Friday, October 9, 2009

Home Ports: On The Turtle's Back

There are a lot of islands named Tortuga in the Caribbean and beyond. Most notable, I think, is the touristy/resorty Tortuga Island off the coast of Costa Rica. That one claims a piratical heritage and doubtless some freebooters stopped there to freshen their water now and again. That claim, though, is largely for the tourist trade and I'd bet money you'll see wannabes swaggering around wearing eye makeup and speaking with fake British accents. Don't get me started. The real Turtle Island, as far as our pals the boucaniers were concerned, is located off the coast of what used to be known as Hispanola and what is now Haiti/Dominican Republic.

How the buccaneers came to the little island that is quite literally shaped like a turtle is a convoluted story of Spanish hatred for anyone that wasn't Spanish. When an English adventurer named Warner and a French privateer named Belain agreed to establish a settlement on St. Christopher Island (now St. Kitts), the Spanish took note. When the island became a haven for buccaneers, the Spanish sent men and arms to route out the hated foreigners. In 1629 a huge contingent descended on the island, killing or taking prisoner most of the population. Those who escaped went to Hispanola where they were again attacked. Now the buccaneers were pissed.

The boys moved to Tortuga del Mar, the island they called Ile de la Tortue, just off the coast and they settled in to take their revenge. They booted or killed any Spanish they found, got chummy with the local Arawak natives and started a campaign of striking out against Spanish ships in small, easily maneuverable canoes and pinnaces. In 1635, when French pirate Pierre le Grand appeared on the scene, things really heated up. He began attacking Spanish treasure galleons from a light sloop and the other buccaneers soon followed his lead.

Of course, the Spanish would have none of that. A raid on the island in 1638 nearly wiped out the largely French as well as Dutch and English population. The remaining citizens appealed to the re-established and now fortified French settlement on St. Christopher for help. Jean le Vasseur was sent as Governor of Tortuga and he built a stone fortress overlooking the main harbor. He armed his outpost with 40 guns and provided letters of marque to the buccaneers, encouraging them to raid Spanish shipping and towns along the Main in the name of France. The heyday of the boucaniers was on the horizon.

The Spanish, who were nothing if not tenacious, laid siege to the fort and effectively starved out the population, sending those they captured back to France in 1654. Some of the buccaneers escaped, however, and they waited on St. Christopher and Jamaica waiting for the opportunity to return to what they considered their home.

That opportunity arose when England attacked Jamaica in 1655. The Spanish ships and troops on Tortuga were called to action and the buccaneers returned to their old port from which they plied their trade for another ten years. The island was a base for respectable privateers like Michel de Grammont and infamous pirates such as Francois L'Olonnais.

In 1665 the island of Hispanola officially became the French holding St. Domingue and Ile de la Tortue came under French control. The buccaneers slowly morphed into the pirates of the Golden Age and Tortuga was replaced by first Port Royal, Jamaica and then New Providence (now Nassau) in the Bahamas as a major base. It remained in use by pirates and privateers into the early 19th century, however. My privateer hero Dominique Youx told stories of spending time on the lovely Turtle Island.

Isle de la Tortue is one of the blue pins on my travel map. Someday, I'll got there. I'll speak French, though. No British accents allowed.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Nice post. It does look pretty. Hopefully, I'll go there with you. Of course, you may have "traded up" by then...

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! Forgive me, dear, but I am always happy to be compared to Sam "Damn I'm a Handsome Pirate" Bellamy.