Feral Cities-Pirate Havens

By Lieutenant Commander Matthew M. Frick, U.S. Navy

The concept of a pirate haven is not new. Mogadishu and Aceh in Sumatra are merely the latest examples in a history of feral places turned pirate bases that spans both the globe and the ages. A brief look back in time offers several examples of locales where piracy has flourished. Common to nearly all of them is the existence of a city beyond the control of any legitimate, recognized government where pirates called the shots and business was conducted on their terms. New Providence, Port Royal, Canton, Petit Goave, Madagascar, and Barataria were merely precursors to the lawless pirate strongholds of today and provide a glimpse into what may be in store for the future.

Port Royal, Jamaica

In the 17th century, Port Royal, was the most notorious outpost for pirates operating in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. A British colony, Jamaica was ideally situated close to the Spanish colonies along the trade routes of the Caribbean and South America known as the Spanish Main. Far from the eyes of the King, pirates took to the island and virtually infested the bustling city, attracting merchants and other economic enterprises thirsty to profit from the pirates' labors. So important was the presence of the pirates in Port Royal to the Jamaican economy that colonial officials around 1665 protested the move to establish plantations on the island. In fact, Jamaica Governor Thomas Modyford feared the loss of the pirate trade so much he rejoiced when the winds of yet another war with Spain came blowing. 3 At the time, England tolerated pirates, issuing many of them letters of marque, officially sanctioning seagoing freebooters to act as privateers, essentially committing piracy against any Spanish-flagged vessels. At the end of the war, the letters of marque expired or were revoked, yet piracy continued, just not under the King's colors.

By the early 18th century, pirates continued to rule Port Royal. Colonial attitudes, however, changed significantly. Pirates out of Port Royal had moved beyond targeting only Spanish treasure ships and captured approximately 30 vessels trading with Jamaica in the first three months of 1718 alone. When Nicholas Lawes was appointed governor in April 1718, he brought with him several English warships to deal with the piracy issue once and for all. Unfortunately for him, the pirates were so embedded in Port Royal and were so successful, a large number of the Royal Navy's captains decided it was more in England's interest to foster trade with Spain than to spend time and risk lives hunting down pirates. 4

As Jamaica and Port Royal continued to gain economic prosperity over this period, more and more local inhabitants became fed up with the pirates running rampant in their city and the surrounding waters, as well as England's apparent inability to do anything about it. This is not to say that many of Port Royal's citizens did not support the pirates. On the contrary, it was precisely these merchants, ship owners, and colonial officials who enabled the pirates to operate and kept piracy a lucrative business. When Governor Lawes brought ships of the Royal Navy with him to Jamaica—the errant captains mentioned above notwithstanding—the local pirate supporters often provided the freebooters with intelligence on the locations and dispositions of these warships. 5

Pirates continued to rule Port Royal until around 1720 when the combination of increased Royal Navy presence and the executions of Charles Vane and "Calico" Jack Rackham all but ended the presence of pirates in Jamaica. 6 With the loss of Port Royal as a pirate haven and the death of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach at Ocracoke, North Carolina, the Golden Age of Piracy effectively came to an end.  

Ranter Bay, Madagascar

Before the demise of the pirates at Port Royal, another pirate base was operating halfway around the world on the East African island of Madagascar. In Captain Charles Johnson's 1724 fictional account, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates , the pirates named the city there Libertalia and widely considered it a paradise for their chosen profession. There, pirates lived under the same quasi-governmental structure that existed at sea. With elected leadership and a few basic laws enforced by everyone, this early form of true democracy came to represent the nature of pirate thoughts on justice, equality, and self-rule.

A pretty pirate picture, to be sure, the grand life in Libertalia as recorded by Captain Johnson is actually contrived. While pirates did operate in and around Madagascar out of a port city they named Ranter Bay, and historic documents offer proof of the democratic, libertarian form of self-imposed government on board many pirate ships, the carry-over of this "hydrarchy" on shore to the extent that Johnson tells it is not likely. 7 Regardless of the social commentary behind the story of Libertalia, the fact remains that Madagascar, specifically Ranter Bay, was an autonomous pirate stronghold and trading center that flourished for much of the early 18th century.

Canton, China

Much farther east, and almost a century after the purge of piracy from Port Royal, another city gave life to perhaps the largest—at least numerically—pirate fleets in history. In Canton (Guangzhou), China, at the turn of the 19th century, a former prostitute named Shih Yang married the leader of a local band of pirates named Cheng I. Now known as Cheng I Sao (wife of Cheng I), Shih Yang helped her husband form a confederation with other groups of pirates, and by 1805 they had amassed a fleet of more than 400 junks and as many as 60,000 pirates. The pirates of Canton controlled not only the South China Sea, but also the many internal waterways throughout coastal China.

The pirate confederacy was not without its squabbles, however, and the group eventually formed seven separate, smaller fleets each named for the color banner that represented it. Despite this division, the pirate leaders knew the benefits of maintaining their Canton-based alliance and continued to work together. When Cheng I died in 1807, Cheng I Sao, or Madame Cheng as she became known, inherited the leadership of the Red Flag Fleet. For three more years the pirates continued to control life in Canton and along much of the South China coast until Cantonese officials entered into a series of negotiations with Cheng I Sao and the other pirate leaders in 1810. The pirates of the confederation in effect surrendered, but under terms of their own choosing. In fact, many of the former pirates were subsequently offered positions in the imperial military. 8

Barataria, Louisiana

While Madame Cheng's Red Flag Fleet terrorized the South China Sea, another pirate was busy making a name for himself in the fledgling United States of America. Jean Lafitte gathered around him a group of freebooters to rival the smugglers already a part of the New Orleans landscape. His audacious exploits and colorful character are well-known to American school children, particularly in the South. From the story of countering the governor of Louisiana's bounty for Lafitte's head by offering a reward of his own for the governor's head, to aiding Andrew Jackson against the British during the War of 1812, Lafitte succeeded in securing his place in the annals of American history.

Almost as famous, or infamous, as the name of Jean Lafitte is the name of the place where he and his pirates lived and operated from: Barataria. Lafitte's home on Grand Terre in the swamps and marshes around New Orleans was the ideal place to establish a base of operations. Populated by trappers and fishermen, Grand Terre was also the home of a large number of New Orleans' busiest smugglers who were in no hurry to call attention to their practices and have the state and federal governments encroaching on their business.

Lafitte's pirates were men from various nations who sailed under an even greater variety of foreign flags in war as they did in their exploits as buccaneers. They worked together under Lafitte's dynamic leadership in the relative safety of Barataria, their makeshift village established around Laffite's home. Despite the long-standing practice and acceptance of smuggling as a legitimate occupation, the presence of Lafitte's self-titled corsairs was difficult for many residents on Grand Terre to stomach. 9 War and piracy had taught these men that life was short, and thus they placed a low value on it. Their willing cruelty and disdain for anyone but themselves ensured that the people on Grand Terre left them alone. The governor of Louisiana was both incapable militarily and unwilling constitutionally to do anything about them. Thus, Barataria remained a virtually untouchable pirate haven for many years, and Lafitte continued to disrupt seagoing trade unabated throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

The Same, But Different

The pirate havens described here have many of the same characteristics as feral cities, or more precisely, feral sections of cities. This observation highlights an important lesson for present and future feral cities-turned-pirate havens: pirates may be able to control a portion of a city or area, but they are not likely to rule over much land the farther one moves away from the beach. Nevertheless, even a small portion of a coastal city that tolerates the existence of pirates among its citizens, willingly or not, presents pirates the right conditions to establish a toe-hold on land that will spread cancer-like to the water surrounding it.

The similarities between pirate havens of history and the feral cities of today or the future primarily concern the issues of economic and individual security. The first, economic, is at the heart of piracy. For the predator to survive there must be, by definition, some form of prey. Without vulnerable commercial shipping and maritime commerce, piracy would not exist; certainly not on any significant scale. Pirates do not openly attack warships, nor are they likely to pursue a vessel whose crew puts up a significant armed resistance that hampers any chance of a successful attack.

When the pirates are dissuaded from targeting a certain seaway or type of vessel, insurance rates drop and more trade is funneled back to that area. This often reduces operating costs for ship owners in terms of time and money spent avoiding pirate-infested waters. In addition, nearly all pirates commit their crimes for economic reasons. Whether for ransom or theft, the pirate is ultimately looking for monetary gain, with few exceptions. This was as true in the 18th century as it is today.

Money, however, is not an end unto itself. It must be spent for its worth to be realized. Pirate havens, both then and now, play a major role in the ability of pirates to use their ill-gotten gains, no matter how great or how small the value. During the Golden Age of Piracy, pirates often sought wealth for wealth's sake. They either wanted to better the living conditions that drove them to go on the account in the first place, or be free to spend their money living out their lives in a condition of blissful debauchery.

No Buried Treasure

The tales of buried treasure popularized in fiction throughout the years are precisely that: fiction. 10 Pirates knew their days were numbered when they chose their profession, and they wanted to spend other people's money until their time was up. Those who were not hanged more often than not died penniless. Today, many pirates use their monetary gains simply to survive and provide basic necessities for their families. In all cases, one man's gain is another man's loss, and the impact is felt more in terms of economic cost than anything else.

The second, more obvious issue common to piracy through the ages is individual security. From the red flag flown from the mast of an 18th-century pirate vessel—signaling to the pirates' intended victims that no quarter would be given and everyone on board would be killed—to the small go-fast boats of today carrying men armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the business of piracy was and is a bloody one. Even British warships shied away from pirate waters when their captains felt the risk to life and limb too great. 11 Today, the International Maritime Bureau has issued warnings to mariners to remain outside 200 nautical miles from the coast of Somalia to mitigate the chances of being attacked. 12

The violent activities of pirates at sea translate directly to their behavior on land. For this reason a pirate haven, once established, often becomes a scene of fear and lawlessness controlled to one extent or another by the pirates who inhabit it. The local populace and even the state or national government have few options for dealing with the freebooters on land when a large number of pirates have set up camp. Those locals who would like to resist the pirate infestation are too afraid for their lives to do anything about it, while others are content to allow business as usual to continue if they are making a profit. Governments are perpetually at odds on how to expel the pirates from their land bases without the risk of excessive collateral damage and loss of innocent life. Many are not willing to take that risk, and so piracy continues, as it did in Port Royal almost 300 years ago.

Lesson Learned?

A feral city turned pirate haven never was, nor will it ever be, easy to tame. History has given several examples of pirate havens, and each eventually found its demise for its own reasons. The hopeful lesson here is that pirate havens come and go. However, the reasons men turned to piracy are even more varied than the pirate cities themselves, making it difficult to decipher a method for dealing with piracy today. By looking at the pirate havens of old, however, it is evident that the most successful way of stopping pirates, and one that is the most likely to be successful today, is to face the pirates directly, on the waters in which they operate.

While certainly not an easy task, the only real way to eradicate piracy is to catch them away from the safety of the feral cities that sponsor them. A concerted effort on the part of the world's navies and coast guards to turn the tables on the pirates is required. The risk for pirates must be far, far greater than the potential reward. This means more patrols, liberal rules of engagement, and a willingness to accept some losses in an effort to rid the oceans of piracy. The red flag must fly from every mast, signaling to each pirate, "no quarter given."


1. Richard J. Norton, "Feral Cities," Naval War College Review 56, no. 4 (Autumn 2003), p. 98.

2. Ibid.

3. Anne Perotin-Dumon, "The Pirate and the Emperor: Power and the Law on the Seas, 1450-1850," in C. R. Pennell, ed., Bandits at Sea (New York: New York University Press, 2001), p. 43.

4. Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), pp. 15-16.

5. Cyrus H. Karraker, Piracy Was a Business (Rindge, NH: Richard R. Smith Publisher, Inc., 1953), p. 203.

6. Ibid., p. 208.

7. Marcus Rediker, "Hydrarchy and Libertalia: The Utopian Dimensions of Atlantic Piracy in the Early Eighteenth Century," in Pirates and Privateers: New Perspectives on the War on Trade in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries , ed. David J. Starkey et al. (Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 1997), pp. 30-31.

8. Dian Murray, "Cheng I Sao in Fact and Fiction," in C. R. Pennell, ed., Bandits at Sea , pp. 258-260.

9. Lyle Saxon, Lafitte the Pirate (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, Inc., 1989), pp. 40-43.

10. David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates (New York, NY: Random House, 1995), p. 179.

11. Rediker, Villains of All Nations , pp. 15-16.

12. Peter Lehr and Hendrick Lehmann, "Somalia — Pirates' New Paradise," in Peter Lohr, ed., Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 6.

Lieutenant Commander Frick is currently a staff officer in the Maritime Operations Branch (N3) at the Allied Maritime Component Command (NATO) in Naples, Italy, where he is a programmer for Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 and an action officer for Operation Active Endeavor (NATO's maritime contribution to the war on terrorism in the Mediterranean) and Operation Allied Provider (NATO's operation to conduct anti-piracy escorts of vessels contracted to the World Food Program to bring humanitarian aid to Somalia).



More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2016-07-08

You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

2016 Naval History Conference

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership