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Tortuga Island Deep Look

By the end of the sixteen-century most of the Spaniards had abandoned Espanola for the richer lands of Peru and Mexico. The rest had deserted the western part of the island for its eastern half from where Spain ruled its colonies in the Americas. However, Dutch and French traders began exchanges with the few Spaniards of Espanola's western part. We saw in our previous discussion that to discourage this trade, the island's governor compelled these Spaniards to emigrate to the eastern part of the island in 1605. The consequences of this measure were far reaching. Instead of putting an end to the trade, it resulted in the establishment of buccaneers and pirates on the Western part of Espanola and the eventual split of the island into two colonies. As we will see, buccaneers and pirates would later allow the French to conquer the western part of Espanola and turn it into the colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti). On the other hand, the eastern part of the island would remain under Spanish domination and would later become the Dominican Republic.

Tortuga Island played a pivotal role in the establishment of a French colony in Espanola. L'ile de la Tortue or Tortuga Island is haped as a sea-tortoise, stands off the northern coast of Haiti. It is very mountainous and full of rocks; yet, it is hugely dense of lofty trees that grow upon the hardest of those rocks. The rocks are abundant on the northern part of the island. At the beginning of the 17th century the population lived on the southern coast of the island. This part contained a port that allowed several entries to ships of up to 70 guns. The southern part of the island was divided into four; the first part was called Low Land or Low Country. This was the main part of the southern coast because it contained the island's port. The town was called Cayona and there lived the richest planters of the island. The second was called the Middle Plantation. Its territory could only grow tobacco. The third part was named Ringot. These places were situated towards the Western part of the island. The fourth was called the Mountain; it is there that the first cultivated plantation was established upon the island.

In 1629, buccaneers established something of a rough place of settlement on Tortuga where there grew up a systematic victualling trade between them and pirates. The island became a stronghold for pirates and buccaneers in the Caribbean. Early in 1631, The Spaniards from Santo Domingo raided the nest of robbers in Tortuga and drove them away leaving a small garrison of twenty-five soldiers to prevent their return. That did not however stop Frenchmen and Englishmen from settling in the island.

Both French and English pirates colonized Tortuga Island at the beginning of the seventeen-century. The French settled in Tortuga Island from St. Christopher, another island in the Caribbean. When the Spaniards destroyed the English settlement in Nevis in 1629, Anthony Hilton, a shipmaster and leader of the colony, decided to find another place where he could combine planting with piracy; he determined to establish himself on Tortuga. Hilton's new colony on Tortuga was brought under the control of the Providence Company in 1631 and it rapidly grew as wandering Englishmen and Frenchmen were attracted by the opportunities it afforded of finding employment on the privateers who made it their base. Constant desertions of indentured servants from the hard discipline and constant labor of St. Christopher and Barbados brought new inhabitants to Tortuga. The laxity and excitement of life on Tortuga which alternated log wood cutting and cattle hunting in the Espanola forests with the prospects of adventure and booty at sea made the new settlement the goal of every fugitive in the Caribbean.

Conflict soon arose between the French and the English settlements in Tortuga. The island was the scene of disorder and excess of every kind and in 1633 the Audiencia of Santo Domingo resolved that the desperadoes must be cleared out once more. They wished to provide a ruthless lesson to any one tempted to follow their example. But it was not until 1635, when the dissension between the English and French in Tortuga became so acute as to lead to constant fights, that the Spaniards took advantage of the situation to descend upon the settlement in force. It fell into their hands with hardly a show of resistance. Indeed, the English governor fled at once on board of a ship that happened to be in the harbor and left the colonists to their fate. The Spaniards killed most of the men and converted the women into slaves.

The French suffered a fate almost similar to the English. The Spaniards repined at the French's property and grudged them the possession they had freely given. Hence, they gave notice to others of their own nation who sent several great boats well armed and manned to dispossess the French of the island. The expedition succeeded and the French fled unto the woods. At night they sailed from Tortuga Island to the main land. They performed this easily since they had no women or children with them. There, the French retreated to the woods again to seek food and spy on the Spaniards. They were planning on stopping the Spaniards from going to Tortuga Island. The Spaniards of the main land tried to starve the French in the wood but failed. The French quickly armed themselves with guns, powder and bullets. They waited for an opportunity to attack the Spaniards when the Spaniards of Tortuga would come to help those of the mainland. When this opportunity presented itself, the French quickly fled the woods and sailed to Tortuga where they attacked the small number of remaining Spaniards on Tortuga Island. Having done so, the French fortified themselves as best they could to prevent a return of the Spaniards. They also sent a messenger to the island of St. Christopher asking for help and relief as well as a governor to unify them against their enemy.

The French governor of St. Christopher sent a man named Le Vasseur in quality of Governor together with a ship full of men and all other necessities for their establishment and defense in Tortuga. The governor quickly built a fortress upon the highest rock on the island whence he could hinder the access of any ships or other vessels that should design to enter the port. Without access to this port no one could access the island except through a very narrow passage capable of receiving only two persons at once and not without difficulty. A great cavity in the middle of this rock allowed the building of a great battery. After the construction of the fort, Le Vasseur ordered two guns to be mounted on the place. They also destroyed the narrow way leading to the fort. The new security of their refuge led the French to begin peopling the island and seek their living by hunting and planting tobacco as others cruised and robbed the Spaniards from the coasts of the island.

The Spaniards feared the French presence in Tortuga. They feared quite rightly that the French would one day invade the main land. They thus decided to invade the island with 800 men in several canoes when many of the French were abroad at sea and others employed in hunting. They landed again in Tortuga almost without being perceived by the French. They had established themselves on top of a mountain when they discovered that the French had cut down trees to reveal invaders. With the help of some slaves (black and white) and Indians, the Spaniards made their way on top of the mountain and built a battery there. Meanwhile, the French who knew of the Spaniards' plan sought help from nearby buccaneers and filibusters. The buccaneers and filibusters landed at Tortuga at night to avoid being seen by the Spaniards. They then climbed the mountain where the Spaniards had taken refuge. They attacked the Spaniards just as the latter were about to attack the French. The Spaniards were caught in surprise. It was a complete defeat! Surviving Spaniards fled hearing the shriek of the others. This victory established the French as the owner of the island of Tortuga whence they would conduct their invasion of the western part of Espanola and create St. Domingue.

The Establishment of St. Domingue
The French settlement in Tortuga followed three forms. In the first category, you found those who chose to either hunt or plant or else to rove on the sea in quality of pirates. They generally sought out for a comrade or a companion to share their fortunes. They joined the whole stock of what they possessed towards a mutual and reciprocal gain. The hunters were subdivided into two several sorts. Some only hunt wild bulls and cows while others hunted wild boars. The first group was called buccaneers. There were in the middle of the 17th century around 600 buccaneers on the island. The dominions of the French on the island caused the number of wild cattle to decrease in Tortuga. This in turn caused the number of buccaneers to decrease in Tortuga. Chasing wild boar was not sufficient to feed them. The second group of hunters chased nothing but wild boars. They salted the flesh and preserved it to sell it to planters. They usually have certain places designed for hunting where they lived for the space of three or four months and though not often a whole year.

The Governors of Tortuga always behaved as owners until the year 1664. In the year 1664 the French West India Company laid the foundations of a colony in Tortuga under which the planters of Espanola were assimilated and named as subjects thereunto. Bertrand D'Ogeron was recommended to consolidate French power in the Antilles. He was appointed Governor of Tortuga in 1665 and ordered to make the island a center from which to extend influence on Espanola.

D'Ogeron's task was very difficult. At first he could not persuade the buccaneers to accept his government for they were determined not to abandon their intercourse with the Dutch or with any rovers who came to their harbors. He found the men whom he hoped to convert into settled colonists dispersed in small and unorganized parties living in the most primitive fashion.

One of his first acts was to take a census of the settled population. He found that there were 450 whites in the colony, 60 slaves and a few indentured servants. In 1665, he reported to Colbert, the famous French minister of Commerce of Louis XIV, that there were "seven or eight hundred Frenchmen scattered along the coasts of the Island of Espanola in inaccessible places surrounded by mountains or by great rocks...So it is necessary for his majesty to give an order to cause these people to leave the said island of Espanola and betake themselves in two months into Tortuga which they would do without doubt if it were fortified and that would bring in a great revenue to the King if all captains of merchant ships and others were forbidden to buy or sell anything to the Frenchmen called buccaneers along the coast of Espanola."

D'Ogeron thus actively and successfully engaged in developing Tortuga as a colony, transforming its population of adventurers into a stable population. The governor gradually persuaded the buccaneers to abandon their wild life in the woods and to settle down to planting either on Tortuga or in places on the extreme west of Espanola like Petit Goave or Leogane. He brought out many new settlers from France, sometimes at his own expense and that of his friends. In a report to France, he asked for the immigration of at least 12,000 men, women and children to develop a French population in the colony. Although D'Ogeron never succeeded at bringing this annual number to St. Domingue, his initiative opened a real immigration movement toward the colony from France. Discontented planters came to join him from the other French islands, and within two or three years there were 2,000 French colonists in Western Espanola leading settled lives and employing a growing number of black slaves upon their plantations.

The true buccaneers who roamed the woods were reduced to hardly 100 persons. D'Ogeron did not attempt to suppress or absorb the filibusters in the same way for he designed to employ them to further national policy. He was more successful than the English and he had attracted all the French rovers from Port Royal and had concentrated them in his own stronghold of Tortuga. War was imminent and he was thus provided with a ready-made force of privateers to let loose in his own stronghold of Tortuga.

In many ways, D'Ogeron is considered as the first real governor of St. Domingue. His policies resulted in the establishment of a strong French settlement in Espanola and the splitting of the island into two colonies in the seventeen and eighteen century, that of St. Domingue on the island's western part and that of Santo Domingo on the eastern border. We will have to wait until 1697, and the Treaty of Ryswick for Spain to officially give up Western Espanola, St. Domingue, to France.

(courtesy of discoverhaiti)

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