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Pirate legends almost always take place on the high seas, in wooden boats preceded by the huge black flag with the skull, stolen booties and nomadic adventures. But when they died on land, there is a place in the world where these corsair bullies could rest in peace forever.
Fierce, wandering, rum drinkers, with the parrot in the man and the smoking pipe in the mouth, colourful hats or colourful scarves, jackets and sharp sabers … in the collective imagination numerous symbolic emblems define the idea that we have of the old pirates and their dangerous lives filled with crime and debauchery. Beyond the legends, there is a royal cemetery in which the souls of privateers have lain for centuries.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Île Sainte-Marie – locally known as Nosy Boraha – a small island about 8 kilometers off the coast of Madagascar, was home to around 1,000 pirates. For about 100 years, anyone who was ever someone in the pirate world is said to have resided in this heavenly enclave when not sailing on the high seas. Nature shone wild and splendid there: the rocky and lonely bays provided the perfect hideaway, and its prime location along the East Indies trade route allowed stealthy interception of treasure-filled ships.
This tropical island harboured the perfect conditions both for the secret activity of pirates in its natural harbours and hiding places, as well as for the good life hosted by the tropical climate and spectacular beaches like this one.
Some buccaneers went on to raise entire families on the island, but what happened when they died? In this place they were buried properly instead of being relegated to the abyssal depths of the sea. In fact, today Île Sainte-Marie is home to the only known pirate cemetery in the world. When the pirates died, they would bury themselves on top of a hill overlooking the water.
Legends like Thomas Tew rest in the cemetery and crumbling graves adorned with symbolic skulls and crossbones can be seen. Although open to the public, the grass grows tall and neglected, and only 30 gravestones remain intact, which doesn’t stop it from being a powerful magnet for adventurous travellers and avid readers of pirate stories.
The enclave also continues to attract visits from a multitude of archaeologists, intrigued by what lies beneath the waters, as several shipwrecks are believed to have occurred near its shoreline, including the infamous William Kidd’s Adventure Galley.
The story goes that upon returning to the island after his conquests, Kidd decided it was time to withdraw his current ship and start again. He loaded his treasure into a new ship and sank the Adventure Galley, along with some of his loot. The dreaded captain is said to have been buried upright as punishment for all his misdeeds.
Today more than 16,000 people reside on the island and the main activity is tourism. Behind the coral reefs, the crystal clear waters and the exuberant charm of its beaches, the cemetery continues to hide many secrets in its spectral atmosphere.