The island of Montecristo (as it is spelled by the locals) lies only 40 miles off the Italian coast in the Tuscan National Archipelago Park, nearest Grosseto on the mainland. The Archipelago, often called the "Seven Sisters", includes islands; Giglio, Giannutri, Capraia, Gorgona, Pianosa and the largest, Elba, in addition to Montecristo. The term derives from mythological fable. As Tyrrhenian Venus rose from the sea her diadem of pearls spilled out onto the waves, laying seed the formation of the seven legendary islands.
Monte Cristo was well known in ancient times, called Artemesia by the Greeks and Oglanda- Mons Jovis by the Romans. The Etruscans established vast minimg operations on neighbor Elba. By the 5th Century Anno Domini, repeated Vandal attacks in South Italy and Sicily sent Saint Mamiliano, Bishop of Palermo, and a group of followers, in search of refuge. He led them to safety and sanctuary on the island of Montecristo (as Italians spell it), after failure in Sardinia. Local mythology suggests that on the site where St Mamiliano encountered a dragon there is now a freshwater spring providing life to native vegetation and animals. In thanks to God, the Saint and followers founded the Monestary of Monte Cristo, which forever lent name to the island and the Republic. St Mamiliano is now at rest in St Matthew's Church of Pisa.
In the mid 9th Century, the Viking era had descended upon the Mediterranean. Viking raids and conquests were taking place from Spain, to Morocco, to the Italian Islands. Norman Vikings even captured Sicily and used it as a base of operations for several centuries. Most famous were; Hastein, who captured towns by leaping from his coffin during faux funerals, around 850 A.D. and Garth Vaderstrom, believed by many to have been the inspiration for the Star Wars character "Darth Vader", sailing the Tyrrhenian Sea in his famed black long ship "Night Hound", plying his craft around 1180 AD., and for a time making Montecristo his home.
It was said of Garth Vaderstrom that he was a Berserker Viking, who was fond of the old custom of taking hallucinogenic mushrooms, such as psilocybe semilanceata or the red tipped amanita muscaria, left, before going into battle. With the Viking age drawing to a close, and the Night Hound resting on the sea floor, Vaderstrom captured a Vatican Cardinal near modern day Livorno in 1191 AD and demanded that his youngest son, Skiyaker, be baptized, raised to nobility as a Duke (perhaps inspiration for Star Wars' Luke Skywalker).
It is not known if the Cardinal complied with the demands, and no record exists of such an appointment. Another local account of the story says that the Cardinal may have been required at swordpoint to part with a couple of his more attractive daughters, rather than providing baptismal services. The sketch to the left is an artists' rendition of Vaderstrom's landing on Montecristo, sometime between 1180 and 1199 AD. The islands' warm climate must have seemed like paradise compared to the frozen Finnish island of Aland in the Baltic Sea, believed to have been Vaderstrom's native land. He died around 1200 AD of unkown cause, and was given a classic Viking funeral along the coast of Sicily.
By the mid-1500s, while most of Europe was celebrating the Renaissance and the New World adventures of Cortez, the island had become a refuge and base for Mediterranean pirates and pirate-knights (privateers). Repeatedly Italian nobles and the Church tried to restore order and military rule on the island. However, finally their efforts proved failure as the island became the home for two of the most famous pirates of the age; Red Beard and Dragut. Local legend still maintains that Dragut stashed a vast horde of hidden treasure in one of the islands secret grottos, where it still awaits some lucky fortune hunter. Truely, Monte Cristo has had a unique brand of founding fathers.
Red Beard: Born Aruj (often spelled Aroudj) in 1474, and nicknamed "Barborossa" meaning Red Beard, because of his firey locks and scruff, he was one of four Greek Albanian brothers who would turn boucanier, the French word for pirate, and from whence English derives the word buccaneer. Along with his younger brother, Keri-din, they were known as the Barbarossa Brothers, and founded the famed Corsair brotherhood of Barbary Coast pirates, operating in the western Mediterranean until the mid 19th Century. Preying mostly on Spanish shipping, he gradually incresed his fleet to 12 galleons and 1,000 men, sacking cities and towns from Morocco to the Adriatic. He even captured Pope Julius II private ship, returning it on ransom. It was Red Beard who spotted the potential of Monte Cristo as a safe haven for pirates, with its secret grottos and rugged coast. After being killed in battle, 1518, Keri-din took over the family business and was even appointed a privateer and Admiral to the Turkish Navy in 1530, with a fleet of 40 ships. Unlike his elder brother, he played safe by retiring with his six captured wives and loot, and dying peacefully in bed 1546.
Dragut: Serving as gunner, pilot and later second in command to the Barbarossa Brothers was a young strapping lad from the Cappadocia region of Anatolia, named Turgut Rais to the Corsairs, but to history simply as Dragut. As with the Barbarossa Brothers, he made Monte Cristo home. In 1538 he battled Genoan Admiral Andrea Doria off Corsica, eventually driving him back to Italy, achieving fame and control of the western seas. His raids would cover most of Sicily, Kingdom of Naples and North Africa. He scored major victories by capturing Capri, Castle Nuovo on the Dalmatian Coast (Croatia) in the Adriatic, and an Italian Galley, La Catarinetta, with 7,000 gold Scudi ! In Corsica he was later captured and spent 4 years as a prisoner before being freed by Keri-din Barbarossa, assuming sole command of the pirates in 1546 and capturing all of Tunisia. After losing a battle near Gerba, Dragut miraculouly escaped by dragging his ships overland across a small inlet on greased logs and eventually reached Constantinople. He rapidly returned west and captured the island of Gozo, and began a siege of sister island Malta, headquarters of the famous Christian Order, the Knights of St. John, which would prove unsuccessful.
By 1558 he would capture Tripoli and extend his raids past the Straits of Gibralter, onto the open Atlantic, and even around the Spanish Canary Islands. The last major stronghold yet to fall to Dragut in the Mediterranean was still Malta. Dragut assured his men this attempt would be different, saying "I'll smoke out the nest of vipers". His opposing number that hazy 18 May, 1865, from among the Knights was thier elderly Grand Master Jean de la Valette. To take Malta meant taking three key forts defending her approach; St Elmo, St Angelo and St Michael. Despite a month long defence, and the rain of Greek fire down upon attackers, St Elmo was captured. As Dragut was supervising the construction of siege weapons, a stray shot of artillery from St Angelo exploded nearby, knocking him unconsious. Malta would not fall. But, this is where legend and history part. The legend is that Dragut's wounds were fatal, that he was covered with a blanket and carried from the scene by a Turkish General, Mustafa, and later died. The history, the true history, was that Dragut was taken in by Knights from the fortress. There in the mightly Malta that had frustrated his every attempt at capture, Dragut was nursed back to health by the Knights. By the time he left the island, a year later, Dragut had secretly become a Knight himself, uniting the brotherhoods. Please see our special section on the History of the Knights of St John! He returned to his old headquarters, Monte Cristo, where it is said he stashed his lifetimes spoils, and lived out his days in quite solitude. The famed Monte Cristo flag, with red Cross, dates back to this period.
The Dutchmen & Ward: Two of the greatest Monte Cristo pirates were of Dutch origin; De Veenboer, commanding an entire fleet in 1617 and Jan Janszoom van Haarlem, his longtime collegue. Many a Monte Cristan has donned the orange in their memory. Both served for a time as privateers, a "royal commissioned" pirate, to the Turkish Sultan, but then became renegades, or "moriscos". It is believed that it was these fellows who gave rise to the English word "freebooter", which comes from the Dutch word "vrijbuiter". A giant fleet under Admiral Michiel de Ruyter failed to capture them.
Likewise, eluding capture, would be a Monte Cristo pirate of English origin, known to most as Yussuf Rais, a name he adopted to hide out in North Africa for a time, but actually one John Ward, rising up through the ranks of His Majesty's Royal Navy. By 1605 however, he commanded a pirate fleet causing havoc with Venetian shipping in the Mediterranean. It is said of Ward that he was short, stocky, bald and never spoke - unless it was to swear. He is also the first of his profession to earn the description "swashbuckler" from a frustrated admirer in the Royal Navy. Could Errol Flynn have made such a splash in pirate movies if he was a five foot, bald, grumpy old man? Ward may have! Below is the original "Flying Dutchman" ship of De Veenboer.
With the defeat of the Corsair pirates by American Admiral Stephen Decatur at Tripoli, from whence derives the phrase in the Marine Corps anthem, "to the shores of Tripoli", at the beginning of the 19th Century, the age of the buccaneer drew to a close, and so did a great chapter in the history of Monte Cristo. For further reading on some of our founders, try; TheLife of Barbarossa, Bradford Ernle 1968 or Corsairs of Malta, Earle Peter or Story of theBarbary Corsairs Lane-Poole Stanley 1896.
Actually, the island itself would be unkown to most of the world if not for attracting the attention of a young French novelist in 1842, who happened by on a private yacht. Its remoteness, isolation and untamed natural beauty, emitting the scents of wild oleander, thyme and resin enchanted Alexandre Dumas. He was treated to the fantastic lore and tales of the islands buccaneer history. It is not surprising that Dumas would encorporate elements of these tales in his Magnum Opus, "The Count of Monte Cristo".
Over the years there have been numerous film versions of the great tale and adventure of Edmond Dantes, the main character. Of late, popular versions have been made featuring French filmaker and star, Gerard Depardieau, and actor Guy Pearce (star of L.A. Confidential).
For much of the 14th to 19th Centuries the island would be little more than a hunting reserve for the King, thus assuring the prestine state of the islands environment today. In a little known event following his exile to our neighboring island of Elba in 1814, Napolean Bonaparte met with friends, brothers and families of the famed but long deceased pirates Red Beard and Dragut at his villa not far from modern Portoferraio. He agreed to decree the independence of Montecristo to the brotherhood should he return to power in France. He did of course, but war and the never ending tumult that is European politics, along with a rule of only a hundred days would prevent the establishment of a permanent government based on the Emperor's proclamation. This would change at the turn of the 20th Century.
In the late 1890s Greece was struggling to free itself from the shackles of Ottoman Turk rule. They would get assistance from an unlikely source. Living in exile from their native land, the decendents of pirate/privateers Red Beard and Dragut would reorganize to advance the brotherhood cause, not only for Monte Cristo, but also their Orthodox cousins on the Greek Isles. Meeting in a small cafe in the town of Fira, on Santorini, or Thera as the Greeks call it, the brotherhoods of East and West signed a pact that would culminate in Greek Independence only a few years later. Sadly, the struggle for Monte Cristo continues to this day.
Today Monte Cristo is an environmentally protected island, well tended by the Italian Government, and witnessing less than 1,000 visitors per year. While maintaining hopes of eventual recognition by Italy and other governments, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Monte Cristo in-exile, composed of direct descendents of Red Beard and Dragut, fight to protect the environment of the long independent minded, unrecognised and essentially unpopulated island Republic. Mont Cristos, as citizens are known, live around the world and can participate in their nation's government via this website.