In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, wild pirates and buccaneers ruled the seas. They sailed the seas in pirated galleons, took what the pleased from trade vessels of any country, and were famed for their brutality and ruthlessness. Pirates were wanted men. There was a bounty on the head of most ‘gentlemen of fortune’, and the penalty for the crime of piracy was the hangman’s noose. In many cases, pirates dared not risk landfall at any trading country for fear of a swift trial and death, so in some places, pirates founded strongholds and safe havens in lawless lands, from which they could ply their brutal trade without fear of reprisals from the authorities. The island of Ile Sainte-Marie was one of those places.
For over 100 years, this long, thin strip of land near Madagascar off the eastern African coast was the base and home of an estimated 1,000 pirates. This small island is located close to several major maritime trade routes used by trading ships returning to Europe from the East Indies. The shipping routes made for bountiful plundering by these wild buccaneers. The trading vessels bore cargoes of great wealth. Gold, jewels, exquisite timber, spices, expensive fabrics – All cargoes had to run the gauntlet of piracy.
Saint Mary’s island as it is known in English, provided the pirates with a place from which to strike their unfortunate victims, and also refuge to which to retreat. The islands many bays and inlets, as well as the abundance of tropical vegetation made it easy for the pirates to conceal their ships. The island provided a refuge from the tropical squalls and cyclones that frequent the area, and is abundant in food. As with any human settlement or outpost, death is part of life. As time wore on and the pirate community became established, these old buccaneers began to die. Some contracted tropical diseases, some succumbed to wounds received on their terrible missions, others died of old age. Thus, the world’s first and only known pirate cemetery was established.
Tropical cyclones and centuries of storms have worn away many of the engravings on the stone markers, but there are indicators all around that these headstones, many lying skewed at crazy angles through age, are the last resting places of pirates. Skull and crossbones emblems adorn some of the graves, pirate markings and sayings, European names and carving styles abound. Legend has it that a large black tomb in the cemetery is the final resting place of the infamous pirate Captain Kidd, buried there in an upright position so he could never rest, to punish him for his heinous crimes.
The island’s days as a pirate enclave were ended in the late 1700’s when the French, tired of their ships being attacked, mounted a military incursion and seized the island. The island lay under French control for the centuries to follow – Such was the feared reputation of this place that the tropical isle was only returned to Madagascar in 1960. The legendary and infamous utopian pirate republic of Libertalia was rumored to exist in this wild tropical area, although the republic’s existence, let alone its location, has never been confirmed – some say that Ile Sainte-Marie is in fact this mythical feared and revered buccaneer enclave. Either way, this crumbling cemetery remains, its half sunken graves covered by tall grass, vines and broadleaf plants, is testament to this island’s wild piratical past, and a reminder of a time when the world’s governments lived in fear of these wild, untamable men of the sea.