Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Home Ports: Cradle of Buccaneers

The island of Hispaniola, which today holds the countries of Haiti and Santo Domingo on her shores, has for centuries been a base camp for all manner of freebooters. Stomping ground, home port and mother island, Hispaniola and in particular the French third of her land, has given us a myriad of colorful characters who are often spoken of here at Triple P. Tortuga, Petit Goave, Basse-Terre, Leogane and even Port-au-Prince were all used by high seas renegades as staging areas. So today, as a bit of a tribute, the history of forgotten Haiti and the contribution of her pirate progeny.

Centuries before Columbus, who “discovered” Hispaniola in 1492, the Taino people arrived. They most probably came in long canoes – similar to Polynesians in the South Pacific – from what is now Venezuela. They spoke an Arawakan language and are therefore sometimes mistakenly referred to as Arawaks themselves. These people named the island “Ayiti” which is where the modern name Haiti comes from.

The Taino had a complicated system of government that broke Ayiti into five kingdoms ruled by caciques. Twenty years after Columbus’ first landing the Spanish decided to wrest control of the island from the Taino. Not necessarily warlike by nature, the Taino were also not about to back down to the invaders and destroyed both the settlements of Saint Nicolas and La Navidad. All this was done under the leadership of Taino cacique Anacaona, the widow of Caonabo. Despite her valiant resistance, Anacaona was captured and hanged with all ceremony. The message was clear and the Taino people, for the most part, fell under the rule of their new overlords. The majority of the population was wiped out by smallpox, pneumonia, gonorrhea and other decidedly European diseases.

In 1517, with the indigenous population rung out as a source of free labor, Charles V of Spain authorized European indentured servitude and the importation of African slaves to Hispaniola. This decision would bring a fatal mix of disgruntled people, mostly male at first, to an under-protected backwater, leading to runaways and even small revolts. The men ran to the island of Tortuga where they became the original boucaniers, hunting black pigs and raiding small merchant craft.

Interestingly, a good many of the indentured servants in Hispaniola (and on surrounding Caribbean islands) were French. They set up shop on Tortuga, creating their own outlaw paradise that saw the inclusion of women – at this point, often runaway slaves – by the mid-16th century. By 1600, these people were heading out in ships and striking in particular against the Spanish. The most infamous of the era was Francois L’Olonnais. Born David Nau in the Olon region of France, indenture under a brutal Spanish master seems to have driven him insane. When he took up buccaneering he became a brutal monster, torturing Spanish captives without remorse and licking their blood from his sword.

By the 1660s the fame – and success – of these buccaneers had spread prompting French, Dutch and English adventurers to voluntarily travel to Tortuga and take up the black flag. When former buccaneer Bertrand d’Ogeron settled in the Massif de la Selle above Petit Goave and began successfully growing tobacco, France herself took note. Colonists immigrated to Hispaniola from France and French islands in the Caribbean. Spain naturally saw this as an invasion (as they had always imagined the buccaneers to be invaders, it was a natural progression) and hostilities on the island reached a fever pitch in the 1690s.

In 1697 the Treaty of Ryswick officially divided Hispaniola, with the western third going to France and becoming Saint Domingue. Immigration boomed and by the start of the French Revolution in 1789 there were upwards of 40,000 colonists of French descent on the island (by comparison, French Canada had a population of approximately 63,000 Europeans at relatively the same time).

With the Revolution, though, came the breakdown of the institutions that had made Saint Domingue a wealthy colony. When Robespierre announced the abolition of slavery at the end of 1793, the slave revolt led by Jean Jacques Dessalines in 1791 was confirmed as valid. By the end of 1794 Saint Domingue was at peace and under the capable governance of Toussaint Louverture, a former slave and brilliant military leader.

This taste of freedom was short lived, however. Bonaparte, in need of income for his war machine, reinstituted slavery and the plantation system in France’s Caribbean colonies. Louverture was hauled off to France in chains and died in a dungeon. The now free black Saint Domiguens, unwilling to return to slavery, revolted again and this time the consequences were brutal. Out of this unfortunate bloodbath, which saw an unprecedented exodus of white, mixed race and free black people from the island, came men who are surely familiar to the Brethren. The Laffite brothers, who were certainly not born in Port-au-Prince as many writers would have us believe, may very well have done business – possibly piratical business – out of the city prior to 1804. Dominique Youx, that old sea dog and “bravest of the Baratarians”, was almost certainly born in Saint Domingue. Other privateers of the era were probably the product of the upheaval on the island as well, though their names are lost to us.

When the dust settled, the newly christened Haiti became the first and only free nation born of a slave revolution. At the height of the privateering era, in 1817, Haitian President Alexandre Petion would first welcome the Liberator Simon Bolivar at Aux Cayes and then supply him with ships, men and arms. All in exchange for the promise that slavery would be abolished in Grand Columbia once Bolivar’s revolution was successful. The privateer that saw Bolivar safely to and from Haiti was none other than Renato Beluche in his sloop General Arismendi.

The story of modern Haiti is less glorious than her past, of course, but that is due in large part to foreign influence and not her generous people. Personally, I feel that historians – who tend to glorify New Providence and Port Royal as the crown jewels of pirate ports – should give a little more attention to the western third of Hispaniola, where buccaneers and privateers were born.

Header: Navigational map of Hispaniola c 1639


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That's a good summary of a lot of history. Well done indeed, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and thankee! There's a lot more to tell, really, but those are other stories for future times.