We’ve all seen the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series and wondered, “did pirates really rule the Caribbean Sea?” Pirate films are fiction, of course, but pirates really did plunder trade ships during colonial times. In fact, some Caribbean islands had well-known pirate hot-spots.
You can see evidence of the real pirates of the Caribbean on most of these tropical islands, in the form of shipwrecks, artifacts, and historic buildings. In certain Caribbean countries, you can visit sites and museums dedicated to the swashbuckling and often sinister history of pirates like Blackbeard and Edward Low.
Pirates of the Caribbean: the true story
The real pirates of the Caribbean had their heyday between the 1500s to the 1830s. In particular, they flourished during the 1660s to the 1730s, because colonialism brought a surplus of trade ships to the Caribbean Sea and surrounding oceans. They even had some designated pirate sea ports, including Nassau in the Bahamas (now a famous cruise ship port), Tortuga in Haiti, and Port Royal in Jamaica.
The main focus of the Caribbean pirates was to plunder European ships that sailed to and from Europe and the Caribbean islands. Many pirates were former sailors who found that a life of looting was much more profitable than an honest life at sea on a merchant vessel. The pirate life offered freedom, pleasure, and plenty, according to many pirate memoirs.
Negotiating with pirates would often get you the short end of the stick, as recounted in this pirate’s memoir:
Next morning, being Saturday, came into the town a flag of truce from the enemy. Their message was to proffer a ransom for the town to preserve it from burning, for now they began to fear we would set fire to it. The chief commanders on both sides met about this point and agreed betwixt them the sum of 95,000 pieces of eight for the whole ransom…
Next morning, we set fire to the town.
Pillaging and plundering
The main targets of Caribbean pirates were Spanish ships, because they often carried large quantities of silver and other treasure from the New World back to the Old. Unfortunately for Spain and other European countries, there simply was not enough military power available to wipe out the large quantity of pirate ships. The years 1690 to 1720 are known as “the Golden Age of Piracy” due to the fact that pirate ports grew significantly during that time, and there were at least 2400 pirates in the Caribbean.
Piracy finally came to an end when the largest pirate ports were destroyed, and when the navy fleets of European countries and the United States were strong enough to eliminate most pirate ships. By the 1850s, the piracy era had been put in the past.
Where to find pirate lore in the Caribbean
As you plan your Caribbean vacation, why not learn some interesting pirate history, when you’re not basking on a beautiful white-sand beach? There are plenty of historic sites to visit that will give you a glimpse of pirate life in the Caribbean from centuries ago.
You can see the legacy that pirates left behind in many historic sites and museums in many Caribbean countries. Some of these places even have free admission. Here are some of our favorites:
Bushiribana Ruins in Aruba
A gold rush occurred on this beautiful Caribbean island in 1824, after gold was discovered on Aruba’s north coast. The Aruba Island Gold Mining Company built the Bushiribana smelter in 1825 and made it particularly sturdy in order to fend off any pirate attacks.
Fort Barrington, Antigua
Located on Antigua’s northwest coast, Fort Barrington stands on a hill overlooking St. John’s Harbour. It was the only fort to have been used in a battle in Antigua. Prince Rupert, who was at one point dubbed a pirate, captured the fort in 1652. Many of the fort’s walls, a powder magazine, and two gun platforms are still standing today.
Fort George Cay, Turks and Caicos
This tiny island used to be replete with cannons that fired to protect Turks & Caicos from pirate attacks. Nowadays, most of those 18th-century cannons are underwater. You can take snapshots of them with a waterproof camera while snorkeling.
Pirate Ship Experience, St. Lucia
Board a replica of a 16th-century pirate ship called the Black Magic and take a day cruise with some friendly “pirates”. The excursion includes a buffet lunch, free drinks, and a stop for swimming in snorkeling at a secluded beach. The experience lasts for about 5 hours.
Pirates of Nassau Museum
What better place to learn about the real pirates of the Caribbean than in one of the most prolific pirate ports, Nassau? This Bahamian outpost is no longer home to pirates, but you can hear all about them in the Pirates of Nassau Museum.
However, this attraction is more than just a museum. The website ensures that it’s an “interactive pirate experience”. 8 exhibits will immerse you in pirate history, and give you a realistic glimpse of a smuggler’s world.
Pirate Week Festival, Cayman Islands
Each year, the Pirate Week Festival brings the colonial days to life for hundreds of spectators at Georgetown Harbor in the Cayman Islands. The event features a staged “pirate invasion” in which ships sail into harbor and capture the governor. The festival has been going on for over 30 years, and features dancing, music, sports, and even a treasure hunt.
The Barbados Museum, St. Michael Parish, Barbados
At this history museum in St. Michael Parish, Barbados, you’ll get to see real artifacts, including old maps of the island. They are from the pirating era, and are just like the ones that pirates would have used. You can also view 18th century objects from colonial Barbadian life. The museum is housed inside a stately historical building that was once a British Military Prison.
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Main image source: Ecayonline