The island of Tortuga, which means "turtle" in Spanish, became established as a pirate port following several skirmishes between Spanish and French settlers beginning in 1625. The tiny island was an ideal spot from which the French conquerors could launch sloops for silent and brutal attacks on vessels sailing throughout the Caribbean.
Situated just north of Haiti (then called Hispaniola), Tortuga featured a craggy outline in the shape of a monstrous sea turtle; thus, its second name Ile de la Tortue (turtle island). The first French settlers hunted and sold meat and hides to those who entered the harbor on ships. They became known as buccaneers, derived from the word boucan, which is French for meat. However, the hunters heard of the successes of many pirates, and soon abandoned the hard work of selling barbecued meat and took to the seas themselves.
Jealous Spaniards continued to make attempted raids on Tortuga. However, the locals would simply hide, only to return in full force once the marauders retreated. From 1631 until 1634, a former sea captain named Anthony Hilton ruled as governor of Tortuga. He had persuaded the Caribbean-based Providence Company to declare its protection of the island while Hilton's main intent was to assist the business of piracy.
Following Hilton's death, the Spanish once again raided Tortuga with some luck. By 1635, after a second attack, about 300 English settlers arrived. The remaining French pirates banded together as the "Brethren of the Coast."
Their reputation grew when a new governor arrived in 1642. Jean Le Vasseur ensured that Tortuga soon became the pirate capital of the Caribbean. The governor ordered the building of a fort and he resided within a mansion at the top of the hill, surrounded by cannon and stores of ammunition. Le Vasseur, an engineer by trade, continued fortifying Tortuga until it was practically impenetrable. Finally, after severing ties with France, he began to build his fortune - one that would grow over the next decade.
The island's pirate population grew as well and further attempts by the Spanish were vanquished with great loss of ships and life. Tortuga's reputation as a pirate cove spread and soon it was attracting the lawless, the vicious, and the depraved. Dutch ships dropped anchor frequently and the pirates would trade their loot for liquor, guns, and clothing.
In 1654, the Spanish succeeded in capturing at least 330 pirates along with another 160 settlers and exported them from Tortuga. Soon, however, an entirely new population was recruited from other islands - both English and French - and the pirate's cove of Tortuga became active once again.
Tortuga welcomed many famous pirates including one of the most dangerous of all and sometimes referred to a psychopath: Francis L'Ollonais. Tortuga had returned to French control and a new governor nurtured the pirate colony for protection during times of war. On his arrival, L'Ollonais received a ship and a commission as a "privateer."
For the next few years, Tortuga remained a prime pirate cove - a safe harbor for many buccaneers arriving with stolen bounty. Raids were still made on surrounding Spanish settlements, but according to some reports, Tortuga was losing its importance as a piratical port.
Prosperity began to wane as L'Ollonais recruited many of Tortuga's pirates to perform larger raids elsewhere. Upon each return, the pirates would quickly gamble away their riches. The governor at that time had also imported French prostitutes and many of the remaining pirates married and began to raise families, in the process giving up their lawless ways.
Laws began to change and in 1684, the Treaty of Ratisbone was signed between Spain and France to declare all buccaneers as felons. The pirate port of Tortuga was officially dead by 1688, as the remaining offenders left for other harbors. Today the island which is roughly 25 miles long is a territory of Haiti. Thirty thousand inhabitants occupy the 85 square miles of land and have been chiefly governed by a Catholic church mission since 1977. Ferry boats bring tourists to the island daily.