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Pirates and the Founding of Saint-Domingue

By Bob Corbett, <bcorbett@crl.com>
21 June 1995

Most of you know a bit about the pirates on the island of La Tortue. It is my contention that the pirates contributed very little to the future history of Haiti, but, on the other hand, it was their de facto rule of the western part of the island that strongly encouraged the French to sue for the cession of that portion of Hispaniola in 1697. Below is the story in brief form as I understand it.

About pirates. In the early 16th century Spain was, of course, dominant in the so-called New World. But, France, Great Britain and Holland joined to hire tough sailors called privateers to disrupt the Spanish shipping, steal the gold and silver and other precious items and give the largest share back to the supporting governments.

One of the central places for these privateers to hang out was the island of La Tortue, just off Haiti's north coast. If you look at a map you will see that this is the route of one path back to Europe from Central and South America. The other path, to the south of Puerto Rico, was too shallow and dangerous. Thus La Tortue, a rocky island with caves, was an excellent vantage point for the early privateers.

Later, by the 17th century when the privateers gave way to non-governmental groups of free lance criminals, the pirates were born. By this point La Torture was mainly the province of French pirates. The British pirates (Henry Morgan being the most famous of them) moved to Jamaica. The Dutch sort of dropped out.

Now, back to an interesting complication. The island of Hispaniola was Columbus' second land fall in 1492, after San Salvador. He claimed the island for Spain, but it had very little gold, thus it was not too important at that time. As the Spanish moved into Central and South America Hispaniola was at first the bread basket, where Indian and African slaves raised food for the conquistodors. Later, after the Spanish settled some areas of Central and South America, and the settlers started raising their own food, Hispaniola was virtually abandoned.

But there were Spanish on the eastern portion of the island where they raised some cattle, but the western portion (today's Haiti) was virtually abandoned. However, since this land was WILDLY fertile and formerly a place where animal farming went on, there were lots of wild cattle and pigs.

When the pirates weren't pirating, some of them began to cross the 16 km. over to Haiti to hunt meat. Since they cooked it over open fires they were called boukanier (the open fire men). But the British couldn't say that and that was the origin of the English term bucaneers. They wren't really pirates, but off-duty pirates, enjoying a barbarque!

Little by little these people settled in this area and built a French settlement in Spanish property. Disputes arose about this French infringement of Spanish land and these disputes were finally settled in 1697 when the Treaty of Rystwik, which settled a European war, granted the western portion of the island to France, which named it the colony of San Domingue. This French colony is basically the same boundaries as modern day Haiti.

The native Arawak/Taino Indians were completely wiped out by this time. But, by the early part of the 16th century the Spanish and then the French were importing African slaves to work the land.

The African slaves revolted many times, but the revolt of 1791 stuck and grew into a revolution that finally succeeded in late 1803. Jan. 1, 1804 the country of Haiti began, the only Republic ever formed by slaves after a victorious revolution.

Back to the pirates. They ultimately didn't make much of a contribution to the growth of either Saint-Domingue or Haiti, but they were the origins, the first French who settled there and began to farm. Most of them eventually tired of this sedentary life and drifted back to the sea and to pirating. But, other less adventursome French came to settle this fertile land and to build their own settlements.