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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 3: Madagascar
By Cindy Vallar

Madagascar MapMadagascar lies 250 miles off the southeast coast of Africa and was close to two trading routes: the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.  Small bands of native peoples populated the island, but none lived in close proximity to each other, and some welcomed the pirates to their shores.  The fact that no European power held the island also made Madagascar appealing to pirates because it lacked laws and religious morals.  It also met the other criteria of a perfect haven because it had sheltered coves, abundant supplies of food and fresh water—including limes and oranges needed to prevent scurvy—and beaches ideal for scraping barnacles from ships’ hulls.

Madagascar became a particular favorite of pirates before the Golden Age of Piracy.  French privateers, who preyed on ships sailing the Red Sea, first used it as a base of operations sometime before 1614.  Later, the island attracted more pirates in part because plundering the Caribbean became less and less profitable.  Voyages by Spanish galleons laden with treasure grew infrequent.  Port Royal never regained its popularity with the pirates after the devastating earthquake that struck Jamaica in 1692.  Tortuga became a quiet reputable port under French control.  Peace finally came to Europe, so countries ceased to offer letters of marque permitting pirates to legally prey on enemy ships.  Perhaps of more import to pirates was the fact that fewer countries tolerated piracy.  More naval ships patrolled Caribbean waters with the express purpose of hunting down and prosecuting any who dared to attack ships at sea.

Bands of pirates established a variety of bases on Madgascar.  Usually each was under the command of a single pirate referred to as a king.  The primary enclaves included Ranter Bay, Saint Augustine’s Bay, Réunion Island, Mauritius, Johanna Island, Fort Dauphin, and Île Sainte Marie.  The last proved very popular with pirates, and by 1700 around 1,500 of them lived there and seventeen vessels made it their home port.  Within five years, the pirates were well-entrenched, so much so that European nations began to worry about the effect buccaneers like Thomas Tew, Henry Every, and William Kidd were having on trade.

Perhaps the most famous pirate haven on Madagascar was Libertalia.  Yet to this day no evidence exists that such a place ever existed or that its founder, a pirate captain by the name of Misson, ever lived.  The only mention of either of them occurs in Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates.

Libertalia was far more than just a haven for pirates.  It was a utopia.  According to Johnson’s account: Ours is a brave, a just, an innocent, and a noble cause; the cause of liberty.  I advise a white ensign, with liberty painted in the fly, and if you like the motto, A Deo a Libertate, For God and Liberty, as an emblem of our uprightness and resolution.…  The men, who lent an attentive ear, cry’d, Liberty, Liberty; we are freemen.

These free men organized themselves into groups of ten pirates each and from each group, they elected a representative to enact laws to govern Libertalia.  The pirates divided all treasure and cattle equally among themselves.  If someone worked a plot of land, then he owned that land.  Numerous structures of fine quality were built and everyone helped to erect a state house.  The pirates elected Misson conservator of the enclave for a period of three years.  A delegation of pirates met at least once a year to decide all issues of import to the pirates and their community, and nothing could be done without their consent.

Thomas Tew, a famous pirate captain who actually existed, was named admiral of Libertalia’s fleet of ships and charged with enticing more pirates to join the enclave.  He was also responsible for protecting the fortified harbor, marketplace, and homes.  While in search of more recruits, Tew became stranded.  With insufficient men left to protect Libertalia, Misson failed to prevent the natives from attacking the enclave and killing men, women, and children.  He and forty-five other pirates managed to escape with some of the gold and diamonds they had plundered.  After Misson found Tew, the two men decided to return to America rather than Libertalia.  Misson never made it, though.  His ship sank during a storm and all hands were lost.

In 1698 the pirates of Madagascar were offered pardons, which many took, in part because squadrons of warships now patrolled the Indian Ocean and Red Sea in ever increasing numbers.  Madagascar’s popularity and population declined.  By 1711 less than one hundred pirates remained on the island.  Those who continued to call Île Sainte Marie home lived in squalor and had little money.  Not until 1719 when Woodes Rogers succeeded in driving the pirates from New Providence in the Bahamas would Madagascar reclaim its popularity with the pirates.  At that time pirates such as Christopher Condent and Edward England chose Madagascar as their base of operations.

© 2002 Cindy Vallar

Read Part 4 of this series on Pirate Havens


 
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