Perilous Pirate Ports Around the World

By Amanda Little

Swashbucklers, buccaneers, brigands, thieves, scallywags, pirates. It’s no surprise that with so many names for these nefarious seafaring folk that there were just as many ports, havens, and of course, famous pirates. Take a look at these pirate homesteads, fortresses, favorite ransacking cities, and islands that still survive today.

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Port Royal • Jamaica

The slim peninsula stemming from Kingston in Jamaica was once one of the busiest and most dangerous ports in the seven seas. Port Royal became a thriving and popular pirate port because of governing officials. Offered to the pirates by Jamaica for protection against the Spanish Conquistadores, privateers and swashbucklers could find a safe haven here during piracy’s “Golden Age.” All fought against the Spanish, French and British Crowns. Sir Henry Morgan, a Welsh commander, made a pirate name for himself by raiding Conquistador ships from here, as well as Cartagena, Portobello, and Panama City.

As time wore on, Port Royal took on the title of the “Wickedest City” and a new age a pirates came about that looted and raided indiscriminately. This brought about Gallows Point in Port Royal, a place where pirates were prosecuted and hung, left out for all to see. Many pirates met their end here, including Calico Jack, famous for his colorful clothing and having two of the most famous female pirates in his crew, Mary Read and Anne Bonny.

Tortuga • Haiti

This charming little island shaped roughly like a turtle was home to bands of thieves, pirates, and escaped convicts, all fiercely targeting Spanish treasure ships as well as any ship foolish enough to cross them. Some were French raiders, others were pirates spilling over from Port Royal. Over time, the island became a powerful fortress, with former military engineer Jean le Vasseur building Fort de Rocher, complete with 24-gun mansions, watch towers, and more to safeguard the island. The “Brethren of the Coast” developed here, as well as the loose code of conduct kept among thieves and pirates. The word buccaneer was also born here, borrowed and changed from the processed meat the French ate, called boucaner. One famous buccaneer sailing those waters was L’Olonnais, also known as Jean-David Nau, who was known for hacking his opponents to pieces. Legend has it he once cut the still-beating heart out of an enemy and took a bite.

New Providence • Bahamas

Nestled among the Bahamian islands, New Providence is where pirates set up their strategic stronghold, perfect for raiding and attacking ships voyaging from one continent to another, loaded with treasure. The capital, Nassau, was a harbor made for picking up supplies and docking for a while to make repairs to pirate ships. Like Port Royal, it was lined with bars and brothels. Famous pirates like Blackbeard and Charles Vane docked and spent time here. It became such a nest of pirate activity, the British government eventually worried that this little pirate haven would destroy the survival of their Bahamian colony. With brute force and the full strength of the British navy, it was eventually transformed into the main headquarter for anti-piracy operations in the Caribbean.

St. Mary’s Island • Madagascar

Those making their pirating living in the Indian Ocean usually called St. Mary’s Island home. Any European or Asian ship sailing through these waters would have kept a wary eye on the horizon for a black sail bearing some form of the Jolly Roger. This island off Madagascar became host to 1,500 pirates, and all of them were well supplied and equipped from their stay at this incredible stronghold. Even among this legendary pirate haven where Captain Kidd himself used to stay, there was myths of another utopian pirate haven nearby, called Libertalia. Even if Libertalia was just a story, the profitable raids here were fact. One of the bloodiest and lucrative fights was between Henry Every, who used six ships to attack a treasure ship, against the Great Mogul of India. The fight for the treasure on this ship was brutal, but Every won and made off with about the equivalent of $200 million in loot in 1695.

Clew Bay • Ireland

The home of the warm Irish welcome was also home to one of the fiercest female pirates to sail around Europe. Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mhaille), daughter to the chieftain of the O’Malleys of Murrisk, owned land of her own, bought many galleys, and made Clew Bay into a thriving pirate port. She was the leader of a band of pirates that defied the government of local chieftains, set up base and stored her treasure at Rockfleet Castle, and commanded a fleet of about 20 ships and hundreds of men. O’Malley defied convention of her time, and once her husband died she set sail and never looked back. Tales range from fending off an attack from Galway to giving birth on board to her son and successfully fending off Turkish buccaneers the very next day. She plundered and ran afoul of the British government, and even met with Queen Elizabeth I to negotiate her and her son’s release when they were captured, and even included the return of her fleet. She made the quiet western ports of Ireland a force to be reckoned with, and hasn’t been forgotten.

Barbary Coast • Northern Africa

The Barbary Coast was flecked with pirate havens, with Salé, Tunis, and Algiers being the most prominent. With Spain conquering Muslim-ruled territory, many people were forced to flee their homes, causing unrest throughout the coast, especially in Morocco. Allegiances, pirates, government, temporary treaties, and rebellion actively affected the coastlines, and many were ready to ransack anything that held treasure or power. The Barbarossa Brothers, Aruj and Hizir, made their fortune laying siege to European vessels throughout the Mediterranean, and working for the Ottoman sultan at the time. The brothers spent their lives fighting off Christian invaders, Ariuj losing an arm, gaining control of the entire coast, and then losing his life to piracy. Hizir followed quickly in his footsteps.

Around the same time, the Moroccan pirate Queen Sayyida al-Hurra joined them. She, like many, was forced to flee her home, and so married royalty, maintained her independence, and fought ferociously like any other pirate sailing those waters. Algiers and Salé were so plundered and overflowing with pirates that American founding fathers were forced to push back, and started the First Barbary War.

Campeche City • Mexico

A favorite target for pirates plundering the Gulf of Mexico became San Francisco de Campeche. After they’d looted and ravaged, the pirates used to relax in the Spanish wealth there. Henry Morgan, Jean Lafitte, and more famous pirates would attack the city and tear it apart on a regular basis. Because Campeche was settled by Spanish Conquistadors on top of the already-existing Mayan city of Can Pech, the architecture varies widely throughout the city, and many of the older buildings from both Mayan times and Conquistador times have been destroyed by the pirates. The constant ransacking of the city only slowed once the fortified walls of the city were erected in the 17th and 18th centuries. Now the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the fortified walls to keep the pirates away can still be seen.

Hai Tac Island • Vietnam

Among Vietnam’s many beautiful islands is Hai Tac, better known as “Pirate Island.” This “island” is actually an archipelago made up of 16 islands, where pirates would often seek shelter as early as the 20th century. The notorious pirate Ching Shih is said to have been there. Arguably the most successful pirate ever, Ching was a female pirate who married into a life of pillaging, and once her husband died, took over his fleet and expanded it until she had over 70,000 men at her command. These little islands held many Chinese and Vietnamese pirates, but now hold nothing more volatile than sealife. The islands aren’t set up for tourists, so you may want to either take a day trip to see the beautiful islands that once listned to pirate's songs, or live like a pirate for the night and camp out on the beach or in a hammock.

Ocracoke Island • USA

Found along the coast of North Carolina is the hiding place of perhaps the most famous of all pirates: the feared Blackbeard, who got his name by twining fuses through his facial hair and lighting them before going into battle. The island of Ocracoke served as the perfect location, stocked with resources and hiding places for Blackbeard, “Calico” Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read. These famous pirates used to lie in wait here in between attacking ships crossing the Atlantic. Their hiding places were soon filled with plunder and spoils of pirating. Still there today are artifacts salvaged from Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. Visitors can also see the North Carolina Maritime Museum on the mainland in Beaufort.

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