Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Part 5: Tortuga and New Providence
By Cindy Vallar
When the Spanish drove the French boucaniers (hunters of wild pigs and cattle who smoked meat on boucans) from Hispaniola, they migrated to an island shaped like a turtle. Named Tortuga by Christopher Columbus, the island also attracted others of equally unsavory character. All of them hated Spain, and at times preyed on Spanish ships using canoes and other small vessels. Eventually, these pirates became known as buccaneers.
According to Alexander Exquemelin, Pierre LeGrand was the first buccaneer to use the island as a base of operations. Tortuga, which is twenty miles long and measures four miles at its widest point, possessed a good harbor. Cuba, the last stop for treasure fleets bound for Spain, provided pirates with rich pickings. In time, the buccaneers referred to themselves as the Brethren of the Coast. Anyone who wished to join them swore to adhere to a strict set of articles known as the Custom of the Coast. Most were French or English, but some were Dutch. Both Henry Morgan and L’Ollonais spent time in this pirate haven.
The French claimed the island and appointed Jean Le Vasseur as its first governor. He welcomed any buccaneer to Tortuga as long as the pirate gave Le Vasseur a share of plundered booty. In 1650, he brought several hundred prostitutes to the island to accommodate the buccaneers. After his death, the French lost control of the island to Spain. The buccaneers fled. In 1656, the English seized Tortuga and invited the pirates to return. Three years later, the French regained control and since they were at war with England, they depended on the buccaneers to defend the island.
In the early 1670s, Petit Goave replaced Tortuga as the pirates’ main base of operations. Some continued to stage raids from Tortuga, but by 1688 its use as a haven for the buccaneers had ended.
The last pirate haven to gain prominence in the Caribbean was New Providence in the Bahamas. The colony was first founded in 1656, but those who owned its charter had little interest in it and so few settlements prospered. By 1670, New Providence had become a safe haven for pirates. According to A General History of the Pyrates, the [i]sland is about 28 Miles long, and eleven where broadest, and has a Harbour big enough to hold 500 Sail of Ships; before which lyes a small Island, which makes two Inlets to the Harbour; at either Way there is a Bar, over which no Ship of 500 Tun can pass. This meant most pirate vessels could shelter in Nassau Harbor, but warships could not.
Its nearness to the North American colonies provided pirates with ships to prey on and additional markets where they could sell their plunder. It was also situated in the center of the trade lanes between Europe and the West Indies. The many coves and inlets in the Bahamas accommodated their need to hide when pursued and to careen or repair ships without fearing entrapment. Limestone caverns became convenient hiding places for their treasure. Food, fresh water, and wood for repairs were in great supply. The disinterest of the English meant no one disputed the pirates’ occupation of the island. The hills overlooking the harbor gave a clear view for miles. Pirates could spot prospective targets or enemy ships long before the vessels neared the island.
Henry Jennings was the first pirate to recognize the advantages of New Providence as a safe haven. Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard), Edward England, Christopher Condent, Ben Hornigold, Charles Vane, Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Stede Bonnet all visited the island. It was said when a pirate slept, he didn’t dream that he’d died and gone to heaven, he dreamed that he had once again returned to New Providence.
By 1716, piracy had become such a threat to commerce that England decided to neutralize the buccaneers. Two years later the first royal governor arrived on New Providence accompanied by three British warships. His name was Woodes Rogers, and the government believed that the best way to catch a pirate was to use a pirate. Having been a privateer and being acquainted with many buccaneers, Rogers developed a three-prong strategy to carry out his mission.
First, he enacted laws and issued proclamations. He also granted pardons to any pirates who wished them. Somewhere between six hundred and two thousand took advantage of the amnesty, at least for a time. The purpose of such sweeping legal declarations was to demonstrate a show of force. Rogers believed if he acted powerful, the pirates would think he actually wielded that much power. Second, he carried out a non-confrontational policy. As long as pirates refrained from obvious acts of piracy, he ignored their activities.
Finally, he enlisted retired pirates to help hunt down those who refused to renounce piracy. Those captured were tried, convicted, and executed. In December 1718, Rogers reinforced his intent to end piracy by hanging a large number of pirates. Before long, New Providence was free of buccaneers and piracy throughout the Caribbean had greatly declined.
© 2002 Cindy Vallar
Read Part 6 of this series on Pirate Havens
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