Pirate Bases throughout History
Warning: this post contains pictures of beautiful tropical islands you probably can't afford to visit.
What makes a good pirate base?
Pirate bases have taken numerous forms throughout history but they always have three things in common:
geographic proximity to ship-hunting grounds;
a safe harbour with access to fresh water, wood (or fuel), and a food supply; and, most importantly,
isolation and/or absent, weak or uninterested authorities.
Following are some of the most notorious pirate bases and havens of all time, from the early 17th century to the present day.
Of all the pirate bases in history, the tiny island of Tortuga is the most famous. Its standing as a haven for the Caribbean’s eclectic and multi-national mix of buccaneers over several decades still fuels the romanticisation of 17th century Caribbean piracy. Tortuga now regularly appears as a location in piracy books (fiction and non-fiction), television shows (including The Pirate Kingdom and Black Sails), films, songs, and video games.
Situated on the Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola (today divided between Haiti/Dominican Republic), the little island of Tortuga offered settlers a safe harbour, abundant fresh water, timber and hunting opportunities.
However, it was unsuitable for sugar production so its Spanish settlers needed to find another way to earn an income. They managed to establish a tobacco crop and turned the island into a thriving trading post.
Tortuga became a pirate base after the buccaneers took it over in 1630. Predominantly French, with a smattering of Dutch, English, and Portuguese origin, these sea-raider/settlers took their name from the cured meat (boucan) that formed the mainstay of their diet. Over time, the buccaneers formed their own identity independent of their faded allegiance to their home countries. They called themselves the ‘Brethren of the Coast’.
Tortuga’s buccaneers had no qualms about turning to piracy and attacking ships in peace time, much to the colonial authorities’ irritation. But when war broke out, as it often did back then, the colonies sought to harness the buccaneers’ skills as sea-raiders and engaged them as privateers against Spain. Most buccaneers carried a commission, but few cared where it came from or even if the date was valid.
The buccaneers of Tortuga were assisted by how the little island constantly changed hands between Spain, England, and France over the course of decades. A succession of governors tried to tame the buccaneers, with little success. In the 1660s, the French managed to seize control and convert Tortuga into a major privateering base. In 1684, the French signed a treaty with Spain and an extended period of peace meant Tortuga’s role as a pirate base came to an end.
It reverted to the trading post of its past.
Pirate Base: Port Royal
From the 1650s, buccaneers, pirates and privateers went to Port Royal, Jamaica.
The English acquired Jamaica from Spain in 1655 as consolation prize to stop unprovoked buccaneering raids on Spanish gold ships. But the English government had little interest in investing in the new acquisition. However, Caribbean-based English merchants recognised the beautiful island’s potential as a major production hub for sugar.
The only problem was how expensive it was – in slave labour and capital – to establish a sugar industry from scratch. So the new Jamaican settlers sought alternate sources of capital to establish their plantations.
And that’s where the region’s buccaneers, privateers and pirates came in.
Jamaica was situated in a key strategic position for both trade AND attacking and plundering Spanish treasure fleets. The new town of Port Royal, with its large, sheltered harbour, quickly became a privateering base against the Spaniards. The revenue from their highly lucrative prizes flowed into the town’s coffers and directly funded the establishing of the sugar industry.
In one example, when Henry Morgan and his 300-strong crew returned from raiding Portobello, they spent around £60 EACH in Port Royal. This was two or three times the annual wage of a plantation worker. In addition, the town made £75,000 on their plunder.
Morgan was not even the most successful of the sea-raiders-turned-plantation-owners. Peter Beckford arrived as a privateer in 1661 and by the time he died in 1710 had accumulated 20 sugar estates, 1,200 slaves, and the ‘greatest fortune ever made in sugar’.
Port Royal also enthusiastically participated in contraband trade with Spanish colonists. For the Spanish traders, avoiding the official markets in Seville and Cadiz and using Port Royal helped them recognise their profits faster, reduce their sailing distance and shipping costs, sell perishable agricultural commodities at a higher rate, and reduce the taxes and duties they paid on their cargo.
The beginning of the end of Port Royal’s reputation as a smuggling and sea-raiding haven began in 1671. The pirates now threatened the burgeoning and legitimate Jamaican sugar trade ships. New anti-piracy laws made the selling of plunder harder and pushed pirates elsewhere.
Then came the final blow: at 11.40 am on 7 June 1692, a giant earthquake wiped out ‘that wicked and rebellious place, Port Royal.’
Martinique, Antigua and Barbados
From the late 17th century saw Caribbean buccaneers cashing in their plunder and emerging from the Lesser Antilles islands: Martinique, Antigua and Barbados.
The islands of the Lesser Antilles were the first landfall after the long Atlantic crossing. Before colonial settlement in the mid-17th century, local sea-raiders probably used the islands to re-supply fresh water and wood, and their sandy beaches to careen (clean) their ships.
After colonial settlement, all three islands operated as major sugar exporters, with a wealthy political elite owning hundreds of slaves and all the land. In these islands, this imbalance of power fed into the emergence of pirates.
In 1677, Governor Charles de Courbon of the French Antilles sought to develop the harbour town of Fort Royal (Fort-du-France today) in competition to its first harbour, Saint Pierre. He encouraged French privateers (who later engaged in piracy), including Captain Crapeau, Etienne de Montauban, and Mathurin Desmarstez, to use Fort Royal. The revenue these men raised capturing Spanish and British prizes helped fund the building of Courbon’s city.
Mostly known in pirate history as the execution place of the pirate John Fenn, Antigua’s sugar industry required generations of African slaves to operate. The horrific conditions for the slaves made piracy a viable escape option. Pirate captains prioritised loyalty over skin colour and many former Antiguan slaves became committed pirates.
Barbados produced two notorious pirates a generation apart: Stede Bonnet and Sam Lord. Born in Barbados in 1688, Bonnet was mostly known for his inexplicable decision to give up his sugar plantation and turn to piracy. Bonnet collaborated with Blackbeard until a falling out between the pair led to their mutual demise.
Sam Lord, born in 1778, was said to hang lanterns on palm trees and on the necks of goats and cows to lure merchant ships onto Cobbler's Reef, where they floundered. Then he and his men picked the boats clean. With his proceeds, Lord built a castle in St. Philip's parish (pictured) on the island's southeast coast. According to local legend, he liked to keep his wife locked up in the basement.
New Providence, Bahamas
From 1715-23 a new breed of buccaneer emerged in the Caribbean. These were men (and a few women) who eschewed the protections of any colonial or religious authority at all. They didn’t limit themselves to Spanish gold ships, they also raided any ship they came across. But these ships carried tobacco, sugar, cotton, timber, or furs: plunder not in a form easily distributable among the crew.
So to reap the financial benefits of this type of plunder, the pirates needed a port of their own. In 1715, they got it: New Providence in the Bahamas.
The pirate haven of New Providence began 30 June 1715, when the annual Spanish treasure flota was hit by a terrible hurricane between Florida and Grand Bahama. Of the dozen ships, only one survived. The rest sank to the bottom of the ocean, taking their gold with them.
When news got out that gold worth hundreds of thousands of dollars was sitting on the bottom of the ocean up for grabs, fortune hunters of all nationalities across the Caribbean and American coast descended on the area like a mob of grey nurse sharks. Many were colonial authorities, such as Henry Jennings. Florida was Spanish territory so under pressure from London, the Jamaican authorities disowned the treasure seekers, denying access to Port Royal for the plunder.
Benjamin Hornigold was the first treasure hunter to trade with locals in the struggling British settlement on New Providence. It was ideally situated: close to the Florida treasure sites AND the major trade routes; home to a natural harbour capable of sheltering at least a hundred ships; and with a ready supply of food, fresh water and timber.
Within a few months, New Providence’s merchants were providing a marketplace for stolen goods to some of America’s most infamous pirates. Hornigold, Henry Jennings – now a full-blown pirate, Charles Vane, John ‘Calico Jack’ Ratham, Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach, and Sam Bellamy all passed through New Providence. The merchants then smuggled their plunder into the established markets of colonial America and the Caribbean.
The beginning of the end came in September 1717. Persistent complaints to London about the pirates of New Providence brought about King George I’s proclamation offering pardons to those who turned away from piracy. Woodes Rogers arrived to bring New Providence under firmer British control.
New Providence returned to being an economic backwater until the late 19th century, when it became the popular tourist destination it is today.
Bluefields, Mosquito Coast (Nicaragua)
On the western side of the Caribbean Sea lies the port town of Bluefields, in present day Nicaragua. It was named after the Dutch pirate, privateer and explorer Abraham Blauvelt, who used the harbour as a base to explore the Mosquito Coast in the early 1630s.
Despite its healthy population of mosquitos, the coast was actually named after the Miskitu people who lived within the boundaries of the Central American Miskitu Kingdom. During the 16th century, the Spanish made a handful of attempts to ‘settle’ the area but never succeeded against the Miskitu. This left the broad and beautiful bay that became Bluefields available to the English and Dutch privateers who preyed on Spanish treasures ships making their way up the Central American coast.
Like most ideal pirate bases in the Age of Sail, Bluefields possessed a harbour capable of anchoring dozens of ships, fresh water and access to timber. Pastures spread up to Bluefields Ridge, creating grazing areas for animals, an impenetrable shelter from the west and an excellent lookout.
The history of Bluefields before British colonisation is unfortunately lost in obscurity, taking much of its pirate history with it.
It does not appear to have been subject to much anti-piracy activity. Like Henry Morgan in Jamaica, Blewfeldt flourished as a privateer/pirate from Bluefields and as the years passed, the stories of buried treasure and pirate maps abound.
Wrote John S Kendall of a visit to Bluefields in 1905, ‘there are rumours of an inscribed rock which give a clue to treasures galore... if any pirates buried their spoils on the mainland, the secret remains unrevealed.’
Bluefields is today just as beautiful as ever. It is Nicaragua’s most important Caribbean port, handling mainly cabinet woods, frozen fish, shrimp, lobsters, and bananas.
For Spain, Caribbean piracy took a massive financial toll and contributed to the country’s demise to a minor European power. But through it all, the Spanish in Cuba remained steadfast and loyal to the Spanish Crown, even in the face of rising independence movements in Spain’s other American colonies. Spain was the last holdout against British efforts to abolish the slave trade and Cuba relied on slaves for its world-renowned tobacco crops.
As newly formed insurgent governments licensed privateers against Spain from 1801, the Cuban capital of Havana became central to Spain’s legitimate retaliation efforts. Since the insurgent privateers were often European and American-born, many Cuban privateers took it upon themselves to raid European and American shipping illegally.
Even before the rise of piracy in the 1820s, Havana was known among foreign merchants as a rough town. It was pertinent not to ask too many questions about where money came from.
However, Havana was not completely without Spanish authority. While most successful pirates retained connections to the judges and authorities in Havana, they knew better than to base themselves in the town.
The hostile and rugged interior of the island combined with numerous coastal inlets to provide plenty of adequate hiding places for the region’s pirates. Pirates were known to occupy areas around Sugar Cay, Matanzas, Rio de Medias, Isle of Pines, and Trinidad de Cuba, to name a few. They slipped in and out of legitimate society, one day as fishers, the next day raiding ships, the next day smuggling contraband, then back to fishers. The Spanish made attempts to rein them in but with little naval support, it was a difficult task.
Like Bluefields, there is much to be uncovered about Cuba’s pirate history!
St Thomas, St Eustatius, St Barthalémy
Before we leave the Caribbean pirate bases, it’s important to mention the significance of the three islands of St Thomas, St Eustatius, and St Barthélemy to 200 years of privateering and piracy in the Caribbean.
While the English, French and Spanish were claiming the most fertile islands of the Caribbean for sugar or tobacco production, minor European powers also picked a few up. These were usually the islands with fewer natural resources and they were developed as trading outposts. They serviced an increasingly globalised commercial maritime trade. For the Danish, there was St Thomas; the Dutch ran St Eustatius; and the Swedish ran St Barthélemy.
In the 18th and 19th century, the three islands played a small but important part in privateering and piracy. By this time, maritime trade ran on documentation. If you did not have the correct paperwork for a privateering prize or had violated your commission (i.e. become a pirate), these were the places to go to smooth a pathway to seeing the proceeds of your ill-gotten gains through legitimate means and avoid piracy accusations.
The authorities in these towns had little connection to any Caribbean sea-raiders. They lived the capitalist dream. Been out privateering longer than your commission permitted? Pop into St Thomas where authorities were more willing to ignore this little anomaly and take your ill-gotten gains off your hands. Need to conjure up some ‘legitimate’ paperwork? As long you don’t cause a fuss and leave quickly, the authorities at St Eustatius could help you out. Perhaps you’d rather not pay the high tariffs and duties on your plunder? These arrangements could be made at St Barthélemy.
This situation lasted well into the 1850s. By then, the Age of Sail was over and steam travel taking over.
St Marie Island, Madagascar
When the situation in the Caribbean started becoming too hot for pirates, they headed south; to Madagascar.
Remote, unexplored by European colonists, and largely free from internal tribal conflict, St Marie was ideally located astride the sea routes between Europe and the Orient. All shipping heading for the spice routes of the East Indies needed to pass Madagascar. The little north-eastern island of St Marie, just off the mainland, emerged as the preferred home base for pirates raiding in the area.
In pirate lore, St Marie has several claims to fame.
Firstly, it is the home of the mythical pirate community of Libertaria. I say mythical because the primary source on Libertaria, Captain Charles Johnson’s story of Captain Misson, published in a later edition of A General History of the Pyrates, has been found to be entirely fabricated. In the story, Captain James Misson, a French national, met Father Caraccioli who advocated for the establishment of an egalitarian commune, in which everyone was equal without distinction by race, class, or creed. The ideals of Liberataria reflected how pirates already lived along democratic lines – an idea radical in the 17th century. While the pirate cemetery pictured here shows pirates did live on the island, there is no verifiable evidence Libertaria existed in any formal capacity.
Secondly, St Marie is where the much maligned pirate-hunter Captain William Kidd found himself in 1698 after his mutinous crew abandoned him. He scuttled his ship, Adventure Galley, off the coast. In 2015, explorer Barry Clifford claimed to have found silver from the Adventure Galley but it was later found to be lead.
Lastly, other notorious pirates spent time in St Marie. John Halsey, an American privateer turned pirate arrived around 1706 and stayed with his crew for two years. Several former New Providence pirates also arrived in 1718-9. Englishman Christopher Condent (Congdon) arrived in 1719. There he met the survivors of Halsey’s crew, living peacefully with the locals. Edward England, his quartermaster John Taylor, and Olivier Levasseur also visited St Marie, where they ‘made free with the local women’.
Clare Island, western Ireland
During the 16th century, Clew Bay (Cuan Mó) was the domain of the local clan chief, Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille) (1530-1603). Unusually for local lords who earned their wealth through farming, the O’Malley clan were seafarers. From Clare Island, they controlled Clew Bay and its surrounding lands where they fished, traded and taxed other who fished off their coasts.
An extraordinarily picturesque but rugged and remote outpost on the mid-western coast of Ireland, William Thackeray wrote of Clew Bay that “…the bay and the Reek, which sweeps down to the sea, and the hundred isles in it, were dressed up in gold and purple and crimson, with the whole cloudy west in a flame. Wonderful, wonderful!”
From the age of eleven, Grace O’Malley became a fierce leader at sea and shrewd politician on land. Her moniker as ‘the pirate queen of Ireland’ came from her successful defence of her territories from English rule. She not only successfully defended her land from the English but also fought off Algerine corsairs.
Clew Bay’s piracy history is steeped in far more legend than verifiable facts. Clare Island Abbey, pictured here, is believed to the site of the baptism, marriage and burial site of the legendary Grace O’Malley.
Today, Grace O’Malley’s legacy is central to Clare Island’s allure as a tourist destination. Clew Bay is also known for Dorinish Island, purchased by John Lennon in 1967. Lennon agreed to allow Sid Rawle, ‘King of the Hippies’ to establish a commune on the island.
Grand Terre, Barataria Bay, Louisiana
In 1812, after the United States took ownership of Louisiana from the French, Jean and Pierre Lafitte built a prize port on the island of Grand Terre. The two French-born privateers and brothers used French commissions to pursue Spanish shipping during the Europeans’ Revolutionary Wars (1801-15). This practice was highly illegal under British law but American piracy law had not yet developed sufficiently to outlaw it. Since they never targeted neutral American ships, they avoided the scrutiny of American authorities.
Situated at the mouth of Barataria Bay, Grand Terre (or Grand Isle) was a long low-lying, barrier island on the edge of the Mississippi River Delta. Facing south into the Gulf of Mexico, the island acted a storm buffer for the delta’s wetlands and a habitat for numerous shore birds and other sea creatures.
As a prize port, it complemented their successful smuggling business out of New Orleans. They enjoyed the protection of the town’s residents who appreciated access to goods forbidden by a US Government embargo. The Laffites used Grand Terre to avoid the payment of customs and duties in New Orleans on their privateering prizes. So while their actions did not make breach American law, avoiding paying duties did.
With the assistance of illegally imported slave labour, the new port quickly grew. The Laffites expanded their privateering business by obtaining commissions from Cartagena, a large city-state at war with Spain. Then in 1812, the Americans declared war on Britain.
The British war crippled the already weak US Treasury. The Laffites’ avoidance of the desperately needed duties and taxes caused Louisiana authorities to finally crack down and arrest many Baratarians in New Orleans, including Pierre Laffite. Yet no-one had the nerve to force the privateers of Grand Terre to pay up.
The end of Grand Terre came during the January 1815 Battle of New Orleans with the British. General Andrew Jackson had reluctantly sought the Laffite’s assistance in repelling the British. They eventually triumphed but the Laffite’s port was destroyed in the process.
American piracy in the early 19th century was less about raiding ships illegally and more about avoiding paying taxes and duties on legitimate prizes. On the American mainland, Baltimore was the home port of these raiders.
In contrast to the rough privateers living in Barataria Bay, Baltimore was a well-established Atlantic coastal town. Its wealthy residents held a strong sense of American patriotism that combined with hostility to European tyranny.
During the Americans War with the British in 1812, wealthy Baltimoreans backed local seafarers to use their famous Baltimore clippers to seek out British ships. Baltimore clippers were too fast for even the swiftest of enemies, allowing the Baltimore privateers to sail far further than their Baratarian counterparts. They were required to post a bond with the government to ensure compliance with privateering laws. Owners and crews were paid only if their ship captured legitimate “prizes”.
While a few ships and captains earned a profit for their owners, most did not. One problem was that after capturing a prize, it had to be sailed to an American port for legal sanction as a prize, and some captured prizes were recaptured by British navy ships before reaching port.
Some captains headed to St Thomas, St Eustatius and St Barthelemy to maximise their own returns. If they went back to Baltimore, the legality of their actions became far murkier.
They usually swore they were American merchant seamen bound on a voyage to or from some foreign port to avoid paying customs duties on their prizes. Some Baltimore privateers retained their prize cargo by smuggling it into the country and using a middle man to cash it in at a different location.
After the War, Baltimore’s privateers sought out privateering commissions from the revolutionary governments of Buenos Aires, Chile, Cartagena (Colombia), Mexico, Banda Oriental (Uruguay) and Venezuela. They also became smugglers running opium from China, and participated in the illegal transport of slaves.
Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam
For centuries, the islands, lagoons and swamps of the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam made it a perfect haven for pirates. Aside from its multiple hiding places, the Gulf of Tonkin sat on the fertile delta area of the Red River. This was a prime rice production area, guaranteeing a steady food supply for the region. This fed the area’s long history of anti-Chinese sentiment, ensuring the rejection of any efforts by the Chinese to control the Gulf.
In 1810, the Qing government issued a pardon to all pirates operating in China. Thousands accepted but some headed south, setting up operations in the Gulf of Tonkin. One of these was a Chinese pirate commander called Shap Ng-tsai. He attacked American and British ships well into the 1840s. Eventually the British Navy, under the command of John Dalrymple Hay, sought Ng-tsai out and with the aid of Qing naval forces brought about his demise after a three day battle. His fleet decimated, Shap Ng-tsai retired from piracy.
The ex-pirate became an officer in the Chinese navy. He and Commander Hay met again during the Second Opium War of 1856-60.
The lawlessness of the Gulf of Tonkin continued well into the 20th century. In early August 1964, two American destroyers stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin radioed that they had been fired upon by North Vietnamese forces. In response to these reported incidents, President Lyndon B. Johnson requested permission from Congress to increase the US military presence in Indochina. On August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, establishing the legal basis for the Johnson and Nixon Administrations to begin the Vietnam War.
The pirate base most synonymous with Somali piracy is the ancient port town of Eyl. By April 2009, 42 merchant ships were anchored off the coast of Eyl awaiting ransom payment.
Unlike the other bases in this series, Eyl is not an island. Instead, its effectiveness as a pirate base came from its geographic isolation. The great distance from the authorities 300 km away in Garowe, combined with its long stretches of sandy beach and the initial support of the townspeople for piracy, gave it all the historic hallmarks of a pirate base.
Long before Somali piracy emerged, Eyl was a town down on its luck. It felt the brunt of the devastating environmental impact of Somalia’s international livestock market from at least the 1840s. Indian and Arab merchants dominated the export trade further north, so it did not see the benefits of being a major export port. The resourceful residents turned to fishing but by 1880 their efforts were destroyed by severe drought and famine. This began a persistent internal armed conflict within the region’s dominant clan, the Majeerteen, over control of Somalia’s meagre natural resources.
During colonisation (1884-1961), fishing revitalised Eyl. But the socialist experiments of President Barrè did not translate to profitability. By the early 21st century, the residents of Eyl were desperately poor and largely marginalised within Puntland.
At first, the townspeople embraced the flow of money that came in from the pirates. But it was not long before the excesses of pirate life – drunkenness, prostitution, disease, inflated prices – came with it.
Mothers begged their sons not to go to sea but they could not compete with the lure of thousands of dollars. Many went to sea and never returned. Local authorities declared piracy ‘haram’ (religiously forbidden) but it was too late. Millions of dollars flowed through Eyl into Somalia. Organised criminals took over and Somali piracy became big business.
The end of Eyl’s days as a pirate base came with the election of Abdiraham Farole to the Puntland presidency. Farole had strong ancestral connections to Eyl and internationally, his election was seen as funded by piracy. This may have been the case (he denies it) but he did use his position and connections to end Eyl’s reign as a pirate base. By early 2010, no hijacked ships were taken to Eyl.
Today, Eyl struggles to shake its piracy tag. Despite its tourism and fishing industry potential, it still struggles to attract internal and foreign financial investment.
Niger Delta, Gulf of Guinea
In 2020, 43% of pirate attacks occurred in the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa. These resulted in 142 kidnapped seafarers.
The Niger Delta in Nigeria is the epicenter of West African maritime crime today, including piracy. It consists of thousands of inlets, rivers, and mangroves that make boats and stolen commodities easy to hide.
The area’s connection to piracy began around 2005 as retaliation against the few who benefited from Nigeria’s rich oil reserves. For the residents of the Niger Delta, this bounty only generated poverty, not wealth. The eternal bid for oil and rampant corruption destroyed their livelihoods and the Delta’s fishing grounds, contributed to significant underdevelopment and unemployment, and caused immeasurable environmental damage and pollution.
A form of ‘petro piracy’ emerged. This involved stealing crude-oil from tankers and pipelines so as to process the gains in illegally set up refineries. Kidnap and ransom style piracy came around 2010, allegedly inspired by the Somali piracy model.
Today, the Niger Delta faces considerable security challenges: abductions, oil theft, refining oil, smuggling, militancy, community conflict and cultism. It is also home to three different groups of maritime criminals:
Pirates who operate far offshore, deep into the Gulf of Guinea and possess the resources to hijack international shipping traffic and ransom ships;
Pirates who stay closer to the coast and target locals’ fishing vessels, oil and gas support vessels, and small cargo vessels; and
Criminals who operate deep in the river delta, preying on local passenger vessels.
Under international law, the ‘pirate’ label only applies to those who operate more than 7 nautical miles from the coast (the high seas) because this is outside the jurisdiction of any of the 20 countries of the Gulf of Guinea. Most of the kidnapping incidents occur within 12 to 50 nautical miles from land.
At the present time, more ships are being taken further offshore, more hostages are being taken, and ransom payments are escalating. Piracy is not going away any time soon.