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EDITOR'S COMMENT

History of Violence: Why Diageo should ditch cutthroat Captain Morgan

By Ben Bouckley+

27-Feb-2014
Last updated the 27-Feb-2014 at 16:25 GMT

Photo: Jamie R/Flickr
Photo: Jamie R/Flickr

Diageo should ditch lucrative rum brand Captain Morgan altogether since the real life Captain left an orgy of bloodshed and violence across the Caribbean, Ben Bouckley argues.

That’s my opinion after digesting yesterday’s news that Diageo would have to pull a slick UK advertising slot for Captain Morgan. I think more fundamental moral firepower can and should be trained on this mega brand.

The guys at Diageo need to take a long hard look at themselves – since their dedication to servicing the myth of Sir Henry Morgan (last September the firm splurged £1.8m or $3m on a new campaign for the brand in the UK alone) as a cuddly-esque cutthroat is difficult to bear. ‘Live Like the Captain!’ we’re told. Yeah right.

Entertaining ads, for a bored 10 year old...

Because beyond the glossy ads – which I suppose are entertaining enough for a bored 10 year-old who’d otherwise spend his time watching rain fall on a sad Sunday afternoon in Southern England, I've been there – you have to question Diageo’s ethics in perpetuating an affably buffoonish version of the Captain.

“Whilst we set out to pay homage to Captain Henry Morgan in a way that is true to the time period, we only ever portray elements of his life that are consistent with the responsible image and values of Captain Morgan the brand.” That’s the line Diageo sent me today.

The actor in Diageo's slick promotions has smoothed out the ‘Captain’s’ jagged edges – like a teacher taking a skilled pair of scissors to a kid’s ragged cutout sketch – until his wrinkles are attenuated or airbrushed, like some dumb 17th century Johnny Depp doing Disney.

‘Awesome exploits’ include bloody sacking of Panama

That’s the purpose of using a face…to back a brand. I get it. Perhaps inspired by the 1935 Errol Flynn film (see still below) Sam Bronfman of Seagram’s drinks founded the Captain Morgan Rum Company in 1945 and later bought a Jamaican family rum recipe and distillery.

But let’s look at the record shall we Diageo? Morgan was a violent drunkard whose men burned Panama to the ground in 1671 and put hundreds to the sword.

Morgan wasn’t an ‘admiral’ by the modern name – let’s not attach him to a navy to lend him credibility. Sure, the British crown used Morgan as a cheap option to protect Jamaica by allowing him to keep his loot as a sop – but he was essentially a privateer and pirate, whatever his skills as a leader or politician.

Then there’s the gospel according to Diageo, whose brand website asks us rhetorically: ‘Who was Captain Morgan?’ A Welshman who moved to the West Indies in 1654 and “never looked back”, it adds, since his “awesome exploits on the high seas earned him a knighthood”.

“A born leader, he quickly made Captain and became famous as a legal pirate or buccaneer, defending British interests and generally rocking the Caribbean,” it adds.

“Centuries later he became the figurehead for a company that became as famous as the man himself.”

‘Rocking the Caribbean’ Come off it!

‘Rocking the Caribbean?’ Who writes such cynical drivel? A spotty literature post doc moonlighting for an ads agency while absent mindedly picking their nose and flogging second-hand socks on Ebay?

The unadorned history of Sir Henry Morgan underneath Diageo’s whitewash shows that he’s a shady cove, an author of bloody deeds in Panama most notably when he sacked the town in 1671.

Let’s rehearse Morgan’s ‘awesome exploits’. Christine Lampe, author of No Quarter Given – appearing in a 2006 History Channel documentary – tells us the residents of Porto Bello were captured and tortured to reveal the whereabouts of valuables, and that Morgan’s men at least (and perhaps he himself) tortured men, women and children.

“I think the most extreme example is taking men, hanging them up by their genitals until the weight of their bodies makes them fall to the ground, at which point they are stabbed three or four times then left to die.” That’s Virginia Lunsford from the US Naval Academy, quoted in the same documentary.

Should we just let this go because it happened quite a while ago? Is torture or murder any less foul because the blood flowed away a few hundred years ago? I say ‘no’, emphatically – that’s why true testimony and remembrance should shine through and we shouldn’t settle for any half-baked Hollywood hoax.

What about ethics and empathy Diageo?

My hunch is that Diageo sticks to Morgan, and Captain Morgan sticks to Captain Morgan (if that makes sense) is because he’s seen as a bit badass – the popular portrayal of the pirate (never any women, are there?) as some sort of bachelor’s wet dream, free of social responsibility. Hard liquor keys into this mythos.

To quote my colleague’s slightly flippant reply this morning, when I asked if he’d heard of Captain Morgan: ‘Isn’t he that pirate dude?’ Exactly – that’s the pitch to 20/30 something piratical wannabes keen to join the Captain’s scurvy crew. Before you point the finger at me, I’ve never drunk the stuff.

So how about ethics Diageo, how about empathy with Morgan’s victims? How about a dialogue around social responsibility from a multinational that sometimes seems to sorely lack legs in this department? The marketing welly it puts behind Arthur’s Day in Ireland being yet another example.

Some will say I’m too touchy. ‘Where does it all end in such attacks on brands?’ You could ask. But when you sell a brand you also sell the ethics behind a brand, and if you believe (as I do) that less government is more and that the industry should police itself then you demand social responsibility from the major players.  

I’ve gone on record against this kind of thing before. Called out Heineken and Carlsberg for their distasteful spoofing ads . Where does it all end? That’s a good question. Pol Pot Vodka? Well, we’ve had wine in bottles emblazoned with Hitler’s image ...

Cheers. Drop me a line on Facebook or @BeverageDaily with any comments.

Ben Bouckley is Editor of BeverageDaily.com

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