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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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Notorious Pirate Havens
Part 2: Around the World
By Cindy Vallar

CorsairPirate havens have existed throughout the world and throughout history.  The Barbary corsairs favored Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis for their havens.  Technically privateers, these corsairs attacked ships and settlements in the Mediterranean.  They also enslaved captives unable to pay their ransoms.  One reason for the corsairs’ existence was originally to defend North Africa from the Europeans.  The height of their power came during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but corsairs still attacked ships into the early nineteenth century.

One well-known Barbary corsair was Khair ad-Din (also known as Barbarossa).  During the sixteenth century, he used Kucukada Kalesi, a fortress in Turkey, as his base of operations.  Another port-of-call for corsairs was Bizerte in Tunis.  The lake behind the port allowed many ships to anchor there, giving them protection from those who pursued them.  In addition, Bizerte controlled access between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean, providing corsairs with a treasure trove of ships to plunder.  Long known as a center of trade and refuge for the persecuted, the Republic of Salé (present-day Rabat) also attracted corsairs.  Various factions vied for control until Sultan Moulay Raschid reunited Morocco in 1668.  He offered his protection to the corsairs for a ten percent share of the profits.  Eventually, that percentage increased to fifty percent and the corsairs turned to more reputable pursuits or left Salé.

In 1717, Kanhoji Angria repulsed an attempt by the British to destroy his enclave near Bombay.  He continued to prey on East Indiamen in the Indian Ocean until his death in 1729.  At that time his island base was considered unassailable, making it the perfect pirate haven.  The same could not be said about the pirate base of Ra 's al Khayma in the Persian Gulf, which the British destroyed in November 1809.

During the American Revolution, French corsairs found safe harbor in Dunkirk, a port in France that had been used as a privateering base for hundreds of years.  The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars brought Saint Malo to the fore as a base for corsairs like Robert Surcouf and Réné Duguay.

The Malay and Dayak pirates preyed on maritime shipping in the waters between Singapore and Hong Kong from their haven in Borneo.  The Balanini, based in Jolo, raided for slaves and preyed on Spanish vessels in the Philippines until the 1860’s when the British and Spanish navies eradicated the pirates.  Another popular haven was Sumatra, from which the Atjeh and Riau pirates attacked ships in the Sundra and Malaccan Straits.  Chui Apoo, a Chinese pirate of the nineteenth century, made his headquarters at Bias Bay, an area that continued to harbor pirates until the 1930’s.  Today, the largest concentration of pirates is found in Southeast Asia.  Many hide in the remote islands of Indonesia.

BlackbeardThe United States also provided safe havens for pirates at different times in its history.  While not always friendly to pirates, Charles Town, South Carolina had a brisk smuggling trade during the colonial period.  North Carolina and its isolated backwaters, however, were far better suited to shelter pirates.  The lack of wealth in the colony meant there were fewer customs collectors to avoid and more government officials amenable to merchants who dealt in pirated plunder.  Blackbeard (aka Edward Teach) stayed on Ocracoke Island in 1718 and sold his booty in Bath Towne, where he bribed officials to ensure against prosecution.

South of New Orleans lies Barataria, a pirate enclave that gained prominence during the War of 1812.  To enter the bay, pilots navigated ships through a narrow passage between two islands, Grande Terre and Grand Isle, that protected Barataria Bay from the Gulf of Mexico.  Legend says the French who first came to the region so named it because it reminded them of Sancho Panza’s unattainable island kingdom in CervantesDon Quixote.  Its nearness to New Orleans—a three-day journey by pirogue through the bayous—and its relative inaccessibility attracted many pirates, including Blackbeard.  By 1811, the area flourished as a pirate haven and several hundred people lived there.  The person most associated with Barataria, however, is Jean Laffite.  This gentleman pirate organized the Baratarians into a group of smuggling privateers who provided the elite of New Orleans with luxuries plundered from Spanish ships under a letter of marque from Cartagena.  Aside from building a home he dubbed Maison Blanche, Laffite erected cafés, taverns, a hospital, brothels, and other buildings to make Barataria a thriving community.  The enclave also included warehouses for plundered goods and barracoons for captured slaves. Laffite’s constant avoidance in paying customs and flouting of the law, however, made him a thorn in Governor William Claiborne’s side.  In September 1814, while Laffite was absent from Grande Terre, the American navy destroyed his pirate haven.

Sometime after the Baratarians assisted General Andrew Jackson in defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans, Laffite moved his base of operations to Campeche (on present-day Galveston Island in Texas).  Like Barataria, the locale included a seaward island base that protected an inland bay where ships could anchor.  He erected a commune that included various buildings for business, houses for his men and their families, and Maison Rouge where he entertained on special occasions.  By 1818 Campeche was a lucrative haven for pirates, but a hurricane, conflicts with the Karankawas (a native tribe that lived in the area part of the year), and the United States Navy, which burned Laffite’s commune two years later, brought about its demise.

© 2002 Cindy Vallar

Read Part 3 of this series on Pirate Havens


 
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