Its pirate past is but one golden nugget on this island teeming with treasures, writes Fred de Vries.
Source: Sunday Times, 5th April 2009, Author: Fred de Vries
So that’s where they are, buried on a humid swampy, sickly green Malagasy hill: the pirates and corsairs of St Mary’s, who terrorized the Indian Ocean in the last 17th and early 18th centuries. The tombs are overgrown and covered in black fungus. And as if to further emphasise the authenticity, some of the stones have been decorated with the ominous skull and crossbones.
Finding the graveyard isn’t easy. From the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, I catch a small plane to Ile St Marie, a small island off the northeast coast. Then a taxi to Ambodifotatra, the main settlement on the island. And eventually, because of high tide, with a pirogue to the cemetery, past wooden houses built in the water.
A guide comes along, Gregoire. “He speaks good English,” assure the guys who sell tickets. Gregoire resembles Desmond Tutu, has a nasty cough and is pretty useless. No juicy anecdotes, no great insights. He shows me the tombs and mentions some famous St Marie pirates; Henry Every, Thomas Tew, Captain Kidd. That used to be there centre of operations, he says. It’s still called Pirate Island. That’s where you’ll also find the bounty cave.
I nod and imagine the old pirates, hiding in the bay, smirking at all the wealth that passed on the waves: slave ships; vessels full of pilgrims to Mecca, returning with gold and silver; and ships from the Dutch East India Company, filled with spices, jewels, silk and cloth. Easy targets, especially since the underpaid, badly treated crew members weren’t prepared to put up a fight.
For over 30 years (1688 – 1721) these buccaneers operated successfully from St Mary’s, turning the island into an autonomous pirate’s republic with its own laws (“The Articles”) and flags. In his authoritative book on piracy, Honour Among Thieves, Jan Rogozinski calls them “the most successful criminals in the history”.
Given the current interest in piracy (think Johnny Depp and the modern Somali version) it’s surprising that St Mary’s has done so little to promote its own piracy legacy. Apart from visiting the cemetery and Pirate Island, all you can do is buy a T-shirt with some of the famous names. At the tourist office the man shakes his head. No, no brochures on the pirates. But yes, there is a DVD on the piracy history of St Mary’s. Unfortunately it’s in French. And unfortunately, they don’t sell it in St Mary’s.
So much for the pirates. But there’s a lot more to do on St Mary’s. The island, 56km by 15km, is particularly famous for its humpback whales, which populate the narrow channel between St Mary’s and mainland from June to the end of September. But now, the of December, there’s not a single whale in sight. Therefore I ask my taxi to take me to the top of the island, just past the end of the only tar road, to a stunning lagoon where I snorkel and become engrossed in a psychedelic underwater landscape of corals, stones and tropical fish. Afterwards I continue this hallucinogenic experience with a few samples of the infused rums at the bar of La Crique Restaurant. As a true pirate island befits, rum is the staple beverage on St Mary’s and every bar concocts its own infusions. La Crique does and excellent vanilla version, just on the right side of sickly sweet.
Invigorated from the swim and the rum, I take a taxi back down the main road, past tiny shops, restaurants and bars to the St Mary’s Zoo, a few kilometres south of the town. This is a privately run zoo, entirely devoted to the unique Malagasy flora and fauna.
Where the excursion to the pirate cemetery was disappointing, the tour to the zoo is sheer delight. The guide speaks good English, is knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Moreover, he knows how to build up momentum. Hence he starts off with a short, dry explanation about all the mammals, insects, snakes and reptiles that are totally or virtually unique to Madagascar. Then he takes me to the snakes and the reptiles. In the first cage I stroke a cold, rubbery boa, while in the next one I hold out a grasshopper in front of a day-glo green chameleon, which immediately lashes out with a gigantic tongue and catches the hapless insect. Swallows. Gone. A spectacle of cruelty that takes about two seconds.
The real highlight of the zoo, however, is the lemur. The name for this ancient primate is derived from the Latin word lemurs, which means “spirit of the night” or “ghost”. Such is the transcendental appeal of this mythical creature that it brought the utterly unsentimental American Beat writer William Burroughs close to tears.
Burroughs subsequently wrote a book about the Malagasy lemurs and pirates, Ghost of Chance (1991), in which he portrays the lemur, one of the few female dominant mammals, as a caring and loving ghost threatened by extinction.
The guide gestures that I must enter the cage. A small lemur immediately jumps on my shoulder, eats from my hand and looks at me with curious amber eyes. I learn that the lemur is unique to Madagascar (you do also find them in the Comoros, but there they’ve been introduced by humans) and that they came from mainland Africa after Madagascar broke off some 160 million years ago. While they were superseded elsewhere by other primates they survived in Madagascar. Many types (including the giants that weighed up to 240kg) disappeared as humans increasingly disturbed the ecological equilibrium, but some 80 species have survived, most of them endangered.
St Mary’s has no lemurs in the wild, but my taxi driver said that the neighbouring Ile Aux Nattes has a handful of domesticated ones. We cross the small channel with a pirogue and arrive at La Petite Traversee, a resort run by a stocky, long-haired South African called Ockie, who grew up in the Kalahari Desert and developed an unlikely love for the islands and tropical rainforest. Ile Aux Nattes, he tells me, is only 6.7km round and completely safe. A walk around the island (there are no cars or motors) will take anything between two and four hours, depending on the tide, swimming, snorkelling and snack stops. “With a bit of luck you’ll see the lemur as well.”
I set off in an easterly direction. Initially I’m taken aback by the still very visible devastation caused by last years cyclone, the worst in 60 years: fallen trees, ripped up beach cottages and debris galore. But after some 20 minutes things become quiet, very quiet. I clamber over rocks, marvel at the wild orchids and stare at the amazing shells that have washed up on the beach. I pick one that has a yin-yang pattern, hoping it will bring me luck. I say bonjour to the odd local, stare at a desperate boa that is caught in a fisherman’s net. And every now and then I dip into the warm sea, then relax in the shadow of an almost horizontal palm tree.
Somewhere half way through my trip I hear a sound in a tree. I look up and catch a long, black tail. I stand and watch. A hairy creature the size of a small monkey, appears, curious. It’s a varikandra lemur. We stare at each other. She (I want it to be a she) slide further down the tree, then lies on her back and starts making her toilet, licking, rubbing, washing, posing and flirting. She grabs a few leaves, eats and shits.
Then she gets bored and disappears. I walk on and have a drink at a nearby restaurant, where I sit on a little separate balcony. As I’m lazily sipping my tonic I hear that familiar noise. The lemur is back. She climbs on a tree stump next to me and sits down. When nothing happens she comes a bit closer and eventually stretches out on her tummy, her head on her hand, pensive, melancholic. I look at her large ears, long fingers and amber eyes, and think of William Burroughs and his warning that this incredible creature is threatened by extinction.
Back in my room I pick up Burroughs Ghost of Chance and look up the paragraph where he describes a meeting between the fearless pirate Captain Mission and a lemur. “Slowly the animal raised one paw and touched his face, stirring memories of ancient betrayal. Tears streaming down his face, he stroked the animals head.”
Source: Sunday Times, 5th April 2009, Author: Fred de Vries