Next to the “Wickedest City in the World,” which was Port Royal in the 1600s, Tortuga was a pirate haven par excellence. It was a mountainous island on the Northwest Coast of Hispaniola, which is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. Tortuga sat near the Windward Passage that runs between Cuba and Hispaniola. Spain used this ocean passage to ferry its treasure fleets between Central and South America to home ports on the Spanish Mainland. Because of this, the pirates’ Brethren of the Coast anchored at Tortuga to harass and ransack Spanish ships as they sailed by. Also, Tortuga acted as a home base and recruiting ground for buccaneers who attacked Spanish colonies at large in the West Indies. The most famous of these cutthroats was Henry Morgan, who raised crews from Tortuga shores.
In the 17th century, many in Tortuga sought out Letters of Marque, commissions that were granted by countries, such as England and France, to persons then given legal right to prey on Spanish shipping in the Caribbean Seas. England and France often looked the other way when their buccaneers (sometimes almost outright pirates) took on Spanish ships in peace time as well as war. As long as the court received a significant cut of the wealth, the king was not inclined to listen too closely to the protests of Spanish ambassadors. It was a war by proxy to loot the gold, silver, and precious stones of South America. Each European country fought for a share, disregarding the rules of peace even when no longer formally at war.
Christopher Columbus first named Tortuga as he passed by in 1492. Its contours through the mist looked like a turtle, so Columbus named it for its appearance: Isla Tortuga, or Turtle Island. In its early days in the 1600s, Tortuga was alternately held by the Spanish, French, and English. It changed hands through battle several times during the century. Finally, the English prevailed and used buccaneers to protect its Caribbean ports from its enemy, the Spanish threat. Thus, a home base for pirates was born. Although buccaneers often acted as privateers (ships with a Letter of Marque), they strayed into piracy more often than not. Tortuga was a lawless place with as many disreputable people as there were benches to accommodate them in the burgeoning taverns. Its governors knew the value of pirates and indulged their tastes and need for a safe port to careen their ships while provisioning for the next voyage. For a while, it was a marriage made in hell, but it was an effective one throughout the 17th Century. If you visited Tortuga, you’d best be prepared to drink your rum with gunpowder in it (one recipe for grog) and fight your duels on the beach rather than onboard ship.