Headstones with skulls and crossbones are commonplace across the western world, with such memento mori symbols proving incredibly popular on graves from the 17th-18th centuries. In many local churchyards, these have become known as ‘pirate graves’ , with wild stories spun around the imagined history of the swashbuckling individual. However, for all of these incorrect, if fun, local legends about piracy, the real deal is out there…if a little further away from your local graveyard.
The island of Ile Sainte-Marie (St Mary’s Island) is a tiny and beautiful island off the coast of Madagascar and boasts a very special little graveyard. Looking at Ile Sainte-Marie today, it seems a haven for wildlife, being renowned for humpback whale watching and loved by divers for its beautiful (shark free!) lagoon with substantial coral growth.
However, Sainte-Marie wasn’t always such an idyllic landscape, but was a haven for pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first known pirate to take up residence was Adam Baldridge – who fled from a murder charge and turned to piracy – in 1691, and countless others followed in his footsteps until the last pirate resident, John Pro, in 1719. Sainte-Marie was ideal for habitation, with great swathes of native fruit trees (ideal for making rum!) and enough resources to support an approximate 1000 pirates over a 100 year period. In a map of 1733, the island was named quite simply ‘the island of pirates’.
The island’s popularity wasn’t a simple matter of being a hideaway for passing pirates, but was perfectly positioned to carry out their nefarious acts. Sainte-Marie sits beside the East Indies maritime trade routes, meaning that there was a steady stream of boats, laden with expensive goods and gold, ripe for picking. The island also offered many sheltered bays, ideal for concealing boats and crew, poised to attack.
Pirates would make their home in wooden huts across the island (and a smaller island – Ile aux Forbans), which they decorated with flags to signify to whose crew they belonged. With food, and a basic local infrastructure that inevitably included sex workers, it was a commune with considerable longevity, within which many renowned pirates laid down familial roots. The pirate’s sunny utopia existed until the late 18th century, when the island was invaded and taken under French rule. Sainte-Marie remained as such until 1960 when it was finally returned to Madagascar.
In this century-long pirate occupation, their burial space was similarly centralised and the bodies of deceased buccaneers were interred on a hilltop cemetery with stunning views of the island. Here, the ever-present skull and crossbones motif took on a secondary meaning, reflected in the – historically debated – jolly roger flags they flew atop their ships. The cemetery isn’t a pristine, busy space, with many stones broken, in poor state or are simply missing. Many contemporary images show the burial ground to be overgrown with long grasses and shaded under palm leaves, but its historical importance is unquestioned; for it is the only one of its kind in the world. There approximately 30 marked graves today, of which only a handful have a skull motif – truly a missed opportunity. The cemetery is open to the public, albeit at a fee and tours are also available, but are only conducted in French.
Legend states that the infamous Scottish pirate William Kidd was interred at the pirate cemetery, sitting upright, beneath an enormous black tomb, as a humiliating punishment for his evil deeds. Sadly, as with most reported unusual burials, this is a fanciful alternate reality as Kidd was taken back to England in 1701 and gibbeted near Tilbury in Essex. Kidd is a fascinating figure, being the subject of several folk songs and stories of buried treasure which is still searched for today. The truthfulness of his piracy conviction is a hotly debated topic, but his cruelty to others is not. Kidd attempted to earn his fortune as a pirate hunter, but all did not go to plan as half his crew died of cholera, his ship had leaks and he failed to find the pirates he sought near Madagascar. Instead, Kid feebly attempted to attack other ships for their cargo and survived attempts at mutiny.
Records remain that cite Kidd’s brutality towards prisoners, as he hung them by their arms and thrashed them with his sword. Kidd’s reputation, enhanced by centuries of storytelling, has continued to inspire popular culture, with his tales of buried treasure finding roots in the work of Edgar Allen Poe (In ‘The Gold Bug’) and countless songs and television shows. Although Kidd’s infamous buried treasure is yet to be found, discoveries of his legacy have been claimed within living memory. In 2000, his famous ship, the Adventure Galley, was reportedly found when examples of English oak were dredged from a local bay. Hopes were dashed as the wood, and enticing metal bars, were shown to be little more than parts of an early port construction. However, the promise of buried, or sunken treasure, continues to entice diving teams to this day.
With Pirates of the Caribbean, cutlass-wielding computer games and the phrase ‘a swashbuckling adventure’ branded into the western consciousness, it’s hard not to romanticise the existence of piracy. In reality, they were violent, cruel and murderous, but when did grim reality ever get in the way of a good adventure?
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