For centuries, swashbuckling buccaneers ruled the seven seas, leaving many stories in their wake.
Everyone loves a good pirate story. They’ve all got swashbuckling action, Robin Hood-like themes, and the freedom that comes with imagining a life on the high seas. However, pirates—or privateers, as many were called—were very real and not always so heroic. Many roamed the waters of the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico during the golden age of piracy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Hints of those pirates remain etched into landscapes even now—you just have to know where to look. Here’s our guide to 10 travel destinations that are rich in pirate history.
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Port Royal, Jamaica
During the golden age of piracy, Port Royal in Jamaica was a hotspot for pirates on the go. The city and its small harbor were one of the most popular ports for all manner of unsavory characters starting in the 1600s when Jamaica’s governors offered the city up as an oasis for privateers in exchange for protection from the Spanish. They accepted, and soon royally commissioned British and French ships were using the port as a staging area for their attacks on Spanish ships in the Caribbean and Atlantic. One of those privateers, a Welshman named Sir Henry Morgan, was even named lieutenant governor of Jamaica at one point.
Port Royal eventually grew rich on the backs of its pirate visitors, and by the 1660s, its streets were lined with bars, brothels, and all manner of illicit business. In 1692, a tidal wave nearly wiped the town and many of its residents off the map. The city eventually rebuilt, if only for a short time. By 1720, Port Royal had begun trying to turn its wicked ways around, prosecuting those accused of piracy and using its Gallows Point to put pirates like “Calico” Jack Rackham and Charles Vane to death.
Though much of Port Royal’s period architecture has been lost to time and subsequent tidal waves, what remains has been declared a UNESCO heritage site. There’s a catch, of course: Much of the ruins of the town are now under up to 40 feet of water, meaning if you want to visit Port Royal to, say, dig for pirate treasure, you’re going to need a SCUBA tank to get there.
Tortuga Island, Haiti
Another legendary home of pirates, Tortuga Island, first started welcoming these scurvy sailors in 1600. Though Spanish colonizers first occupied the island, they were driven out in the early part of the century in favor of British and French buccaneers. They realized that they could use the island as a safe harbor for their attacks on other nearby Spanish colonies.
The island would go back and forth between Spanish and French hands before ultimately ending up as a Spanish possession around 1665. The pirates didn’t much care for the Spanish, and buccaneers like Henry Morgan and Francois L’Ollonais managed to launch unsuccessful attacks on the island before eventually just giving up and settling in on Port Royal.
Though Tortuga has been featured in many pirate-themed books, games, and movies, there’s little on the island today that visitors can check out that remains from the pirate era. If you’re a diver, it’s a different story, as there are many diveable shipwrecks around the island, including some from storied privateers.
Starting in 1540, pirates attacked boats coming in and out of the port at Campeche, Mexico, looking to intercept goods meant for the city’s Spanish colonists. Those attacks were generally state-sponsored and aimed at destabilizing the Spanish crown, with legendary sailors like Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, and Lewis Scott acting as privateers on behalf of their respective countries. That all started to end around 1686 when the Spanish began to fortify the city—a process that took about 20 years. When the work was complete, a massive, 2,500-meter-long wall wrapped around the port, open only at four different gates. Two forts guarded the port from nearby hills, and those remain for visitors to check out, along with about 500 meters of wall and two of the gates.
Fun fact: Campeche’s team in the Mexican Baseball League is called Piratas de Campeche as a nod to the city’s storied history.
Ever heard of the Barbary Pirates? These predominantly Muslim privateers sailed from Africa’s Barbary Coast and were known to be some of the most feared men ever to sail the seven seas. Many operated from the Republic of Salé, which has since become part of Morocco. According to a book written by a priest in the region in 1637, piracy had begun in the region after a group of Moors arrived from Spain and used their wealth to purchase boats. They used those boats to attack Spanish and other European ships and then turned over 10% of whatever they got—goods and people alike—to the Saadian government. That understandably drew the ire of many Europeans, who in turn bombed the port of Salé. Eventually, the city became less popular with settlers than nearby Rabat, and eventually, the port was closed. Still, the city made its mark on popular culture, even getting namedropped in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
These days, visitors to Salé can still see some remnants of its pirate past. Bab Lamrissa, a monumental gate that stands about 35 feet tall, remains, as does the El Borge museum and prison, both of which were around during the age of the corsairs.
Newport, Rhode Island
Admit it: When you think of Newport, Rhode Island, you think of big estates, wealth beyond belief, and maybe its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. The city does have a rich pirate past, however. In 1723, officials in Newport hanged 26 sailors charged with piracy. Hundreds if not thousands of people attended the hanging, which accounted for about half the executions in Rhode Island between 1673 and 1845. One of the men put to death was Charles Harris, who sailed alongside English pirate Edward Low and who had gotten caught after attempting to overtake a 20-gun British warship, the HMS Greyhound. Low was reportedly the most awful sort of pirate, committing unspeakable acts of violence against crews he had taken prisoner. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, once called him “a man of amazing and grotesque brutality.” He and his ship managed to escape the dust-up with the Greyhound, while Harris and about 35 other pirates on board did not.
Most of the captured pirates were taken to Newport, where a few received pardons after they were found to have been forced into piracy. The 26 remaining pirates were convicted and hanged on Gravelly Point, their captured pirate flag attached to the gallows. It’s worth noting that the 1723 incident marked a sort of shift in Newport residents’ view of pirates. Before that, as the colony struggled in the late 1600s, it welcomed pirates, who they viewed as Robin Hoods of the sea. Those pirates, they reasoned, stole from Muslim ships full of gold or boats coming out of Africa with goods and raw materials. They sold their booty in Madagascar and then came back to towns like Newport to spend their newfound wealth. One of those pirates, Thomas Tew, was even a Newport native, appearing on the town’s charter in 1663.
Another hangout for the Barbary pirates, Algiers, was run by pirates or corsairs for almost 300 years. In 1510, the Moors sought refuge in the city after being expelled from Spain. Like in Salé, they used their wealth to buy ships, which they, in turn, used to attack the Spanish, who had by then taken over parts of Morocco and Algeria. The emir of Algiers asked two pirate brothers, Aruj and Khair ad-Din Barbarossa, to get the Spanish out of his city. Being pirates, they arranged for the emir’s assassination and then took control of Algiers. Eventually, Algiers would become part of the Ottoman Empire, giving it much more protection against the Spanish and making it an even more infallible safe haven for the raiders.
By the early 1700s, Algiers had rid itself of the Ottomans and used pirating as the basis for its local economy. Barbarian pirates worked in teams to intercept European ships and raid coastal towns in Europe, generally in an attempt to capture people to sell at slave markets on the Barbary Coast. (An estimated 100,000 to 250,000 Iberians were captured in these raids alone.) European rulers were so afraid of the pirates that many agreed to pay an annual fee to the region just to be able to sail through the Mediterranean in peace. The reign of terror only ended in the early 1800s when British general Lord Exmouth finally managed to put down the entire Barbary fleet, followed by the French colonization of Algeria in 1830.
These days, fortifications against the Barbary Pirates remain across the Mediterranean in countries like Italy. There are period sites as well in Algiers, like the Grotte de Cervantes, where Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes was held prisoner after a pirate raid. The region doesn’t really choose to highlight that brutal portion of its history, though, and much has been lost to time.
The golden age of pirates in Nassau hit its peak around 1700 when legendary pirates like Henry Avery sought refuge in the city. Avery was wanted around the planet, having looted almost $100,000 from ships in the Indian Ocean, so he was on the lam. After receiving word that the East India Trading Company was onto his whereabouts, he took off, but his successful stint in the city helped get the word out that Nassau could be trusted.
In 1713, a pirate named Benjamin Hornigold stationed himself in Nassau between raids on Spanish merchant ships. He declared Nassau to be a Pirate’s Republic, citing the fact that there were only about 100 locals in the city and 1,000 pirates, as well as the prevalence of nearby cays where pirates could anchor their ships. One of those 1,000 pirates was a young British man named Edward Teach, who became part of Hornigold’s crew, rising up the ranks to captain one of Hornigold’s ships. Together, Teach, and Hornigold led a crew of over 400 pirates, some of whom sailed on Teach’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge. Teach also earned a nickname during this period: Blackbeard. He would die in 1718 after attacking a ship off the coast of North Carolina, but to this day, he’s one of the most memorable and influential pirates of the period.
Unlike many other cities, Nassau celebrates elements of its pirate heritage. The Pirates Of Nassau museum is a family-friendly attraction that teaches visitors a little about life on the high seas. The Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board even has a guide to spending two days in the city living like a pirate, rum-running and all.
Ile Saint-Marie, Madagascar
Though it’s now a part of Madagascar, if rumors are to be believed, Ile Saint-Marie was once the location of a utopian pirate colony called Libertalia, where seafaring corsairs even attempted to organize a democratic government.
Whether Libertalia was real is debatable, but historians agree that Ile Saint-Marie was, for many years, a pirate haven. Many successful buccaneers operated in and around the Indian Ocean, often unloading goods they’d stolen on Madagascar. Ile Saint-Marie became a pirate mainstay because of its location near routes ships would take returning from the East Indies, their holds full of spices, fabric, and other hot commodities. The island also has many bays and inlets where pirates could park their ships.
It’s estimated that in the 1690s, Ile Saint-Marie maintained a population of about 1500 people, many of whom worked for or to supply pirates like Captain Kidd, Thomas Tew, and Henry Every. (Every is credited with pulling off one of the greatest pirate heists in history, using a six-ship fleet in 1695 to attack a treasure ship owned by the Great Mogul of India. Though his crew took many losses, he ultimately came away with the equivalent of $200 million worth of goods.) A number of pirates are said to have been buried in cemeteries on Nosy Boraha, which is now part of Ile Saint-Marie. It’s unclear who’s all there, but no one’s really sure where or how Henry Every ultimately met his demise, and to this day, his treasure has never been recovered.
Clew Bay, Ireland
A natural bay in Ireland’s western County Mayo, Clew Bay once sheltered one of history’s most fearsome female pirates. Grace O’Malley defied convention in the 16th century when, at a time when dozens of local chieftains ruled Ireland, she took control of a seafaring clan who ruled over the region’s coasts. They intimidated and plundered their way to success, with O’Malley—also known as Granuaile—running most of her land-based operations out of Rockfleet Castle. She ultimately commanded hundreds of men spread over 20 ships before being captured in 1577. Somehow, she managed to get free, and by the 1580s, she was out sailing again. (She supposedly once gunned down a Turkish pirate just a day after having a baby.) In the 1590s, English colonial authorities captured her son and some of her ships, leading to O’Malley personally setting sail for England, where she met with Queen Elizabeth I to secure the return of her son and her ships.
O’Malley died about a decade later at Rockfleet Castle, which tourists can still visit. You can’t go inside, unfortunately—it’s four stories tall and not 100 percent stable—but it’s still pretty neat, especially if you consider the fact that Ireland is so rarely associated with pirates at all.
Privateers ran rampant in the Gulf of Mexico during the late 18th and early 19th century, in part because of Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain. Many pirates hid out in Galveston, Texas, between runs, including Jean Lafitte, who’d later gain notoriety after he worked with Andrew Jackson to defeat the British in the 1815 Battle Of New Orleans. Pirates remained active in the gulf until about 1836, when the Republic of Texas was established. To this day, there are about 20 known shipwrecks in the waters outside of Galveston, though it’s estimated that hundreds of ships were lost in the Gulf during the privateers’ decades-long run.
Galveston’s pirate history isn’t as strong as, say, Tortuga, but the family-friendly city has embraced its seafaring heritage. The Galveston Pirate Museum is open daily and features an interactive exhibit called Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast. Segway tours around town highlight the region’s pirate past, and from 1912 to about 1921, the city even boasted a minor league baseball team called the Galveston Pirates.