Historic Pirate Ports of Call

British Isles

Clew Bay, Ireland

The west coast of Ireland might not seem like prime pirate territory, but in the 16th century the rugged shores of Clew Bay served as the stronghold for of one of history’s most formidable lady corsairs. During a time when Ireland was ruled by dozens of local chieftains, Grace O’Malley defied convention and emerged as the leader of a seafaring clan who controlled the coastlines through intimidation and plunder. From her base of operations at Rockfleet Castle, O’Malley—also known as Granuaile—commanded hundreds of men and some 20 ships in raids on rival clans and merchant ships. She also ran afoul of government officials, who made repeated attempts to curb her activity. When a fleet from Galway besieged her castle in 1574, O’Malley led her pirates in a counterattack and forced the ships into a retreat.

O’Malley was captured in 1577 and spent several months behind bars, but by the 1580s she was once again stalking the seas surrounding Clew Bay. Her hands-on style of leadership earned her a reputation as a ruthless fighter—a popular legend states that she once gunned down a Turkish buccaneer only a day after giving birth—but she also showed a keen understanding of politics. When English colonial authorities eventually captured her son and impounded her ships, O’Malley petitioned the Crown for redress and then set sail for England. During a historic 1593 meeting with Queen Elizabeth I, she personally negotiated her son’s release and even secured the return of her fleet.

Sir Francis Drake had many famous exploits against the Spanish and it's hard to name just one, but his taking of the treasure ship Nuestra Señora de la Concepción has to rank right up there on anyone's list. The Concepción was a powerful ship, nicknamed "Cacafuego" (in English "Fireshitter") by its crew. It carried treasure regularly from Peru to Panama, from where it would be shipped to Spain. Drake, in his shipGolden Hind, caught up with the Concepción on March 1, 1579. Posing as a merchant, Drake was able to come right up beside the Concepción before opening fire. The Spanish were stunned and the pirates boarded them before they knew what was happening. Drake captured the prize with barely a fight. The amount of treasure on board was mind-boggling: it took six days to unload it all. When he brought the treasure back to England, Queen Elizabeth I made him a knight.

Far East

Hong Kong/Shanghai

The Chinese were pioneers in piracy, as in so many other things, and a history of piracy in China would begin many thousands of years ago. The Chinese were probably skilled practitioners of the art before history began to be recorded. The earliest accounts are in the records of the Chou Dynasty in the fourth century B.C., and piracy continued in China long after it had been suppressed in other parts of the world. When the first Europeans arrived in the China Seas in the sixteenth century, many of the pirates on the coast were Japanese. For three centuries after the defeat of Kublai Khan's invasion on Japan in 1281, Japanese pirates — mainly from Kyushu — were active along the whole coast, from the Liaotung Peninsula in the north to Hainan Island and the Straits of Malacca in the south. The famous Arctic explorer, John Davis, met his death at their hands in 1604. Davis was serving on an East India Company ship which was anchored off the island of Bintang, east of Singapore, when it was attacked by Japanese pirates.

The depredations of these Japanese pirates often extended far inland, and they were accompanied by atrocities reminiscent of the Japanese Rape of Nanking in 1937. Because of this the Ming Emperors banned all intercourse between the two countries, and this afforded the Portuguese the opportunity to act as middlemen in trade between the two countries. There was a flavour of irony in this, as the Portuguese were to prove as great pirates as the Japanese. Their most famous pirate was Mendes Pinto, who flourished in the latter half of the sixteenth century, and who seems to have been a combination of Sir Henry Morgan and Baron Munchausen. Pinto's exploits are characteristic of Portuguese history during those early centuries, displaying that amazing mixture of gallantry and greed, of religious zeal, bigotry, and cruelty. The eastern seas had always been full of violence, and the arrival of the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century, and the Dutch a century later, increased that violence. The Dutch lacked the religious zeal of the Portuguese, but substituted an equally unattractive obsession with trade. Much of the European trade in the Far East at that time was based on piracy. The Dutch, for instance, were excluded from direct trade with China until 1729, and in their Japan trade — in which Chinese silk was the most important commodity — they obtained much of their silk by plundering Portuguese and Chinese ships.

In the early 19th century, a Cantonese former prostitute known as the Wife of Cheng led a pirate fleet that included around 1,200 ships and 70,000 mariners—a force larger than the size of many countries’ navies. Under her direction, the Cantonese pirates dominated the South China Sea, terrorized the Chinese government and even developed their own code of conduct. The Wife of Cheng retired from the high seas in 1810 as one of history’s most successful buccaneers, and went on to live to the tender age of 69.

The pirates on the coast in the 1840's, 50's, and 60's, included British, American, French, and other foreign renegades, who often worked in league with Chinese merchants in Hong Kong and the treaty ports. The system of ship registry then in force in Hong Kong was even more liable to abuse than the present system, and allowed Chinese shipowners an easy means of claiming the protection of certain foreign flags. This increased the difficulties of the Navy, already hard pressed to distinguish between convoy and pirate, and between pirate, trader, and fisherman.

The most famous renegade among the pirates in the 1850's was an American sailor called Eli Boggs, for whose capture the Hong Kong Government offered a reward of $1,000. This was won by an even more famous American sailor, more often associated with blackbirding in the Pacific, than with piracy on the China coast. Captain Bully Hayes, however, made his debut on the China coast, and when that part of the world became too hot for him he moved south to Australasian and Pacific waters. Hayes first appeared in the Far East in 1854 at Singapore, as master of the American barque, Canton. He was then twenty-five years old. After selling the Canton, which did not belong to him, he appeared in Hong Kong a few months later as master of another American barque, the Otranto, which was probably under charter to the famous American house of Russell and Company. In Hong Kong's Victoria Hotel, and in the company of the masters of two Jardine opium clippers — Long John Saunders of the Chin Chin and King Tom Donovan of the Spray — Hayes made the acquaintance of some naval officers, and for the rest of his time on the coast he was a great favourite with the Navy.

At this time he visited Amoy, Foochow, and Shanghai several times, and it was in 1857 north of Shanghai that he captured his compatriot Eli Boggs. Hayes was a guest on H.M.S. Bittern when she attacked Bogg's fleet of between thirty and forty junks. When the junks fled into shallow water out of range of the Bittern's guns, Hayes persuaded Captain Vansittart to allow him to continue the chase in the longboat, and in this he personally captured Boggs. Boggs was taken to Hong Kong and found guilty of piracy. He escaped hanging, however, as no one could be found willing to swear to having seen him commit murder.

Gulf Coast of New Orleans

Barataria Bay

The swampy islands surrounding Barataria Bay, Louisiana, once served as a sanctuary and safe harbor for the famed pirate-turned-patriot Jean Laffite. In the early 19th century, Laffite and his brother Pierre led a syndicate of thieves who terrorized shipping in the Gulf of Mexico. Working as privateers for the upstart Republic of Cartagena, Laffite’s buccaneers plundered Spanish merchant vessels and then smuggled stolen goods and slaves into New Orleans. By the 1810s, their illegal colony at Barataria Bay had grown into one of the busiest black market ports in all of North America. Between 500 and 1,000 marauders frequented the area, and more than a dozen pirate ships regularly occupied its harbor.

In 1814, Laffite famously interrupted his pirate activity to play an unlikely role in the War of 1812. After receiving an offer from the British—who hoped to use Barataria as a point of access to New Orleans—Laffite instead offered his services to the United States in exchange for clemency for his past misdeeds. Laffite and his followers went on to serve with distinction in the Battle of New Orleans under future President Andrew Jackson, and he was rewarded with a full pardon. But despite winning a clean slate, Laffite would not stay away from a life of crime for long. He later led his men to Texas and formed yet another pirate haven on Galveston Island.

The Caribbean Islands

Port Royal

During the “Golden Age of Piracy” in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Port Royal, Jamaica stood as one of the most popular ports of call for thieves, prostitutes and pirates of every stripe. The small harbor’s association with marauding began in the mid-1600s, when Jamaica’s governors offered it up as a safe haven for pirates in exchange for protection from the Spanish. The buccaneers accepted the deal, and the town soon became a major staging ground for British and French privateers—ship captains commissioned by the Crown to disrupt Spanish shipping in the Caribbean and Atlantic. One of the most famous of these state-sanctioned pirates was Sir Henry Morgan, a Welsh captain who used Port Royal as a base of operations for raids on the Spanish strongholds at Portobello, Cartagena and Panama City.

Port Royal prospered on the back of its pirate economy, and by the 1660s its streets were lined with taverns and brothels eager to cater to the whims of young buccaneers flush with Spanish loot. Contemporary accounts describe a seamy harbor overrun with gambling, prostitution and drink, where hard-living mariners often squandered thousands of Spanish reals in a single night. Even after the age of privateering had ended, the so-called “wickedest city on Earth” continued to serve as a retreat for a new brand of lawless, freelance pirates. But when these raiders began indiscriminately plundering shipping traffic in the Caribbean, Port Royal’s colonial authorities were finally stirred into action. By 1720, the town had begun to clean up its act and its “Gallows Point” became a notorious site for pirate hangings. Among countless others, buccaneers like the ruthless Charles Vane and the flamboyant “Calico” Jack Rackham would eventually meet their end in Port Royal.

Tortuga

In the early 1600s, the rocky island of Tortuga served as the chief stronghold of a motley group of adventurers, thieves and escaped slaves who preyed on Spanish treasure ships in the Caribbean. These raiders started out as a band of French hunters on nearby Hispaniola (now Haiti), and it was the French word for their method of curing meat, “boucaner,” that inspired their feared nickname: buccaneers. The buccaneers fled Hispaniola for Tortuga around 1630 after the arrival of Spanish settlers, and they soon turned to the lucrative business of piracy. To support their operations, they made Tortuga into a fortified stronghold. Jean le Vasseur, a buccaneer leader who had once worked as a military engineer, even built a 24-gun castle called Fort de Rocher to help guard the island’s harbor.

Tortuga became a prime destination for pirates, attracting men of rough character from as far as England, Holland and Portugal. As more would-be marauders arrived on the island, they organized themselves into a loose fraternity of thieves called the “Brethren of the Coast” and developed their own code of conduct. Many of the Brethren received privateer commissions from England and France, and they proved a thorn in the side of the Spanish, who responded with repeated attacks on Tortuga. The buccaneers later served under Sir Henry Morgan during his famous raids along the Spanish Main, but their influence waned with the end of privateering. While a few continued to prowl the Caribbean for several decades, Tortuga’s buccaneers had all but disappeared by the beginning of the 18th century.

New Providence

Long before it became a popular stopover for cruise ships and vacationers, the Bahamian island of New Providence was known as a lawless “nest” of pirates—and for good reason. The island sat in the center of the well-traveled trade lanes between Europe and the West Indies, and its capital of Nassau offered a safe harbor for marauders to repair and resupply before setting sail in search of plunder. By the 1710s, New Providence had become a popular gathering place for some of the Caribbean’s roughest customers. Among others, raiders like Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet and Charles Vane were known to haunt its seaside taverns and bars.

Pirate activity in the Bahamas eventually became so rampant that the British government feared for the long-term survival of its colony. In 1718, the Crown dispatched three warships to New Providence along with a new governor—the privateer-turned politician Woodes Rogers. Governor Rogers offered a pardon to any pirates who surrendered—some, like Benjamin Hornigold, even became pirate hunters—but he showed little mercy to those who resisted. In December 1718, he sent a chilling message to unrepentant buccaneers when he executed a band of convicted pirates in Nassau. From then on, New Providence was slowly transformed from a playground for thieves into one of the main headquarters for anti-piracy operations in the Caribbean.