Just off the coast of Madagascar lies a small island with a checkered past. Once known as Île Sainte-Marie, these days it goes by the name of Nosy Boraha and is more famous as a holiday destination. Nestled in the Indian Ocean, it’s a lush and tropical stop-off if you’re vacationing in the area.
But a few centuries ago, Sainte-Marie was better known for very different reasons. Back in the late 1600s, the island was rife with a very particular sort of professional. The kind that make their money through plunder and sport a natty line in gold earrings and headscarves. Yup, you guessed it: pirates.
Ah, the “Golden Age of Piracy.” A time when roguishly handsome rough diamonds drank, looted and womanized their way around the Caribbean. Indeed, it’s an era that we landlubbers think of with Disney-themed glee. But that’s only half the story. Although the area’s ports were indeed utilized by buccaneers, it wasn’t the only part of the world to suffer.
Thanks to the expansion in trade by some of the most powerful empires in Europe – Britain, Spain, France and Portugal – goods and money flowed freely across the world’s oceans. By the late 17th century, ships laden with goods, including expensive fabrics such as as silk, were making their way from countries as far-flung as India.
The routes taken by those vessels, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, brought them close to Madagascar. Pirates worked out that Sainte-Marie, with its secluded coves, would make a great base from where to raid commercial ships. Moreover, it was an even better place to stash, and live off, the proceeds of their criminal lifestyles.
So perfect a location was Sainte-Marie that, at the height of its popularity, it was home to around 1,000 pirates. They stayed in huts made of wood, had children with local women and generally made themselves a nuisance on the high seas. Its tropical location and relative safety from the authorities must have appealed to many a buccaneer in the 1600s and 1700s.
In fact, many notorious pirates are said to have made the island their home at one time. These included the French corsair Olivier Levasseur. Among other crimes, Levasseur, or La Bouche (“The Mouth”), as he was sometimes known, had once looted the belongings of the Bishop of Goa.
The loot allegedly included gold, coins and art, as well as religious artefacts and dozens of diamonds. So daring was the caper (Levasseur and his men boarded and robbed the bishop’s boat) that it even earned them a place in literary history. Indeed, the episode is mentioned in the novel Treasure Island, written by Robert Louis Stevenson.
But Levasseur’s notoriety didn’t end there. Executed in 1730 for his crimes, what the French buccaneer left behind could have come straight from a movie. With what could very well have been his final breath, the pirate allegedly cried out, “Find my treasure, the one who may understand it!” and hurled something into the gathered crowd. It was a necklace containing a note or, to be more precise, a 17-line coded message.
Did Levasseur leave behind his untold riches, stashed away somewhere only to be found by the person who cracked the code? Maybe. As yet, though, no one has been able to decipher the dastardly message. Which means that there could well be some undiscovered treasure somewhere, just waiting to be claimed.
And it isn’t just Levasseur’s booty out there awaiting discovery. Treasure hunter Barry Clifford is pretty sure the waters around Sainte-Marie are hiding something. He’s convinced that the bays are littered with the sunken remnants of pirate ships and their loot. “Pirates had more money than they could spend in ten lifetimes,” the explorer told the Daily Mail in 2015.
Clifford went on, “Back in the day, if you were a pirate, [Sainte-Marie is] where you would go. That’s where all the pirates hung out.” The underwater adventurer has been exploring the waters around the island for nearly 20 years, during which time he has discovered the remains of an amazing 13 wrecks.
One of these sunken vessels, Clifford believes, is the Fiery Dragon. This ship went down, along with its booty, in 1721. The explorer said he had recovered “a very early statue of Christ, from the 13th or 14th century” from the wreck. And while that’s not exactly pearls and rubies, it’s still an incredible thing to have pulled from the ocean floor.
However, it’s not sunken wrecks or potential treasure that makes Sainte-Marie so unique. As mentioned, it’s something that was left behind from that golden age. And while it involves pirates, it has nothing to do with riches – and everything to do with eternity. You see, one of the local burial grounds is home to something that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
And that something is, of course, pirates. Indeed, Sainte-Marie is the location of the only known dedicated pirate cemetery on the planet. In a palm-shaded glade, with incredible views of the ocean, lie the graves of around 30 actual pirates. And all were laid to rest on the island that many of their number called home.
The burial ground once held even more memorials to buccaneers past, but the passage of time and the effects of the weather seem to have put paid to many of them. Of those that remain, though, while the individual names are long gone, there’s still a skull and crossbones or two still visible on the headstones.
Indeed, it seems that for some pirates, Sainte-Marie was more than just an idyllic spot to stash one’s loot. The island was, of course, a great hiding place, but it also became somewhere for a life to be spent. The men that made the island their home also started families and died there. And from their final resting places they will spend eternity looking over the Indian Ocean.
Interestingly, it wasn’t just the location that made Sainte-Marie the island of pirates. The area is said to have been part of Libertalia, a buccaneer-style paradise. By all accounts, Libertalia was home to a free, directly democratic society, which allegedly protected the oppressed and generally sounded quite progressively socialist.
Indeed, historians have said that Libertalian principles included the inherent freedom and equality of every man; that everyone got an equal share and an equal say. Moreover, everyone was entitled to that which “would support him, as to the air he breathes,” at least, according to Wikipedia. Sadly, for all its worthy principles, it’s widely believed that Libertalia was a fictional construct. In fact, it’s mentioned just once, in a 1724 book by Captain Charles Johnson. Who, as it turns out, also didn’t exist.
So while you might not find gold or silver on Sainte-Marie, you will find a centuries-old graveyard, full of a different kind of treasure. Actual pirates have lived, loved and died there. And if you look in the right places, you’ll see that some of them never left…