Sainte-Marie Island, Madagascar


Between coastal habitat and pirate wreck on Sainte-Marie Island in Madagascar

In the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Madagascar, the bay of Sainte-Marie Island was, between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, a veritable repair of rogues. In May 2024, the site was the subject of a new archaeological mission, both underwater and on land, revealing the remains of a ship sunk in the 1720s and the remains of a building on poles. Only 70 m apart, these two sites constitute an exceptional opportunity for this archaeological discovery of piracy, a still recent research topic.

Sainte-Marie Island is located in the northeast of Madagascar from which it is separated by a 30 km channel. It is 49 km long. In its southern part, Ambodifotatra Bay opens to the west; its entrance is today closed by the Madame islet (former Isle aux Cayes) and its two dykes; the interior of the bay is home to Île aux Forbans. From 1690, pirates invaded these lands, in the golden age of piracy in the Indian Ocean, and settled on these strategic lands, located at the crossroads of the East Indies and Europe.

îlot Madame: a pirate lairs

Records highlight that pirates were fully involved in the economy of the Indian Ocean slave trade. However, their installation in Madagascar remains provisional, including in the bay of Ambodifotatra. They collaborate with the natives on whom they depend, while maintaining the sole objective of making catches between the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian coasts. These cargoes and stolen goods are intended solely to be exchanged and sold in Europe or in the American colonies. Having become one of the main rallying points for pirates, Ambodifotatra Bay is transformed into a transit point for their goods. Between 1690 and 1691, the pirate Adam Baldridge set up a trading post there under the direction of the New York merchant and shipowner Frederick Phillips. Until 1697, this port supplied several passing pirate ships before a large contingent was massacred after part of the local population was enslaved by Baldridge. Several witnesses characterize the presence of fortifications, protected dwellings or even a fort capable of containing 150 men and equipped with cannons. The latter houses warehouses and a large house, probably located on Possession Hill (on the site of the current fort built around 1866 by the French). Furthermore, the French trader Robert, prisoner of the pirates in the early 1720s, indicates that the latter (including the men of captains Taylor and La Buse) generally lived in raised houses (huts) equipped with palisades made of large piles with loopholes and cannons. This testimony is corroborated by that of Clement Downing, member of a British squadron present at Sainte-Marie in April 1722. He describes several cannons abandoned on Madame Island and numerous boxes of Chinese porcelain. He also notes the presence of Malagasy dwellings on Madame Islet and Forbans Island. Finally, although relations seem to have been conflictual between pirates and Malagasy companies, links were forged. The very existence of the prohibitions depended on the will of local sovereigns (mpanjaka) and the supplies they offered. Some pirates unite with Malagasy women, thus establishing a relationship of trust and facilitating trade. These unions gave birth to children named malata (“mulattoes”).

The pirate wrecks of the bay

Several records claim that pirate ships, and probably some captured ships, were sunk in the bay between the late 1690s and the 1720s. The area then became a veritable naval cemetery where we can still see the masts and yards protruding some water. It is precisely one of these wrecks that the international team of the Archeology of Piracy research program studied and excavated from May 13 to 25, 2024. Previously discovered by an American team in 2000, it had been the subject of several campaigns between 2010 and 2015, with very controversial investigations. These studies yielded more than 3,000 objects, mainly Asian, re-examined in 2022 by our team. She was successively identified as the Fiery Dragon, a ship of Dutch origin, then the Company However, these attributions were called into question by UNESCO after a verification mission in 2015.

What is this wreck sunk by pirates?

Carried out under the leadership of Yann von Arnim and Anne Hoyau Berry, the new research in 2024 wishes to clarify this point. From the first dive, the site was found approximately 40 m from the shore and 7 m deep. Sunk in the current port, the ship is in a muddy environment with very poor visibility, buried under several piles of stone ballast. In addition to two iron cannons measuring approximately 2.7 m long, the remains of naval architecture have been uncovered: the wooden pieces are preserved almost 15 m long with leveled frames, beams, probably a greenhouse and the cabin, all fixed by iron carvels (large nails of quadrangular section).
Many objects were also collected, such as Chinese porcelain tableware (goblets, bowls, cups and plates) from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) with blue and white floral decoration but also in the Imari style. Among the exceptional objects unearthed are a small oriental silver coin, probably minted in Yemen at the end of the 17th century, a black ceramic bottle neck and the remains of a bottle with a red ceramic handle, both of Asian tradition, two lead bullets linked to weapons or the bust of a figurine with feminine features from the Kangxi period. We also note a wooden pulley cheek, remains of ends (rope) and concentrations of goods (almonds and cowrie shells) recovered by pirates to be sold or exchanged.
The 500 objects collected during the excavation, some of which were very well dated, made it possible to estimate the shipwreck at the 1720s. But to identify the ship, it is necessary to better understand its naval architecture. The first elements suggest a boat of large tonnage and large dimensions, around 40 m long. Wood samples from the ship's interior structural parts were taken to determine the species used. Analyzes carried out by Stéphanie Wicha (Inrap – Archeobois) revealed that it was teak, which proves that this ship was most likely manufactured in southeast Asia between Burma and the Philippines. His identity remains unknown at this time.

The first remains of a pirate camp

In front of the Queen Bétia museum, approximately 30 m from the shore, the excavation team, led by Alexandre Coulaud and Ludovic Ibba, opened an archaeological survey of 18 m2. From the first centimeters, the remains appeared in the form of numerous fragments of Chinese porcelain from the Kangxi period and shards of local ceramics. Then in a more compact layer was residual material from the 19th century. Below, a new stratum revealed numerous post holes with stone wedges, faunal bones, still Chinese porcelain (cups, bowls, cups and plates, completely identical to those discovered on the wreck) from the end of the Kangxi period (1710-1715), and, new, numerous Malagasy ceramics, certain shards with zigzag wheel decorations, characteristic of productions from the 14th-17th centuries (a sign of the links between the bandits and the local populations). A few shards of Chinese sandstone belonging to dragon jars, French earthenware and Delft (Holland) or even Westerwald sandstone (Germany), from the 17th-18th centuries, complete the ensemble. Numerous fragments of white terracotta pipe stems have been found, including one made in Scotland, precisely in Glasgow by the master pipemaker James Colquhoun between the years 1668 and 1730. We also note a lead musket ball, a few flints flint, glass slag and a large quantity of shells including cowrie shells. In total, more than 2000 objects were collected. The presence of these structures (post holes, pits, even hearths) most likely reveals the remains of an ephemeral occupation built by pirates at the beginning of the 18th century, when they resided on Madame Islet and stored goods there. captured at sea.


De Bry 2006 :
J. De Bry, « Christopher Condent’s Fiery Dragon: Investigating an Early 18th-Century Pirate Shipwreck off the Coast of Madagascar », dans : R. K. Skowronek & C. R. Ewen, X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, University Press of Florida, Gainesville 2006, 368 p.

De Bry 2016 :
J. de Bry, « Recherches sur les épaves de navires de pirates des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles à l’îlot Madame, Sainte-Marie de Madagascar », dans G. Buti, P. Hrodej (dir.), Histoire des pirates et des corsaires de l’Antiquité à nos jours, CNRS Editions, 2016, p. 449-464.

De Bry 2019 :
J. de Bry, « La fouille de l’épave pirate du Fiery Dragon », A la Découvertes des Pirates, Dossiers d’Archéologie, 394, 2019, p. 50-53.

De Bry 2019 :
J. de Bry, « L’épave du Fiery Dragon 1721, navire du pirate William Condon, île Sainte-Marie, Madagascar », 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. 109-123.

De Bry, Roling 2011 :
J. de Bry et M. Roling, Archaeological Report Madagascar 2010. Research on 17th and 18th Century Pirate Shipwrecks at îlot Madame, Sainte-Marie, Melbourne Beach, Florida, 2011, 29 p.

De Bry, Roling 2016 :
J. de Bry, M. Roling, « Revisiting the Fiery Dragon », dans C. R. Ewen, R. K. Skowronek (dir.), Pieces of Eight. More Archaeology Piracy, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 2016, p. 57-92.

Morelle 2019 :

N. Morelle, « L’île Sainte-Marie de Madagascar, bastion et repaire de forbans », A la Découverte des Pirates, Dossiers d’Archéologie, 394, 2019, p. 66-69.

Morelle 2019 :
N. Morelle, « Des fortifications de pirates dans le port de l’île Sainte-Marie (Madagascar) à la fin du XVIIe siècle ? », 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. 187-195.

Rogozinski 2000 :
J. Rogozinski, Honor Among Thieves: Captain Kidd, Henry Every & the Pirate Democracy in the Indian Ocean, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, 2000, 256 p.