Pirate Havens: 8 of the Most Notorious Pirate Strongholds
Pirates have captured our imagination for centuries with their tales of adventure, daring raids, and hidden treasure. From the Caribbean to the South China Sea, pirates have prowled the high seas, attacking ships, and plundering their cargo. But pirates needed a base of operations, a place to rest, repair their ships, and plan their next raid. These pirate ports and strongholds, scattered around the world, were hotspots of piracy and criminal activity that shaped the course of history. In this article, we'll explore eight famous pirate ports and strongholds and discover their fascinating stories of adventure and danger on the high seas.
1.Port Royal - A Hub for Privateers
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Port Royal (Jamaica) was the place to be if one were a pirate looking to make a name for themselves. It had everything they could ever want - thieves, prostitutes and pirates, all looking for work.
The small port’s association with piracy began in the mid-1600s when Jamaica’s governors struck a mutually beneficial agreement with various pirates. Protect us from the Spanish, and we’ll turn a blind eye to what you get up to. The pirates happily agreed and the port rapidly grew.
An illustration of pre-1692 Port Royal. ( Public Domain )
In particular, it was popular with British and French privateers. These were ships commissioned by the French and British Crown to target and disrupt Spanish ships in the Caribbean and Atlantic. A famous example would be Sir Henry Morgan , a British captain who operated out of Port Royal and made a name for himself raiding Spanish strongholds in Portobello, Cartagena, and Panama.
The deal also worked out well for the Jamaicans - the pirates brought a lot of booty into the port. By the 1660s the once small port’s streets were lined with packed taverns and brothels looking to separate young crewmen from their hard-earned booty. Contemporary sources make the port sound like Las Vegas on steroids. The place was full of gambling, prostitution, and drink, a place where sailors could happily waste a fortune in one debauched night.
Eventually, the age of privateering ended, and a new breed of lawless freelance pirates was born. This spelled the beginning of the end for Port Royal as a safe-haven. The freelancers began raiding ships indiscriminately and the port’s colonial authorities quickly decided enough was enough.
By 1720 Port Royal was cleaning up its image. The authorities began hanging pirates at “Gallows Point” and high-profile pirates like “Calico” Jack Rackham would ultimately meet their maker there.
2.Tortuga Island - Home of the Brethren of the Coast
Tortuga was another favorite of pirates looking to target the Spanish. During the 16th century, it was used as a stronghold by a dangerous group of adventurers, thieves, and escaped slaves who targeted the Spanish treasure ships that passed through the Caribbean.
The stronghold had originally been settled by a group of French hunters who had been living on the nearby island of Hispaniola ( Haiti today). These hunters were known as buccaneers (another word for pirates) thanks to their unique method of curing meat, boucaner. In around 1630 the buccaneers were forced to flee Hispaniola after Spanish settlers came along and settled their island.
The buccaneers soon discovered hunting the Spanish was much more lucrative than hunting animals. They began operating out of Tortuga Island and built themselves a fortified stronghold to protect themselves from potential Spanish retaliation.
The stronghold was impressive. One of the buccaneer leaders, Jean le Vasseur, had been a military leader in another life and built a 24-gun castle called Fort de Rocher that protected the island’s main harbor.
Jean Le Vasseur built Fort de Rocher. (Basvb / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Much like Port Royal, Tortuga became popular with pirates from England and France as well as Holland and Portugal. Interestingly, Tortuga wasn’t as lawless as one might imagine. The pirates banded together into a loose coalition called the “Brethren of the Coast” which had its own code of conduct.
The Brethren were mainly privateers who took commissions from England and France to hunt the Spanish. The Spanish tried to retaliate several times, but never managed to take Tortuga. In its heyday, the Brethren of the Coast served under Sir Henry Morgan during his raids along the Spanish Main.
Nothing lasts forever, however. With the end of privateering came the end of Tortuga Island. While a few freelance pirates held out for a few decades, by the beginning of the 18th century the “Brethren of the Coast” and Tortuga’s pirates were gone for good.
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3.St Mary’s Island - The Site of Libertalia?
While we most commonly associate pirates with the Caribbean, the truth is that many of the most successful pirates operated out of the Indian ocean. St Mary’s Island, or Ile Sainte-Maries as it was known then, served as home to many of them.
From the late 17th century onwards, heavily armed groups of bandits began using St Mary’s Island as a staging ground for raids on European and Asian shipping. According to some legends, the pirates even set up a utopian colony on the island known as Libertalia. Libertalia was supposedly a true democracy where all were equal.
Unfortunately, Libertalia is more than likely a myth, but St Mary’s Island is very real. In the 1690s it had a population of around 1500 and largely served as a supply base/black market. Famous pirates like Captain Kidd, Thomas Tew, and Henry Every used the island to restock their supplies and sell what they had plundered.
The island was the center of an illicit market. Pirates would attack ships carrying exotic goods from India and then sell those goods to the local merchants of St Mary’s Island. The locals then sold these goods to merchants in cities like New York and Boston, as long as they didn’t ask too many questions.
While the island’s population was relatively small, the raids carried out from the island were some of the greatest of all time. In 1695, Henry Every sailed a six-ship fleet out of St Mary’s Island and then attacked a treasure ship owned by the Great Mogul of India. After a brutal sea battle, Every escaped with a booty worth around $200 million in today's money.
Henry Every is shown selling his loot in this engraving by Howard Pyle. Every's capture of the Grand Mogul’s ship in 1695 stands as one of the most profitable pirate raids ever perpetrated. ( Public Domain )
4.New Providence - From Pirate Heaven to Pirate Hell
New Providence became a hotspot for pirate activity thanks to the fact it was in the center of trade lanes that ran between Europe and the West Indies. Its capital, Nassau, was used as a haven for marauders looking to repair and resupply before heading out on more raids.
Pirate activity out of Nassau peaked in the 18th century with famous pirates like Blackbeard and Charles Vane often seen in the city’s seaside taverns and brothels. The region eventually became so full of pirates that the British government eventually decided to step in.
A depiction by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris of the capture of the Pirate Blackbeard, 1718 . ( Public Domain )
In 1718, the Brits sent three warships to the island in a show of power. One of the ships carried New Providence’s new governor, Woodes Rogers. Rogers had once been a privateer himself and offered a pardon to any pirates willing to surrender.
Many, like Benjamin Hornigold , did exactly that and became pirate hunters. Those who did not surrender were hunted down mercilessly. From 1718 onwards the island went from being a pirate playground to the headquarters for anti-piracy operations in the region.
5.Clew Bay - Den of the Irish Pirate Queen
We tend to think of pirates operating in warmer climes and having male captains. It might surprise our readers then, to learn of Clew Bay, in Ireland which served as a stronghold to an infamous lady captain.
Clew Bay was home to Rockfleet Castle, the stronghold of Grace O’Malley, or Granuaile as she was known. O’Malley was the leader of a clan of pirates that controlled the Irish coastline through violence and intimidation. She had hundreds of men and over 20 ships under her command, raiding rival clans and merchant ships at will.
Eventually, government officials had had enough and in 1574 a fleet was sent to raid O’Malley’s castle. She and her men turned the fleet away in a violent counterattack which caused the government ships to retreat.
O’Malley was captured and imprisoned in 1577 but was soon out and plundering again. She was a hands-on leader and a famed fighter. She was also a keen politician. English colonial authorities once managed to capture her son and impound her ships. O’Malley responded by arranging a meeting with Queen Elizabeth I , during which she negotiated not only her son’s release, but the return of her fleet to boot. Impressive.
The meeting of Grace O'Malley and Queen Elizabeth I. ( Public Domain )
6.Barataria Bay - The Patriotic Pirates
Barataria Bay in Louisiana once served as home to the famous pirate, Jean Laffite. During the early 19th century Laffite controlled a group of thieves who targeted Spanish ships working in the Gulf of Mexico.
Laffite and his men worked as privateers for the Republic of Cartagena, raiding Spanish merchant vessels before smuggling their stolen goods and slaves into New Orleans. They were phenomenally successful, and by the 1810s their stronghold at Barataria Bay was one of the busiest black markets in North America.
Anywhere from 500-1000 pirates operated out of the stronghold, with over a dozen ships regularly spotted in the harbor. It would seem that despite their pirating ways, however, Lafite and his men drew the line at treason.
During the war of 1812, Laffite went from pirate to patriot. In 1814, he was approached by the British, who wanted to use Barataria as a staging ground for an attack on New Orleans. Laffite turned around and approached the United States government. In exchange for clemency, he and his men would fight against the British.
Depiction of pirates fighting. ( Public Domain )
At the Battle of New Orleans Lafitte and his crews fought with distinction, earning themselves full pardons. Laffite was no soldier though. Soon after the dust had settled, Laffite and his men headed for Texas where they set up a new pirate stronghold at Galveston Island.
7.Galveston Island - The Return of Laffite
Laffite soon got his new stronghold at Galveston Island up and running. He moved there in 1817 and by 1820 had created a formidable base of operations. The stronghold included a network of forts and fences, including the infamous Fort Campeche , which was built out of the ruins of an old Spanish fortress.
The Island was used by Laffite and his men as a base for attacking Spanish and American ships in the Gulf of Mexico. They also engaged in smuggling and other illegal activities, making the island a hub for piracy and criminal activity. Lafitte tried to claim that his raids were legitimate privateering raids and that he had letters of marque to prove his operation was legit. Of course, he was lying and eventually had to admit it as such.
He was also found to be trading in slaves, despite the fact there was a law banning the import of slaves into any port in the U.S. Eventually, he pushed his luck too far and brought the wrath of the United States down on his head.
An attack was launched against Galveston Island in 1821, destroying Fort Campeche. Laffite knew his days at Galveston were over and agreed to disband his organization. As the Americans watched, he set fire to his headquarters and left for good. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks though. Within a year he was back at it again. He was found to be working out of Cuba until Cuba banned piracy in 1822.
8.Ocracoke Island - Blackbeard’s Base
Ocracoke Island, just off the coast of North Carolina, was a popular spot for pirates to anchor and resupply with its secluded location and shallow waters making it an ideal place for pirates to hide and wait for passing ships.
Perhaps the most famous pirate in history, Edward Teach (Blackbeard) was known to sometimes operate out of Ocracoke Island, with some sources saying he had a hideout there. In fact, Blackbeard was killed in a battle with British forces in the waters near Ocracoke Island in 1718.
Charles Vane was also known to operate out of Ocracoke Island. He and his crew would often anchor just off the island to repair and restock their ships before going on their next raid. The island was once full of pirate camps and legends state that there is still buried treasure hidden on the island.
Pirate ports and strongholds played a significant role in shaping the history of piracy and maritime trade. They were the bases of operations for some of the most infamous pirates in history and supplied a sanctuary for them to rest, refit, and plan their next attack.
These ports and strongholds were often equipped with formidable defenses, and their strategic locations made them difficult to conquer. Today, these places continue to fascinate and inspire us with their tales of adventure, danger, and hidden treasure. The legacy of these pirate ports and strongholds lives on, reminding us of a time when the seas were ruled by daring pirates and the promise of riches lay just beyond the horizon.
Top image: Pirate Port facing the sea. Source: Xilon/Adobe Stock
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