Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Home Ports: The Big Island

In our modern age, Madagascar is the place where those awesome lemurs come from (your humble hostess is particularly fond of the Nosferatu-like Aye-Ayes). It's touristy, kick back, and the name of an unfortunate series of children's movies. But once upon a time it was a legendary pirate haven where the gold fairly fell off the palm trees, the spirits flowed from bottomless barrels and the women forsook their men to be with freebooters. Or so the stories went.

By the 1690s the days of the great buccaneers on the Spanish Main were drawing to a swift close. The denouement was upon that story of glorious riches and outright terror. The Spanish had lost their grip on the Main - as much due to their own ridiculous greed as the rapaciousness of the sea raiders - and the gold and silver no longer flowed like water from Potosi and Peru. The great boucaniers - L'Olonnais, Le Grand, de Grammont - were all gone. The king of the English buccaneers, Henry Morgan, died in his bed in August, 1688. Piracy in the Caribbean was on the decline.

Of course, a drop in resources doesn't mean a drop in piracy. It just means men who are willing to pursue a short life and merry need to find a new hunting ground and so more than one old school buccaneer looked east.

The slave trade off the coast of West Africa was booming, with ships and human cargo to be had aplenty. On the other side of the continent, the rich merchant trade sailed back and forth from Europe to the East. English and Dutch East Indiamen were frequently so laden with cargo (as were the slavers) that they could not carry cannon. If they did, the guns were more likely to be used as ballast than as weapons. Can't you just imagine our gentlemen of fortune rubbing their hands together with glee?

Smack dab in the middle of this incredible bounty was the big island of Madagascar. She was surrounded by tranquil anchorages that kept a ship safe from storms and navy men-of-war whose drafts were far too deep to follow a pirate sloop beyond the bar. Her weather was fine and her population sparse and friendly (none of those pesky Carib or Darien types who would actually crack a freebooter's head open for disturbing their villages or molesting their women... the nerve!) Finally, fresh water, fruit and meat was readily available. It was the perfect situation that brought a perfect storm of piratical activity.

For twenty years, from approximately 1690 to 1710, Madagascar attracted some of the most famous pirates of the transitional age along with hundreds of their men. Thomas Tew, Edward England, Howell Davis, Bartholomew Roberts, Henry Avery and William Kidd, to name just a few, all used Madagascar as a base. St. Mary's Island, off the east coast of Madagascar, was said to be home to over 1,000 pirates by 1700. Business was booming and none of the European governments seemed capable of putting a stop to the looting of merchants and slavers.

Finally, England took matters in hand and began allotting some of her warships to convoy with East Indiamen returning to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope. Pirate ships were destroyed and pirates killed; the pickings over the course of the first decade of the new century became decidedly less easy. Men slowly turned away from the trade or sailed off to new ports. Some even chose to settle down and farm the rich soil of their new island home. By 1711, British broadsheets reported no more than 100 pirates still active off the coast of Madagascar.

The boom was over, but the legend lived on. Charles Johnson in his A General History of Pirates devoted an entire chapter to French pirate Captain Misson and his pirate utopia on Madagascar, Libertaria. But that's another post all together as Johnson's motives in telling what was really a fairy story were probably - and quite interestingly - political. They eerily foreshadow the Revolutionary age that lay only a few decades ahead, and that's more than we've time for today.

But then pirates have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to liberty, fraternity and equality. Or at least up until very recently indeed.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! So, now you're telling me that the gold didn't fall off the palm trees, the spirits didn't flow from bottomless barrels and the women didn't forsake their men to be with freebooters? Next you're going to tell me that the Penguins of Madigascar aren't real! And Libertaria was really a fairy story? Shhhh... Don't anyone tell Ron Paul... Oh, wait, that's very different. Never mind. You are right (as usual) about the pirates of old being ahead of the curve when it comes to democracy, though, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Look, I'm not here to shatter anyone's dreams, OK. History can sometimes be a cruel mistress (but she has the very best stories!)