MoboReader > Literature > The Buccaneers in the West Indies in the XVII Century


The Buccaneers in the West Indies in the XVII Century By Clarence Henry Haring Characters: 54199

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

In the second half of the sixteenth and the early part of the seventeenth centuries, strangers who visited the great Spanish islands of Hispaniola, Jamaica or Porto Rico, usually remarked the extraordinary number of wild cattle and boars found roaming upon them. These herds were in every case sprung from domestic animals originally brought from Spain. For as the aborigines in the Greater Antilles decreased in numbers under the heavy yoke of their conquerors, and as the Spaniards themselves turned their backs upon the Antilles for the richer allurements of the continent, less and less land was left under cultivation; and cattle, hogs, horses and even dogs ran wild, increased at a rapid rate, and soon filled the broad savannas and deep woods which covered the greater part of these islands. The northern shore of Hispaniola the Spaniards had never settled, and thither, probably from an early period, interloping ships were accustomed to resort when in want of victuals. With a long range of uninhabited coast, good anchorage and abundance of provisions, this northern shore could not fail to induce some to remain. In time we find there scattered groups of hunters, mostly French and English, who gained a rude livelihood by killing wild cattle for their skins, and curing the flesh to supply the needs of passing vessels. The origin of these men we do not know. They may have been deserters from ships, crews of wrecked vessels, or even chance marooners. In any case the charm of their half-savage, independent mode of life must soon have attracted others, and a fairly regular traffic sprang up between them and the ubiquitous Dutch traders, whom they supplied with hides, tallow and cured meat in return for the few crude necessities and luxuries they required. Their numbers were recruited in 1629 by colonists from St. Kitts who had fled before Don Federico de Toledo. Making common lot with the hunters, the refugees found sustenance so easy and the natural bounty of the island so rich and varied, that many remained and settled.

To the north-west of Hispaniola lies a small, rocky island about eight leagues in length and two in breadth, separated by a narrow channel from its larger neighbour. From the shore of Hispaniola the island appears in form like a monster sea-turtle floating upon the waves, and hence was named by the Spaniards "Tortuga." So mountainous and inaccessible on the northern side as to be called the C?te-de-Fer, and with only one harbour upon the south, it offered a convenient refuge to the French and English hunters should the Spaniards become troublesome. These hunters probably ventured across to Tortuga before 1630, for there are indications that a Spanish expedition was sent against the island from Hispaniola in 1630 or 1631, and a division of the spoil made in the city of San Domingo after its return.83 It was then, apparently, that the Spaniards left upon Tortuga an officer and twenty-eight men, the small garrison which, says Charlevoix, was found there when the hunters returned. The Spanish soldiers were already tired of their exile upon this lonely, inhospitable rock, and evacuated with the same satisfaction with which the French and English resumed their occupancy. From the testimony of some documents in the English colonial archives we may gather that the English from the first were in predominance in the new colony, and exercised almost sole authority. In the minutes of the Providence Company, under date of 19th May 1631, we find that a committee was "appointed to treat with the agents for a colony of about 150 persons, settled upon Tortuga";84 and a few weeks later that "the planters upon the island of Tortuga desired the company to take them under their protection, and to be at the charge of their fortification, in consideration of a twentieth part of the commodities raised there yearly."85 At the same time the Earl of Holland, governor of the company, and his associates petitioned the king for an enlargement of their grant "only of 3 or 4 degrees of northerly latitude, to avoid all doubts as to whether one of the islands (Tortuga) was contained in their former grant."86 Although there were several islands named Tortuga in the region of the West Indies, all the evidence points to the identity of the island concerned in this petition with the Tortuga near the north coast of Hispaniola.87

The Providence Company accepted the offer of the settlers upon Tortuga, and sent a ship to reinforce the little colony with six pieces of ordnance, a supply of ammunition and provisions, and a number of apprentices or engagés. A Captain Hilton was appointed governor, with Captain Christopher Wormeley to succeed him in case of the governor's death or absence, and the name of the island was changed from Tortuga to Association.88 Although consisting for the most part of high land covered with tall cedar woods, the island contained in the south and west broad savannas which soon attracted planters as well as cattle-hunters. Some of the inhabitants of St. Kitts, wearied of the dissensions between the French and English there, and allured by reports of quiet and plenty in Tortuga, deserted St. Kitts for the new colony. The settlement, however, was probably always very poor and struggling, for in January 1634 the Providence Company received advice that Captain Hilton intended to desert the island and draw most of the inhabitants after him; and a declaration was sent out from England to the planters, assuring them special privileges of trade and domicile, and dissuading them from "changing certain ways of profit already discovered for uncertain hopes suggested by fancy or persuasion."89 The question of remaining or departing, indeed, was soon decided for the colonists without their volition, for in December 1634 a Spanish force from Hispaniola invaded the island and drove out all the English and French they found there. It seems that an Irishman named "Don Juan Morf" (John Murphy?),90 who had been "sargento-mayor" in Tortuga, became discontented with the régime there and fled to Cartagena. The Spanish governor of Cartagena sent him to Don Gabriel de Gaves, President of the Audiencia in San Domingo, thinking that with the information the renegade was able to supply the Spaniards of Hispaniola might drive out the foreigners. The President of San Domingo, however, died three months later without bestirring himself, and it was left to his successor to carry out the project. With the information given by Murphy, added to that obtained from prisoners, he sent a force of 250 foot under command of Rui Fernandez de Fuemayor to take the island.91 At this time, according to the Spaniards' account, there were in Tortuga 600 men bearing arms, besides slaves, women and children. The harbour was commanded by a platform of six cannon. The Spaniards approached the island just before dawn, but through the ignorance of the pilot the whole armadilla was cast upon some reefs near the shore. Rui Fernandez with about thirty of his men succeeded in reaching land in canoes, seized the fort without any difficulty, and although his followers were so few managed to disperse a body of the enemy who were approaching, with the English governor at their head, to recover it. In the mêlée the governor was one of the first to be killed-stabbed, say the Spaniards, by the Irishman, who took active part in the expedition and fought by the side of Rui Fernandez. Meanwhile some of the inhabitants, thinking that they could not hold the island, had regained the fort, spiked the guns and transferred the stores to several ships in the harbour, which sailed away leaving only two dismantled boats and a patache to fall into the hands of the Spaniards. Rui Fernandez, reinforced by some 200 of his men who had succeeded in escaping from the stranded armadilla, now turned his attention to the settlement. He found his way barred by another body of several hundred English, but dispersed them too, and took seventy prisoners. The houses were then sacked and the tobacco plantations burned by the soldiers, and the Spaniards returned to San Domingo with four captured banners, the six pieces of artillery and 180 muskets.92

The Spanish occupation apparently did not last very long, for in the following April the Providence Company appointed Captain Nicholas Riskinner to be governor of Tortuga in place of Wormeley, and in February 1636 it learned that Riskinner was in possession of the island.93 Two planters just returned from the colony, moreover, informed the company that there were then some 80 English in the settlement, besides 150 negroes. It is evident that the colonists were mostly cattle-hunters, for they assured the company that they could supply Tortuga with 200 beasts a month from Hispaniola, and would deliver calves there at twenty shillings apiece.94 Yet at a later meeting of the Adventurers on 20th January 1637, a project for sending more men and ammunition to the island was suddenly dropped "upon intelligence that the inhabitants had quitted it and removed to Hispaniola."95 For three years thereafter the Providence records are silent concerning Tortuga. A few Frenchmen must have remained on the island, however, for Charlevoix informs us that in 1638 the general of the galleons swooped down upon the colony, put to the sword all who failed to escape to the hills and woods, and again destroyed all the habitations.96 Persuaded that the hunters would not expose themselves to a repetition of such treatment, the Spaniards neglected to leave a garrison, and a few scattered Frenchmen gradually filtered back to their ruined homes. It was about this time, it seems, that the President of San Domingo formed a body of 500 armed lancers in an effort to drive the intruders from the larger island of Hispaniola. These lancers, half of whom were always kept in the field, were divided into companies of fifty each, whence they were called by the French, "cinquantaines." Ranging the woods and savannas this Spanish constabulary attacked isolated hunters wherever they found them, and they formed an important element in the constant warfare between the French and Spanish colonists throughout the rest of the century.97

Meanwhile an English adventurer, some time after the Spanish descent of 1638, gathered a body of 300 of his compatriots in the island of Nevis near St. Kitts, and sailing for Tortuga dispossessed the few Frenchmen living there of the island. According to French accounts he was received amicably by the inhabitants and lived with them for four months, when he turned upon his hosts, disarmed them and marooned them upon the opposite shore of Hispaniola. A few made their way to St. Kitts and complained to M. de Poincy, the governor-general of the French islands, who seized the opportunity to establish a French governor in Tortuga. Living at that time in St. Kitts was a Huguenot gentleman named Levasseur, who had been a companion-in-arms of d'Esnambuc when the latter settled St. Kitts in 1625, and after a short visit to France had returned and made his fortune in trade. He was a man of courage and command as well as a skilful engineer, and soon rose high in the councils of de Poincy. Being a Calvinist, however, he had drawn upon the governor the reproaches of the authorities at home; and de Poincy proposed to get rid of his presence, now become inconvenient, by sending him to subdue Tortuga. Levasseur received his commission from de Poincy in May 1640, assembled forty or fifty followers, all Calvinists, and sailed in a barque to Hispaniola. He established himself at Port Margot, about five leagues from Tortuga, and entered into friendly relations with his English neighbours. He was but biding his time, however, and on the last day of August 1640, on the plea that the English had ill-used some of his followers and had seized a vessel sent by de Poincy to obtain provisions, he made a sudden descent upon the island with only 49 men and captured the governor. The inhabitants retired to Hispaniola, but a few days later returned and besieged Levasseur for ten days. Finding that they could not dislodge him, they sailed away with all their people to the island of Providence.98

Levasseur, fearing perhaps another descent of the Spaniards, lost no time in putting the settlement in a state of defence. Although the port of Tortuga was little more than a roadstead, it offered a good anchorage on a bottom of fine sand, the approaches to which were easily defended by a hill or promontory overlooking the harbour. The top of this hill, situated 500 or 600 paces from the shore, was a level platform, and upon it rose a steep rock some 30 feet high. Nine or ten paces from the base of the rock gushed forth a perennial fountain of fresh water. The new governor quickly made the most of these natural advantages. The platform he shaped into terraces, with means for accommodating several hundred men. On the top of the rock he built a house for himself, as well as a magazine, and mounted a battery of two guns. The only access to the rock was by a narrow approach, up half of which steps were cut in the stone, the rest of the ascent being by means of an iron ladder which could easily be raised and lowered.99 This little fortress, in which the governor could repose with a feeling of entire security, he euphuistically called his "dove-cote." The dove-cote was not finished any too soon, for the Spaniards of San Domingo in 1643 determined to destroy this rising power in their neighbourhood, and sent against Levasseur a force of 500 or 600 men. When they tried to land within a half gunshot of the shore, however, they were greeted with a discharge of artillery from the fort, which sank one of the vessels and forced the rest to retire. The Spaniards withdrew to a place two leagues to leeward, where they succeeded in disembarking, but fell into an ambush laid by Levasseur, lost, according to the French accounts, between 100 and 200 men, and fled to their ships and back to Hispaniola. With this victory the reputation of Levasseur spread far and wide throughout the islands, and for ten years the Spaniards made no further attempt to dislodge the French settlement.100

Planters, hunters and corsairs now came in greater numbers to Tortuga. The hunters, using the smaller island merely as a headquarters for supplies and a retreat in time of danger, penetrated more boldly than ever into the interior of Hispaniola, plundering the Spanish plantations in their path, and establishing settlements on the north shore at Port Margot and Port de Paix. Corsairs, after cruising and robbing along the Spanish coasts, retired to Tortuga to refit and find a market for their spoils. Plantations of tobacco and sugar were cultivated, and although the soil never yielded such rich returns as upon the other islands, Dutch and French trading ships frequently resorted there for these commodities, and especially for the skins prepared by the hunters, bringing in exchange brandy, guns, powder and cloth. Indeed, under the active, positive administration of Levasseur, Tortuga enjoyed a degree of prosperity which almost rivalled that of the French settlements in the Leeward Islands.

The term "buccaneer," though usually applied to the corsairs who in the seventeenth century ravaged the Spanish possessions in the West Indies and the South Seas, should really be restricted to these cattle-hunters of west and north-west Hispaniola. The flesh of the wild-cattle was cured by the hunters after a fashion learnt from the Caribbee Indians. The meat was cut into long strips, laid upon a grate or hurdle constructed of green sticks, and dried over a slow wood fire fed with bones and the trimmings of the hide of the animal. By this means an excellent flavour was imparted to the meat and a fine red colour. The place where the flesh was smoked was called by the Indians a "boucan," and the same term, from the poverty of an undeveloped language, was applied to the frame or grating on which the flesh was dried. In course of time the dried meat became known as "viande boucannée," and the hunters themselves as "boucaniers" or "buccaneers." When later circumstances led the hunters to combine their trade in flesh and hides with that of piracy, the name gradually lost its original significance and acquired, in the English language at least, its modern and better-known meaning of corsair or freebooter. The French adventurers, however, seem always to have restricted the word "boucanier" to its proper signification, that of a hunter and curer of meat; and when they developed into corsairs, by a curious contrast they adopted an English name and called themselves "filibustiers," which is merely the French sailor's way of pronouncing the English word "freebooter."101

The buccaneers or West Indian corsairs owed their origin as well as their name to the cattle and hog-hunters of Hispaniola and Tortuga. Doubtless many of the wilder, more restless spirits in the smaller islands of the Windward and Leeward groups found their way into the ranks of this piratical fraternity, or were willing at least to lend a hand in an occasional foray against their Spanish neighbours. We know that Jackson, in 1642, had no difficulty in gathering 700 or 800 men from Barbadoes and St. Kitts for his ill-starred dash upon the Spanish Main. And when the French in later years made their periodical descents upon the Dutch stations on Tobago, Cura?ao and St. Eustatius, they always found in their island colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe buccaneers enough and more, eager to fill their ships. It seems to be generally agreed, however, among the Jesuit historians of the West Indies-and upon these writers we are almost entirely dependent for our knowledge of the origins of buccaneering-that the corsairs had their source and nucleus in the hunters who infested the coasts of Hispaniola. Between the hunter and the pirate at first no impassable line was drawn. The same person combined in himself the occupations of cow-killing and cruising, varying the monotony of the one by occasionally trying his hand at the other. In either case he lived at constant enmity with the Spaniards. With the passing of time the sea attracted more and more away from their former pursuits. Even the planters who were beginning to filter into the new settlements found the attractions of coursing against the Spaniards to be irresistible. Great extremes of fortune, such as those to which the buccaneers were subject, have always exercised an attraction over minds of an adventurous stamp. It was the same allurement which drew the "forty-niners" to California, and in 1897 the gold-seekers to the Canadian Klondyke. If the suffering endured was often great, the prize to be gained was worth it. Fortune, if fickle one day, might the next bring incredible bounty, and the buccaneers who sweltered in a tropical sea, with starvation staring them in the face, dreamed of rolling in the oriental wealth of a Spanish argosy. Especially to the cattle-hunter must this temptation have been great, for his mode of life was the very rudest. He roamed the woods by day with his dog and apprentices, and at night slept in the open air or in a rude shed hastily constructed of leaves and skins, which served as a house, and which he called after the Indian name, "ajoupa" or "barbacoa." His dress was of the simplest-coarse cloth trousers, and a shirt which hung loosely over them, both pieces so black and saturated with the blood and grease of slain animals that they looked as if they had been tarred ("de toile gaudronnée").102 A belt of undressed bull's hide bound the shirt, and supported on one side three or four large knives, on the other a pouch for powder and shot. A cap with a short pointed brim extending over the eyes, rude shoes of cowhide or pigskin made all of one piece bound over the foot, and a short, large-bore musket, completed the hunter's grotesque outfit. Often he carried wound about his waist a sack of netting into which he crawled at night to keep off the pestiferous mosquitoes. With creditable regularity he and his apprentices arose early in the morning and started on foot for the hunt, eating no food until they had killed and skinned as many wild cattle or swine as there were persons in the company. After having skinned the last animal, the master-hunter broke its softest bones and made a meal for himself and his followers on the marrow. Then each took up a hide and returned to the boucan, where they dined on the flesh they had killed.103 In this fashion the hunter lived for the space of six months or a year. Then he made a division of the skins and dried meat, and repaired to Tortuga or one of the French settlements on the coast of Hispaniola to recoup his stock of ammunition and spend the rest of his gains in a wild carouse of drunkenness and debauchery. His money gone, he returned again to the hunt. The cow-killers, as they had neither wife nor children, commonly associated in pairs with the right of inheriting from each other, a custom which was called "matelotage." These private associations, however, did not prevent the property of all from being in a measure common. Their mode of settling quarrels was the most primitive-the duel. In other things they governed themselves by a certain "coutumier," a medley of bizarre laws which they had originated among themselves. At any attempt to bring them under civilised rules, the reply always was, "telle étoit la coutume de la c?te"; and that definitely closed the matter. They based their rights thus to live upon the fact, they said, of having passed the Tropic, where, borrowing from the sailor's well-known superstition, they pretended to have drowned all their former obligations.104 Even their family names they discarded, and the saying was in those days that one knew a man in the Isles only when he was married. From a life of this sort, cruising against Spanish ships, if not an unmixed good, was at least always a desirable recreation. Every Spanish prize brought into Tortuga, moreover, was an incitement to fresh adventure against the common foe. The "gens de la c?te," as they called themselves, ordinarily associated a score or more together, and having taken or built themselves a canoe, put to sea with intent to seize a Spanish barque or some other coasting vessel. With silent paddles, under cover of darkness, they approached the unsuspecting prey, killed the frightened sailors or drove them overboard, and carried the prize to Tortuga. There the raiders either dispersed to their former occupations, or gathered a larger crew of congenial spirits and sailed away for bigger game.

All the Jesuit historians of the West Indies, Dutertre, Labat and Charlevoix, have left us accounts of the manners and customs of the buccaneers. The Dutch physician, Exquemelin, who lived with the buccaneers for several years, from 1668 to 1674, and wrote a picturesque narrative from materials at his disposal, has also been a source for the ideas of most later writers on the subject. It may not be out of place to quote his description of the men whose deeds he recorded.

"Before the Pirates go out to sea," he writes, "they give notice to every one who goes upon the voyage of the day on which they ought precisely to embark, intimating also to them their obligation of bringing each man in particular so many pounds of powder and bullets as they think necessary for that expedition. Being all come on board, they join together in council, concerning what place they ought first to go wherein to get provisions-especially of flesh, seeing they scarce eat anything else. And of this the most common sort among them is pork. The next food is tortoises, which they are accustomed to salt a little. Sometimes they resolve to rob such or such hog-yards, wherein the Spaniards often have a thousand heads of swine together. They come to these places in the dark of night, and having beset the keeper's lodge, they force him to rise, and give them as many heads as they desire, threatening withal to kill him in case he disobeys their command or makes any noise. Yea, these menaces are oftentimes put in execution, without giving any quarter to the miserable swine-keepers, or any other person that endeavours to hinder their robberies.

"Having got provisions of flesh sufficient for their voyage, they return to their ship. Here their allowance, twice a day to every one, is as much as he can eat, without either weight or measure. Neither does the steward of the vessel give any greater proportion of flesh or anything else to the captain than to the meanest mariner. The ship being well victualled, they call another council, to deliberate towards what place they shall go, to seek their desperate fortunes. In this council, likewise, they agree upon certain Articles, which are put in writing, by way of bond or obligation, which everyone is bound to observe, and all of them, or the chief, set their hands to it. Herein they specify, and set down very distinctly, what sums of money each particular person ought to have for that voyage, the fund of all the payments being the common stock of what is gotten by the whole expedition; for otherwise it is the same law, among these people, as with other Pirates, 'No prey, no pay.' In the first place, therefore, they mention how much the Captain ought to have for his ship. Next the salary of the carpenter, or shipwright, who careened, mended and rigged the vessel. This commonly amounts to 100 or 150 pieces of eight, being, according to the agreement, more or less. Afterwards for provisions and victualling they draw out of the same common stock about 200 pieces of eight. Also a competent salary for the surgeon and his chest of medicaments, which is usually rated at 200 or 250 pieces of eight. Lastly they stipulate in writing what recompense or reward each one ought to have, that is either wounded or maimed in his body, suffering the loss of any limb, by that voyage. Thus they order for the loss of a right arm 600 pieces of eight, or six slaves; for the loss of a left arm 500 pieces of eight, or five slaves; for a right leg 500 pieces of eight, or five slaves; for the left leg 400 pieces of eight, or four slaves; for an eye 100 pieces of eight or one slave; for a finger of the hand the same reward as for the eye. All which sums of money, as I have said before, are taken out of the capital sum or common stock of what is got by their piracy. For a very exact and equal dividend is made of the remainder among them all. Yet herein they have also regard to qualities and places. Thus the Captain, or chief Commander, is allotted five or six portions to what the ordinary seamen have; the Master's Mate only two; and other Officers proportionate to their employment. After whom they draw equal parts from the highest even to the lowest mariner, the boys not being omitted. For even these draw half a share, by reason that, when they happen to take a better vessel than their own, it is the d

uty of the boys to set fire to the ship or boat wherein they are, and then retire to the prize which they have taken.

"They observe among themselves very good orders. For in the prizes they take it is severely prohibited to everyone to usurp anything in particular to themselves. Hence all they take is equally divided, according to what has been said before. Yea, they make a solemn oath to each other not to abscond or conceal the least thing they find amongst the prey. If afterwards anyone is found unfaithful, who has contravened the said oath, immediately he is separated and turned out of the society. Among themselves they are very civil and charitable to each other. Insomuch that if any wants what another has, with great liberality they give it one to another. As soon as these pirates have taken any prize of ship or boat, the first thing they endeavour is to set on shore the prisoners, detaining only some few for their own help and service, to whom also they give their liberty after the space of two or three years. They put in very frequently for refreshment at one island or another; but more especially into those which lie on the southern side of the Isle of Cuba. Here they careen their vessels, and in the meanwhile some of them go to hunt, others to cruise upon the seas in canoes, seeking their fortune. Many times they take the poor fishermen of tortoises, and carrying them to their habitations they make them work so long as the pirates are pleased."

The articles which fixed the conditions under which the buccaneers sailed were commonly called the "chasse-partie."105 In the earlier days of buccaneering, before the period of great leaders like Mansfield, Morgan and Grammont, the captain was usually chosen from among their own number. Although faithfully obeyed he was removable at will, and had scarcely more prerogative than the ordinary sailor. After 1655 the buccaneers generally sailed under commissions from the governors of Jamaica or Tortuga, and then they always set aside one tenth of the profits for the governor. But when their prizes were unauthorised they often withdrew to some secluded coast to make a partition of the booty, and on their return to port eased the governor's conscience with politic gifts; and as the governor generally had little control over these difficult people he found himself all the more obliged to dissimulate. Although the buccaneers were called by the Spaniards "ladrones" and "demonios," names which they richly deserved, they often gave part of their spoil to churches in the ports which they frequented, especially if among the booty they found any ecclesiastical ornaments or the stuffs for making them-articles which not infrequently formed an important part of the cargo of Spanish treasure ships. In March 1694 the Jesuit writer, Labat, took part in a Mass at Martinique which was performed for some French buccaneers in pursuance of a vow made when they were taking two English vessels near Barbadoes. The French vessel and its two prizes were anchored near the church, and fired salutes of all their cannon at the beginning of the Mass, at the Elevation of the Host, at the Benediction, and again at the end of the Te Deum sung after the Mass.106 Labat, who, although a priest, is particularly lenient towards the crimes of the buccaneers, and who we suspect must have been the recipient of numerous "favours" from them out of their store of booty, relates a curious tale of the buccaneer, Captain Daniel, a tale which has often been used by other writers, but which may bear repetition. Daniel, in need of provisions, anchored one night off one of the "Saintes," small islands near Dominica, and landing without opposition, took possession of the house of the curé and of some other inhabitants of the neighbourhood. He carried the curé and his people on board his ship without offering them the least violence, and told them that he merely wished to buy some wine, brandy and fowls. While these were being gathered, Daniel requested the curé to celebrate Mass, which the poor priest dared not refuse. So the necessary sacred vessels were sent for and an altar improvised on the deck for the service, which they chanted to the best of their ability. As at Martinique, the Mass was begun by a discharge of artillery, and after the Exaudiat and prayer for the King was closed by a loud "Vive le Roi!" from the throats of the buccaneers. A single incident, however, somewhat disturbed the devotions. One of the buccaneers, remaining in an indecent attitude during the Elevation, was rebuked by the captain, and instead of heeding the correction, replied with an impertinence and a fearful oath. Quick as a flash Daniel whipped out his pistol and shot the buccaneer through the head, adjuring God that he would do as much to the first who failed in his respect to the Holy Sacrifice. The shot was fired close by the priest, who, as we can readily imagine, was considerably agitated. "Do not be troubled, my father," said Daniel; "he is a rascal lacking in his duty and I have punished him to teach him better." A very efficacious means, remarks Labat, of preventing his falling into another like mistake. After the Mass the body of the dead man was thrown into the sea, and the curé was recompensed for his pains by some goods out of their stock and the present of a negro slave.107

The buccaneers preferred to sail in barques, vessels of one mast and rigged with triangular sails. This type of boat, they found, could be more easily man?uvred, was faster and sailed closer to the wind. The boats were built of cedar, and the best were reputed to come from Bermuda. They carried very few guns, generally from six to twelve or fourteen, the corsairs believing that four muskets did more execution than one cannon.108 The buccaneers sometimes used brigantines, vessels with two masts, the fore or mizzenmast being square-rigged with two sails and the mainmast rigged like that of a barque. The corsair at Martinique of whom Labat speaks was captain of a corvette, a boat like a brigantine, except that all the sails were square-rigged. At the beginning of a voyage the freebooters were generally so crowded in their small vessels that they suffered much from lack of room. Moreover, they had little protection from sun and rain, and with but a small stock of provisions often faced starvation. It was this as much as anything which frequently inspired them to attack without reflection any possible prize, great or small, and to make themselves masters of it or perish in the attempt. Their first object was to come to close quarters; and although a single broadside would have sunk their small craft, they man?uvred so skilfully as to keep their bow always presented to the enemy, while their musketeers cleared the enemy's decks until the time when the captain judged it proper to board. The buccaneers rarely attacked Spanish ships on the outward voyage from Europe to America, for such ships were loaded with wines, cloths, grains and other commodities for which they had little use, and which they could less readily turn into available wealth. Outgoing vessels also carried large crews and a considerable number of passengers. It was the homeward-bound ships, rather, which attracted their avarice, for in such vessels the crews were smaller and the cargo consisted of precious metals, dye-woods and jewels, articles which the freebooters could easily dispose of to the merchants and tavern-keepers of the ports they frequented.

The Gulf of Honduras and the Mosquito Coast, dotted with numerous small islands and protecting reefs, was a favourite retreat for the buccaneers. As the clumsy Spanish war-vessels of the period found it ticklish work threading these tortuous channels, where a sudden adverse wind usually meant disaster, the buccaneers there felt secure from interference; and in the creeks, lagoons and river-mouths densely shrouded by tropical foliage, they were able to careen and refit their vessels, divide their booty, and enjoy a respite from their sea-forays. Thence, too, they preyed upon the Spanish ships which sailed from the coast of Cartagena to Porto Bello, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the larger Antilles, and were a constant menace to the great treasure galleons of the Terra-Firma fleet. The English settlement on the island of Providence, lying as it did off the Nicaragua coast and in the very track of Spanish commerce in those regions, was, until captured in 1641, a source of great fear to Spanish mariners; and when in 1642 some English occupied the island of Roatan, near Truxillo, the governor of Cuba and the Presidents of the Audiencias at Gautemala and San Domingo jointly equipped an expedition of four vessels under D. Francisco de Villalba y Toledo, which drove out the intruders.109 Closer to the buccaneering headquarters in Tortuga (and later in Jamaica) were the straits separating the great West Indian islands:-the Yucatan Channel at the western end of Cuba, the passage between Cuba and Hispaniola in the east, and the Mona Passage between Hispaniola and Porto Rico. In these regions the corsairs waited to pick up stray Spanish merchantmen, and watched for the coming of the galleons or the Flota.110 When the buccaneers returned from their cruises they generally squandered in a few days, in the taverns of the towns which they frequented, the wealth which had cost them such peril and labour. Some of these outlaws, says Exquemelin, would spend 2000 or 3000 pieces of eight111 in one night, not leaving themselves a good shirt to wear on their backs in the morning. "My own master," he continues, "would buy, on like occasions, a whole pipe of wine, and placing it in the street would force every one that passed by to drink with him; threatening also to pistol them in case they would not do it. At other times he would do the same with barrels of ale or beer. And, very often, with both in his hands, he would throw these liquors about the streets, and wet the clothes of such as walked by, without regarding whether he spoiled their apparel or not, were they men or women." The taverns and ale-houses always welcomed the arrival of these dissolute corsairs; and although they extended long credits, they also at times sold as indentured servants those who had run too deeply into debt, as happened in Jamaica to this same patron or master of whom Exquemelin wrote.

Until 1640 buccaneering in the West Indies was more or less accidental, occasional, in character. In the second half of the century, however, the numbers of the freebooters greatly increased, and men entirely deserted their former occupations for the excitement and big profits of the "course." There were several reasons for this increase in the popularity of buccaneering. The English adventurers in Hispaniola had lost their profession of hunting very early, for with the coming of Levasseur the French had gradually elbowed them out of the island, and compelled them either to retire to the Lesser Antilles or to prey upon their Spanish neighbours. But the French themselves were within the next twenty years driven to the same expedient. The Spanish colonists on Hispaniola, unable to keep the French from the island, at last foolishly resolved, according to Charlevoix's account, to remove the principal attraction by destroying all the wild cattle. If the trade with French vessels and the barter of hides for brandy could be arrested, the hunters would be driven from the woods by starvation. This policy, together with the wasteful methods pursued by the hunters, caused a rapid decrease in the number of cattle. The Spaniards, however, did not dream of the consequences of their action. Many of the French, forced to seek another occupation, naturally fell into the way of buccaneering. The hunters of cattle became hunters of Spaniards, and the sea became the savanna on which they sought their game. Exquemelin tells us that when he arrived at the island there were scarcely three hundred engaged in hunting, and even these found their livelihood precarious. It was from this time forward to the end of the century that the buccaneers played so important a r?le on the stage of West Indian history.

Another source of recruits for the freebooters were the indentured servants or engagés. We hear a great deal of the barbarity with which West Indian planters and hunters in the seventeenth century treated their servants, and we may well believe that many of the latter, finding their situation unendurable, ran away from their plantations or ajoupas to join the crew of a chance corsair hovering in the neighbourhood. The hunters' life, as we have seen, was not one of revelry and ease. On the one side were all the insidious dangers lurking in a wild, tropical forest; on the other, the relentless hostility of the Spaniards. The environment of the hunters made them rough and cruel, and for many an engagé his three years of servitude must have been a veritable purgatory. The servants of the planters were in no better position. Decoyed from Norman and Breton towns and villages by the loud-sounding promises of sea-captains and West Indian agents, they came to seek an El Dorado, and often found only despair and death. The want of sufficient negroes led men to resort to any artifice in order to obtain assistance in cultivating the sugar-cane and tobacco. The apprentices sent from Europe were generally bound out in the French Antilles for eighteen months or three years, among the English for seven years. They were often resold in the interim, and sometimes served ten or twelve years before they regained their freedom. They were veritable convicts, often more ill-treated than the slaves with whom they worked side by side, for their lives, after the expiration of their term of service, were of no consequence to their masters. Many of these apprentices, of good birth and tender education, were unable to endure the debilitating climate and hard labour, let alone the cruelty of their employers. Exquemelin, himself originally an engagé, gives a most piteous description of their sufferings. He was sold to the Lieutenant-Governor of Tortuga, who treated him with great severity and refused to take less than 300 pieces of eight for his freedom. Falling ill through vexation and despair, he passed into the hands of a surgeon, who proved kind to him and finally gave him his liberty for 100 pieces of eight, to be paid after his first buccaneering voyage.112

We left Levasseur governor in Tortuga after the abortive Spanish attack of 1643. Finding his personal ascendancy so complete over the rude natures about him, Levasseur, like many a greater man in similar circumstances, lost his sense of the rights of others. His character changed, he became suspicious and intolerant, and the settlers complained bitterly of his cruelty and overbearing temper. Having come as the leader of a band of Huguenots, he forbade the Roman Catholics to hold services on the island, burnt their chapel and turned out their priest. He placed heavy imposts on trade, and soon amassed a considerable fortune.113 In his eyrie upon the rock fortress, he is said to have kept for his enemies a cage of iron, in which the prisoner could neither stand nor lie down, and which Levasseur, with grim humour, called his "little hell." A dungeon in his castle he termed in like fashion his "purgatory." All these stories, however, are reported by the Jesuits, his natural foes, and must be taken with a grain of salt. De Poincy, who himself ruled with despotic authority and was guilty of similar cruelties, would have turned a deaf ear to the denunciations against his lieutenant, had not his jealousy been aroused by the suspicion that Levasseur intended to declare himself an independent prince.114 So the governor-general, already in bad odour at court for having given Levasseur means of establishing a little Geneva in Tortuga, began to disavow him to the authorities at home. He also sent his nephew, M. de Lonvilliers, to Tortuga, on the pretext of complimenting Levasseur on his victory over the Spaniards, but really to endeavour to entice him back to St. Kitts. Levasseur, subtle and penetrating, skilfully avoided the trap, and Lonvilliers returned to St. Kitts alone.

Charlevoix relates an amusing instance of the governor's stubborn resistance to de Poincy's authority. A silver statue of the Virgin, captured by some buccaneer from a Spanish ship, had been appropriated by Levasseur, and de Poincy, desiring to decorate his chapel with it, wrote to him demanding the statue, and observing that a Protestant had no use for such an object. Levasseur, however, replied that the Protestants had a great adoration for silver virgins, and that Catholics being "trop spirituels pour tenir à la matière," he was sending him, instead, a madonna of painted wood.

After a tenure of power for twelve years, Levasseur came to the end of his tether. While de Poincy was resolving upon an expedition to oust him from authority, two adventurers named Martin and Thibault, whom Levasseur had adopted as his heirs, and with whom, it is said, he had quarrelled over a mistress, shot him as he was descending from the fort to the shore, and completed the murder by a poniard's thrust. They then seized the government without any opposition from the inhabitants.115 Meanwhile there had arrived at St. Kitts the Chevalier de Fontenay, a soldier of fortune who had distinguished himself against the Turks and was attracted by the gleam of Spanish gold. He it was whom de Poincy chose as the man to succeed Levasseur. The opportunity for action was eagerly accepted by de Fontenay, but the project was kept secret, for if Levasseur had got wind of it all the forces in St. Kitts could not have dislodged him. Volunteers were raised on the pretext of a privateering expedition to the coasts of Cartagena, and to complete the deception de Fontenay actually sailed for the Main and captured several prizes. The rendezvous was on the coast of Hispaniola, where de Fontenay was eventually joined by de Poincy's nephew, M. de Treval, with another frigate and materials for a siege. Learning of the murder of Levasseur, the invaders at once sailed for Tortuga and landed several hundred men at the spot where the Spaniards had formerly been repulsed. The two assassins, finding the inhabitants indisposed to support them, capitulated to de Fontenay on receiving pardon for their crime and the peaceful possession of their property. Catholicism was restored, commerce was patronized and buccaneers encouraged to use the port. Two stone bastions were raised on the platform and more guns were mounted.116 De Fontenay himself was the first to bear the official title of "Governor for the King of Tortuga and the Coast of S. Domingo."

The new governor was not fated to enjoy his success for any length of time. The President of S. Domingo, Don Juan Francisco de Montemayor, with orders from the King of Spain, was preparing for another effort to get rid of his troublesome neighbour, and in November 1653 sent an expedition of five vessels and 400 infantry against the French, under command of Don Gabriel Roxas de Valle-Figueroa. The ships were separated by a storm, two ran aground and a third was lost, so that only the "Capitana" and "Almirante" reached Tortuga on 10th January. Being greeted with a rough fire from the platform and fort as they approached the harbour, they dropped anchor a league to leeward and landed with little opposition. After nine days of fighting and siege of the fort, de Fontenay capitulated with the honours of war.117 According to the French account, the Spaniards, lashing their cannon to rough frames of wood, dragged a battery of eight or ten guns to the top of some hills commanding the fort, and began a furious bombardment. Several sorties of the besieged to capture the battery were unsuccessful. The inhabitants began to tire of fighting, and de Fontenay, discovering some secret negotiations with the enemy, was compelled to sue for terms. With incredible exertions, two half-scuttled ships in the harbour were fitted up and provisioned within three days, and upon them the French sailed for Port Margot.118 The Spaniards claimed that the booty would have been considerable but for some Dutch trading-ships in the harbour which conveyed all the valuables from the island. They burned the settlements, however, carried away with them some guns, munitions of war and slaves, and this time taking the precaution to leave behind a garrison of 150 men, sailed for Hispaniola. Fearing that the French might join forces with the buccaneers and attack their small squadron on the way back, they retained de Fontenay's brother as a hostage until they reached the city of San Domingo. De Fontenay, indeed, after his brother's release, did determine to try and recover the island. Only 130 of his men stood by him, the rest deserting to join the buccaneers in western Hispaniola. While he was careening his ship at Port Margot, however, a Dutch trader arrived with commodities for Tortuga, and learning of the disaster, offered him aid with men and supplies. A descent was made upon the smaller island, and the Spaniards were besieged for twenty days, but after several encounters they compelled the French to withdraw. De Fontenay, with only thirty companions, sailed for Europe, was wrecked among the Azores, and eventually reached France, only to die a short time afterwards.

Footnote 83: (return) Bibl. Nat., Nouv. Acq., 9334, f. 48.

Footnote 84: (return) C.S.P. Colon., 1574-1660, p. 130. This company had been organised under the name of "The Governor and Company of Adventurers for the Plantations of the Islands of Providence, Henrietta and the adjacent islands, between 10 and 20 degrees of north latitude and 290 and 310 degrees of longitude." The patent of incorporation is dated 4th December 1630 (ibid., p. 123).

Footnote 85: (return) Ibid., p. 131.

Footnote 86: (return) Ibid.

Footnote 87: (return) This identity was first pointed out by Pierre de Vaissière in his recent book: "Saint Domingue (1629-1789). La societé et la vie créoles sous l'ancien régime," Paris, 1909, p. 7.

Footnote 88: (return) C.S.P. Colon., 1574-1660, pp. 131-33.

Footnote 89: (return) Ibid., pp. 174, 175.

Footnote 90: (return) This was probably the same man as the "Don Juan de Morfa Geraldino" who was admiral of the fleet which attacked Tortuga in 1654. Cf. Duro, op. cit., v. p. 35.

Footnote 91: (return) In 1642 Rui Fernandez de Fuemayor was governor and captain-general of the province of Venezuela. Cf. Doro, op. cit., iv. p. 341; note 2.

Footnote 92: (return) Brit. Mus., Add. MSS., 13,977, f. 505. According to the minutes of the Providence Company, a certain Mr. Perry, newly arrived from Association, gave information on 19th March 1635 that the island had been surprised by the Spaniards (C.S.P. Colon., 1574-1660, p. 200). This news was confirmed by a Mrs. Filby at another meeting of the company on 10th April, when Capt. Wormeley, "by reason of his cowardice and negligence in losing the island," was formally deprived of his office as governor and banished from the colony (ibid., p. 201).

Footnote 93: (return) Brit. Mus., Add. MSS., 13,977, pp. 222-23.

Footnote 94: (return) Ibid., pp. 226-27, 235.

Footnote 95: (return) Ibid., pp. 226, 233, 235-37, 244.

Footnote 96: (return) Charlevoix: Histoire de. ... Saint Domingue, liv. vii. pp. 9-10. The story is repeated by Duro (op. cit., v. p. 34), who says that the Spaniards were led by "el general D. Carlos Ibarra."

Footnote 97: (return) Charlevoix, op. cit., liv. vii. p. 10; Bibl. Nat. Nouv. Acq., 9334, p. 48 ff.

Footnote 98: (return) Charlevoix, op. cit., liv. vii. pp. 10-12; Vaissière., op. cit., Appendix I ("Mémoire envoyé aux seigneurs de la Compagnie des Isles de l'Amérique par M. de Poincy, le 15 Novembre 1640").

According to the records of the Providence Company, Tortuga in 1640 had 300 inhabitants. A Captain Fload, who had been governor, was then in London to clear himself of charges preferred against him by the planters, while a Captain James was exercising authority as "President" in the island. (C.S.P. Colon., 1574-1660. pp. 313, 314.) Fload was probably the "English captain" referred to in de Poincy's memoir. His oppressive rule seems to have been felt as well by the English as by the French.

Footnote 99: (return) Dutertre: Histoire générale des Antilles, tom. i. p. 171.

Footnote 100: (return) Charlevoix: op. cit., liv. vii. pp. 12-13.

Footnote 101: (return) In this monograph, by "buccaneers" are always meant the corsairs and filibusters, and not the cattle and hog killers of Hispaniola and Tortuga.

Footnote 102: (return) Labat: Nouveau voyage aux isles de l'Amerique, ed. 1742, tom. vii. p. 233.

Footnote 103: (return) Le Pers, printed in Margry, op. cit.

Footnote 104: (return) Le Pers, printed in Margry, op. cit.

Footnote 105: (return) Dampier writes that "Privateers are not obliged to any ship, but free to go ashore where they please, or to go into any other ship that will entertain them, only paying for their provision." (Edition 1906, i. p. 61).

Footnote 106: (return) Labat, op. cit., tom. i. ch. 9.

Footnote 107: (return) Labat, op. cit., tom. vii. ch. 17.

Footnote 108: (return) Ibid., tom. ii. ch. 17.

Footnote 109: (return) Gibbs: British Honduras, p. 25.

Footnote 110: (return) A Spaniard, writing from S. Domingo in 1635, complains of an English buccaneer settlement at Samana (on the north coast of Hispaniola, near the Mona Passage), where they grew tobacco, and preyed on the ships sailing from Cartagena and S. Domingo for Spain. (Add. MSS., 13,977, f. 508.)

Footnote 111: (return) A piece of eight was worth in Jamaica from 4s. 6d. to 5s.

Footnote 112: (return) Exquemelin, ed. 1684, Part I. pp. 21-22.

Footnote 113: (return) Dutertre, op. cit., tom. i. ch. vi.

Footnote 114: (return) Charlevoix, op. cit., liv. vii. p. 16.

Footnote 115: (return) Charlevoix, op. cit., liv. vii. pp. 17-18.

Footnote 116: (return) According to a Spanish MS., there were in Tortuga in 1653 700 French inhabitants, more than 200 negroes, and 250 Indians with their wives and children. The negroes and Indians were all slaves; the former seized on the coasts of Havana and Cartagena, the latter brought over from Yucatan. In the harbour the platform had fourteen cannon, and in the fort above were forty-six cannon, many of them of bronze (Add. MSS., 13,992, f. 499 ff.). The report of the amount of ordnance is doubtless an exaggeration.

Footnote 117: (return) Add. MSS., 13,992, f. 499.

Footnote 118: (return) According to Dutertre, one vessel was commanded by the assassins, Martin and Thibault, and contained the women and children. The latter, when provisions ran low, were marooned on one of the Caymans, north-west of Jamaica, where they would have perished had not a Dutch ship found and rescued them. Martin and Thibault were never heard of again.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top