L’Olonnais: the devil incarnate, or just brutalised by war?

Accounts of the behaviour of the early Hispaniola buccaneers focus on the sensational brutality of just a few of them, notably the French pirate Jean David Nau, better known as l’Olonnais.
This man cultivated his reputation for cruelty to the point where Spanish crews would rather die fighting than surrender to him. John Exquemelin devotes some 36 pages of his Buccaneers of America to the pirate’s  activities, chronicling in considerable detail the hideous atrocities he inflicted on his victims.
Here’s a taster. L’Olonnais had captured some Spaniards, and was grilling them about a way of avoiding an ambush…
“L’Olonnais grew outrageously passionate… he drew his cutlass, and with it cut open the breast of one of these poor Spaniards, and, pulling out his heart… began to bite and gnaw it with his teeth like a ravenous wolf.”

The cruelty of L'Olonnais

In the illustration that appears in the first edition of Esquemeling’s book, the engraver depicts L’Olonnais feeding the beating heart to another captive

L’Olonnois was clearly a psychopath. But his actions – and the general level of violence inflicted by the Northern European enemies of the Spanish – need to be seen in the context of the time.
During war, the whole raison d’être of a military force is to inflict violence and death on the foe, and even when the Spanish and English were not openly at war in the Caribbean, aggression and cruelty was never far away. Only acts of extreme violence merited comment. In December 1604 the Venetian ambassador reported that…
“News arrived yesterday that the Spanish in the West Indies have captured two English vessels. They cut off the hands, feet, noses and ears of the crews and smeared them with honey and tied them to trees to be tortured by flies and other beasts. The Spanish here plead that they were pirates, not merchants, and did not know of the peace [the Treaty of London, which ended the Anglo-Spanish War.] But the barbarity makes people here cry out.

(Source: Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 10: 1603-1607)

What goes around comes around

It’s comforting to know that L’Olonnais eventually got an appropriate comeuppance: his brutal career ended with him being eaten by cannibals.

Half-arsed buccaneer

Memoirs of a buccaneer manuscript

The buccaneer’s memoirs even included a photograph of the battered manuscript opposite the title page

One of the most famous of the Caribbean buccaneers, Louis le Golif, was better known by his nickname Borgnefesse (half-arse) which he acquired after a ricocheting canon-ball removed most of his left buttock.
Born around 1640 in St Martin de Ré, southwest France, Le Golif travelled to the Caribbean as an indentured servant when aged 20. Overworked and beaten by his cruel master, he stole a skiff and escaped to Hispaniola, where he fell in with buccaneer Roc Braziliano. It wasn’t long before his bravery and resourcefulness won him a command, and he went on to fight valiantly alongside another famous buccaneer, Laurens de Graff, notably at the attack on Veracruz in 1683. He returned to France and lived to the age of 80.
If le Golif had not written an autobiography, we would know nothing of his life. Neither his contemporaries, nor the chroniclers of the buccaneer era mention either his real name or his nickname. French public records shed no light on his life: according to the introduction to his memoirs, records of his birth were destroyed in a fire that consumed the archives, and his death certificate has proved impossible to find.
Perhaps we should not be surprised by these lacunae, for le Golif never existed. His memoirs are fiction, penned by one of the supposed editors, Belgian-French travel writer Albert t’Serstevens.
According to t’Serstevens, the book was transcribed from a battered and incomplete manuscript found by his artist friend in the shell-shattered cellar of a St Malo house in August 1945. Published in English translation nine years later as The Memoirs of a Buccaneer, the book is racy and salacious. Borgnefesse describes his amorous conquests in far more detail than the battles he fought outside of the bedroom. But elementary errors should alert the reader that this is a work of fiction: the “author” returns to France after the Veracruz attack, yet gives the date of his return as 28 years before the raid.
Despite these mistakes, t’Serstevens managed to pass his hoax off as authentic. Several quite eminent historians of piracy quote from the book, and even the erudite British journalist James Fenton was fooled, as his 2006 article in the Guardian reveals.

The Brethren of the Coast

Vignettes of buccaneer life

This comic-strip-style engraving shows the life of the Brethren of the coast

The origin of buccaneering is so well-know that, for pirate fans at least, it barely needs repeating. But briefly … when the gilded Aztec and Inca empires lured the Spanish away from Hispaniola, their abandoned hogs and cattle ran wild and bred huge herds of feral beasts. This in turn attracted (mostly French) hunters, who dried and smoked the meat on barbeque-like fires called boucans. The hunters became known as “boucaniers,” which in turn became corrupted to buccaneer. When the Spanish exterminated the game on which they relied, the buccaneers turned to piracy.

However, the buccaneers had another moniker: the Brethren of the Coast. Under this title, they made common cause against the Spanish. Or did they?

Jan Rogozinski doesn’t think so. In his interesting dictionary of piracy he describes the name as fictional. He says it was invented by modern writers, and claims the buccaneers themselves never used “this picturesque phrase.”

Most other authors don’t seem to question the name, though they may disagree about when it was first used. In his Time-Life book The Spanish Main, Peter Wood dates the term to 1640. JM von Archenholtz’s The History of the Pirates, Free-Booters or Buccaneers of America uses it, at least in the 1807 English translation. Voltaire called them “brothers of the coast” in 1763.

Is Rogozinski right? Was the term ever in use among the buccaneers? It would be interesting to know.


No peace beyond the line

Globe showing the supposed position of the eponymous lineIt’s a pirate cliché: grizzled English sea-rovers scream “No peace beyond the line!” as they charge towards their Spanish foes waving cutlasses. The Line, of course, is the treaty line marking the edge of the Spanish New World. Isn’t it?

Well, that’s what I thought, too. To be honest, I didn’t think too hard about where The Line was, or who drew it. Had you asked me, I would have suggested that the line was the one set by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which separated the Americas into the Portuguese bit (east of The Line) and the Spanish bit (west of The Line), as shown in the picture.

Hmm. The truth, it seems, is more complicated. And MUCH more interesting.

I recently discoved a  paper by Garrett Mattingly entitled No Peace beyond What Line? It was published in 1963 in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, and if you have access to JSTOR, you can read it here.

Garrett begins by correcting my error about where the line is supposed to be. He writes that the generally accepted lines (there are actually two) are the “Lines of Amity” drawn up at the 1559 Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis. The lines were the tropic of Cancer, and the Meridian passing through Ferro in the Canaries. “On the European side of both lines the treaty was to be binding; west and south of them it was to be disregarded.”

Hence, “Beyond the Line” it was perfectly acceptable to attack the Spanish.

But then Garrett goes on to unpick the famous phrase, and he discovers (to cut a VERY long story short) that nobody really agrees which line is The Line, although the Tropic of Cancer is the most likely candidate. And when he begins to look for the first use of the phrase, he runs up against a very strange problem indeed. For, as he puts it… “Not in the whole of the English records of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, neither in public documents nor in secondary literature, did I find anywhere the precise words ‘no peace beyond the Line.'”

In fact, he had to look at very recent writings before he found it: “It is not until the twentieth [century] has past its first decade that it suddenly bursts into full bloom.”

Garrett did not, alas, see his paper in print – it was his last, and it was published posthumously. Nor, indeed, did he have access to Google Books. If he had, he would have been fascinated to discover that the phrase is much older than his research suggested. For William Oldys uses it in his 1736 biography of Raleigh… “Befides, No Peace beyond the line, was a Belief fo rivitted in the Opinion of all, as he could not have been indicted anew.” Since piracy’s Golden Age is generally accepted to have ground to a halt with the execution of Bartholomew Roberts’ crew just 15 years before Oldys was writing, perhaps the phrase really did trip off the tongue of every English privateer and pirate?


Wicked pirate port

John Taylor's plan of Port Royal in 1688

Few maps survive of Port Royal prior to the earthquake. Visitor John Taylor drew this one four years before disaster struck.

Thanks to Disney, everyone now knows that Tortuga was a centre for Caribbean piracy. However, the Hispaniola “Turtle island” was far from the most notorious pirate enclave. That title belongs to the Jamaican town of Port Royal. Once dubbed “the wickedest city in the world”, it was for the second half of the 17th century a magnet for smugglers, pirates and privateers – and for those who wanted a share in the  plunder they brought ashore.
An English foothold in a predominantly Spanish world, Jamaica freely issued letters of marque so that armed ships might legally attack the Spanish foe. Port Royal was the island’s principal town. It had a sheltered harbour which was perfect for careening (the scraping clean of ships’ hulls.) It was protected from attack by no fewer than 4 heavily-armed forts.
Port Royal welcomed pirates – indeed, it relied upon them. They spent their  stolen wealth freely in the shipyards and the markets …and in the bars and brothels that lined every street.
Port Royal grew and grew, until it was bigger than New York. Its free-spending inhabitants threw away their money in gambling, whoring and drinking, and the town developed a reputation as a den of wickedness and godlessness. One visitor claimed that for every ten residents there was a bar selling strong drink, and added with disgust that the taverns did not even shut on a Sunday. This was no exaggeration: in just one month of 1661, forty new taverns opened. A vicar who sailed there to save the miserable sinners from hell returned immediately to England, saying that…
“Since the majority of its population consists of pirates, cut-throats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole world, I felt my permanence there was of no use.”
The pirates’ antics on the island were the stuff of legend. They would spend two or three thousand pieces-of-eight in a single night of dissipation, losing even their shirts in the bawdy and gambling houses. One pirate gave “a common strumpet” 500 pieces-of-eight to strip. (You could buy a cow for two pieces-of-eight, so this was enough to stock a large farm.) Another bought a cask of wine, opened it in the street, and with a cocked pistol in his hand, forced everyone who passed to have a drink.
Port Royal’s evil reputation came to a sudden and dramatic end on the 7th of June 1692, when it was at the peak of its prosperity. Just before noon, a massive earthquake struck Jamaica. Built on soft sand, Port Royal was literally swallowed up by the shaking ground in the space of a few minutes. Everything – pirates, taverns, privateers, gambling dens, smugglers, brothels and all – was sucked down, or swept out to sea by the tidal wave that followed.
For the pirates and their hangers-on, it was a disaster. But for the religious, it was divine justice. Port Royal was “Sodom fill’d with all manner of debauchery” and now God had destroyed it.A report of the earthquake that swallowed Port RoyalIf you want to know more, you may be able to find in a library Robert F Marx’s 1967 book Pirate Port, the story of the Sunken City of Port Royal. There is also comprehensive Wikipedia page.

Whatever happened to Henry Every?

Red Sea raider Henry Every (or Avery) is reckoned by some to be the most successful pirate who ever lived. Shameless puffery? Perhaps not. In September 1695  Every’s ship, the Fancy, attacked the Ganj-i-sawai (Exceeding Treasure), an 80-gun floating fortress cruising the Red Sea. After a furious fight, Every captured the ship, which was the property of the Great Moghul himself. The plunder was spectacular: its value has been estimated at between £325,000 and £525,000. Using average earnings as a yardstick to inflation, this was the equivalent of £620 million to £1 billion in modern currency. Besides gold and silver, the prize includes many precious stones, and a diamond-decorated saddle and bridle.

The Fancy sailed for Réunion, where the crew divided the booty. Each man got £1000, plus some gems. Every took double shares as captain, but was rumoured to have cheated his crew by slipping extra stones into his pockets.

The capture and looting of the Ganj-i-sawai had caused outrage and fury. The Great Mughal held the British East India Company responsible. British officials were imprisoned, and some died of ill-treatment while incarcerated. The British government put a price of £500 on the head of every man in Every’s crew, and the British East India Company offered the same amount.

Meanwhile, Every and his crew had become fugitives in the Bahamas. Despite the huge reward, Every managed to escape, taking a ship to England. On the voyage he slipped from the pages of history and into legend. Some say that Bristol Merchants cheated him of his fortune, and that he died penniless. And there is a persistent rumour that in 1727 or 1728 he was buried in Bideford churchyard, with the pseudonym “Bridgman” carved on his headstone. The most colourful version of his fate has it that he married a beautiful Indian princess from the ship he raided, and became the ruler of a kingdom on the African island of Madagascar.



What could be more macho than a pirate?

The popular stereotype of the pirate is of a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, womanising tough-guy, but the reality is altogether more nuanced. Confined together for months at sea without female company, pirates like all other mariners developed strong buddy relationships with their shipmates. Inevitably these sometimes expressed themselves in physical ways. In national navies such partnerships have been seen as deadly threats to discipline: sodomy was a hanging offence in the Royal Navy. So what about pirates?

A Hispaniola buccaneer: were the bonds of matelotage that they forged simply marriages of convenience, or something more?

There isn’t a straightforward answer. None of the surviving pirates’ articles (ship-board rules of conduct) mention homosexuality. Perhaps this is insignificant. It could indicate either that same-sex relationships were common and hardly worth mentioning; or equally that they were non-existent. But among the Caribbean buccaneers of the 17th century, single-sex relationships were so commonly accepted that they even had a name: matelotage.

The men who teamed up on Hispaniola to work as hunters and butchers, and later as pirates, shared everything: their possessions, their money, their food, and — when they could get them — even their women. Matelotage formalised this relationship in a document that provided for each matelot to inherit his partner’s possessions in the event of the other’s death.

Did this signify a sexual relationship, or just a strong bond of comradeship? Opinons are divided, and objectivity is a little thin on the ground. Etymology is a good place to start looking for evidence. Matelot, the French term for a sailor, originally meant “bunk-mate.” But, like modern “hot-bedding” this was an entirely innocent relationship in which the partners merely shared a hammock on board ship. They would never have occupied it simultaneously, because the nature of maritime work meant that when one was sleeping, the other was on watch.

According to Christopher L Miller, in The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade, the 19th-century Larousse Dictionary…”defines matelotage as ‘friendship, bond between sailor comrades, who are each other’s matelot’, going on to say that among freebooters these unions were ‘intimate and indissoluble'”.

Perhaps the most forthright advocate of the idea that matelotage was an explicitly physical homosexual relationship is Richard Burg, professor of history at Arizona State University. Even the title of his book on the subject pulls no punches: it’s called Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean. Burg suggests that… [warning: gross generalisation based on  reading brief fragments follows] …homosexuality was not just exceptional: it was the prevalent form of relationship among buccaneers.

This is probably over-egging the cake a bit. Though Prof Burg’s academic credentials are impressive, reader Steve Mitchell comments that “The book contains some circumstantial evidence, tenuous suppositions, circular arguments and dismisses any contrary evidence as anomalous.”

We will probably never know the true nature of the bond of matelotage, but its very existence deserves to be more widely publicised if only as an antidote to the Disneyfication of the pirate legend.

The daily life of pirates

Cover of the Daily Life of Pirates, a book by David Marley
I have just borrowed David F Marley’s new book The Daily Life of Pirates from the London Library. It makes fascinating reading for anybody remotely interested in piracy, because (true to the title) the author looks closely at many aspects of the lives of pirates in the “golden age”. As far as I know, nobody has taken this approach before.

The book begins with a chronology of piracy between 1650 and 1720. A short general history of the period follows, but the book really begins to pick up in the next, thematic section. Here the author looks in turn at: food; drink; lairs; plunder; weapons, ships and tactics; torture; religion; and flags.

It’s the detail that’s fascinating. For example, under “drink”, Marley tells the reader that the pirate stronghold of Port Royal — a substantial town with a resident population of 6,500 — had no supply of fresh water. Boats brought  drinking water from the Jamaican mainland, and hawkers sold it from barrels.

Though there is much else to recommend in the book, The Daily Life of Pirates is not without its shortcomings. At least two passages are repeated virtually word-for-word in different chapters. This may just be evidence of sloppy (or non-existent) editing at the publishers, Greenwood Press. But it’s also rather baffling: this isn’t an especially long book, and it’s hard to see how an author of Marley’s calibre can have so lost track of his material as to make errors as elementary as these.

There is also the thorny issue of the price. It’s £41. I would love to buy this book, but unless there is a very much cheaper paperback edition I’m only ever going to be reading library copies.

Did pirates wear earrings?

Let’s get on to the really serious issues surrounding piracy: did they or didn’t they wear earrings?

Jan Rogozinski tackles this topic head-on in his A-Z encyclopedia, Pirates. He comes down firmly in the “No” camp, describing them as a “fictional pirate accessory.” In a short but closely-argued entry, he points out that during the “Golden Age” of piracy, earrings were briefly fashionable at court, but fell out of favour when men began to sport longer hair-styles.

He adds that earrings don’t appear in contemporary illustrations of pirates in books such as Johnson’s 1724 General History  or Exquemelin’s 1678 Buccaneers of America. He points a finger at 19th-century illustrator Howard Pyle who, almost single-handed, created the romantic visual stereotype of the pirate that still prevails today. The picture above of an earringed pirate appeared on the contents page of Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates.

However, separating earring fact and fiction is as difficult as disentangling an earring from a pirate’s matted mop of hair. There is a tradition of mariners wearing gold earrings as a kind of coffin fund in case they were drowned, and washed up naked and anonymous on a foreign shore. The gold ring in the ear of their corpse, they supposed, would pay for a Christian burial. (Call me a cynic, but my guess would be that an 18th-century beachcomber would take the earring, and leave the corpse to rot in the sun.)

There are also mariners’ superstitions about ear-piercing: it protects you against drowning; it improves improves night-vision, or the sight in the eye on the side opposite to the pierced ear; it relieves sea-sickness.

So what’s the truth? looks like the jury is still out.


Deep-water pirates shock!

Painted 2,500 years ago, this Greek bowl shows a fast pirate galley ramming a merchant ship

The recent discovery of the remains of two Roman merchant ships in deep water off the western coast of Greece calls into question the traditional view of classical piracy. Scholars have long believed that Greek and Roman pirates had rich pickings because the ships they preyed on sailed coastwise – that’s to say, they prefered to stay within sight of land, rather than crossing wide stretches of open sea.

In his book Piracy in the Ancient World, HA Ormerod summarises this belief:

In the early days of navigation, the shipper is forced to hug the shores, creeping round the coast… if he endeavours to cross the sea, he is forced to follow fixed routes, by which alone he can keep in sight of land, threading his way between islands, and following well-known channels. There can be little concealment of his movements.

Ormerod supports his statement with a quotation from Strabo, but since I can’t read classical Greek, and you probably can’t either, I won’t quote it here.

The wrecks were discovered nearly a mile underwater, and far offshore between Corfu and Italy, during exploration work for a new gas pipeline. With one exception, they are the deepest wrecks so far discovered in the Mediterranean.

Angeliki Simossi, head of  underwater antiquities for Greece, said that the discovery upset the conventional theory that … “these … small vessels up to 25 meters (80 feet) long … did not have the capacity to navigate far from the coast, so that if there was a wreck they would be close enough to the coast to save the crew.”

So if they couldn’t skulk in a bay waiting for their next prize to sail by, how did classical pirates locate richly-laden merchant vessels?