Tortuga Island, Haïti

Archaeological sites from buccaneer and pirate period on Tortuga Island, Haiti

Colonial archaeology, and in particular the study of the forts of the Antilles, has been developing since the 1980s. Some of them were founded by buccaneers or by French colonial troops. In this type of configuration, these coastal defense installations were the target of pirate raids during the 17th and 18th centuries, while some were sometimes even built by them.

The western part of Hispaniola, now the Republic of Haiti, was in the 17th century, one of the refuge dwellings in connection with the abandonment of the area by Spanish troops. Hispaniola's buccaneer period began in 1640, the year of François Levasseur's installation on Tortuga Island, and ended in 1697, the date of the Treaty of Ryswick in which Spain recognized the rights of France over the western part of the island. The Tortuga Island is without doubt the most famous buccaneers' landmark. However, other such installations are known in Haiti such as Port-de-Paix, Cape Town, Petit-Goâve, Léogane without forgetting the Island île-à-Vache on the south coast, established in the late 1600s by Laurent de Graffe.

The Fort de la Roche

The main fort on Tortuga Island is Fort de la Roche, founded around 1640 by François Levasseur, second in charge of the Norman buccaneer Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc. Levasseur spots in the south of the island, some 600 meters from the only bay accessible by boat, is a platform on a large rock. He built his house there and fortified the place, which is why it is called Fort Le Vasseur or Fort de la Roche. Around this rock, he erected a quadrangular enclosure, flanked to the south by two bastions, one of which is the entry. The central rock has a diameter of almost 11 meters and a height of 7 to 9 meters. The fort was attacked by the Spanish in 1643 and 1654. According to engineer Blondel, the Spanish razed the fort made of good masonry after their second attack. This engineer went to Tortuga Island in 1666 and drew up plans for a new fort below Fort de la Roche and closer to the bay where it would be a better defensible place. It is a circular tower which flanks a farmyard defended on the seaside by a curtain dotted with cannons and on the land side, by a wooden palisade forming curtain wall and half-bastions. Blondel started the work and then left the site. The fort was completed at the end of 1668, the Sieur d'Ogeron having advanced his personal funds to complete the construction.

Archaeological perspectives

The two Tortuga forts are of real interest for the history of buccaneering and for what constitute the first French settlements in Santo Domingo during the second half of the 17th century. The rarity of this type of site and the various descriptions that offer glimpses, even changes in the buildings, deserve that archaeologists take an interest in it. In 1987, a Franco-Haitian mission made up of eight researchers including the historian Jacques de Cauna and the architect Daniel Elie went to Tortuga Island. Their mission was to identify the main sites including the two forts. Fort Le Vasseur was located, the rock, still in place, and a summary cleaning reveals evidence of development. They also easily found the fort designed by Blondel. There is still a section of wall, ruptured slopes and three cannons! The research team also spotted a tall battery, the ruins of which are "relatively revealing". They pleaded for archaeological excavations and published their conclusions in the numbers 174-175 of the French-Haitian review Conjunction, in 1987, by drawing attention to the fragility and the interest of the place. As for the plateau on which the Château de Cussy is located, it was the subject of a rapid survey by Daniel Elie which made it possible to identify a dovecote. Its location is in fact in a space occupied by modern buildings but which seems favorable to archaeological investigations. So many elements militating establishment of a Franco-Haitian research program.

We must wait for the work of Philippe Hrodej, Master of conferences at the University of Bretagne Sud de Lorient, on the buccaneers in Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti) and that of Laurent Pavlidis, historian and curator of the Maritime History Museum of Saint-Tropez, for new research to be published about Tortuga Island. In this dynamic, the archaeological research carried out by Nicolas Morelle, doctor in archaeology of the University of Aix-Marseille, on the bastions of the French Atlantic façade, but especially on the colonial fortifications of the south of India, make it possible to identify and to locate these pirate attacks, as is the case in the French Lesser Antilles with the studies of colonial fortifications by Jonathan Vidal, currently assistant-curator of the Regional Service of Archaeology of the Indian Ocean for the French Ministry of Culture.


Coustet, Cauna 1987 :
R. Coustet, J. de Cauna, « Mission à l’île de la Tortue 16 au 30 Mars 1987 », Conjonction, revue franco-haïtienne, 174-175, 3e et 4e trimestre, 1987, p. 6-12.

Pavlidis 2019 :
L. Pavlidis, « Les sites flibustiers de l’île de la Tortue et de Port-de-Paix à Haïti », A la Découverte des Pirates, Dossiers d’Archéologie, 394, 2019, p. 62-65.

Pavlidis 2019 :
L. Pavlidis, « Les fortifications de l'époque flibustière de l'île de la Tortue et de Saint-Domingue », dans J. Soulat (dir.), Archéologie de la Piraterie des XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles. Etude de la vie quotidienne des flibustiers dans les Caraïbes et l’océan Indien, Hors collection, Editions Mergoil, 2019, p. 137-156.

Vidal 2010 :
J. Vidal, « La défense côtière de la Guadeloupe : exemple d’étude préalable à la valorisation », dans N. Meynen (dir.), Valoriser les patrimoines militaires : théories et action, Actes du colloque international d’octobre 2008, Brest PUR, 2010, p. 117-130.