By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
The notion of a pirate stronghold in Madagascar with serious imperial ambitions, one perhaps founded by Henry Avery or his descendants, was a fascinating trope for the British public. And, it was furthered when in November 1712, a play premiered at Drury Lane Theatre in London. It was called The Successful Pyrate.
A Powerful Play
The play features Avery called Arviragus, kidnapping an Indian princess and reigning as “sole Monarch” of Madagascar. He tells Zaida, the princess, “High heaven has sent you here/ Imperial maid, to found a Race of Kings.” The maiden is unmoved, though, because she’s in love with a man who turns out to be Avery’s long-lost son. In the end, he marries the pair and sets them up to rule justly in his stead while he retires to England to spend his gold there in penance.
The play was popular enough to draw critical ire from moralistic rivals like John Dennis, who thought showing a pirate as the happy founder of an empire encouraged vice. Now, of course, none of this happened, but it was a remarkably persistent vision or threat. The idea that every symbol was alive and well in Madagascar and could at any point raise a new nation of pirates to rival England.
“King of Pirates” as attached to this Everian Madagascar fantasy was a common enough concept that it was the title of a fanciful biography of Henry Avery probably written by Daniel Defoe. These stories appeared outside of literary texts as well. The sailor Clement Downing when he met the ex-pirate John Plantain, revived this story in curious fashion.
Downing wrote that Plantain’s “chief General was a Fellow they called Molatto Tom, who [claimed] to be the Son of Captain Avery; which might probably be true, for the Man was near 40 Years of Age when we were there.” Whether Tom believed himself to be the pirate’s heir or use it for his own ends is impossible to state. But it shows the longevity of Avery’s imperial shadow. From about the 1720s and 1730s, the Betsimisaraka Confederation in Eastern Madagascar sometimes regarded pirate ancestry as a point of pride.
The pirate settlements on Madagascar and the islands near it, on Nosy Boraha and Anjouan, were real, but they were frankly not in any position to be considered founding empires. They were small and grubby and prone to annoy their more powerful neighbors rather than pose a serious threat to them. Adam Baldridge, the pirate trader who assisted Avery as well as Thomas Tew, with supplies from his Nosy Boraha port, was probably the most successful of these pirate lords after John Plantain.
With his own fort armed with something along the lines of one or two dozen guns, reports varied, as many as 100 to 200 pirates under his watch at a time, as well as backing from the New York government agent, Frederick Philipse. But he had to run for his life in 1697 when he betrayed a number of local Malagasy people into enslavement.
Baldridge was under pressure from his New York patrons to supply larger numbers of people than he was easily able to obtain. As Captain Kidd later related, the Malagasy responded by cutting the throats of every white man they could catch. Baldridge fled with a few survivors, abandoning his Malagasy wife.
He claimed it was the other pirates who had offended their hosts, but his days as a petty potentate of pirate refueling depot were over. The British East India Company, not having heard of the disaster, sent a few ships to deal with the pirates. Several voluntarily returned home, preferring amnesty to their life in Madagascar. Only a small pirate presence on the island persisted.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Meek Island Inhabitants
The fantasy of Malagasy pirate imperialism imagines either a previously unsettled island or one where the inhabitants are meek and easily cowed. But Madagascar was well populated and governed by multiple, occasionally belligerent nations, and Anjouan was an independent Sultanate.
Indeed, Madagascar had multiple multi-ethnic trading ports that negotiated between East Africa and the Silk Road for hundreds of years before the first Europeans ever turned up, looking for ways to cut Muslim rivals out of their trade routes. While the Malagasy were often willing to trade with Europeans, they did not tolerate colonial settlements, and none of the monopoly companies had much luck establishing a Madagascar outpost until the French invasion of 1895.
Madagascar: Harbor for Pirates
From 1680 to 1725 or so, people like Baldridge, pirates, survivors of shipwrecks, and so-called separate traders who are often basically pirates, used the absence of European powers on Madagascar to negotiate little pockets of influence. Trading arms to their hosts and procuring from them captives who they could sell illegally to other Europeans.
European ships sailing East needed somewhere to stop to rest, careen, and restock, and pirates needed additionally, a port that wouldn’t ask inconvenient questions. But the population of pirates on Madagascar was transient, never greater than 1500 and often far fewer. Most pirates did not intend to settle permanently, and those who did apparently often did so out of fear of being hanged if they went home.
Common Questions about the Fantasy of a Pirate Stronghold in Madagascar
The play followed a character named Avery who kidnaps an Indian princess named Zeida. Zeida is in love with Avery’s son and Avery finally marries the couple and returns to England to spend his gold. He leaves the pair there to rule his pirate stronghold in his stead.
Captain Baldridge had a fort of his own in Madagascar and could be the closest candidate to having a pirate stronghold. He eventually had to flee leaving his wife behind because he had betrayed a number of the local people into enslavement.
Pirates and other individuals used the absence of European powers in Madagascar to negotiate for pockets of influence. European ships that needed to rest could also find a safe harbor in Madagascar since there was nobody who would ask too many questions. The notion of a pirate stronghold, however, always remained a fantasy.