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.

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