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A Pirate Profile: The Savage François l'Olonnais

WORLD HISTORY | May 20, 2019

From the Buccaneers of America by Alexander Exquemelin. Source: (agefotostock.com)

As I had written in my prior pirate profile piece on Ned Low, the pirates of the Caribbean were not Johnny Depp, but fall somewhere south of Al Capone with Jack the Ripper predilections. Such is the case of Jean David-Nau, A.K.A. François l'Olonnais. The story of what follows is not for the faint of heart.

So being duly warned, read on.

"Buccaneer of the Caribbean" from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

The Man from Olonne

Jean David-Nau was born in the small town of Les Sables d’Olonne in Bas-Poitou on the west coast of France sometime around the years 1630 to 1635. There is very little known about his early life except that as a child he was sent to the Caribbean as an indentured servant. By the mid-1650s he was free, living among the buccaneers of Hispaniola, and called François l'Olonnais, which meant the “man from Olonne.” This was sometimes just spelled as Lolonois.

Buccaneers were originally hunters who roamed the wilds of Hispaniola and on the island of Tortuga to the north of Hispaniola who caught wild cattle and boar. The name derived from the little huts, called boucanes that they used to make their meat. Eventually, this term was applied to the privateers themselves. The Buccaneers also referred to themselves as “brethren of the coast.”

Tortuga itself was a pirate and privateer haven. Alexandre Exquemelin notes in his 17th-century history of the Buccaneers (he was one himself) that Tortuga was a “common refuge of all sorts of wickedness, and the seminary, as it were, of pirates and thieves.”

The French Flag in the 17th century. Since L'Olonnais was acting as a privateer then it is unlikely he would have flown a pirate flag such as a Jolly Roger. Source: (Pavillon_royal_de_la_France.svg)

L’Olonnais sailed two or three voyages as a mariner. The details of these voyages are unknown, but he somehow impressed the governor of Tortuga with his bravery, so he was given a ship of his own with the expectation of being a privateer, or Corsair, for the French. The government would have gotten a cut of the proceeds.

L’Olonnais’s early voyages were successes, and he developed a reputation for cruelty, especially to the Spanish. On one voyage, his ship foundered off the coast of Campeche. Coming ashore, he found the Spanish pursuing his party. The Spanish killed the greater portion of his men, and L’Olonnais only escaped by smearing a mixture of sand with the blood from his wounds and pasting it on his face. He then played dead among the corpses of his fellows.

Joannes Jansson, Map of the Caribbean, 1656. Source: (humwp.ucsc.edu)

The Flail of the Spanish

After escaping he recruited men to his cause and recouped in Tortuga. He then sailed for the south of Cuba to the village of De Los Cayos with two canoes. He was spotted by fishermen, and they alerted the governor in Havana who then sent a ten-gun warship with 90 men to hunt down the French buccaneer. However, L’Olonnais managed to capture the ship. He had the entire crew beheaded except for one who he sent back to the governor of Havana with a written statement:

“I shall never henceforward give quarter to any Spaniard whatsoever, and I have great hopes I shall execute on your own person the very same punishment I have done upon them you sent against me. Thus I have retaliated the kindness you designed to me and my companions.”

So now at least we know where L’Olonnais stood. He became known as the “Flail of the Spanish.”

A silver Spanish dollar (piece of eight) minted in México c. 1650. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

L’Olonnais now had a warship, but he had little in the way of provisions. He then roamed from port to port until eventually, he took a ship loaded with plate. With this ship as a prize, he returned to Tortuga and began preparations to sack the wealthy town of Maracaibo and the surrounding countryside.

The French buccaneer sent out a casting call of sorts and managed to recruit over 400 men for the enterprise. Particularly helpful was a successful Basque pirate, Michel de Basco, who after hearing of L’Olonnais plot offered to team up providing he could captain the land forces.

L’Olonnais set sail in late April 1667. They stopped on the north coast of Hispaniola for provisions where more buccaneers joined them bringing their number up to roughly 700. On July 30, they set off to maraud the Spanish.

En route, L’Olonnais first caught a Spanish ship off Punta d’Espada. Leaving the rest of his fleet behind, L’Olonnais gave chase. After a three-hour battle with the 16-gun ship, the Spanish surrendered. He won a cargo of some 120,000 pounds of cacao and 40,000 pieces of eight as well as 10,000 pieces of eight worth of jewels. Meanwhile, his other ships had caught a Spanish ship carrying military payroll of 12,000 pieces of eight as well as a considerable amount of ammunition and weapons. These were sent back to Tortuga and unloaded. L’Olonnais now took the 16-gun vessel as his flagship.

The outlook looked bright for L’Olonnais. His fleet was strengthened by two, and moreover, he was better armed. He set headed for Maracaibo.

François l'Olonnais from "De Americaensche Zeerovers" Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

Maracaibo, on the Caribbean coast of Venezuela, sits on the edge of Lake Maracaibo, which was like a large lagoon on the coast. The town itself had a population of up to 4,000 persons which included those enslaved and a garrison of 800 soldiers. The town had been sacked by pirates twice before in 1614 and 1642.

L’Olonnais’s fleet made land near a fort some 18 miles away from the town. When the Spanish governor heard of the corsairs approach he dispatched his forces with one group to ambush the corsairs’ rear while launching a frontal attack.

However, the pirates discovered the Spanish ambushers and attacked them. These fled in panic back to Maracaibo’s fort. The corsairs launched a 3-hour attack and took the fort. 

A map of Lake Maracaibo, note that the left side of the image is geographic north. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Meanwhile, survivors of the Spanish ambush party informed the citizens of Maracaibo that 2,000 pirates had come to sack the city. This led to a general panic since many of the people had living knowledge of prior pirate sackings. Packing up their valuables they took to boats, evacuating to Gibraltar on the southeast shore of Lake Maracaibo.

While this was going on, L’Olonnais signaled to his fleet to sail into the harbor while his men emasculated the Spanish fortress. The next morning, he marshaled his forces and marched to Maracaibo.

The town was taken without a fight since most had fled to Gibraltar. The people had left behind food and other provisions. The Buccaneers partied it up, but L’Olonnais wanted the Spaniard’s valuables, not just free food and lodging. He sent 160 men into the forests about the town. These returned with 20 prisoners and 20,000 pieces of eight.

From Alexander O. Exquemelin's Buccaneers of America. Source: (Project Gutenberg)

L’Olonnais then set to torturing the prisoners to reveal where their valuables were hidden – the rack was liberally used. They would not talk. Finally, he hacked a prisoner to pieces in front of the others and said, “If you do not confess and declare where you hid your goods, I will do the like to all your companions.” The tortures continued as the pirates captured more Spaniards. They eventually learned that most had fled to Gibraltar.

The Corsairs made for Gibraltar, which had been hastily preparing defenses. L’Olonnais led his men against the town taking it through swamplands. Forty pirates were killed and another 80 were wounded. Five hundred Spanish had died with a number of others wounded. Many of the wounded would die later of infection.

The Buccaneers then thoroughly looted the town and generally behaved in the worst ways imaginable. Prisoners were tortured for their valuables, rape was common, and the Spanish who had survived starved to death. After four weeks of this, L’Olonnais sent word to the Spanish refugees who now survived in the surrounding forest that if they paid him 10,000 pieces of eight, he wouldn’t burn the town. They had two days.

The survivors, however, could not gather 10,000 pieces of eight in two days. The corsairs started burning the town. The remaining inhabitants begged L’Olonnais to stop, and they’d get the money somehow. And L’Olonnais was paid the ransom.

Map of Fort de Rocher, Buccaneers' fortress, Tortuga Island, drawing. Source: (gettyimages.com)

L’Olonnais then headed back to Maracaibo with all the wealth they found in Gibraltar including numerous prisoners and slaves. He sent prisoners to the governor, demanding 30,000 pieces of eight or he would burn the town to the ground. Negotiations started while simultaneously corsair raiding parties went ashore looting valuables. At last, the Spanish agreed to pay 20,000 pieces of eight and 500 cattle. L’Olonnais accepted and the pirates departed.

But three days later, L’Olonnais returned. The citizens of Maracaibo had a terrible moment thinking their town was about to be put to the torch. But L’Olonnais merely wanted a pilot to guide them out of Lake Maracaibo.

The sacking of the towns had gone on for a full two months. The pirates had plundered 260,000 pieces of eight as well as gems and luxury goods.

After L’Olonnais returned to Tortuga, he was probably the most notorious pirate of the Caribbean. He was quickly able to prepare for a new expedition in 1668 and recruited some 700 men. They set sail for the Central American coast.

The Cruelty of Lolonois, engraving. (Jean-David Nau, François L'Olonnais, L'Olonnais, Lolona). The French buccaneer, Francis Lolonois, having cut out a man 's heart, forces another man to eat it. (Getty images)

L’Olonnais pillaged the town of Puerto Cavallo. Many were tortured. L’Olonnais himself killed many with his cutlass. After the sacking, he was ambushed by a large Spanish force. Having barely won the fight, he captured two Spaniards and asked them if there were more Spanish forces ahead waiting in ambush. When they told him yes, he asked him to guide him through another way. They said there was no other way for him to go.

Enraged, L’Olonnais cut the heart out of one of the prisoners and gnawed on it. He then either threw it at the face at another Spanish prisoner or he took the heart and forces the prisoner to eat it. He said, “I will serve you all alike if you show me not another way.”

The Spanish then said they could, but it was very difficult. L’Olonnais tried the route, but found it impassable. Forced to go on his original route he became worn down by Spanish forces. No prisoners were taken, no quarter was given. Eventually, he escaped to his ships, but most of his men then abandoned him because of the unsuccessful venture and probably because even these hard men were offended by L’Olonnais’s outrages. 

Native Caribbean peoples from the 16th century. (Public domain)

L’Olonnais cruised the coast with a few men, looking for spoils. But his ship ran aground on an island and he was forced to abandon it. Then in a longboat, he headed for the mainland. Attacks from local, unsubjugated Indians eroded his forces even more until at last he was captured by Indians. The Indians, according to one of L’Olonnais’s companions who survived, “tore him in pieces, throwing his body limb by limb into the fire, and his ashes into the air, that no trace or memory might remain of such an infamous, inhuman creature.”  There are several later sources that also say the Corsair was cannibalized, but this does not seem to be the case - perhaps it was sanitized in the English translation.

Grog anyone?

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Joseph A. Williams

Writer

Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History. He is currently the Deputy Director of Greenwich Library (CT).