As the European spice trade opened with southeast Asia and Indonesia in the late seventeenth century, English ships laden with cash and trade goods rounded the Cape to brave the southern Indian Ocean. Many were wrecked on the reefs of Madagascar, where survivors sometimes parlayed the cargo into settlements with local chiefs and permanent residence and marriage. By 1690, deliberate wrecking and piracy had become a major local industry, centred around the island of Sainte Marie and the comparatively safe anchorages in the Baie d’Antongil.
Although the most infamous of these was William Kidd, his pirate career was short-lived – and, curiously enough, began with his commission by the British crown as a pirate-catcher. Kidd’s nemesis, Robert Culliford, was a more colourful and piratical character, reputedly bisexual, and exceptionally ruthless. Sainte Marie’s most successful pirate was Thomas Tew, who captured a Mughal ship loaded with some £200 million (at today’s value) in gold and silver. (Such booty was by no means uncommon: the vicious pirate Christopher Condent captured more than £120 million at today’s value in a single attack on an Arab vessel.) It is believed that Tew went on to marry a local chief’s daughter and had a son, Ratsimilaho, who founded the Betsimisaraka confederation. Much less sure is whether he was one of the key citizens of the supposed “pirate colony” of Libertalia, believed to have been based around the Île aux Forbans in the bay south of Ambodifotatra, and to have experimented with a radical new social order, in which plunder was distributed fairly among its members, and racial equality was asserted.