Tortuga was a small island a little off the coast of what is now Haiti (but was then Hispaniola)that became the base of operations of early buccaneers in the 17th century. The island's name, Tortuga, is Spanish for "turtle."

This node is intended to discuss somewhat at length the history of Tortuga during its era of buccaneer activity and is best read with Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest blaring from your stereo.

The Grand Ole History of Pirate Tortuga

Colonization by the French

The Spanish had driven the French settlers off of Hispaniola in the 1630's and the refugees turned to the 25-mile-long island of Tortuga as a hopeful safe haven. Tortuga had rich, fertile soil, sources of fresh water, and would be relatively easy to defend if the need ever arose. The settlers were initially hunters (the term buccaneer arises from "boucan", the French name for the meat they barbequed) but quickly learned piracy was a much more lucrative venture and began making the regular raids on the Spanish colonies of Hispaniola that history best remembers them for.

It was a French governor named Jean le Vasseur's idea to build a fort by Tortuga's harbor to use to defend the island from the Spanish. His training as an engineer enabled him to see the construction of the 24-gun Fort de Rocher to completion. This greatly strengthened the small island and marked the point in history where Tortuga's popularity as a buccaneer outpost soared. In addition to the French population of Tortuga, an English community arose, which led to the usually kind of colonial squabbles you'd expect the geographic proximity of two rival powers to cause.

First Attack on Tortuga

The first attack took place in 1635. Spanish forces, led by Captain Gregorio de Castellar y Mantilla, had gotten wind that the slaves of the English colony had gotten out of control and the plantation managers had hightailed it out of what was rapidly becoming a bad situation. The English can thank deserter John Murphy for that one. So anyway, the Spanish basically took advantage of this moment of weakness, thus the ensuing attack of Captain Greg, whose full name is far too bloody long for me to type again. Well, Greg and the boys do a pretty decent job of the thing and they managed to seize control of Tortuga and snuff out quite a few Englishmen while they’re at it.

However, after this little victory the Spanish moved on, abandoning Tortuga for the time, to try their hand at taking down the Isle of Providence (Santa Catalina). The English forces there were made of stronger stuff than the Spanish anticipated and were successful in defending themselves. Goodbye to Captain Greg and his boys. After all the drama was over, the French and English colonists, that had managed to flee Tortuga while all the badness with the invading was happening, crept out from under their respective rocks and slunk back to Tortuga, not spurned so easily from a residence they had come to rather like.

Second Attack on Tortuga

Apparently the problem with the failed plantations and slaves running amok hadn’t sorted itself out, because in 1638 the Spanish returned to attack again and successfully expelled (at least for the moment) the inhabitants of Tortuga. Props to Spain for being so doggedly determined, but the next year, 1639, the expelled colonists returned and snatched back the island, refortifying it against any future attacks.

In addition, the population of Tortuga swelled when colonists from severely overpopulated Barbados and St. Christopher immigrated and established tobacco plantations around this time.

Third Attack on Tortuga

Okay, let’s not plunge headlong into this one. Let's take a look at where we are and what Tortuga’s demographics are like. The pirates and privateers of Tortuga are mostly English and French, but other Europeans (especially the Dutch) are also represented. In 1640, these merry buccaneers began dubbing themselves the Brethren of the Coast.

Also in 1640, Jean de Vasseur (Remember the guy who erected the fort? Him again.) is commissioned to take full control of the island. He gave the English colonists (not the pirates, mind you) the boot and completely wiped them out by 1641. He also, in 1650, imported a few hundred prostitutes into Tortuga. He was apparently hoping to give the pirates a healthy dose of heterosexuality, after hearing about a state of homosexual union called matelotage that was supposedly common among the Tortugans. Apparently them pirates liked their matelotage, because in 1653 Vasseur was assassinated by his own followers.

Now here’s where things started to swing the way of the Spanish, who no longer had wacky slave antics to serve as opportunities for attack. Vasseur was replaced as governor by a man named Chavalier de Fontenay. While under Vasseur's command, Tortuga was heavily armed against the Spanish, but this state of military might began to decline under Fontenay and Spanish forces attacked in 1654. They seized the island, but left to defend Santa Domingo from English attack in 1655.

Their retreat was followed by the reoccupation of Tortuga by the determined buccaneers, who drove out by 1660 any remaining Spaniards and proceeded to use Tortuga as a base from which to terrorize the few Spanish colonies left on Hispaniola. Because of these assaults, the Spanish colonies of Hispaniola were largely destroyed. The governor of Jamaica (owned by the English) attempted to establish an English government on Tortuga, but this ultimately failed and a French government was instead established by the colonists.

Tortuga Begins to Rise to Prominence as Pirate Base Numero Uno

Right-ho. So bang bang bang, we’ve got Tortuga switching hands a bazillion times but always being restored to the buccaneers one way or another. We’re at 1660 on the grand ole timeline now and this, my friends, is when Tortuga starts to sparkle. Y’know the pirate town in Pirates of the Caribbean? Let this be your mental picture of Tortuga. Buccaneers, with no colonies on Hispaniola left to bully, pushed off in their ships to take on the high seas. Afterwards, though, they would usually return to Tortuga and blow the loot they’d obtained in their adventures on ale, gambling and whores. Yo ho ho and all that. This was helped largely by the governor of Jamaica receiving orders to relax his grip on the island.

New Leadership (Again!)

In 1664 the French West India Company took control of Tortuga and sent Monsieur D'Ogeron in 1665 to take control as its governor. This was a tough task for the poor chap because, hey, convincing rowdy buccaneers to accept your leadership isn’t easy. Somehow he did it though, and even managed to convince several inhabitants to settle on Hispaniola, thus extending the reach of French influence. Yay for France. Meanwhile, more and more seafaring French pirates and privateers were adopting Tortuga as their main headquarters, including some very cool historical figures such as Henry Morgan.

The Decline And Fall of Buccaneer Tortuga

From 1670-1679, Tortuga began to decline as the center of Buccaneer operations after enjoying its brief day in the sun. Some of the blokes who found the buccaneer lifestyle too dangerous turned to logging and Spain’s use of corsairs forced buccaneers to travel only in groups for their own protection. Things were getting difficult for our happy lot of pirates. D'Ogeron additionally managed to drive off the buccaneers' Dutch trading partners (trading with rival nations didn't really fly). The buccaneers of Tortuga became used by France, through the influence of the governor, as a means of supplementing their naval force in their endeavors to gain a foothold in the Caribbean. In 1673 a large portion of the buccaneers were captured by the Spanish after getting shipwrecked while on their way to aid the French in an attack on Curacao. Governor D'Ogeron wasn't completely successful in controlling the activities of the buccaneers, however, and throughout the 1670's Tortuga remained a buccaneer safehaven.

But all things must have an end and in 1680 so began Tortuga's. As opportunities to attack the Spanish grew smaller in number, many buccaneers began to assault Jamaica. The English, understandably, were not pleased and bitched to the French king, who made efforts to suppress buccaneer activity. In 1684, the Treaty of Ratisbone signed by France and Spain also included measures to stop the buccaneers and several pirates were enlisted to turn against their former comrades. In 1688, Henry Morgan died in Jamaica and the Golden Age of Buccaneer Tortuga drew quietly to a close as the rogues that once called the island home dispersed to pillage elsewhere.

source: and my history notes (and a bit of perusing encyclopedias).
One noder also brought to my attention that the pirate town Cap'n Jack visits in Pirates of the Caribbean not only resembles Tortuga but IS Tortuga.