Tortuga is probably the most famous piece of real estate ever claimed by pirates. Though they formed the actual government of the Bahamas for nearly four years, and created a society so wicked in the city of Port Royal that the 1697 earthquake was called the “wrath of God”, Tortuga stands out by reputation. How did this come to be?
Like most of the Caribbean, the Isle de Tortuga was first claimed by the Spanish. In fact, it was first spotted by none other than Christopher Columbus himself, who spotted it on his very first voyage on December 6th, 1492. As the contours of the island emerged from the morning mist, Columbus was reminded of a turtle’s shell, and named the place accordingly. “Isle de Tortuga” means “turtle island”, plain and simple.
Of course, there are a lot of islands that look like the backs of turtles, and “Tortuga”-s can be found all over the world, including the “dry Tortugas” off the coast of Florida, “Tortuga” off the coast of California, and a couple of uninhabited Tortugas off the coast of South America. But for Pirates, there is only one real Tortuga. It lies in the Windward Passage, between Cuba and the island of Hispaniola.
A few Spanish lived on the island by 1625, and French and English settlers soon followed, having been foiled in their efforts to take up residence on Hispaniola. In 1629 they were chased off by Don Fadrique de Toledo, who chased them off and built a fort. Then most of the Spansih army left to chase the French off of Hispaniola, and the French and English came right back, taking over the fortifications that the Spanish had left behind.
Spain’s problem was that it was trying to claim half the world – without the manpower to keep it. The English, French and Dutch followed the pirate creed… If the land was far enough away and no one was watching it too closely, it was up for grabs.
This was the era of the Buccaneering Pirates… Quasi-legal adventurers who often struck at land-based objectives and funneled money back to their respective governments. Tortuga was a convenient spot to gather ships and supplies before striking out to attack either Cuba, Florida or Hispaniola. From 1630 onward, the French, the English and some Dutch occupied the island together, though when their nations were at war, they sometimes fought between themselves.
The level of chaos evident on the island may be hinted at by this fact: Africans slaves were introduced in 1633, but the practice of importing them was discontinued only two years later because they were “running wild.”
Between 1635 and 1640, Spain re-conquered and lost the island twice more. Though their nearby military might gave them the ability to strike effectively, the strategic value of the tiny island simply didn’t seem to merit leaving a force large enough to hold it.
By 1640, the French, English and Dutch buccaneers of Tortuga were calling themselves the Brethren of the Coast, and were causing chaos with shipping, often without regard to the nationality of the ships concerned. The French exerted the most control over the island, which was still not much. In 1645, the acting French governor found a remarkable method of getting the pirates under some kind of control. He imported approximately 1,650 prostitutes, hoping to give the pirates something less warlike to do.
In 1654, the Spanish captured the island for the fourth and final time. The pirates took it back less than a year later.
This time the English had the upper hand. Elias Watts secured a commission from the acting military governor of Jamaica to serve as “governor” of Tortuga. Five years later, the English, for reasons unknown, appointed a Frenchman, Jeremie Deschamps, to the position. Deschamps promptly claimed the island for the King of France, hoisted French colors over the previously Spanish/English/French fort, and defeated several English attempts to regain control.
By 1670 European powers were no longer quite so comfortable supporting the wild, lawless raiding of the buccaneers, and the buccaneer era was in decline. Many of the pirates turned to log cutting and wood trading as a new income source. Then a Welsh privateer named Captain Henry Morgan began his career, and invited the pirates to sail under him for the ostensible purpose of protecting England’s newly-acquired colony of Jamaica. French forces also used the pirates as hired guns to improve their position in the Caribbean. Tortuga remained a neutral hideout and a place to party.
Law and order was on a slow upswing, though. By 1680 it was illegal for the English to sail under foreign flags, and many of the pirates, who had been working for their respective navies off-and-on, for years, made it official and became permanent members of their respective nations’ military.
Tortuga remained famous in song and story however. Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) the author of such timeless pirate classics as The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, and The Black Swan, mentioned the island in many of his tales, and when these stories were filmed in by Hollywood, the legend of Tortuga only grew.
Today, Tortuga can be found on television (Black Sails) video games (Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, and The Curse of Monkey Island, among many others) and, of course, in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, where it represents the epitome of pirate culture.
To quote Captain Jack Sparrow, “If every town in the world was like this one, no man would ever feel unwanted.” Legacy of those 1,650 French prostitutes.