Tortuga or Turtle Island (presently known as Ile de la Tortue and located off the northwest shore of present day Haiti on the Island of Hispaniola), Tortuga is approximately 20 miles long and no more than 4 miles wide, and at one time, held the reputation of the home of pirates.
Tortuga was first discovered and named by the Spanish. The name Tortuga actually means Sea Turtle. It was named this way because the island resembles a large turtle. Despite its immediate proximity to Hispaniola, an island claimed by Spain at the time of Columbus, the French decided to establish a settlement of sorts on the island in 1625. Most of the settlers came from the nearby French colonies of St. Kitts and Nevis.
The Spaniards were displeased with the influx of French settlers bordering on their territory and tried to dislodge them. The first of these attacks was in 1629 and was only marginally successful. Many of the colonists were true buccaneers, hunters of wild ox and pigs. Rather than fight the Spaniards in open combat, they fell back across the narrow channel and began hunting on the northern coast of Hispaniola.
The Spaniards then built a fort on Tortuga. Realizing they had only chased the French over to Hispaniola, the Spaniards left the fort with a small garrison to protect it and headed off in pursuit of the buccaneers. The lightly held fort was then easily taken by the buccaneers in a counter attack, and the French set about improving the fortifications. The island would remain a French colony from then on, despite repeated attacks by the Spaniards.
Strategically, Tortuga was one of the most important islands for France. To the northeast of Tortuga is Cuba, the last stop of the Treasure Fleet before returning to Spain. France, like most of Europe, was at war with Spain for most of the 1600s. Tortuga became a perfect spot to ambush the returning Spanish fleets.
The French governors of Tortuga would, for a price, offer safe harbor to just about any ship that wasn’t Spanish. They were also entrusted with the powers to offer Letters of Marque to privateers and weren’t too picky about the nationality of the crew as long as they agreed to attack Spanish ships and split the booty with them. As such, Tortuga quickly became known as the home of the Brethren of the Coast.
At around this same time, Anthony Hilton, an Englishman, set up an English colony on the island. The English and the French on Tortuga were, at first, allies against the greater enemy, Spain. This, however, was short lived as the two start fighting over the imported slaves on the island. When the Spaniards got word of this, they decided to attack Tortuga and wipe out the divided intruders. They managed to wipe out the English colony, but the French and the English survivors once again fled the island.
It seems like Tortuga really had nothing for the Spaniards because once again, as soon as they had driven the French and English from the island, the Spaniards left. As the Spaniards left, the buccaneers again returned to wreak havoc.
By now, the buccaneers were attempting to raise sugar cane and tobacco. When not raising crops, they were attacking the Spanish fleets. By 1641, the French colony has become so well established that the French sent Jean Le Vasseur to take control of the island. Le Vasseur managed to expel the English colony. The British plantation became French in name but most of the population of Tortuga was made of pirates, and they remained on the island with the blessing of the French Government. The pirate fleets offered both protection and income to the small colony. Most of the pirates were either English or French. In order to keep the pirates happy and around, the French governor imported hundreds of prostitutes.
By this time, the pirate community was firmly established on Tortuga and enjoyed the support of the French Government. Pirates of all nationalities were free to roam the seas around Tortuga under loosely written Letters of Reprisal against the Spanish government. Eventually this was frowned upon, and the French made efforts to weed their privateer ranks of Dutch Freebooters and English privateers. The man primarily responsible for this was Governor Monsieur D’Ogeron. The English in turn headed for Jamaica and safe harbor, while the Dutch headed off to the Virgin Islands, primarily St. Thomas.
Among the notable pirates to have ventured into Tortuga is none other than Henry Morgan who arrived there in 1660 as an indentured servant. He soon deserted a cruel boss and joined the ranks of buccaneers, later moving his base of operation to Jamaica.
Among the French pirates was none other than Jean David L’Ollonais, probably one of the cruelest men to ever hold a cutlass in his hand.
In 1670, Henry Morgan accepted French Letters of Commission, and he actively promoted the island of Tortuga as a base of operations and for the disposal of booty. In that year, 500 buccaneers from Tortuga and 1000 buccaneers from Jamaica, under the command of Henry Morgan, set out to pillage and plunder “legally” with a Letter of Marque. They attacked Santa Marta, Rio de la Hacha, Puerto Bello and Panama. Morgan received a formal vote of thanks from the Council of Jamaica in May of 1671 for his activities.
By the 1680s, laws were made that English seamen sailing under foreign flags were traitors to the throne, and pirates. Several Englishmen sailing from Tortuga under French Letters of Marque were convicted and hanged for piracy after attacking Dutch ships. When the Spanish gold began to dwindle, the buccaneers turned their attention to Jamaican plantations and English merchant ships. This led to protests from the English government to the king of France. Eventually, the buccaneers were privateers only in name and attacked anything that wasn’t French. The governor-general of the French Colonies attempted to bring the buccaneers under control but failed.
Finally, in 1684, the Treaty of Ratisbone was signed which formally ended hostility between France and Spain. With the treaty came the withdrawal of all Letters of Marque. From that point on, the buccaneers who continued attacks were pirates and were quickly hanged. Many of the former privateers were employed by the government of France to hunt down their former Brethren of the Coast.
While piracy would continue in and around Tortuga for years to come, it no longer enjoyed the status as a Home of the Buccaneers. The pirates found that life was easier in the Bahamas.