The island Sainte-Marie off the coast of Madagascar was discovered by Arab seafarers in the 12th century and subsequently by the Portuguese navigator Diego Diaz in 1506. It lays between 26 and 30 kilometers to the east of the Great Red Island, and is some 70 kilometers long with a width that varies between one to six kilometers. It is a tropical paradise, sparsely populated, and it is on this island that pirates made their home between 1650 and 1725, using Sainte-Marie as a base from which to launch raids on Portuguese vessels and ships of the East India companies of England, France and Holland, and the richly laden Indian Mogul ships that sailed between India, Mocha, and Jeddah, the port of the Holy City of Mecca.
Madagascar had become a choice destination for English and other European merchants because slaves were cheaper than on the African continent and there was a great demand on the part of the natives for firearms as well as for all sorts of western merchandises. Sainte-Marie, on the other hand, became a base for pirates for a variety of reasons. It was the place of choice to water ships and take on supplies after having crossed the Cape of Good Hope and the perfect spot to wait out the monsoon winds. Sainte-Marie also offered an excellent anchorage with a naturally protected bay, and a small island at the entrance of this bay made up for a perfect natural harbor and careening spot – Careening was the process of leaning a ship on its sides, alternatively, on a gently sloping beach, in order to clean, repair, and caulk the hull. This was especially necessary in warm sub-tropical and tropical waters where wood from the hull was often attacked and eaten by teredo worms (Teredo navalis). This worm-like creature, uses its greatly reduced shell to bore tunnels into wood. In the age of wooden sailing ships, it was a tremendous problem that often led to sinking.
Over the past fifteen years our team has studied the harbor area at Ilôt Madame on the island of Sainte-Marie, Madagascar under the direction of the Center for Historic Shipwreck Preservation and Underwater Explorer Barry Clifford.
At least seven – and as many as ten – shipwrecks or scuttles occurred in the vicinity of the harbor of Ilôt Madame at Saint-Marie during the “Golden Age of Piracy,” therefore, the expeditions focused on conducting high-tech geophysical remote sensing surveys of the harbor area in an attempt to locate submerged cultural resources.
The team discovered a number of 17th and 18th century pirate shipwreck sites. One of these wrecks is thought to be the Adventure Galley, commanded by the infamous pirate William Kidd as well as the Fiery Dragon commanded by Captain Christopher Condent.
Based on survey results and test pit excavations it can be expected that subsequent expeditions will yield a great amount of material culture. Future expeditions and fund raising efforts will therefore focus on the development and improvement of the local museum on Ilôt Madame as a place to secure, conserve and exhibit material culture from submerged environments. This will benefit both the local community as well as the expedition team. A refurbished museum housing a permanent exhibition on pirates of Madagascar will prove a major tourist attraction that will lead to both a positive and significant contribution to the local economy as well as to the knowledge of the cultural history of Sainte-Marie and Madagascar. It provides the unique opportunity to house and curate this cultural heritage and makes available an educational tool within reach of the actual wreck sites. Having a permanent research base set up at the museum ensures that the process of excavation and conservation of artifacts can be made more effective and efficient. It also can lead to empowerment of local researchers and to build up capacity on research and conservation.
We envision a multi-year project at Sainte-Marie in order to achieve the above mentioned goals of researching the pirate wrecks and improving the museum. With the excellent collaboration of the authorities of Madagascar and the local community at Sainte-Marie Island, this project will be successful in recovering and preserving important cultural heritage for future generations.