This Island Was the Off-Season Home For Over 1,000 Pirates

This Island Was the Off-Season Home For Over 1,000 Pirates

Stephanie Schoppert - June 10, 2017

The small Island of Ile Sainte-Marie has a storied history filled with pirates and buried treasures. In fact some believe that it is the inspiration for the one of the greatest pirate stories of all time: Robert Louise Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Today it is home to nothing more than graves and shipwrecks. Lying just four miles off the coast of Madagascar this island was once filled with hundreds of pirates who were the scourge of the seas during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was known as the Island of the Pirates and today that history continues to come alive to anyone that walks among the numerous graves on the island.

Ile Sainte-Marie is a beautiful tropical island and it drew many travelers. In the early 17th century the French tried to settle the island but quickly died off from fever. After that it became the perfect place for pirates to spend the off-season. It had numerous secluded bays that allowed pirates to hide their ships and it was located right on the trade routes which meant the island was always fully stocked and there were some opportunities for plunder as well. Ships coming back from the East Indies would pass the island burdened with wealth and there were plenty of eager pirates willing to lighten the load. The local women provided companionship and the tropical fruit provided enough nourishment for even the poorest pirate crew to stay slated throughout their stay.

During its height as a pirate hideaway huts would dot the island, each one bearing a flag that denoted whose crew the sailor belonged to. Pirates came from all over the world to spend their days in the safety of the island and it even became a permanent home to many of them. Some pirates stuck around to raise a family and others just stayed in the off season and retired elsewhere. If a pirate were to die on the island, he would be buried there. A special cemetery, only for pirates, was created upon a scenic hilltop.

This Island Was the Off-Season Home For Over 1,000 Pirates
A grave at the cemetery with the traditional skull and crossbones. The Vintage News

Shaded by large palms and overlooking the water, this cemetery remains to this day as the only legitimate pirate cemetery in the world. With over 1,000 pirates inhabiting the island it is unknown how many pirates were actually buried there. Today the stones of 30 distinct graves remain. Many of the graves have been worn away by time and storms, but the skull and crossbones symbol of the pirates still stares out from one of the jagged grey rocks. Locals claim that at one time there were more than 100 visible graves but as the area is prone to cyclones and storms, many of the graves were destroyed or worn away.

Bodies of pirates are not the only things that can be found beneath the surface of Ile Sainte-Marie. A 30-meter-long tunnel complex has also been discovered. Its purpose is still unknown. It could have been used as a trap, an escape route or a place to hide treasure. The tunnel might be just one place where mountains of treasure could be found, another place is at the bottom of the sea. The waters around Ile Sainte Marie are littered with the wreckage of more than a dozen pirate ships. This area of shipwrecks has been dubbed by some to be the “Valley of the Kings of pirate shipwrecks.”

This Island Was the Off-Season Home For Over 1,000 Pirates
Map of Pirate Bay, Pirate Island and the pirate cemetery. Daily Mail

Ile Sainte Marie has a large bay that was known as Pirate Bay. Inside this bay is an island called Pirate Island, which was where many of the pirates would stay (the cemetery is located on the shores of the bay and not on the smaller island.) It was this island that was home to one of the most famous pirates to ever frequent the area and there are numerous rumors that both he and his treasure are buried there.

The pirate settlement was founded by Adam Baldrige. He was an English pirate who fled to the small island from Jamaica where he was wanted for murder. Baldrige subdued the local tribes and forced them to pay him in cattle, food and women. He had control of the island in a year and he then formed a partnership with a rich merchant in New York. Baldrige would then acquire plundered loot from the pirates and sell them to his merchant. In return the pirates would get their basic supplies such as rum, tools and ammunition. It was a good deal for the pirates and the island flourished. Baldridge built himself a mansion and a fort and even had his own harem.

Baldrige eventually overstepped his reach when he entered into the slave trade. He tried to sell some of the local natives which caused the local tribes to rise up against him. They burned his home and his warehouse and forced him to flee in 1697. It was his departure from the island that caused the pirate colony to begin to fall into decline as there was no longer a link to get supplies.

But the small island in the bay at its height was home to many fearsome pirates including Robert Culliford, Olivier Levasseur, Henry Every, Abraham Samuel and Thomas Tew. One of the most famous pirates to live on the island was also rumored to have to been buried there, the infamous Captain William Kidd. It was often said and believed that William Kidd was buried on the island in a large black tomb. Stories said that the Captain was buried upright as a sign of dishonor. This story was disproven as Kidd was actually buried in England.

This Island Was the Off-Season Home For Over 1,000 Pirates
Captain Kidd.

However, the pirate story of Captain Kidd does live on at Ile Sainte Marie because near the entrance to the Bay of Pirates, lies the wreckage of his ship, the Adventure Galley. The ship was docked when Kidd was captured and after his death the ship was left to simply rot into the ocean. After his capture, Captain Kidd swore that he had a large treasure and that if his life was spared he would show where he buried his treasure. This led many to believe that the when the Adventure Galley sunk at Sainte Marie that it was empty. Some suggested that his treasure was even buried on Sainte Marie.

Others have come up with a new story. Underwater explorer Barry Clifford has been exploring the wreckage around the island for years and it was while he was in the area of the Adventure Galley that he found a silver ingot worth tens of thousands of dollars. Clifford now believes that Kidd may have sold his treasure prior to capture and returned to Sainte Marie with a ship loaded with two tons of gold and silver ingot. Only time and future discoveries will tell if Clifford is right and that a large fortune still waits at the bottom of the ocean.

The Adventure Galley was not the only famous ship to meet its end near Saint Marie. Not far off from the Adventure Galley lies the Fiery Dragon. The Fiery Dragon was believed to have sunk in 1721 and that it was filled with treasure when it met its end. The ship belonged to the British pirate William “Billy One-Hand” Condon who was known for plundering ships and having a substantial treasure to his name. Among the wreckage of the Fiery Dragon has been found a 13th or 14th century statue of Christ and some ancient Chinese porcelain which is considered to be almost priceless.

This Island Was the Off-Season Home For Over 1,000 Pirates
Painting of the Fiery Dragon. Daily Mail

The pirate island operated until about 1733 when the numerous attempts by the French to regain control of the island finally succeeded. It brought about the end of an era of buccaneering and piracy that had flourished on the island and been the bane of the East India trade routes. The French maintained control of the island until 1960 when they turned it over to Madagascar. Today the island has become a very popular tourist destination for both treasure hunters and pirate enthusiasts.