The English pirate Edward Teach, known as “Blackbeard,” is commemorated at Skytsborg Tower in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. // © 2016 USVI Department of Tourism
Port Royal in Jamaica, a former pirate headquarters, is known as “The Wickedest City on Earth.” // © 2016 Jamaica Tourist Board
For a long time, pirates were adrift in modern pop culture, barely to be seen. Then, they came out of the shadows in a big way with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise, commandeered by the inimitable Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. These family-friendly films have ignited a renewed attraction to pirate lore, an interest the Caribbean can satisfy with a number of historical sites that are associated with some of the most ruthless pirates who ever lived.
Blackbeard’s Tower, St. Thomas
Blackbeard was the name given to the infamous Edward Teach, an English pirate famous for his long, fearsome-looking beard, twisted into pigtails and bedecked with ribbons. In Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, lies Blackbeard’s Castle, a National Historic Landmark. (Its real name is Skytsborg Tower.)
Was it really his castle? What we know for sure is that Blackbeard sailed the Caribbean in the early 18th century, committing one act of skullduggery after another. Some claim that Blackbeard used the tower at Fort Christian as a lookout post. Today, tourists can visit the castle tower and climb its 99 steps to take in amazing views of the harbor below. There’s a small hotel on the property, The Inn at Blackbeard’s Castle, for those who want to really soak up the pirate ambiance.
Fort de Rocher, Tortuga
Tortuga, located just north of Haiti, is a much less visited Caribbean destination than Jamaica, the Bahamas and St. Thomas. However, the island has a rich pirate history, mostly based in the 1600s and centered on a band of French buccaneers. Today, there are still remnants of a 24-gun pirate stronghold, Fort de Rocher. While only the foundations of the fort remain, the setting can still serve as the backdrop for a Caribbean pirate daydream — for those rugged enough to seek it out.
New Providence, the Bahamas
New Providence became a hotbed of pirate activity in the early part of the 18th century. Notorious pirates based here — such as Stede Bonnet and Charles Vane — had direct access to sea trade routes and were little bothered by authorities. This all came to an end in 1718, when the English Crown wiped out the pirates in New Providence, setting the stage for a more peaceful and prosperous era. Modern visitors can get up to speed on pirate lore in the Bahamas by dropping into the Pirates of Nassau Museum, where exhibits chronicle the region’s pirate history.
Port Royal, Jamaica
Ground zero for pirate heritage in the Caribbean would have to be Port Royal, across the harbor from Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. In the 17th century, Port Royal earned the sobriquet, “The Wickedest City on Earth.” Picture pirates such as Sir Henry Morgan in full party mode, surrounded by tankards of ale and wenches and possessing a propensity to settle arguments with a cutlass.
Port Royal functioned as pirate headquarters in the region, and the English in control of Jamaica looked the other way as long as English ships were spared from pillaging by the pirates. History buffs of all ages will find it thrilling to stroll the battlements of Fort Charles and see its many cannons.
Another major site is Port Royal's archaeological museum, which has a wealth of maritime exhibits and artifacts. In addition to pirate history, the museum also showcases the heritage of Jamaica’s Royal Navy, including a recreation of vice admiral Horatio Nelson's private quarters.
Port Royal was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692, and some people claim to see the ghosts of dead pirates — who, they say, prefer to walk the harbor when the sun is at its noontime height, instead of appearing at night. While it’s possible to drive to Port Royal from Kingston, clients can opt to approach via a half-hour ferry ride, which offers great views as well as a seafaring link to pirates past.