3 Spanish Man-of-Wars, outgunning his 7 ships by a large margin.  He immediately asked the superior Spanish force to surrender, and when they refused he had his men strip a ship of all cannons and filled it with gunpowder.  They coated the ship with costumed straw dummies to make it appear manned and floated it into the Spanish flagship.  When it was set alight, the ghost ship exploded and sunk one of the Spanish ships while setting the other on fire.  Morgan’s 6 remaining ships easily captured the final Spanish warship. Morgan and his crew netted over 250,000 pieces of eight for their efforts, and his fame grew even further.

When he began recruiting for his next adventure, over 2,000 men and 37 ships showed up to follow him.  He planned on taking Panama, to get back his pistol.  In 1670, Morgan began his assault on Panama, marching his army up the Charge River. (There is a fort at the mouth of the river, one of Morgan’s chroniclers says the fortress was taken when during a frontal assault on it, a pirate was struck with an arrow.  The wounded pirate was so pissed about it that he yanked the arrow out, wrapped it with a rag, set it on fire and shot it back out of his musket.  He got a lucky shot in on the ammo magazine in the fort and blew it up.  Way to be, random pirate, way to be.)  In January of 1671, the Panamanian garrison of 3,600 Spanish troops marched out to meet “1,200 criminals, Englishmen, Dutch, French, blacks, Indians and even a few renegade Spaniards. At their head stood not a prince nor a general, but a former Welsh plowboy and onetime Barbados indentured servant.”

The Spanish tried a cavalry charge, but failing conditions meant that the horses were stymied in mud and ineffective.  They tried to stampede a horde of bulls into the pirates, but the animals ran away from the sound of gunfire.  Long story short, the pirates took Panama and the city burned, though nobody is really sure if the fire was Morgan’s idea or not.  When he returned home, Morgan was arrested and brought to trial in England for assaulting a Spanish city while the English were not at war with the Spanish.  Charles II though, upon hearing about Morgan’s exploits pardoned him, knighting him and making him the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.  Sir Henry Morgan died in 1688, wealthy, famous and with a clean criminal record.