Buccaneers were a cross between genuine privateers, commissioned to defend a country’s colonies and trade, and outright pirates.
Typically English, French, and Dutch adventurers, the buccaneers plied the waters among the Caribbean islands, and along the coasts of Central America, Venezuela, and Colombia more than 300 years ago.
“The Buccaneers of America” is a remarkable eyewitness account by Alexander Exquemelin, first published in 1678.
Alexander Exquemelin, thought to be a French surgeon who enlisted with the buccaneers for a time, chronicles the bold feats of these raiders as they disrupted shipping on the high seas and terrorized Caribbean settlements.
Exquemelin provides fascinating details of the French presence in Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), describes the features of that country and its inhabitants, and comments at length on the origin of the buccaneers, vividly recounting their rules of conduct and way of life.
These bold plunderers come across as shrewd strategists, crack shots, fine navigators, wild debauchers, and greedy adventurers who frequently engaged in vicious acts of cruelty.
De Americaensche Zee-rovers.
By Alexander O. Exquemelin, 1645-1707.
Originally published in Amsterdam: Jan ten Hoorn, 1678.
English translations from “The Buccaneers of America.” Mineola, New York:
Dover Publications, Inc., 2000.
Translated from Dutch by Alexis Brown in 1969.
Comprising a pertinent and truthful description of the principal acts of depredation and inhuman cruelty committed by the English and French buccaneers against the Spaniards in America.
Published by Jan ten Hoorn, Amsterdam, 1678.
IN THREE PARTS:
How the French came to Hispaniola;
the nature of the country and life of the inhabitants.
The origin of the buccaneers;
their rules and way of life;
various attacks on the Spaniards.;
The burning of Panama City by the English and French buccaneers, together with an account of a further voyage by the author.
A. O. Exquemelin
Who himself, of necessity, was present at all these acts of plunder.
The author’s departure for the western part of America, in the service of the French West India Company. Encounter at sea with an English warship. Arrival at the island of Tortuga.
In the year 1666, on the second of May, we left Havre de Grace in the St. John, under direction of the West India Company’s delegate. The ship mounted twenty-eight guns and carried twenty seamen and two hundred and twenty passengers, including indentured servants of the Company and free persons with their servants.
We came to anchor below the Cape of Barfleur, in order to meet with seven more of the Company’s ships due to arrive from Dieppe, together with a warship mounting thirty-seven guns and two hundred and fifty men.
Two ships were bound for Senegal, five for the Carribean Islands, and ourselves for the island of Tortuga.
Here is another example, which began no less boldly and ended no less unluckily. A man known as Bartolomeo el Portugues sailed from Jamaica in a barque mounting four guns and thirty men. Rounding Cabo de Corrientes on the island of Cuba, he saw a ship approaching, come from Maracaibo and Cartagena and bound for Havana and thence for Hispaniola. This ship carried twenty guns and other armament, and had seventy people on board, passengers as well as seamen. The buccaneers resolved to board her and carried out the attempt with great courage, but were bravely beaten back by the Spaniards. On the second attempt they took the ship, with a loss of ten dead and four wounded, although the Spaniards still had forty men alive, counting those fit for service and the wounded.
There is a buccaneer still living in Jamaica whose exploits have been no less bold. He was born in Groningen, and lived for a long time in Brazil, but when the Portuguese retook that country from the Dutch, various settlers there had to leave. Some went to Holland, others to the French or English islands, and some to the Virgin Isles. This man went to Jamaica, and not knowing what else to do, joined the buccaneers, who called him Rock the Brazilian. First he shipped as a common seaman, and became very popular with the crew. A party of malcontents rallied to his side and parted company with their captain, taking a barque, of which they made Rock the captain.
Soon they captured a ship from New Spain, with much money on board, and brought it to Jamaica. Rock acquired great renown from this exploit, and in the end became so audacious he made all Jamaica tremble. He had no self-control at all, but behaved as if possessed by a sullen fury. When he was drunk, he would roam the town like a madman. The first person he came across, he would chop off his arm or leg, without anyone daring to intervene, for he was like a maniac. He perpetrated the greatest atrocities possible against the Spaniards. Some of them he tied or spitted on wooden stakes and roasted them alive between two fires, like killing a pig – and all because they refused to show him the road to the hog-yards he wanted to plunder.
…their loot back to Jamaica, where they promptly squandered it all, so once more they had to go in quest of prey. John Davis was chosen by a group of rovers as chief of their seven or eight ships, as he was a good leader. They resolved to cruise along the north coast of Cuba to lie in wait for the fleet from New Spain and plunder some of its ships. This plan did not succeed, yet, rather than return home without booty, they decided to sail for the coast of Florida. Here they landed and took a small town called San Augustin. This town had a fort, garrisoned by two companies of soldiers, yet despite this the rovers plundered the place and got away without the Spaniards being able to do them any injury.
This is the end of the first part, which recounts the characteristics of the land and its fruits and inhabitants. Now we come to the buccaneers in general, with which I will start the second part.
Eventually, after discussions with his lieutenants, Lolonois decided they should enter Lake Nicaragua and plunder all the surrounding towns and villages.
Having firmly resolved on this enterprise, Lolonois assembled a force of some 700 men. Three hundred he put on board the large vessel taken in Maracaibo; the rest he disposed on smaller ships, five in number, making a fleet of six ships in all. Their rendezvous was on Hispaniola, at a place called Bayaha, where they took on board salt meat for their victuals.
Having drawn up their agreement and provisioned the ships, they set sail for Matamano, on the south side of Cuba. Their plan was to steal all the canoes they could find, for many turtle-fishers live at this place, catching and salting turtles to send to Havana. The buccaneers needed canoes to carry their men upriver to Nicaragua, where it was too shallow for their ships to navigate.
Having robbed these poor folk of their tools of trade and also carried off some of the men themselves, the buccaneers put to sea, steering for Cabo Gracias a Dios, situated on the mainland coast at a latitude of 15°, about 100 leagues from the Island of Pines. But they met with a calm, and drifted on the currents into the Gulf of Honduras. They did their best to regain their course, but wind and currents were against them, and Lolonois’ great ship could not follow the others. Worst of all, they began to run short of food, so they were obliged to seek fresh supplies. At last, hunger drove them to make a landing at the first river mouth they came to. They sent a few canoes up the Rio Xagua, whose shores are inhabited by Indians. They pillaged all the Indian dwellings they could find, bringing back to their ships a quantity of Spanish wheat, which they call maize, together with pigs, poultry, turkeys, and everything they’d been able to land their hands on.
Henry Morgan was born in the part of Wales, known as Welsh England. His father was a well-to-do farmer, but Morgan, having no liking for farm work, decided to go to sea. He reached a port where ships leave for Barbados and signed on for the voyage. On arrival, he was sold as an indentured servant in the English manner. Having served his time he went to Jamaica, where he found several buccaneer ships ready to put to sea. He joined the expedition and soon learned their manner of life. After making three or four voyages with the buccaneers, he and his comrades had made enough money out of loot and dicing to buy a ship of their own. Morgan was made captain, and they went marauding along the coast of Campeche, where they captured several ships.
At this time there was in Jamaica an old buccaneer called Mansveldt who planned to get a fleet together to raid the mainland. Seeing that Morgan was a young man with plenty of courage, the old buccaneer invited him to join the expedition and made him vice-admiral of his fleet. When the fleet put to sea, it consisted of fifteen vessels, with 500 men, including Wallooons and Frenchmen, on board.
Their first landing was on the island of St Catalina lying off the mainland coast of Costa Rica.
Another man proposed an assault on Puerto del Principe. He had been there, he said, and there was plenty of money in the town, for it was where the Havana merchants came to buy hides. Lying at some distance from the sea, the place had never been plundered, so the inhabitants had no fear of the English.
This proposal was considered and agreed upon, and Morgan at once ordered his fleet to weigh anchor and set sail for the port of St Maria, the nearest place to Puerto del Principe. Before they reached this destination a Spaniard, who had long been a prisoner in the hands of the English and had picked up some words of their language, overheard the buccaneers muttering about Puerto del Principe. This man jumped overboard one night and began swimming for the nearest island. The English at once sprang into their canoes to fish him out again, but he managed to land before they could catch him and hid among the trees, where they could not find him.
Next day this Spaniard swam from one islet to the next till he reached the Cuban coast. He was familiar with the roads and before long arrived at Puerto del Principe, where he warned the inhabitants of the corsairs’ approach and the forces at their disposal. The Spaniards immediately began hiding their goods, while the governor assembled all the men he could, including a number of slaves. He had a great number of trees felled to block the road and laid various ambushes, with mounted cannon.
The ladders were brought out, carried by the monks, priests and women, urged on by the buccaneers, who never thought the governor would fire on his own people – but he spared them as little as he had the raiders. The monks began to implore the governor by all the saints in heaven to give up the fort and save their lives, but their cries went unheeded. Willing or not, they had no choice but to carry out the ladders. As soon as these were set against the walls the buccaneers immediately swarmed up, furiously attacking the Spaniards with hand grenades and stink-pots – but they were forced to turn back by the ferocious resistance of the defenders.
On arrival, every prisoner was interrogated as to whether he had money hidden away, or whether he knew where other people’s wealth was concealed. Those who would not confess were subjected to the cruelest tortures imaginable. Among those who suffered most heavily was an old Portuguese in his sixties, because a Negro had denounced him as being very rich. This old man was seized and asked where his money was. He swore by every oath that all the money he’d had in the world was a hundred pieces of eight, and that a young man who lived near him had taken this money and run off with it.
The rovers did not believe him but strappado’d him so violently that his arms were pulled right out of the joint. He still would not confess, so they tied long cords to his thumbs and his big toes and spreadeagled him to four stakes. Then four of them came and beat on the cords with their sticks, making his body jerk and shudder and stretching his sinews. Still not satisfied, they put a stone weighing at least two hundred-weight on his loins and lit a fire of palm leaves under him, burning his face and setting his hair alight – yet despite all these torments he would not confess to having money.
Then they took him and bound him to one of the pillars of the church, which they were using as a guardhouse, and gave him one little bit of meat a day, just enough to keep him alive. After four or five days of this suffering, he begged that some friends of his from among the prisoners might be sent to him, so that he might contrive to get money to give the rovers. After talking with his friends, he offered 500 pieces of eight. The rovers would not listen to him, but instead gave him a beating and said he must talk of thousands, not hundreds, or it would cost him his life. In the end, after he had produced all the evidence he could that he really was a poor man, who earned his bread keeping a tavern, they settled for 1,000 pieces of eight.
Yet even this man had not suffered all the torments which the buccaneers inflicted on the Spaniards to make them divulge their hidden wealth.
The buccaneers weighed anchor and set sail, and four days later arrived at Maracaibo, where they found everything as they had left it. But they received news they had not expected. A poor man, who had been living at the hospital, told Morgan there were three Spanish men-of-war in the mouth of the lake, lying in wait for him, and the fort had again been well equipped with artillery and soldiers.
Morgan instantly sent out a sloop to report on these ships. The boat returned the next evening, and confirmed all the old man had said. They had seen the warships and been under fire from their cannon. The warships were full of troops, and the biggest carried at least forty guns, the next thirty, and the smallest twenty-four. The fort also was well defended.
Letter from the Spanish General, Don Alonzo del Campo y Espinosa to Morgan, Admiral of the Buccaneers
Having, through our friends and neighbours, received news that you have had the audacity to commit hostilities in the territories and cities owing obedience to His Catholic Majesty, the king of Spain my master, I have come to this place, according to my bounden duty, and have built up again that fortress which you took from a set of faint-hearts and from which you flung down the guns, that I may prevent your escape from this lake and do you all the injury my duty requires.
Nevertheless, if you will surrender with humility all which you have taken, including all the slaves and other prisoners, I will have the clemency to let you pass, that you may return to your own country. Should you obdurately resist these honourable conditions which I propose, I shall send for sloops from Caracas, in which I shall embark my troops to sail for Maracaibo, with orders to destroy you utterly and put every man to the sword. This is my final resolution: take heed, and be not ungrateful for my kindness. I have with me valiant soldiers, yearning to be allowed to revenge unrighteous acts you have committed against the Spanish nation in America.
Signed on board His Majesty’s ship, Magdalena, at anchor in the entry of the Lake of Maracaibo, 24 April 1669.
Don Alonzo del Campo y Espinosa
Morgan had all the buccaneers assemble in the market-place and read out the letter, first in English and then in French. Then he asked them how they felt—would they rather surrender their booty in order to gain a free passage, or would they fight for it? The buccaneers answered with one accord that they would rather fight till the death than hand over their spoils. They’d risked their lives for it once, and were ready to do so a second time.
One of the crowd came up to Morgan and said he would undertake to destroy the great ship, with only twelve men, in the following manner. They would make a fire-ship out of the ship they had captured in the lake, fitting her out like a man-of-war, with the flag flying. On the deck would stand logs of wood with caps on top, to look like the crew, and big hollow logs (the kind called negroes’ drums) would stick out of the ports to look like guns.
This suggestion was approved, considering their dire need, yet first Morgan wanted to see if he could not get some other concession from the Spanish general. He sent back a messenger with the following proposals: that the buccaneers would leave Maracaibo without doing any harm to the city by burning or other means, and without claiming any ransom; that they would give up half of the slaves, and set free all the prisoners without ransom; and that they would refrain from exacting the contribution for Gibraltar, which had still not been paid, and would let the hostages go free.
The Spanish general replied that he refused to consider such proposals, and that if they did not surrender upon conditions imposed by him within two days, he would destroy them by fire and sword. Upon receiving this answer, Morgan and his men instantly resolved to do everything they could to get out of the lake without surrendering their booty.
At dawn on the morning of the tenth day the buccaneers got ready for the assault. Morgan had them drawn up in battle order, and on they marched with drums beating and flags flying. The guides had warned Morgan to take another way, avoiding the high-road, where the Spaniards were sure to have laid an effective ambush. So, a musket-shot to their right, the buccaneers left the main road and filed down a path through the woods. The going was rough, but they were men so used to hardship that it made little difference. Just as the guides had said, the Spaniards were entrenched along the high road, and when they saw the buccaneers going another way they were obliged to turn and meet them.
To the beat of drums his men fell in, and their casualties were reported. The buccaneers’ losses proved to have been light, and there were but few wounded. Apart from dead and prisoners, all the Spaniards had by now disappeared. At least 600 Spaniards lay dead on the plain, in addition to the wounded who had managed to drag themselves off. The smallness of their own casualties raised the buccaneers’ spirits enormously. After resting, they made ready for the attack on the city, taking an oath to stand by each other, shoulder to shoulder, and fight to the last man.
Before long they had all been sent to Spain, where they managed to get together and make their way to France, and then looked out for the first chance of returning to Tortuga. They helped one another all they could, those who had money sharing with those who had none. Some who could not forget their sufferings had special knives and pincers made, vowing if they got hold of a Spaniard to flay him alive and tear out his flesh.
Back they came to Tortuga on the first ship they could find. Many went
out marauding again, with a fleet then being equipped in Tortuga under
the command of M. de Maintenon. They took the island of Trinidad, which
lies between Tobago and the coast of Paria, and put it to ransom. Afterwards,
their intention was to raid and plunder the city of Caracas, situated nearly
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