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Fort de Rocher

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Fort de Rocher


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

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

Fort de Rocher was a fortress on the island of Tortuga that was built during the Buccaneering Era. It was used during the 17th century by the buccaneers to defend their pirate haven against the Spanish and its story is very intertwined with the history of Tortuga and the buccaneers. When it was first built the territory of Tortuga and Saint-Domingue was in dispute between the Spanish and the French, the former having claimed all of the New World and seeing any settlement other than theirs as encroachment.

The French and the Spanish engaged back and forth on the island and due to its lack of economic viability the Spanish would always leave. The buccaneers would always return and eventually they built a fortress that prevented the Spanish from being able to oust them from the rocky island. After the final time the Spanish would oust the French they returned in force and conquered the port and the island in 1640. The buccaneers were led by a French engineer named Jean la Vasseur, who along with a hundred and fifty men built Fort de Rocher and equipped it with cannons and other defenses. Around this time La Vasseur was elected governor of Tortuga as well.

The main problem before had been the Spanish ships that had been able to fire on the French and support the troops who would oust them from the island. This fortress dealt with that as the cannons were able to protect the water around Tortuga now. Once the Spanish realized the fort was being constructed they attempted to launch an invasion of the island from their territory of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. As soon as the Spanish ships approached the harbor at Tortuga they were sunk by the cannons at Fort de Rocher and they quickly retreated. The Spanish soldiers that landed on the island were ambushed and many were killed before they retreated.

For protecting Tortuga once and for all against the Spanish and establishing the first real French settlement in the New World the buccaneers and Vasseur became very powerful and famous. From its very beginning Tortuga was a legally sanctioned lawless pirate haven. Le Vasseur was a big proponent of buccaneering and opened his port to any sailor and brigand that wanted to ply the waters of the West Indies. He offered political protection in exchange for a percentage of the loot acquired. Soon British, French and Dutch pirates all flocked to the Caribbean in order to gain their share of some of the massive wealth of the Spanish Main.

Fort Description

Fort de Rocher was constructed on a rocky plateau that was about thirty feet high in the area and about a 1/3 of a mile or 1.6 km from the area known as Basse-Terra. On the plateau located at 20°,-72.7°, Vasseur built a star fort along with terraces and breastworks and incorporated the natural rocky outcrop into the design. The fort was large enough to hold hundreds of men and this became the main center of Tortuga. The fort was not a traditional star fort as there was not enough room on the side overlooking the harbor Vasseur built two redans. Star points or redans were used to help gunners get a better angle to fire on enemy ships.

Next the nearby area was cleared of trees so the cannons could have a clear line of fire into the harbor and a 180° view. Vasseur bolstered his fortress with 24-cannons and also incorporated a natural water spring for fresh drinking water. There was only one path that led up to the fortress so it was easily defendable by the buccaneers if Spanish troops chose to invade. The first half of the path up to the fortress was a stone staircase that was carved out of the rock. From there a ladder was lowered down from the top and buccaneers could enter.

In addition to being a defensive structure the fortress also was a warehouse that stored food, guns, ammo and was Vasseur's personal home and governors mansion. At the top of the structure Vasseur built his reduit which was the last garrison used incase the rest of the fort fell. He named it Dovecote and Fort de Rocher complete. According to rumors Vasseur was twisted and built an iron prison cage that as not tall enough for someone to stand up in nor wide enough for someone to lay down. The cage was known as "Little Hell" and was located inside Dovecote. The fortress was able to withstand many Spanish assaults and was only defeated through the treachery of Vasseur's own men.


Following Vasseur's assassination in 1653 the Spanish would siege the island of Tortuga and manage to exploit weaknesses of the fortress in order to force the surrender of the buccaneers. The Spanish moved their cannons into the hills above the fort and after a nine day siege the buccaneers surrendered and were forced to flee the island. The Spanish destroyed Fort de Rocher after the buccaneers left and all that remains today is the foundation of the structure.

The destruction of Fort de Rocher would mean the end of the first era of buccaneering in Tortuga. However, soon the English and later the French would be back and the port would see a resurgence in the 1660's. The phase would only last a few decades before treaties between royal powers forced the buccaneering era to a close. Overall the story of Fort de Rocher is essential in understanding the development of Tortuga and buccaneering as a whole.




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