Sainte-Marie Island, Madagascar


The east coast of Madagascar was visited by Europeans as early as the 16th century. The Portuguese were joined by the Dutch, followed by the English and the French. They came to trade as traders but at the end of the 17th century, a new category of foreigners appeared: the pirates. The peak of piracy took place between 1680 and 1720 and the eastern seaboard served as their base of operations. They chose the north-east of Madagascar as their primary place of refuge, in particular the bay of Antongil, Foulpointe and the island of Sainte-Marie. They would be at the origin of the port development of the whole eastern coast. They formed a cosmopolitan group with members from various social backgrounds (nobles, former soldiers of the royal navy or simple sailors) but with a predominantly English nationality. Their installation in these places was a strategic imperative since their position allowed them to watch over the ships sailing to India. The pirates installed in these areas quickly formed a coalition of interests with the local Malagasy populations, in particular the Betsimisaraka who occupied the coastlines of the northeast coast and in particular Sainte-Marie Island. The bay of Ambodifototra on Sainte-Marie Island appears in historical sources as a veritable den of pirates between the years 1690 and 1730, probably the main focus of piracy in the Indian Ocean.

It should be emphasized that no terrestrial investigation has been carried out on Sainte-Marie Island, whether it be on ancient or colonial or even pirate occupations. However, the area has already been the subject of partial underwater investigations. They have revealed the first witnesses of the passage of forbidden people with the remains of some ships. They seem to have been sunk voluntarily in order to create an underwater anthropic barrier to defend the bay against the French and British royal navies. This research led to the discovery between 2000 and 2015 of a wreck presumed to be that of the pirate captain William Condon (aka Christopher Condent or Edward Congdon), the Fiery Dragon. The ship was allegedly scuttled by the crew in February 1721 in the bay. The reason for this scuttling can be explained by a document found in the Morbihan departmental archives in Vannes (Brittany, France): an amnesty ordered by the Governor of Bourbon Joseph Beauvollier de Courchant and signed on November 25, 1720. It stipulates clauses that must be respected by the pirate Edward Congdon in order for him to be pardoned, including the scuttling of his ships at anchor on Sainte-Marie Island, where he was temporarily living. Thanks to this document, we know that more than 135 pirates and nearly 80 black slaves from Guinea were still living on St. Mary's Island at that time.

Archaeological investigations were conducted in 2010 and 2015 on the area. A possible second wreck, probably Asian, would have been sunk at the same period, overlapping the Fiery Dragon but this hypothesis remains to be confirmed. In addition to the remains of the wooden structure of the supposed wreck of the Fiery Dragon, a large number of objects were discovered with more than 2000 fragments of Chinese porcelain, 13 gold pieces of various origins as well as objects of European origin. The assemblage is dated between the end of the 17th century and the year 1721, based on the coins and the porcelain. Another wreck called the "Channel Wreck", which could be the Mocha Frigate or the Great Mahomet, ship of the pirate Robert Culliford, was also discovered and very partially excavated. Finally, the Adventure Galley, the ship of the pirate William Kidd, was also found but no information related to this discovery was detailed in the reports consulted. In total, two or even four wrecks would have been discovered by the American team. However, a UNESCO team under the direction of Michel L'Hour came in 2015 to verify the identification and authentication of these discoveries. The UNESCO report clearly contradicts the identification of these wrecks, but the debate remains open for the Fiery Dragon which could also be another ship recovered by Condon's pirates. Nevertheless, UNESCO advocates for further investigation.

Since 2015, no new investigations have been conducted on these wrecks. Despite the great interest of the remains discovered, in-depth multidisciplinary scientific work remains to be undertaken to properly identify these wrecks in order to place them in the historical context of the bay and the maritime trade to the Orient in the 18th century.

In addition to the study of these wrecks, it is essential here to try to perceive the vestiges of the land occupations left by the French and by the pirates. Accounts and plans dated between the second half of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century clearly show that the bay of Ambodifototra was occupied by the French royal navy as early as the 1650s as an outpost of Fort Dauphin, which is located on the opposite shore on the large island, an area invested by the French as early as 1640 with the construction of the fort and until 1674 with its abandonment. Several conflicts took place between the French on Île Sainte-Marie and the indigenous Malagasy, notably in 1656. With the gradual abandonment by the French of Fort Dauphin, the outpost of Sainte-Marie was abandoned by French troops in 1669. It is known that the French built defensive installations on the spot, notably a fort which they then abandoned. From the 1680s, the first pirates began to land on Sainte-Marie Island and particularly in the bay of Ambodifototra. It is known that they occupied the area until the years 1720-1730.

Whether or not they relied on French defensive constructions, the pirates invested the area and also set up a system of protection for the bay combining buildings, camps, careening areas, fortified houses and defensive installations (forts, bastions, batteries and fortifications). The defensive occupation of the bay would have been developed from 1691 under the impetus of the English pirate Adam Baldridge. The plans and maps found in the archives give us precise information on the location of these installations. Île Sainte-Marie was a strategic stopover point to control ships passing through the route to India, but also to make supplies. The study of the pirate wreck, the supposed Fiery Dragon, is therefore part of this phenomenon of settlement and provisioning in the bay.

To date, no archaeological investigation has been conducted on the colonial land remains of the bay in relation to the occupation of the French Royal Navy and the subsequent installation of these pirates. This innovative problem in the archaeology of piracy could allow for a better understanding of the installation of these pirates, their way of life, the exploitation of raw materials and the construction of these facilities.

The bay of Ambodifototra on Sainte-Marie Island in Madagascar appears in historical sources as a real pirate's den between the years 1690 and 1730, probably the main focus of piracy in the Indian Ocean. However, the area is far from having delivered all its secrets. Underwater archaeology has begun to show the first evidence of the passage of these forbidding men with the remains of ships sunk voluntarily with the aim of creating an underwater anthropic barrier against the French and British Royal Navy. In spite of the great interest of the remains discovered, an in-depth multidisciplinary scientific work remains to be undertaken to identify these wrecks in order to place them in the historical context of the bay.

In addition to the study of the wrecks, it is essential to try to perceive the remains of the land occupations left by these pirates. Indeed, the archives have provided detailed plans of the bay with the relatively precise position of fortified installations built either by the French royal navy from the second half of the 17th century, or by the freebooters from the end of the 17th century. This innovative problem in the archaeology of piracy could allow us to better understand the installation of these pirates, their way of life, the exploitation of raw materials and the construction of these forts, batteries and camp structures. Thanks to archaeology and the study of material culture, it will be essential to try to measure the impact of the indigenous populations on the installation of the pirates, the balance between the two cultures and why not perceive a certain acculturation between these two communities.

Presentation of the archaeological program

The archaeological project will be spread out over four years with a probationary year in 2021 which will act as a test year (year 1) and which will condition the implementation of an archaeological excavation project over the next three years (2022 to 2024). Depending on the remains uncovered in 2021, the next three years will aim to set up a three-year program of archaeological excavations centered on the study of the defensive installations and the supposed wreck of the Fiery Dragon.

Over 3 weeks between January and February 2022 (year 1), a mission will take place. The first week, at the end of January, will be the object of a large prospection in order to inventory the potential terrestrial vestiges. It will then be necessary to draw up a precise digital map of these archaeological elements. The other two weeks will be held in February 2022. The archaeological team will be divided into three groups. Group 1 (underwater) will focus on the study of the supposed wreck of the Fiery Dragon. It will map the site with the help of photogrammetry in order to have a detailed plan of the wreck and to inventory the remains in place. Archaeological samples will be considered, in particular on the remains of the wooden structure of the wreck. Group 2 (terrestrial) will aim to find the remains of pirate defensive installations (bastion, battery, cannon) thanks to pedestrian prospection following the results obtained by the LIDAR. Depending on the discoveries, a choice will be made on one of these installations in order to set up one or more test surveys. Finally, Group 3 (furniture) will work on the management and study of the furniture collected during the current mission. It will also carry out the inventory and the study of the furniture kept in the reserves of the museum of the Îlot Madame and resulting from the American campaigns (2000, 2010 and 2015). At the end of the mission, a public lecture will be given on Île Sainte-Marie to inform the population of the first archaeological results.

The constitution of a team of international archaeologists, mainly French, and Malagasy, is at the heart of the project. The project is directed by Jean Soulat (Laboratoire LandArc, Craham - UMR 6273 - Université de Caen Normandie) and John de Bry (Center for Historical Archaeology, Melbourne, Florida). Other archaeologists are associated with the project: Nicolas Morelle (LA3M - University of Aix-Marseille), Alexandre Coulaud (Inrap Guyana, NAOM) both specialists in colonial defensive systems (Indian Ocean, Guyana and the Caribbean) and artillery, Isabelle Le Tellier (Air d'Eco Drone), an engineer specializing in remote sensing means (drone, ROV, Lidar, infrared) Jean-Aimé Rakotoarisoa (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (Inalco), University of Antananarivo of Madagascar - Institute of Civilizations Museum of Art and Archaeology (ICMAA)) is our scientific consultant.

Objectives of the future mission

This research project develops a series of objectives which will be carried out within the framework of an archaeological program with a targeted start in 2021. The objectives are as follows:

  • Defense systems study according to old and current cartography (GIS, LIDAR, surveys, photogrammetry, pedestrian prospection)
  • Inventory and study of batteries still in place (GIS, LIDAR, pedestrian prospecting, inventory, measurement and study on site)
  • Study of the remains of pirate camps on the coast (GIS, LIDAR, pedestrian prospecting, collection of surface furniture, use of metal detector and study of material culture in situ)
  • State of the underwater remains in the bay, pirate shipwrecks (wreck mapping and photogrammetry, underwater surveys, use of the metal detector, establishment of a grid, collection of material culture already salvaged and on land, study of the material culture on site, collection of wood samples for analysis)
  • Realization of a GIS common to the whole project (terrestrial and underwater)
  • In situ study of material culture collected on site (land and underwater surveys) with re-contextualization, geolocation, detailed inventory (measurements, weight, description) and a comparative analysis

This mission project will soon be submitted to the Malagasy authorities in charge of underwater heritage as well as to Malagasy archaeologists.

Scientific and cultural contribution for Sainte-Marie Island and Madagascar

  • Thanks to the support of French institutions and the French Embassy in Madagascar, this research program will be able to set up a close relationship between French professional archaeologists and Malagasy archaeology students over the four years of the Ambodifotra Bay examination. Thus, assistance in the training of students will be at the heart of the project in connection with the teacher-researchers of two Malagasy universities: the University of Antananarivo and Tamatave.

  • In addition, the study of the pirate occupations of Ambodifototra Bay will allow teams of archaeologists to work on a geographical area that has never been investigated. In this context, it is very likely that research on French and British colonial remains will lead to the discovery of archaeological remains of ancient Malagasy populations. Thus, the presence on site of archaeology students and Malagasy teacher-researchers will be an opportunity to develop these complementary lines of research with the aim of better understanding the life of these populations, which is difficult to learn from archaeology to date.

  • The discovery of the vestiges and objects encountered during the different missions will be the occasion to enhance the historical and archaeological heritage of Sainte-Marie Island. In addition to regular conferences organized by the archaeologists in order to communicate the progress of the work to the population, the team aims to set up an archaeological exhibition in Madagascar and in France in order to promote the research carried out. One of the axes of this exhibition, which could be held in Paris, France, would be the question of miscegenation and the relations between the pirates and the local populations. Thus, ideally, it would be very interesting to show the public objects belonging to the two communities that lived together between the 17th and 18th centuries, as stated in certain writings.

  • Finally, for the first year, the project will benefit from exceptional media exposure with the shooting of a 90-minute documentary by a French production company, Gedeon Programmes. Broadcast on the Arte channel at the end of 2022, this documentary, provisionally entitled "The Island of Pirates", will be an opportunity to examine the history of Madagascar and Sainte-Marie Island through the installation of the pirates, but also the common life between these pirates and the local populations.


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.