November 16th, 2006

Pirate - Calico Jack's flag

The Libertalia Delusion and the End of an Era

(Forgive me if I'm a little vague or in error on some of the details. Most of this comes from a book that I can no longer find a copy of, the best book on Caribbean piracy I've ever read, Cyrus Karraker's Piracy Was a Business.)

By the 1680s, the writing was on the wall for Caribbean piracy. The Brethren of the Coast were on their 3rd pirate haven, 4th if you count the original pre-piracy settlement in Haiti. Tortola had been captured. They were persona non grata in Port Royal after the earthquake. They had moved their headquarters to New Providence Island off the Carolina coast, to make it easier to trade with their best customers for stolen goods, the American colonists. But after Blackbeard's little "misunderstanding" in Charleston and the resulting deadly manhunt, the Brethren were nervous about how long New Providence could last. There was also the increasingly uncomfortable worry that at any time, peace might break out in Europe and, this time, stick. The more far-sighted among them could see that when that happened, those nations would be less willing to make deals with pirates because they'd no longer be useful as deniable terrorists, and worse, peace would free up all the navies of Europe for pirate-hunting. But the biggest problem they faced was that by late in that century, Spain had pretty well finished looting the dying Aztec and Mayan empires, which meant that there was no longer the hope of another gigantic score, the capture of a Spanish treasure ship. All that was leaving them to prey upon was the relatively small potatoes of trade between Europe and the New World.

So the Brethren of the Coast made a plan for what they would all do once the Caribbean piracy era was over. They assembled a fully-armed, fully-equipped small colony fleet of four ships and about 300 pirates. Their objective was to sail around the tip of Africa and up the coast to Madagascar. Preliminary scouting reports had told them that there were several places on the northern coast of Madagascar that could easily be turned into fortified harbors. From there, pirates would be ideally situated to prey on the truly valuable shipping, the spice and silk trade between Portugal, Netherlands, and England and the Mogul Empire, the Islamic empire that spanned all or most of modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. There was even the hope of a Spanish treasure ship sized prize for at least one lucky crew per year. Every year, the Mogul ruling class made the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Being Moguls, they tended to travel with huge amounts of money, lots of luxury goods, and very ransomable passengers. Captain William Every's legendary treasure came from the capture of a royal Mogul pilgrimage ship.

So the plan was for those 300 pirates to capture northern Madagascar, subjugate the locals (who, according to the early scouting reports, were little more than savages), and force the natives to build them a harbor fort from which they could declare, and found, the permanent pirate kingdom of Libertalia. All through the last decade or two of the Caribbean pirate era, every pirate captain knew that if what he was currently doing got too tough or too unprofitable, he and his crew could always retire to Libertalia, the kingdom that pirates ruled. This belief in their libertarian fantasy kingdom provided them with great comfort. Unfortunately, what none of them knew was that it was truly a fantasy kingdom. The plan had been doomed from the start. It was a fiasco of legendary proportions. It had turned into such a disaster that nobody escaped to tell the Caribbean pirates that they had failed.

You see, the Madagascarans had been successfully fighting off Arab and Somali slave traders for hundreds of years. When the pirates first landed, the natives welcomed them and then set about ignoring them. When the Libertalian pirates tried to persuade the Madagascarans to build them a pirate harbor fort from which they could raid the Moguls and make Madagascar wealthy, the natives showed little or no interest. When the pirates tried to make them do it at gunpoint, though, they got the surprise of their life. The islanders instantly formed up into a huge army, seized and burned the pirates' ships, and slaughtered 2/3rds of them. The survivors thought they had a clever backup plan. They knew that more pirate ships would be coming, and pirates thought of themselves as good at living off of the land in tropical climates. So they fled into the jungle to hide from the natives until reinforcements arrived. If there were enough reinforcements, they could resume the conquest of northern Madagascar and the founding of Libertalia. If not, well, then at least they could evacuate and go back to New Providence.

All but 4 of them died of malaria in the first few months.

Nor were those surviving 4 evacuated. Peace did, in fact, break out in the Caribbean. Then the British sailed a huge war fleet into New Providence. They offered a generous amnesty, with a firm warning that this would be the last pirate amnesty ever in the world, to those who surrendered. Nearly all of them did. The rest were caught trying to escape, and hanged en masse. The would-be Libertalians were never going to get their reinforcement fleet. After holding out as long as they could, the last stragglers of the Libertalia expedition staggered into a native village and surrendered.

Correction: The earliest draft of this attributed Captain Every's feat to Captain Kidd. Corrected. Thanks, jholloway!