In the 17th and 18th centuries, Ile Sainte-Marie (or St. Mary’s Island as it is known in English), a long, thin island off the eastern African coast, became a popular base for pirates. Up to 1,000 pirates reportedly called the rocky island home, including widely-feared brigands Adam Baldridge, William Kidd, Olivier Levasseur, Henry Every, Robert Culliford, Abraham Samuel and Thomas Tew. They lived in the île aux Forbans, an island located in the bay of Sainte Marie’s main town, Ambodifotatra.
(For around 100 years, Ile Sainte-Marie was the off-season home of an estimated 1,000 pirates)
This place was not far from the maritime routes along which ships returning from the East Indies sailed in transit, their holds overflowing with wealth, it was provided with bays and inlets protected from storms and finally, it had abundant fruit and was situated in quiet waters. The beautiful tropical island’s numerous inlets and bays made it the perfect place to hide ships. The pirates sailed mostly from England, Portugal, France and America to make this island off the coast of Madagascar a home, a hideout and a strategic place.
(Cyclones and centuries have worn away many of the well-aged engravings on the stone markers)
With so many pirates abiding on the island, some even raising families at the time, it’s no wonder Sainte-Marie claims to have what may be the world’s only legitimate pirate cemetery. In the center of the cemetery, there is a large black tomb that locals say is the final resting place of Captain Kidd, buried there in an upright position to punish him for his sins.
(There are mostly graves from the 1800s but only one with the classic skull and crossed bones)
The pirates were off Ile Sainte-Marie by the late 1700s, when the French seized the island. It wasn’t returned to Madagascar until 1960. The utopian pirate republic of Libertalia was also rumored to exist in this area, although the republic’s existence, let alone its location, has never been proven.
(Today, 30 headstones remain, though locals say there were once hundreds)
A recently discovered map from 1733 by John de Bry, an archaeologist working on shipwrecks in the area, called the land mass the “Island of Pirates” and identified the location of three pirate ship wrecks.
(The crumbling cemetery, its graves half covered by tall, swaying grass, is open to the public)
So many pirate legends are floating around Sainte-Marie, but, is this cemetery authentic? Everyone on the island, including government tourism officials, of course, claim it is. However, dead pirates or not, this cemetery is one of Madagascar’s most popular tourist destinations.