The real pirates of the Caribbean

12/08/2014 15:20

Written by Paul Clammer

The Spanish weren’t too keen on such piracy on their doorstep, and repeatedly sent ships to sack Tortuga, but the buccaneers would simply melt into the hills and return when the coast was clear.

It took a century from Christopher Columbus naming Tortuga for the Spanish to make a go of colonising the island, but their attempts at tobacco and sugar cultivation never really took off. The island was too dry and rocky for sustained agriculture. In 1605, French settlers appeared on the scene, chased off the Spanish planters, and decided to make a living from hunting the cattle and boar that were now running free on the island.

They sold hides and meat to passing traders, and with each sale they passed new words into English: the meat was dried over a low fire that the Taíno had called a barbecu. The Taíno called the process boucaoui; those who sold the dried meat were dubbed boucaniers – subsequently anglicised to buccaneers.

Trading was slow work with little reward. In the late 1620s, an enterprising French captain called Pierre le Grande decided that marauding against the Spanish was a better get-rich-quick scheme. On sighting a flagging Spanish treasure galleon, he motivated his crew by cutting holes in the bottom of his own ship. 

In what would later become true pirate fashion, they drew alongside, swarmed up the rigging and surprised the captain, who was in his cabin playing cards. Le Grande’s outrageous success prompted a literal gold-rush among the buccaneers of Tortuga, who spent the next decade happily sallying forth to attack whatever ships were foolish enough to sail too close to the island.

The Spanish weren’t too keen on such piracy on their doorstep, and repeatedly sent ships to sack Tortuga, but the buccaneers would simply melt into the hills and return when the coast was clear. By 1640, they were calling themselves the ‘Brothers of the Coast’, and operated a piratical quasi-democracy, with strict rules about which ships could be attacked and when. There was an insurance scheme, paying out in the case of the loss of a leg or eye. Many pirates even entered informal same-sex marriages with each other, a practice known as matelotage.

Le Grande’s outrageous success prompted a literal gold-rush among the buccaneers of Tortuga, who spent the next decade happily sallying forth to attack whatever ships were foolish enough to sail too close to the island.

The French authorities formalised things even further by sending a governor to fortify the island and increase raiding against the Spanish. Tortuga’s most infamous pirate was François L’Ollonais, who had originally arrived in the Caribbean as an indentured servant and had a terrible reputation for violence and torture. He led an expedition against Spanish Venezuela and held entire cities to ransom. Hundreds were killed in his raids. But pirates never managed to stay rich for long. According to one contemporary account, once back in Tortuga with their spoils, ‘the tavern keepers got part of their money, and the whores took the rest.’ L’Ollonais finally came to a sticky end on the coast of Panama, when his ship ran aground and he was captured and eaten by a local tribe.

The pirate colony’s days were also numbered. By the 1660s, the Spanish had stopped trying to capture Tortuga, and French settlement on the mainland was encouraged. The governor Bertrand Ogeron didn’t try to rein in the pirates forcefully, but took the more subtle approach of importing prostitutes from Paris, who were apparently encouraged to emigrate by the promise of respectable overseas marriages. By simultaneously trebling the number of settlers, Ogeron tamed the colony by demographics. In 1670, the Welsh pirate captain Henry Morgan stopped briefly at Tortuga and shipped out most of the remaining buccaneers. Piracy moved south to Petit Goâve and Île-à-Vache.

The pirate colony’s days were also numbered.

When Ogeron encouraged the founding of Cap Français (modern Cap-Haïtien) in the same year, Saint-Domingue’s future as an exporting colony was assured. Tortuga – now Île de la Tortue – slipped into obscurity. It re-entered the popular imagination in the early 20th century with the pirate-romance novels of Rafael Sabatini, most famously adapted in the Hollywood swashbucklers Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, starring Errol Flynn. More recently, it has taken a starring role in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. None of the movies was filmed on location in Haiti.

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