The Basilisk Isles are a large island chain off the northern coast of the continent of Sothoryos. The archipelago is located directly south from Slaver's Bay in Essos. They are infamous as the worst pirate dens in the known world, even worse than the Stepstones between Westeros and the Free Cities.
The Basilisks stretch across roughly the same east-west distance as Slaver's Bay, beginning southeast of Valyria's eastern shores and ending around the same longitude as Meereen. They are located a considerable distance south across the Summer Sea, however, roughly the same distance south of Valyria as Valyria is south of Volantis.
Due to their location off the northern coast of mainland Sothoryos, the Basilisk Isles are one of the few parts of that continent which have been explored - the mainland is primarily hostile tropical jungles. This also puts them in a great position to serve as bases for slaver raids against tribes on mainland Sothoryos, as well as against the peaceful inhabitants of Naath island (located between the Basilisks and the Summer Islands farther west).
The Stepstones in the Narrow Sea are pirate dens because they are a border region located between several major powers (the rival Free Cities and Westeros itself), and thus constantly changing hands and rarely controlled by any one of them for long. Nonetheless the Stepstones are still on major shipping lanes and fairly close to major urban centers (indeed, the Free City of Tyrosh is located at the eastern end of the Stepstones). In contrast, the Basilisk Isles are infamously located at the extreme southern edge of the explored world, far from the centers of civilization, and not formally claimed by any realm. The Basilisks are truly lawless, infested by the absolute worst of the world's pirates, slavers, and mercenaries - the utter dregs of humanity. Criminals and cutthroats from all lands in the world come to the isles to seek their fortune. Thus the Basilisk Isles truly are wretched hives of scum and villainy, where life is typically nasty, brutish, and short.
The Basilisk Isles are reasonably far away from the powers in the Free Cities or Slaver's Bay that might try to stop them, but at the same time close to the shipping lanes between these two regions, because they dip south to avoid the Valyrian Peninsula: merchants (and even the pirates themselves) don't dare travel through the Smoking Sea, the shattered island chain that is all that remains of the southern end of the peninsula after the Doom of Valyria. Thus the Basilisk Isles are an ideal resupply point for pirates operating in the Summer Sea. They also make a great base for pirates going out on longer range attacks against the merchant fleets of the Summer Islands and Free Cities to the west, as well as Slaver's Bay and Qarth to the east, and even the occasional Ibbenese whaling ship that strays too far into southern waters.
Ironborn raiders have sought plunder and glory in the Basilisk Isles for many centuries, despite the Iron Islands being located very far to the west. After House Targaryen conquered and unified the Seven Kingdoms, they forbid the ironborn from raiding around the coasts of Westeros itself. After this ban, traveling all the way to the Basilisks to raid nearby shipping lanes increasingly became one of the few options left open to ironborn reavers. One of the greatest leaders of the ironborn was Dalton Greyjoy, the Red Kraken, who led them during the Dance of the Dragons. Young Dalton traveled on reaving expeditions to the Basilisks with his uncle when he was only ten years old. Euron Greyjoy also visited the Basilisk Isles with his ship numerous times during his many years away from the Iron Islands.
There are about a dozen islands in the chain of the Basilisks. The largest of these is the Isle of Tears, where many captives from raids are kept in slave pens. Another, much smaller isle is Skull Island, an uninhabited rock where pirates dump the rotting skulls of victims they have decapitated.
There are some settlements scattered across the Basilisks - muddy, ramshackle pirate towns where ships can hire new crews from the murderers found in every inn and tavern. Most famous of these is Port Plunder, along with others such as Sty and Whore's Gash. No maps can find these towns because they are of a temporary nature: every generation or so the Free Cities expend the effort to send great fleets to the Basilisks to destroy every pirate den and hang every man they find. Even when these expeditions succeed, by the next year a new Port Plunder will pop up again somewhere else like a mushroom: "Port Plunder" is just what the corsairs and slavers in the Basilisks happen to call whatever pirate den is the largest in the current generation. Pirate crews also often come together to trade with each other at Barter Beach.
When an assassination attempt is made on Daenerys Targaryen in Vaes Dothrak, she says she thought King Robert Baratheon would leave her alone after her brother Viserys Targaryen died. Ser Jorah Mormont then explains to her that as the last Targaryen, King Robert's agents will never stop hunting her no matter how far she flees, even if she goes to Asshai or the Basilisk Isles.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the Basilisk Isles are dangerous pirate dens even worse than the Stepstones in the Narrow Sea. It is said that the mud-and-blood towns of the Basilisk Isles teem with escaped slaves, slavers, skinners, whores, hunters, and worse. The Basilisks are so named because they were originally infested by Basilisks, before various slavers and pirates carved out territory on them.
The appearance of the Basilisk Isles in the title credits of the TV series is completely accurate with maps from the book continuity.
The climate of the island chain is miserably hot and humid. Tropical diseases there are nearly as bad as on the mainland, with stinging flies, bloodworms, and similar parasites.
The Ghiscari Empire built outposts in the Basilisk Isles over 5,000 years ago, including the city Gogossos on the Isle of Tears which was used as a transport hub for slaver raids against the mainland. The city was captured by the Valyrian Freehold in the Third Ghiscari War, which continued to use it as a slaver base for the next 5,000 years. The now-Valyrian slaving outposts in the Basilisk Isles survived the Doom of Valyria (which occurred about 400 years before the War of the Five Kings), but about eighty years later a terrible plague swept through the isles, completely depopulating them. Gogossos was left in ruins ever since.
After the plague the isles were shunned for a full century, but eventually pirates began to resettle them (during the long reign of King Jaehaerys I Targaryen in Westeros). Ever since, various lawless pirate fiefdoms have maintained shifting control over different islands in the chain. Every generation or so they grow to be such a problem that fleets from the Free Cities will join in alliance to scour them out, killing hundreds of pirates, but new pirate dens quickly pop up again to replace them like mushrooms in the night.
There are around a dozen islands in the chain, though only seven have been named: the Isle of Tears, Talon, the Isle of Toads, Ax Isle, the Isle of Flies, Skull Isle, and Howling Mountain. The Isle of Tears is the largest, and site of the ruins of Gogossos. Talon, so-named because it is shaped like a large claw on a map, is another large island, located north of the Isle of Tears near the center of the chain. Ax Isle is the easternmost island, and the Isle of Flies is stated to be the westernmost (though current maps haven't labeled the specific location of the Isle of Flies, or Howling Mountain). Skull Isle is a small, rocky, and uninhabited, use as a dumping ground for skulls the pirates collect from their victims. The Isle of Toads is perhaps the most intriguing of the isles, and the only one with a surviving native population.
Talon in particular is used as a trading area of sorts between the pirate factions from the different islands: it has many large natural caves, all of them inhabited and fortified into pirate castles and settlements. While all of Talon is used as a slave mart between the different pirates, it is also the site of Barter Beach, where they specifically trade with each other - apparently it is an actual beach where ships are grounded, as opposed to one of the more transient settlements.
There are several famous pirate-den "towns" across the Basilisks, chief among them Port Plunder but also Sty and Whore's Gash. In truth, these get wiped out by the anti-pirate expeditionary fleets which come from the Free Cities once every generation or so, but the pirates soon rebuild elsewhere, and just re-use the old names. It is explicitly said that there have been at least a dozen different Port Plunders - each one on a separate island in the chain (they aren't simply rebuilt in the same location). Only Barter Beach is mentioned as a permanent location, on Talon (again, seeming to indicate that it is truly just a beach with good anchorage).
Ancient ruins belonging to some vanished civilization from the Dawn Age can be found on three islands in the chain: the Isle of Tears, the Isle of Toads, and Ax Isle. The best preserved of the ruins are on the Isle of Toads, particularly the large statues of foul gods set along the coasts. The largest of these is an ancient idol known as the Toad Stone, forty feet high and made of greasy black stone, crudely carved into the shape of a giant toad of malignant aspect.
For the most part, the Basilisk Isles have no indigenous inhabitants, with centuries of slaver raids, colonization, and then crippling plagues totally depopulating them, after which they were resettled by the world's worst pirates, along with slaves taken from mainland Sothoryos and elsewhere. The one major exception to this, however, is the Isle of Toads itself: its modern inhabitants are theorized to be descendants of the long forgotten civilization that produced the ruins and the idols. The reason for this suspicion is that the locals don't resemble any other people, but are described as having an unpleasant, fish-like appearance to their faces, with webbed hands and feet. Some belief that in ancient times their ancestors interbred with the horrifying non-human race of half-fish men known as the "Deep Ones" - but this is the purest conjecture. Either way the natives on the Isle of Toads are not a major presence, and it is just as much dominated by pirates as the rest of the isles.
In the roughly two and a half centuries since the islands were resettled by pirates (during Jaehaerys I Targaryen's reign), they have generally had no large scale government, and even the individual islands are not always under unified rule but frequently divided into their own pirate fiefdoms. Often they exist in a state of anarchy, in which visitors keep only what they can defend with their own ships and weapons - though from time to time larger pirate bands manage to extend control over an entire island, sometimes even more than one. These holdings rarely outlast the death of those that established them. One in a great while a particularly strong pirate-lord has managed to establish control over most or even all of the Basilisk Isles. Probably the most famous of these was Saathos Saan of Lys, an ancestor of Salladhor Saan. Saathos was dispatched as the admiral of one of the large fleets occasionally sent by the Free Cities to clear the isles of pirates - but instead, he turned pirate himself, using his forces to establish control over the entire island chain, and he ruled as King of the Basilisk Isles for three full decades. This unity apparently didn't long survive his death, given that they are once again in their usual state of lawless anarchy by the time of the War of the Five Kings.
|Islands of the Summer Sea||