Tortuga Island

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Tortuga Island

Tortuga Island, a major Caribbean base for French buccaneering from 1630 to 1700. Tortuga Island, just north of the western tip of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti), was an important strategic location in particular for the activities of seventeenth-century French buccaneers. The island had been a rendezvous for rovers of all nations since the time of Francis Drake, and from 1630 on, as tobacco production gave way to sugar growing, it became the headquarters for French freebooting.

Anthony Hilton, aware of its centrality, first settled the island in 1630, helping to provide a strategic location from which freebooters could safely travel. Considering Tortuga a pirate stronghold, the Spanish attacked and captured it in 1634, causing much destruction and killing many people. By 1640, however, the island had been repopulated by numerous English and French, many of whom had migrated there from Caribbean areas suffering from the tobacco depression.

The English initially gained the upper hand in government, oppressing many of the French on the island. Thus, in 1640 the governor of Saint Christopher, L. de Poincy, sent a group composed of Huguenots, under the command of M. Le Vasseur, to Tortuga. In August of that year this group entered the island unhindered and ordered the English to leave. Thereafter the island remained in French hands, although the Spanish unsuccessfully attacked it in 1643 and again in 1654.

Tortuga became an international haunt of buccaneers after the massacre of the Providence Company's settlers in 1634. After attaining power, Le Vasseur fortified Tortuga and established himself as semiofficial governor and leader of robbers. As the century progressed, the island continued to grow in importance as a buccaneer stronghold.

Assuming the governorship of French Hispaniola, and thus Tortuga, in 1665, Bertrand d'Ogéron strongly supported the activities of the buccaneers. While aiding these men on Tortuga, he also tried to establish a more respectable and secure settlement on western Hispaniola. The Tortuga buccaneers played an important role in the Anglo-Dutch War of 1672 to 1678, weakening the Dutch. The seven years from 1678 to 1685 also proved to be very active ones for these buccaneers. The successful buccaneers Captain Nicholas Van Horn and Laurens-Cornille Baldran de Graaf attacked numerous Spanish settlements. But in 1697 the Spanish ceded Saint Domingue (Hispaniola) to France, and the governor of the colony, Jean-Baptiste du Casse, persuaded the remaining buccaneers on Tortuga to settle peacefully on Saint Domingue.

The importance of establishing French control over Tortuga cannot be overestimated, for from this beginning sprang the greatest French colony, Saint Domingue, which became the richest and most highly cultivated of the West Indian islands. Ironically, this area, including Tortuga, now forms one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, modern-day Haiti.

See alsoFrench West Indies; Piracy.


Père P-F-X. Charlevoix, Histoire de l'Isle Espagnole ou de Saint-Domingue, 2 vols. (1730–1731).

C. H. Haring, The Buccaneers in the West Indies in the XVII Century (1910).

A. P. Newton, Colonising Activities of the English Puritans (1914).

N. M. Crouse, The French Struggle for the West Indies, 1665–1713 (1943).

J. H. Parry, et al., A Short History of the West Indies, 4th ed. (1987).

M. A. Peña Batlle, La isla de Tortuga (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Barker, David, and Carol Newby. A Reader in Caribbean Geography. Kingston: Ian Randle, 1998.

Hornsby, Stephen. British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2005.

Watts, David. The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture, and Environmental Change since 1492. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

                                   Blake D. Pattridge