The original 'pirates' and privateers of the Antilles, the untold stories from a Caribbean doctor...
The Golden Age of Piracy is a historical designation given to the initial developments of piracy in the maritime history of the Age of Exploration. In its broadest accepted definition, the Golden Age of Piracy spans the 1640s to the late 1720s, and covers three separate periods. But up-to-date history reveals there were actually four evolutions of piracy:
1. The Corsair period from 1528 to ~ 1630s, characterized by privateers, authorized to conduct raids on shipping of a nation at war with France, on behalf of the French crown. Later, the English copied the same plan, and Sir Francis Drake famously seized the Nombre de Dios port in Panama in 1572, along with a shipment of treasure from Peru that was destined for Spain. The Corsairs would open the smaller islands of the Antilles to settlement with pilgrims from the New World.
2. The Buccaneering period of approximately 1640 to 1680, characterized by Anglo-French seamen based on Nevis, Hispaniola, Tortuga and later Jamaica by seamen attacking Spanish colonies and ships carrying cargo in the Caribbean. The Buccaneers would establish crucial trade between the new claimed islands of the Monarchs as the wars in europe prevented by law trading with the enemy. Without their presence, many of the settlements in smaller islands would have easily perished, as some did, like on St. Croix.
3. The Pirate Round of the 1690s, associated with long-distance voyages from the Americas to attack Muslim and East India Company targets in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. The silk roads would now become naval lanes, and commerce would begin to flow freely between East and West.
4. The post-Spanish Succession period extending from 1716 to 1726, when Anglo-American sailors and privateers, left unemployed by the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, turned en masse to piracy in the Caribbean, on the North American eastern seaboard, the Lesser Antilles, the West African coast, and the Indian Ocean.
This era of piracy in the Bahamas began in 1696, when the privateer Henry Every brought his ship the Fancy loaded with loot from plundering Indian trade ships into Nassau harbour. Every bribed the governor Nicholas Trott with gold and silver, and with the Fancy itself, still loaded with 50 tons of elephant tusks and 100 barrels of gunpowder. This established Nassau as a base where pirates could operate safely, although various governors regularly made a mock show of suppressing piracy. Although the governors were still legally in charge, the pirates became increasingly powerful.
This period spawned the infamous Republic of Pirates run by privateers-turned-pirates in Nassau on New Providence island in the Bahamas for about eleven years from 1706 until 1718. Although not a state or republic in a formal sense, it was governed by its own informal, pirate 'Code of Conduct'. The activities of the pirates caused havoc with trade and shipping in the West Indies, until governor Woodes Rogers reached Nassau in 1718 and restored the British control by force.
Factors contributing to piracy during the Golden Age included the acts of monarchs to forbidding trade with islands occupied by other countries; the rise in quantities of valuable cargoes being shipped to Europe over vast ocean areas; reduced presence of European navies in certain regions; the training and experience that many sailors had gained in European navies (particularly the Royal Navy and those trained by the Knights of St. John on Malta), and poorly supplied and managed, ineffective governments in European overseas colonies. The pirates and independent colonies had good cause to claim sovereignty and independence. The colonial powers at the time constantly fought with pirates and engaged in dozens of notable battles and other related events. This period would help define the British monarch as a naval power and advance its wealth and world domination in trade while colonizing various parts of the world which would never be the same.
The origin of buccaneering began when the discovery of the Aztec and Inca empires lured the Spanish Navy away from their stronghold on Hispaniola, and leaving nearly abandoned colonies with their neglected people, crops, hogs and cattle which then ran wild and bred huge herds of feral beasts. This in turn attracted French and English farmers, sailors and hunters, who learned from the native Indians to smoke the meat on barbeque-like fires called boucans. The isolated hunters became known as “boucaniers,” which in turn became the word buccaneer.
Expelled by the Spanish from Saint Christopher and especially Nevis, the original residents of Tortuga Island (Ile de la Tortue), off the northwest coast of Hispaniola, sustained themselves mostly through a few means: growing tobacco and selling it, scrounging for fruits and cultivating vegetables, curing the meat and tanning the hides of wild game, and ultimately pirating Spanish ships. The former activity lent these hardy souls the colorful designation of buccaneers, derived from the Taino word for bar-b-que meats and fish. It naturally took years for the buccaneers and the more rugged settlers that followed them to establish themselves on Tortuga, the island that would be the Caribbean pirate safe haven. Skirmishes with Spanish forces were common. As the maintenance of Spain's new world empire tried the wit, and drained the energies and finances of a declining Spain, and foreign intervention became more forceful as the years followed.
Pirate history often ignores the 'on the ground' conditions and language (if any) of those times. The Caribbean freebooters and freelancers of the 1660s-70s that mostly pirated the Spanish, usually spoke some combination of Dutch, English, and French, apparently, along with admixtures of lingos and words from mulattoes, mestizos, black slaves and Indians. It's important to note that, prior to the 17th-18th century, very few European languages were the mostly artificial, standardized things we know today - for example, French wasn't really "pulled together" until the French revolution (1798), so someone like Jean Bart likely would have had a crew composed mainly of Bretons, who spoke, Breton, a Celtic language, not the queen's English.
The entire island of Hispaniola has also been referred to as Haiti, supposed by some to be the precolonial name used by aboriginal Indians (the Taino), who also called it Quisqueya. Hispaniola has relatively few offshore islands, the most notable being Gonâve Island and Tortue (Tortuga) Island. Over the decades as more people landed on Hispaniola for safe harbor, some buccaneers turned to piracy. Strife in the Lesser Antilles, especially on St. Christopher and Nevis, brought the English, fleeing from Arawak Indians, the French and the Spanish navies. Since Hispaniola was occupied and patrolled by the Spanish and also claimed as their sovereign territory, some sought shelter on a small island called Tortuga. A loose coalition of buccaneers and privateers became active in the seventeenth century and by 1763, Voltaire called them “brothers of the coast” or later became known as the Brethren of the Coast. Under this association, they made common cause against the Spanish and would routinely attack their ships full of gold and silver in transport from the Aztec and Inca lands. Tortuga became their earliest safe haven only to be followed by Nevis in the Eastern Antilles. From these two islands were actually born the Brethren.
They were a loose syndicate of captains with 'letters of marque and reprisal' which barely regulated their privateering enterprises within the community of privateers, buccaneers, pirates (as they were called) and with their outside benefactors. They were primarily private, individual merchant mariners of Protestant background usually of English and French origin, coupled with escaped prisoners, mercenaries, and slaves. In his book The Spanish Main, Peter Wood dates the term to 1640, about the time piracy was becoming a supplemental income. JM von Archenholtz’s The History of the Pirates, Free-Booters or Buccaneers of America used it in the 1807 English translation. Jan Rogozinski in his interesting Dictionary of Piracy describes the name as fictional as the buccaneers themselves never used “this picturesque phrase.” My research agrees as the two actual instigators, or we could say 'Godfathers' of the bucaneers were the first Governor of Nevis, Englishman Anthony Hiltion, only to be followed by the illustrious Governer of St. Christopher, Knight of St. John, Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy (1584–1660). The history of these two, least known, and never illuciated, are in my two books on Nevis and Knights, Princes, and Pirates (order here).
Buccaneers of Nevis
Anthony Hilton originally settled on St. Chrisotpher planting tobacco. He took a crop to England for sale and returned to start a plantation in Barbuda, butit turned out unsuitable for planting tobacco. On July 22, 1628, Hilton and his men landed on Nevis near Charlestown. Warner in the meantime had established an ‘autocratic’ rule on St. Christopher, and in time, many dissatisfied settlers left for Nevis. Governor Warner appointed Hilton Governor of Nevis. Thus, Nevis was destined to become a settled British isle and later a haven for pirates including Captain Kidd.
The original number of settlers of Nevis was augmented by people coming from the island of Barbuda where they had been raided time and again by the Caribs, and from St. Christopher, prompting them to move to peaceful Nevis. The Spaniards considered the English in St. Christopher and Nevis as trespassers and pirates. Thus, when Spanish Admiral Fadrique de Toledo appeared in Nevis (7th Sept. 1629) with 30 armed vessels, the English indentured servants, being badly treated by their masters, deserted to the enemy and Nevis had to surrender. Anthony Hilton slipped away and left for the island of Tortuga and there would become the first buccaneer which would follow later with such pirates as the Huguenot François Levasseur, who took control of the island for the admiral of St. Christophe, Gov. Poincy, with the title of governor. Captain Morgan would be another famous pirate would follow.
Buccaneers of Tortuga
Governor Hilton of Nevis (1628-1629), from 1629 left for Tortuga and would become its first Buccaneer. The French and English colonists started setting up plantations and populated island in a short time. They were temporary expelled as a potential threat to Spaniards when Don Fabrique de Toledo attacked Tortuga in 1629. The encouraged army came back to Hispaniola, determined to root out every colonist, until not single one remain. However, Spanish did not predict that scattered settlers would organize and return to the island and defeat small remains of the left over, small Spanish force. From 1630, the island of Tortuga was divided into French and English colonies. It provided a good, and established base for Buccaneers and their venturous attacks into the surrounding waters, as well as some other activities like slave trades.
Tortuga saw two more successful Spanish raids in 1635 and 1638, and both times the Buccaneers managed to retain possessions back. In 1639, to finally establish the decent defense, as the governor of Saint Christopher (now St. Kitts), Admiral Poincy, sent in Jean Le Vasseur, who was promoted to the new governor of Tortuga under his flagship. Under Poincy's instructions and finance, he built the famous stone fortress “Fort de Rocher” on the highest rise of the southern point of the island. It was enforced with 40 guns and overlooked any vessels in or near the port now near the city of Basseterre.
Until 1665, Le Vasseur ruled with an iron fist and started a feud with his over Lord Poincy. Tortuga was temporally captured by Spanish one more time, and then the island became a part of St. Domingue colony. The new governor, Bertrand D'Ogeron had difficulties to convince the Buccaneers to accept him. However, he managed to develop Tortuga even more by organizing people and strengthen its defense.
In the following a period, some of the greatest Buccaneers such as Henry Morgan and the infamous Francois L'Ollonais launched attacks from Tortuga and became part of island history. From 1670, as the Buccaneer era was in wane, most Buccaneers found a new trade like log cutting and trading wood from the island, growing tobacco, engaging in prostitution, and many others continued their piracy on the ships of foreign nations passing their waters. In 1684, a piece agreement was signed between France and Spain, and soon there were few Buccaneers in Tortuga left. The next Republic would become Nassau, Bahamas to the east of Florida, and the Golden Age of Piracy makes is mark, but it all started on the small islands of Nevis and Tortuga.
Spain officially gave up Tortuga, as a part of St. Domingue to France in 1697. Today, Tortuga ibelongs to Haiti, quite undeveloped and still with no island electricity. The island is 40 kilometers long, seven kilometers wide and at its highest point it is 464 meters above the sea. It is called Île de la Tortue by natives, which refers to the turtle-like shape of the island.
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