Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration

Locations > Tortuga



Tortuga - Instituto Hidrografico de la Marina / la Roca (1654)

Tortuga - Instituto Hidrografico de la Marina / la Roca (1654)

Tortuga, also known as Ile de la Tortue is an island off the coast of Hispaniola that was one of the earliest havens of pirate activity in the Caribbean during the 17th century along with Port Royal on British Jamaica. Tortuga was popular during the Buccaneering Era and was inhabited by the group of buccaneers who were plundering the Spanish Main. The first European to spot the island was Christopher Columbus in 1492 when his ships entered the "Windward Passage”. He noted the shape of the island resembled a turtle and thats where the islands name comes from.

The north side of the island is extremely rocky and inhabitable and there are a few trees that grow but no soil. There are no beaches or harbors in the north and the only place for people to settle on Tortuga was the southern side of the island. The south side is divided into three major areas, Basse-Terre where most farmers lived, the Middle Plantation and La Ringot where a lot of tobacco was grown and the Mountain where the first plantations where made.

Tortuga was a great pirate haven due to the only natural harbor on the southeast side of the island. It had no reef and as deep enough that ships of up to 70-guns could enter and leave the harbor. It is protected by reefs that larger ships could not traverse. It was the first inhabited French settlement at the time and its first governor Jean la Vasseur was responsible for supporting buccaneering in order to defend the French settlement.

Buccaneers Camp on Tortuga - William Gilkerson

Buccaneers Camp on Tortuga - William Gilkerson

During the buccaneering era Tortuga was a haven of sin. There were taverns, gambling houses and prostitutes and the settlement grew very wealthy from the pirates activities. In exchange for the protection of the Brethren of the Coast the island of Tortuga granted them free license to raid and plunder the region. Due to Tortuga the French were eventually able to advance and establish a larger colony on the island Hispaniola called Saint-Domingue.

Buccaneering Era

See Buccaneering Era

The island of Tortuga was initially settled by a small group of Spanish colonists coming over from the Spanish settlement of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola.

However, after the sack of Saint Caroline and massacre of the French by the Spanish from the settlement of Saint Augustine, the French were forced to flee and colonize elsewhere. Along with some English they established a colony at Saint Christopher in 1625 on what would later become Saint Kitts. From Saint Christopher they decided to colonize elsewhere in the region and after finding Hispaniola more populated by the Spanish they ended up landing at Tortuga off the north coast.

Fort de Rocher - Histoire General des Antilles vol. I (1667)

Fort de Rocher - Histoire General des Antilles vol. I (1667)

There were still a few Spanish colonists on the island at this time but the French settlers started building plantations anyways and were soon joined by buccaneers from around the West Indies. This drew he attention of the Spanish and in 1629 they were attacked by a contingent of Spanish soldiers under the command of Don Fadrique de Toledo.

The Spanish defeated the buccaneers and they were forced to flee into the interior and over to the mainland of Hispaniola. Toledo built fortifications on Tortuga before returning back to Hispaniola to chase down the rest of the buccaneers.

However, the absence of the Spanish soldiers attracted the buccaneers once again and they returned to the island the following year in 1630. The buccaneers defeated the small Spanish garrison left behind on the island and began work on expanding the fortifications the Spanish built.

After 1630 the pirate haven of Tortuga was open for business for French and English sailors who wanted to use it as their base for buccaneering as long as they defended it as well. During this time the English and French co-existed were allied through their mutual hatred and enemy of the Spanish but there were many disagreements and arguments that did occur.


Tortuga - Histoire des Avanturiers (1686)

Tortuga - Histoire des Avanturiers (1686)

Many of English colonists did not return and instead settled on the island of Nevis. A few did however, and the Providence Island Company built a colony on Tortuga under Anthony Hilton in 1631.

The British called the island Association Island during this time. Anthony Hilton would later be replaced as governor by Nicholas Riskinner who arrived at Tortuga in 1635. Riskinner died shortly after his arrival on the island.

The French sent a request to the governor of Saint Christopher to send Tortuga a governor and some soldiers and the island would begin to be used to launch larger attacks on Spanish ships. The French would eventually send Jean la Vasseur but this would take a few years.

For now the buccaneers and colonists were left to fend for themselves and resorted to full scale piracy and buccaneering. Later that year the island of Tortuga was viewed as more important than Saint Christopher so the seat of the Governor-General was transferred to the new territory.

In 1633 the first slaves to the island were imported and the French began to develop the territory economically. However, slavery would only last on the island until 1635 because the colonists did not know how to manage them. There may have been slave revolts and the slaves were reported as out of control. The social unrest on the island is what eventually led the Spanish to reconquer it for a second time.

Second Spanish Invasion

See Second Spanish Invasion

Third Spanish Invasion

See Third Spanish Invasion

Tortuga Decline

See Tortuga Decline

Post Spanish Succession Period

See Post Spanish Succession Period

Tortuga Economy

See Tortuga Economy

Life in Tortuga

See Life in Tortuga


See Legacy

Overall the pirate haven of Tortuga slipped into decline that corresponded with the decline of the buccaneering era as a whole. The pirates that chose to ply their trade were mostly doing the Pirate Round in the Indian Ocean and this led to the development of a pirate haven at Madagascar right at the turn of the 18th century.

Due to the buccaneers success in establishing Tortuga the French were also able to establish a major sugar plantation and slave colony at Saint-Domingue that occupied a third of the island of Hispaniola while the Spanish were able to retain their 2/3 as the colony of Santo Domingo.

Tortuga Governors

Jean la Vasseur1640 - 1653Assassination
Chevalier de Fontenay1653 - ????




Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

United States, Hydrographic Office (1891). "Catalogue of Charts, Plans, Sailing Directions, and Other Publications of the Office, July 1, 1891". p. 34. Retrieved 14 July 2015.

Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain); Shaw, Norton; Greenfield, Hume; Bates, Henry Walter (1834). "The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society". p. 130. Retrieved 14 July 2015.

Schutt-Ainé, Patricia (1994). Haiti: A Basic Reference Book. Miami, Florida: Librairie Au Service de la Culture. p. 20. ISBN 0-9638599-0-0.

"Ile de la tortue, Histoire. Petite histoire de l'île de la tortue". Villa Camp Mandingue. Haiti. Retrieved 24 July 2012.

"Cristóbal Colón en La Española". Amautacuna de Historia. 2010-10-24.

"Diario de a bordo del primer viaje de Cristóbal Colón: texto completo. 6 de Diciembre.". Wikisource. 1492. Retrieved 24 July 2012.

The Buccaneers In The West Indies In The XVII Century - Chapter IV

The Buccaneers In The West Indies In The XVII Century - Chapter IV

Exquemelin, Alexander (2003). Zeerovers. 's-Hertogenbosch: Voltaire B.V. pp. 18–20. ISBN 90-5848-044-5.

Pancorbo, Luis (2003) "El Canal de la Tortuga" en "Río de América". pp. 321–333. Laertes, Barcelona. ISBN 84-7584-506-1

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