Just north and east of the island of Madagascar is a small group of islets that are perfectly situated. Perfectly, that is, for a pirate looking to score some of the fattest prices in the 18th century world. The islets sit on the edge of the Indian Ocean and just south of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Persia. Using any of them as a port, a clever pirate could take a fat East Indiaman returning to England or Holland one evening and then cruise north the following day to snatch the treasure galley of some Ottoman pasha. All this and home in time for supper. Or so the rumors that circulated in places like the West Indies and the Guinea coast said.
Ile Sainte-Marie is the largest islet of the group in question. As piracy became a target of aggressive persecution by the various European powers in the early 18th century, the men who plied the sweet trade turned their eyes to the wealth of the East and set sail for Africa. They found Sainte-Mary quite to their liking. Not only was it abundant in fruits and game, its native people were friendly – particularly when they found that most of the pirates had not come to enslave them – and the island was surrounded by shallow cays and inlets. These were perfect for hiding from aggressors, evaluating a prize or simply pulling a ship up on her keel and giving her a good careening. It seems, at least on the face of it, a veritable pirate paradise.
This idea caught the imagination of European writers and one in particular, the man who fancied himself Captain Charles Johnson, devoted a good deal of paper to writings on the piratical community he call Libertalia. Johnson, the author of A General History of Pyrates, has come down to us as either an eye witness authority on piracy or a complete crank. It just depends on who is commenting on his work. The idea of Libertalia, which is often reputed to have been based on Ile Sainte-Marie, has caught the imagination of many moderns because of its very modern take on community. Whether or not it actually existed is the point that must be questioned.
Libertalia according to Johnson’s book was the brainchild of a merchant seaman turned pirate named James Misson. In his vision, which was spurred on by his association with a “lewd Priest” from Rome named Giacomo Caraccioli, the Frenchman saw all men as brothers, no organized religion as valid, and slavery as the cruelest of human ills. His pirate utopia was established under a white flag and Libertalia’s motto was “For God and Liberty”. The pirates cruising out of Ile Saint-Marie called themselves Liberi and shared all goods and prizes in common. They routinely set any slaves they came upon free and so their numbers were increased rapidly by the grateful Africans joining up right away. According to Johnson’s description, Libertalia lasted 25 years and welcomed such famous and infamous captains as Thomas Tew, Christopher Condent, Henry Avery and William Kidd. The end of Libertalia is as egalitarian as its founding was revolutionary. Eventually the pirates grew weary of their lives at sea and settled down with the local girls to farm land where “… no hedge bounded any particular man’s property…” and the fruits of their labors were “… carried into the Common Treasury”.
No one would deny that the idea of Libertalia is delightful. Of course, we would all like to imagine the lion lying down with the lamb and beating swords into plowshares. The reality, however, is that Johnson chose unwisely in his fantasy populace. Pirates, though in many ways more democratic than the societies they preyed upon, were also ruthless brigands who were far from altruistic. Slaves were more often than not prizes to be sold, other pirate crews could be a threat to the amount of loot each individual might get, and the last thing these sailors were cut out for was farming. In many cases, getting away from the drudgery of agriculture was why they went to sea in the first place. Then, too, there’s the harsh fact that to take a prize or prizes, some killing will probably have to be done and that seems a poor way to treat a brother.
Ile Sainte-Marie was certainly a pirate base during the heyday of the “pirate round” from approximately 1690 to 1725. There can be no doubt that men like Tew, Edward England, Avery and Kidd at least touched at the island and several shipwrecks dating from the era have been found in the waters around Sainte-Marie. One in particular, sunk in Baie des Forbans not far from the island’s capital, is thought by the explorer Barry Clifford (of Whydah fame) to be Christopher Condent’s Flying Dragon. There is also the old cemetery that overlooks the bay (pictured above) known as le Cimitere des Pirates where modern residents continue to leave offerings for their freebooting ancestors. That seems to me a far more factual legacy than any pirate utopia could ever be.