Tortuga, meaning “turtle” in Spanish, is an island off the northern coast of Haiti. In the Golden Age of Piracy, the island was known for being a pirate haven. The rocky island was protected by a strong fort and provided safe anchorage for the French buccaneers between their raids on Spanish ships. It became a center of illicit activity and common destination for pirates, privateers, and smugglers from all nations.
Tortuga Island was first discovered by Spanish colonists. They gave it the name “Isla Tortuga” because the rocky outline of the island appeared to form the shape of a gigantic sea turtle. Later, the first French settlers in the Caribbean lived on the western part of Hispaniola, which is today the country of Haiti. These settlers hunted wild cattle and pigs on the island and sold the smoked meat, becoming known as the buccaneers – a word derived from the word boucan, the French word for the rack on which they smoked the meat.
Around 1630, the Spaniards drove the French out of the island, and the buccaneers fled to nearby Tortuga. They were joined by groups of English and Dutch colonists, and together they turned from hunting to piracy. The buccaneers would sail small boats up to the much larger Spanish trade galleons at night, climb aboard, and kill any guards before robbing the vessels. Their hunting skills made them expert marksmen, and the crew of most ships would surrender out of fear. Stories of their attacks spread, and soon the word buccaneer was synonymous with pirate.
Between 1630 and 1654, Spain would invade Tortuga four times in attempts to end the buccaneer threat. But every time their soldiers would leave, the buccaneers would return, and build up the fortifications they left behind. In the 1640s, the French governor of the island constructed a large fortress armed with many cannons, and imported over 1500 prostitutes to keep the buccaneers happy. The last Spanish attack in 1654 succeeded in capturing several hundred pirates, but the port’s reputation continued to attract lawless men, and Spain successfully attacked the island again.
After the final Spanish invasion, the English played a key role in retaking the island, appointed a military governor of their own. But in the 1660s, they appointed a Frenchman as governor, expecting he would rule in the name of the English crown in return for power. Instead, he raised French flags and declared for the King of France, returning Tortuga to French control once more. The English attempted to regain the island but failed each time.
Tortuga’s location was instrumental in its role as a pirate cove. It was situated very close to Cuba, the jewel of the Spanish Caribbean possessions. From Tortuga they could easily raid the northern Cuban coast, including ships trading with Havana, and they could sail north or east to attack Spanish holdings in Florida and Puerto Rico. Furthermore, Tortuga was located between the two famous English pirate havens of Port Royal and Nassau, making it easy for pirates of all nationalities to meet and cooperate.
During the 1660s, the vicious pirate François l’Olonnais made Tortuga his home port. He led the pirates on raids far and wide, attacking cities such as Campeche in Mexico, and Maracaibo in South America. In the 1670s, the English privateer Henry Morgan visited Tortuga to recruit men for his own raids.
However, these large raids far away resulted in the pirates of Tortuga spreading out to other ports. Tortuga’s status as a pirate haven began to decline as the importance of Port Royal and Nassau eclipsed it. In the 1680s, Spanish-French treaties and new French anti-piracy laws made life difficult for the pirates there, and by the end of the decade the pirate town was effectively dead.
Tortuga has been featured in several movies, books, and video games. Notably, it is used in the film Pirates of the Caribbean film series as the main port where the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow recruits his crew. In 2003, a PC game was released entitled Tortuga: Pirates of the New World, or Pirate Hunter in the United States, which was essentially a combat-focused remake of Port Royale.