ALEXANDER OLIVIER EXQUEMELIN. The History of the Buccaneers of America. Trans. by Alexis Brown. Introduction by Jack Beeching. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1969. Originally published in Dutch as De Americaensche Zee-Roovers. Amsterdam: Jan Ten Hoorn, 1678.
The History of the Buccaneers is perhaps the most important primary source book on the lives of the Caribbean pirates (aka, Les Frères de la côte) from the late 1660s and early 1670s. The text was originally produced in Holland by the Jan Ten Hoorn publishing house in the year 1678; it was written in the Dutch language by a largely mysterious writer named Alexander Olivier Exquemelin. Extraordinarily famous in its own time, the text now stands alongside such iconic works as William Dampier’s A New Voyage Around the World (1697) and Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates (1724) as essential reading for anyone who wishes to study the history of piracy in the seventeenth-century. Not only is The Buccaneers a rare, first-hand account of an elusive group of intriguing historical personages, living on the margins of global empire both literally and symbolically; but it is a truly enthralling narrative, crafted by the perspicacious pen of a naturalist and replete with yarns of adventure that would give the lie to any twentieth-century, cinematic portrayal.
Although scant evidence survives regarding the life of Alexander Olivier Exquemelin, most scholars agree that he was either Flemish, Dutch, or French, was a native of Harfluer in northern France, and was born about the year 1645. In 1666, he became an engagé (indentured servant or bondsman) of the newly formed French West India Company, which planned to establish a merchant colony on the island of Tortuga on the northern coast of Western Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). After buying his freedom for “150 pieces of eight,” Exquemelin enlisted with the multinational buccaneers (who were mostly English and French). He cruised with them against the Spanish, probably in the capacity of a barber-surgeon, from roughly 1669 until 1674. The publication of his book in the year 1678 suggests that he was back in Amsterdam by that year, and his name also appears on a 1679 register of the Dutch Surgeons’ Guild. However, it appears that Exquemelin eventually made it back to the Caribbean to serve as a privateer in the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697). His name appears as a surgeon on a muster roll in the Raid of Cartagena in 1697. The short summary is the extent of what scholars know about the author of The Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers was a famous text in its own day. It was quickly translated to German (1679), Spanish (1681), English (1684), and French (1686). Each time, the work underwent significant changes, both unintentional (e.g. poor translation) and intentional (e.g. editor’s license). In the first French version, for example, the book was extended with the author and buccaneer Basil Ringrose’s account of pirates, such as Captain Bartholomew Sharp, who had not appeared in the original text. The version that is reviewed here—published in the year 1966 by Penguin—was the first English printing to be translated directly from the original Dutch. The work begins with a short and largely unhelpful introduction by the English poet Jack Beeching (one must wonder why he was chosen, among others, for this task), and then proceeds in three distinct parts; the first two parts are composed of seven short chapters, while the third part is composed of nine. Taken together, the book weighs in at a slim 209 pages.
The contents of The Buccaneers can be summarized relatively quickly. The first chapter describes the author’s journey, in the company ship St. John, from Havre de Grace, France, to the island of Tortuga. The second chapter outlines the natural and political history of Tortuga as well as the author’s break from bondage. The next three chapters describe the natural and social history of the larger island, Hispaniola. Afterward, the first part ends with two chapters on the buccaneers: one providing a cursory view of their origins and another (perhaps the best chapter of the book) providing an overview of their unique, collective “Way of Life.” The second part of The Buccaneers can be dividing into two halves. The first three chapters describe the exploits of the French pirate Jean-David Nau (known to Exquemelin as François l’Olonnais), and the second four chapters describe the activities of the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan (known to Equemelin as John Morgan) through his capture of Maracaibo in 1669. The third part of the book continues Morgan’s narrative through the siege of Panama in 1671, and then follows that with two chapters on the author’s activities on the Central American coast after leaving Morgan’s company. The book ends rather abruptly with and a chapter on the French governor of Tortuga, Bertrand d’Ogeron de La Bouëre, who is taken prisoner on Puerto Rico in 1673.
While The Buccaneers is, without question, a very precious primary source on the history of piracy (and it is often quoted as an authority on the lives of Henry Morgan and Jean-David Nau), it is also a very problematic source that must be carefully interrogated. While Exquemelin opens the book with the following signature, “who himself, of necessity, was present at all these acts of plunder,” it remains unclear what he actually witnessed. Some of the actions he describes took place either before he arrived on the island or before he enlisted with the buccaneers. On several occasions, he admits that he has included rather dubious information from second-hand accounts (on two occasions, he actually prints first-hand letters that were allegedly written by Spanish officials). Similarly, scholars like Clarence Haring have long noted that Exquemelin was notorious for getting specific names and dates wrong. Astonishingly, this even includes the dates of his own residence with the buccaneers!
Finally, if this particular translation by Alexis Brown can be trusted, then it appears that Exquemelin deliberately refrains from using first person pronouns in his pirates tales until the overland siege of Panama. Perhaps this tendency reflects Exquemelin’s nationalist allegiances rather than his absence at certain events. On this note, it important to state that Exquemelin begins to use such intimate phrases as “we,” “comrades,” and “brothers” only after his French contingent separates from the English. Along another line of reasoning, it could be that argued that, although Exquemelin was indeed present at these events and wants to report them faithfully, he is also walking a very fine line, and his reputation is at stake. In this sense, he uses impersonal language to distance himself from the barbarous acts which he is chronicling. Admitting his full participation in these acts would have drawn his credibility as an author into question.
Despite this uncertainty surrounding Exquemelin’s status as a first-hand observer of “all acts,” he reveals several truths about himself in The Buccaneers. First, the strong emphasis that he places on the dire plight of the white, indentured servant—who is constantly robbed, starved, beaten, and beguiled into ever longer terms of service—suggests that he was, without a doubt, a bondservant himself. Second, his willingness to catalog the dissonant actions and ideals of the buccaneers, in all their socialist purity and sociopathic depravity, suggests that he may have been ambivalent about considering himself a full member of the group. In many ways, Exquemelin’s writings suggest that he viewed the buccaneers with a similar blend of horror and fascination that many people view them with today. Also, while The Buccaneers undoubtedly made Exquemelin very famous in his own time, we must keep in mind that he was first and foremost an aspiring professional in the field of medicine. It was the twin gods of circumstance and opportunity that turned him into an author, writer, and amateur historian. Perhaps this can explain his tendency to miscalculate dates and names.
Thirdly, The Buccaneers provides some strong evidence to suggest that Exquemelin, his publishers, and/or his intended audience were Huguenots (that is, French Protestants), whose outlook was at least partly informed by the dual traditions of the Black Legend and the Protestant Reformation. While Exquemelin openly and consistently sympathizes with the very deplorable treatment of the Catholic Spaniards, who remain the perpetual outlet of the pirates’ violence and hatred, he also depicts them as craven, weak, and inept. He takes for granted that the Spanish have committed extreme “cruelty” against the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean since the days of Columbus, and have therefore been ruined for all white people; this “opinion” is ironic at best; Exquemelin offers it immediately after his group chases some natives into the woods and, despite their “screaming,” steals their dugout canoe and fires at them with their rifles. In the case of the Spanish attempt to recapture the rocky island of St. Catalina, Exquemelin actually goes out of his way to include a first-hand, Spanish account only “so that the reader may see what a great outcry the Spaniards make of a business of little importance.” Then, when Exquemelin goes on to depict the savageries the pirates commit in Panama, using St. Catalina as a launch, it becomes quite clear that recapturing the island was hardly a “business of little importance.”
There is probably a great deal of truth in Exquemelin’s statements that the Spanish militia were deathly afraid of the buccaneers, and were more likely to flee into the woods and bury their goods than stand and fight. But it also seems odd that the Spanish fail so miserably and so often in the book. Despite their superior numbers, they are stampeded off of cliffs, blown up with fire-ships, and continually routed in the open field by the sharpshooting buccaneers, who Exquemelin reminds us “seldom missed their mark.” Exquemelin seems to delight in valorizing the pirates, whose charismatic leaders give inspirational speeches when the odds are against them. He seems to enjoy regaling his readers with tales of arrogant heroism. For example, he tells the story of a buccaneer on Hispaniola who was sighted alone in the woods by a group of patrolling Spaniards. This hunter successfully repelled the Spaniards by running at them and screaming, pretending that he was valiantly leading a charge of bloodthirsty hunters. Such stories depict the Spaniards embarrassingly. And, whether they were true accounts or merely tall tales repeated around the campfire, they would have made for great reading among Huguenot audiences in Europe.
Fourthly, Exquemelin’s naturalist tendencies suggest that information on the New World maintained a very strong currency among European readers in the late 1670s. Anyone looking up The Buccaneers in reviews, either online or in print, would be excused for thinking that the text was solely about pirates, or that its passages on natural history were only insignificant deviations from the main body of the work. On the contrary, anyone who actually picks up The Buccaneers and reads it will see that its intermittent passages describing the flora, fauna, and aboriginal peoples of the Americas are quite central to the text. Exquemelin devotes a lot of space to telling his readers about turtles, manatees, buzzards, crocodiles, mosquitos, fustic trees, sandalwood, China-root, wild dogs, wild boars, sea-crabs, the four types of tropical palm trees, and on and on. He provides the coordinates of each major island and list their principal ports. He not only describes what people eat, but he explains how that food is typically prepared. While modern day readers may find these kinds of insights strange—especially in a work billed as The History of Buccaneers—those familiar with the genre of naturalist writing in the early modern era will not be surprised. These kinds of observations on natural history can be found in the works of almost every European explorer from the era.
This natural, or perhaps anthropological, perspective is even applied to the author’s observations of native populations in the Caribbean basin. Sometimes, Exquemelin makes sweeping statements about “the Indians,” while other times he is careful to differentiate between groups, as he does with the bellicose Indios bravos of Boca del Toro (in modern-day Panama) and the friendly natives of Cabo Gracias a Dios (on the border of present-day Nicaragua and Honduras). Exquemelin describes the weapons these natives use when they attack his party and even inserts two diagrams of them. He also describes—with no shortage of attention, relatively speaking—the drinking, marriage, and death ceremonies of at least one particular native group. As modern-day readers, we must remember that The Buccaneers was not only a diary about piracy to its seventeenth-century audience. It was also a literary and scientific window into the fantastic mysteries of the New World, intended for people who would probably never have the opportunity to see them.
Exquemelin implies on several occasions, with sentences like “I include this information because we have no such birds in Europe,” that his text is written expressly for the European literate class and the general store of European, intellectual knowledge. Perhaps this explains the strange admixture of genres. After all, as the English scholar Jason M. Payton has observed, the work is not only part documentary history, part discourse on science, and part sensational diary, but it also borrows stylistic elements from the genre of chivalrous romance. As Payton states, in contrast to articulations of a “dynastic imperial history, the expansion of a global economy, and territorial expansion,” chivalric romance focused on “individual heroism, the pursuit of utopian reform, and the ethical renewal of a fallen world through [the] performance” of an ideal code. Readers can see glimpses of these romantic inclinations in the way that Exquemelin contrasts the egalitarian social nature of the buccaneers with the callous practice of the slaveholding planters, likens his freedom to a kind of social rebirth with biblical imagery, describes how monkeys “stand by one another,” and talks about the “little republic” of the Indians.
In what is perhaps his best chapter on the pirates, called “The Buccaneers’ Way of Life,” Exquemelin sets forth the unique modus operandi of the buccaneers (whom the Spanish simply call ladrones, or “thieves”). As is well known, the name boucaniers derives from a particular way that the French and English hunters smoked their meat strips in the tradition of the Carib Indian, on a boucan made of a “frame of green sticks” over a fire “fed with animal bones and hide trimmings.” When the buccaneers became pirates, each group drew up an agreement called a chasse partie. This document clearly stipulated the allocation of funds that were to follow each expedition. First, the captain would secure a certain amount of the proceeds for his agreed-upon pay and for the maintenance of the group’s collective vessel. Then, skilled workers like the carpenter, the hunter, and the surgeon (who provided the ship with the use of his medical chest) would receive their slightly higher wages. Next, any person who had been wounded during the expedition would be compensated according to his specific injury, with a choice of receiving either extra wages or a number of slaves.
In order to “go on the account,” pirates needed to swear an oath to the company that they would “not keep back for themselves so much as a six-penny worth.” All booty would be shared out from a collective store at the end of the expedition. Pirates also made their most important decisions—including where to cruise, where to victual or careen, and whether to seize or burn an enemy vessel—in the spirit of democracy. In terms of food, “the captain is allowed no better fare than the meanest on board.” If two buccaneers had a quarrel to settle, they could challenge each other to a fair duel. But if one of those two is killed treacherously, “before he has time to load his musket,” the murderer is shot to death by a marksman of his own choosing. In these ways and more, Exquemelin depicts the unorthodox, socialist lifestyle of the buccaneers, who vote on all of their decisions, operate with a company-wide medical plan, distribute pay evenly, and support each other in times of need on credit.
But, as Payton has rightly observed, all of these romantic tendencies collapse amidst the perverse, unyielding, and gratuitous violence of the buccaneers. The godless Jean-David Nau is depicted as so grotesquely violent that he hacks a man apart with his cutlass and licks the blade. Later, he actually rips out a man’s heart and gnaws at it with his teeth. Morgan’s party is no less merciless. When captured Spaniards refuse to reveal the location of their hidden treasure, the pirates torture them by dislocating their limbs on the rack or the strappado, or twisting a cord around their forehead until their eyes pop out. These persecutions culminate in the siege of Panama, where Spaniards are strung upside down by their genitals until their scrotum and penis tears off from their body. In the meantime, captured Spaniards are separated from their loved ones, forced to work for the pirates, and starved. Although Exquemelin’s language pertaining to rape is peculiar, evasive, and contradictory—“Some they took by violence, and some of their own free will, driven to it by hunger”—he makes it quite clear that rape is a common feature of buccaneering society, from the captains on down.
Aside from these very explicit depredations that are committed against their “prisoners of war,” the pirates seem to have little regard for other groups with whom they share the Atlantic. They obviously deal in slavery, although this was common and to what degree is up for question. Exquemelin also sympathizes a great deal with the turtle hunters on the south of Cuba, near the Isle of Pines, where the buccaneers frequently rendezvoused. These turtle hunters are kidnapped by the pirates, ripped away from their own families for unknown periods of time, and forced to provide the company with food. Other times, the pirates survive by raiding the maize fields of the Indians and the provision boats of whomever they happen to come across. After describing the unique mortuary rituals by which certain Indian women leave fruit at the graves of their loved ones, Exquemelin states that “I have often helped myself to these offerings, as the fruit they put on the graves is always the ripest and most delicious they can find.”
Whether through their outright brutality or their general insensitivity, the buccaneers of America do not fare well in the eyes of many modern historians. Perhaps those who feel trapped in less-than-desirable work or social situations are prone to admire the way that the buccaneers became masters of their own lives, roaming where and when they wanted, and squandering their proceeds in the taverns and whorehouses afterward. But, as Exquemelin shows us time and time again, the romantic ideals of buccaneering society ultimately fall short of their utopian goals. Morgan and “his cronies” leave the siege of Panama in perfidy, breaking the pirate code and stealing much of the riches for themselves. Many, like Bartolome el Portugues, perform daring feats of “cunning” and yet die, nonetheless, “in the greatest wretchedness in the world.” Others, like Jean-David Nau, are complete monsters, portrayed no better than the slaveholding planters of Hispaniola and Tortuga, whom Exquemelin so disdains.
What are we to make of this short yet fascinating book? On the one hand, it happens to be the most comprehensive first-hand, book-length account of the seventeenth-century pirates that still survives. On the other hand, the strange circumstances surrounding its creation, as well as the mysterious intentions of its creator, leave much to be questioned. As always, a manuscript as sensational and popular as this was in its own time must be contextualized with other primary documents—such as trial records, naval correspondence, colonial papers, naturalist diaries—lest an argument be hastily constructed on purely ideological grounds. Academics must challenge themselves to do what Jack Beeching, in his poor introduction to this work, did not. They must ask the tough questions: who was Exquemelin? What did he actually see? Who was he writing to? What was he trying to achieve? And, lastly, what historical factors influenced his voice during the publication process? While answering these questions is not easy work, it is where the joy of being an historian truly lies. In writing The History of the Buccaneers, Exquemelin has made at least one thing clear: he has laid bare the beautiful and heartrending contradictions of the buccaneer ethos. Now, it is up to posterity to argue about what that means.