The lure of the Golden Age of Piracy continues to grab the imagination of people to this day. Books, movies, maps, theme parks, and a nearly uncountable amount of merchandise attest to the fact. Often lost in the romanticism are the realities of Piracy. Not even the most skilled of sailors could stay at sea indefinitely and even pirates needed shelter from not only the storm, but the multitude of enemies their “profession” brought along with it.
Over the history of piracy in the Caribbean basin several select locations served as “safe havens” for pirates looking to hide from retribution and sell the fruits of their plunder. As the era of piracy faded, often the economic importance of their havens would fade with it. History would choose very different paths for four of the best known Pirate Havens.
New Providence Island, where today the Bahamian capital of Nassau resides, became one of the many islands in the Bahamas to become involved in piracy because the archipelago’s thousands of islands, multiple shoals and reefs offered a variety of safe havens to hide and narrow passages with which to hunt (1).
Nassau has fared better than just about any other former pirate haven. Today, it is the Bahamas largest city and it has lasted because its value lay, not in the fact that’s it’s isolated, but because it is a transportation hub. It is one of the region’s favorite tourist destinations due to its relatively close location for U.S. travelers. Nassau is the economic center of the Bahamas and a regional center of commerce.
Much of Tortuga’s claim to fame can be attributed the Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. But the island is, in fact, a real place and was indeed a pirate haven. As a far flung French outpost, local government at the time found it of convenience to hire local hunters (who “sublimated their income” often from preying on Spanish shipping) to serve as defense for the island (2). This marriage of agreement, coupled with Tortuga’s isolated location made it an ideal pirate base.
Today, it is part if Haiti and has a population of around 25,000 (3). Though it receives some tourism, Tortuga plays little in the role of economic consequence. As with much of Haiti, many of the island’s inhabitants are impoverished. Unlike Nassau, Tortuga’s lure to pirates was its relative isolation, which didn’t transfer well after its primary base of value was depleted.
Port Royal, on Jamaica’s southern coast, was a town of vast importance during Great Britain’s formative years of establishing Caribbean colonies. After the British took Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, they required manpower in a hurry to hold and protect their new possession.
Port Royal was decimated by an earthquake in 1692, destroying much of the settlement (4). It was never able to recover and eventually lost its importance to the city of Kingston, founded nearby. It is a sought after location for historians and archeologist as its sunken remains provide a unique window into the history of this era.
A shallow bay located on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, Barataria was a favorite pirate haunt in the 1800s (5). Driven from more traditional havens on Caribbean islands, the bayous of southern Louisiana provided an unapproachable area of shallow sea and swamp that made an ideal hiding place. Much of the business of the island was centered on bringing “less than legal,” goods to the then growing French-American settlement of New Orleans (5). Barataria Bay’s pirate history ended during the war of 1812, when they ran afoul of the British Navy.
Today, Barataria Bay is known for its shrimp industry and oil deposits. It also hosts some tourism and a resort community (6). Though it remains sparsely populated, it’s estuary is of importance to environmentalist, especially after it suffered ill effects from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.