Sunday, July 6, 2014

Notorious Pirate Havens of the Caribbean

By Nick Smith

The pirate stronghold: a place where the wenches are dirty and cheap, where the rum and smuggled French wine flow fast and free, and a place safe from the Crown…

The popular image of lawless havens of prostitutes, alcoholism, and squalor is not one far from the truth. Throughout the Golden Age of Piracy there were many such places a dubious seafarer of ill-repute could find a bed for the night, and unfussy merchants to unload their pilfered cargo to, but where were they? When were they operational? And why were they tolerated?

In last month's post, I already discussed in detail the history of the buccaneers, but let me give you a quick recap. The buccaneers were mostly runaway indentured servants or grounded sailors attempting to carve a bloody life for themselves in the disease-ridden Caribbean. They were around throughout the 17th Century, and in their early days operated mainly from their base of Tortuga - our first pirate haven.

Tortuga - 1650.

In his book - The Buccaneers of America - Exquemelin gives a firsthand account of how thousands of musket-wielding buccaneers lived on this turtle-shaped island North of Hispaniola. An island disputed by the French, Spanish, and English, but very loosely administered by the French government, it was a perfect place for hardened opportunists to strike out at Spanish-owned Hispaniola and Cuba and to pilfer precious redwoods. Even in times of peace, the Spanish didn't believe there was such a thing in the Caribbean, and so battles waged between the military and civilians alike. Corrupt governors made no move to curb such piratical activities by their warrior inhabitants. No doubt they benefited greatly from the money they earned, and in times of need the buccaneers acted as an elite militia.

If you think I was exaggerating about prostitutes, I wasn't. A French governor, in an attempt to cool the temper of the bloodthirsty buccaneers, imported over a thousand ladies of negotiable affection from Europe! This pirate haven thrived until the 1670s, when the French took a greater interest in the island and expelled the English and Dutch inhabitants.

They went other places instead - most notably Port Royal, Jamaica - our second pirate haven. Under the control of England since the English Civil War, it was a perfect island for the refugee buccaneers to strike at not just Cuba and Hispaniola - but the Spanish Main also. The musket-wielding wood-choppers had become emboldened, and led by such legends as Henry Morgan, they brought literally tons of pilfered wealth back to England. Their attacks were sharp and brutal. 

Did the English government make an effort to curb the activities then? No… they encouraged it, and sent advisers to help. With such fame and fortune earned by some, even more rogues flocked from across Europe. A place beyond control, contemporaries described Port Royal as the most wicked place on earth, and when the earthquake of 1692 sent half of this pirate haven into the sea, it was claimed that God was punishing the depraved for their sins.

A cross-section of Port Royal, before and after 1692. Wikipedia Commons

Port Royal - and the newer-formed Kingston across the bay - did remain as a pirate haven, but other places began to take preference for the sea rovers, such as the neglected French administered Petit and Grande Goave on Hispaniola.

When England (and soon after, Britain) went to war with France and Spain in the early 1700s, most of the English pirates found work as privateers throughout the Caribbean and beyond, operating from Kingston and other English colonies. At the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, an opportunistic Jamaican governor began handing out letters of marque to pirates once more. He no doubt profited personally from the continued pilfering of Britain's traditional enemies. His action emboldened the now out-of-work sailors and privateers who were deemed to be surplus to requirements since the war's end. They flocked to the Caribbean like flies to a carcass, and even when they became too much of a strain for the capital of Jamaica, they found their own home instead…

Our next pirate haven is the town of Nassau, on New Providence Island - arguably the most famous and important of all pirate havens from the Golden Age. Pirates once friends with the Jamaican governor now set out to carve their own path. With the wealth of pilfered shipping lanes, they invested in the small Bahamas settlement and made it their own. Nassau became the feared home of the famous Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Benjamin Hornigold, Anne Bonney etc.

Those who had been a welcome tradition to the English crown for nearly a hundred years were now deemed to be a pest. Spain had more or less fallen, France was in a recession, and the pirates had turned to attacking British shipping instead. Nassau had been declared a pirate republic by the occupants, an open challenge to the accepted authority.

For five years Nassau remained an independent haven for freebooters until the Royal Navy and pirate hunters were dispatched to curb the problem. At the lead was Woodes Rogers, a once-privateer most notable for rescuing the real-life Robinson Crusoe: Alexander Selkirk. In 1718 he landed on the shores of Nassau, strung up a load of pirates, and offered the Royal Pardon to the rest. And so ended the great tradition of lawless pirate havens throughout the Caribbean. The Golden Age of Piracy was just about over…

An end to piracy: "The Capture of Blackbeard" Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920, oil on canvas.


Nick Smith is a twenty-eight year old Northumbrian in exile, currently living on a small rock in the Channel Sea where he teaches science. He has a love for all things of a nautical and historical nature.

He is the author of the gritty swashbuckling adventures ROGUES’ NEST & the newly released GENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE – both explore the reality of buccaneers and pirates at the start of the 1700s.

ROGUES’ NEST is set in the very real pirate haven of Petit Goave, described briefly above.

Find out more about his work at 


  1. Excellent info! Was it after this that Blackbeard had his headquarters on Ocracoke off the Carolinas?

    1. Hi Deborah, thanks for your kind words. I believe that Blackbeard took the Royal Pardon offered above, and actually settled down in the Carolinas for a short time, marrying a respectable lady. He soon bored of this life, allowed his crew of nasties to abuse his newly wed, and threw off the shackles of society once more.

  2. An interesting post (and timely - for me as I am researching privateering in the 1650s)

    1. Thanks Alison - I implore you to find Exquemelin's book. It's a fascinating read for the period, detailing the flora and fauna of the islands too. If you need some help with anything, please give me a shout!

  3. Actually, as the daughter of a sea-faring family, I don't see pirates in such a romantic and heroic light. They were theives and cut-throats, who preyed on peaceful and legitimate trading vessels. I really don't see what is so appealing about them. They were no better than land-based theives. Sorry. No glamor here at all that I can see, but thanks for the informative post about their havens. I wonder how many are still in use today, given the very real pirates that still routinely murder yachtsmen and tourists.

    1. Hi Helena! I can't ever recall saying they were romantic or heroic, but they did leave their mark on the world, and influence the politics of the era greatly. They were no more nasty than the hate and war crimes committed by our Crusading Europeans though ;)

      I doubt any of the ones I described above are still pirate havens: Jamaica, The Bahamas, Haiti... all pretty civilised these days! I do know of a family friend attacked by sword in Tobago in the 1990s though... They landed by boat, marched into his house, and ran him through the chest. He survived.

  4. Replies
    1. Far from it! Thanks for visiting Sophie :)

  5. Enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing.
    Helena - I quite agree that the reality of piracy is far from romantic, but for fiction an historically inaccurate swashbuckling pirate-based story can be entertaining. I write the Sea Witch Voyages and get a lot of fun from them. Nick are yours Indie published? Has the Historical Novel Society reviewed them? I'm Managing Editor for HNS Indie reviews & I can't see that we have - I think we ought to! if you'd like to e-mail me on author AT helenhollick DOT net I'll give you details

    1. Now there's an offer I shan't refuse Helen! And now I'm blushing. I wasn't expecting a comment from one of the first authors to convince me Historical Fiction is the best kind of fiction...


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