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Adventures of Buccaneers

Most of us, as boys, have envied the buccaneers. The greatest of all boys, Canon Kingsley, once wrote a pleasing and regretful poem in which the Last Buccaneer represents himself as a kind of picturesque philanthropist:--


"There were forty craft in Aves that were both swift and stout,
All furnished well with small arms, and cannons round about;
And a thousand men in Aves made laws so fair and free,
To choose their valiant captains and obey them loyally.
Thence we sailed against the Spaniard with his hoards of plate and gold,
Which he wrung with cruel tortures from Indian folk of old;
Likewise the merchant captains, with hearts as hard as stone,
Who flog men and keel-haul them, and starve them to the bone."


The buccaneer is "a gallant sailor," according to Kingsley's poem--a Robin Hood of the waters, who preys only on the wicked rich, or the cruel and Popish Spaniard, and the extortionate shipowner. For his own part, when he is not rescuing poor Indians, the buccaneer lives mainly "for climate and the affections":--


"Oh, sweet it was in Aves to hear the landward breeze,
A swing with good tobacco in a net between the trees,
With a negro lass to fan you, while you listened to the roar
Of the breakers on the reef outside that never touched the shore."


This is delightfully idyllic, like the lives of the Tahitian shepherds in the Anti-Jacobin--the shepherds whose occupation was a sinecure, as there were no sheep in Tahiti.

Yet the vocation was not really so touchingly chivalrous as the poet would have us deem. One Joseph Esquemeling, himself a buccaneer, has written the history and described the exploits of his companions in plain prose, warning eager youths that "pieces-of-eight do not grow on every tree," as many raw recruits have believed. Mr. Esquemeling's account of these matters may be purchased, with a great deal else that is instructive and entertaining, in "The History of the Buccaneers in America." My edition (of 1810) is a dumpy little book, in very small type, and quite a crowd of publishers took part in the venture. The older editions are difficult to procure if your pockets are not stuffed with pieces-of- eight. You do not often find even this volume, but "when found make a note of," and you have a reply to Canon Kingsley.

A charitable old Scotch lady, who heard our ghostly foe evil spoken of, remarked that, "If we were all as diligent and conscientious as the Devil, it would be better for us." Now, the buccaneers were certainly models of diligence and conscientiousness in their own industry, which was to torture people till they gave up their goods, and then to run them through the body, and spend the spoils over drink and dice. Except Dampier, who was a clever man, but a poor buccaneer (Mr. Clark Russell has written his life), they were the most hideously ruthless miscreants that ever disgraced the earth and the sea. But their courage and endurance were no less notable than their greed and cruelty, so that a moral can be squeezed even out of these abandoned miscreants. The soldiers and sailors who made their way within gunshot of Khartoum, overcoming thirst, hunger, heat, the desert, and the gallant children of the desert, did not fight, march, and suffer more bravely than the scoundrels who sacked Mairaibo and burned Panama. Their good qualities were no less astounding and exemplary than their almost incredible wickedness. They did not lie about in hammocks much, listening to the landward wind among the woods--the true buccaneers. To tell the truth, most of them had no particular cause to love the human species. They were often Europeans who had been sold into slavery on the West Indian plantations, where they learned lessons of cruelty by suffering it. Thus Mr. Joseph Esquemeling, our historian, was beaten, tortured, and nearly starved to death in Tortuga, "so I determined, not knowing how to get any living, to enter into the order of the pirates or robbers of the sea." The poor Indians of the isles, much pitied by Kingsley's buccaneer, had a habit of sticking their prisoners all over with thorns, wrapped in oily cotton, whereto they then set fire. "These cruelties many Christians have seen while they lived among these barbarians." Mr. Esquemeling was to see, and inflict, plenty of this kind of torment, which was not out of the way nor unusual. One planter alone had killed over a hundred of his servants--"the English did the same with theirs."

A buccaneer voyage began in stealing a ship, collecting desperadoes, and torturing the local herdsmen till they gave up their masters' flocks, which were salted as provisions. Articles of service were then drawn up, on the principle "no prey, no pay." The spoils, when taken, were loyally divided as a rule, though Captain Morgan, of Wales, made no more scruple about robbing his crew than about barbecuing a Spanish priest. "They are very civil and charitable to each other, so that if any one wants what another has, with great willingness they give it to one another." In other matters they did not in the least resemble the early Christians. A fellow nick-named The Portuguese may be taken as our first example of their commendable qualities.

With a small ship of four guns he had taken a great one of twenty guns, with 70,000 pieces-of-eight . . . He himself, however, was presently captured by a larger vessel, and imprisoned on board. Being carelessly watched, he escaped on two earthen jars (for he could not swim), reached the woods in Campechy, and walked for a hundred and twenty miles through the bush. His only food was a few shell-fish, and by way of a knife he had a large nail, which he whetted to an edge on a stone. Having made a kind of raft, he struck a river, and paddled to Golpho Triste, where he found congenial pirates. With twenty of these, and a boat, he returned to Campechy, where he had been a prisoner, and actually captured the large ship in which he had lain captive! Bad luck pursued him, however: his prize was lost in a storm; he reached Jamaica in a canoe, and never afterwards was concerned as leader in any affair of distinction. Not even Odysseus had more resource, nor was more long-enduring; but Fortune was The Portuguese's foe.

Braziliano, another buccaneer, served as a pirate before the mast, and "was beloved and respected by all." Being raised to command, he took a plate ship; but this success was of indifferent service to his otherwise amiable character. "He would often appear foolish and brutish when in drink," and has been known to roast Spaniards alive on wooden spits "for not showing him hog yards where he might steal swine." One can hardly suppose that Kingsley would have regretted THIS buccaneer, even if he had been the last, which unluckily he was not. His habit of sitting in the street beside a barrel of beer, and shooting all passers-by who would not drink with him, provoked remark, and was an act detestable to all friends of temperance principles.

Francois L'Olonnois, from southern France, had been kidnapped, and sold as a slave in the Caribbee Islands. Recovering his freedom, he plundered the Spanish, says my buccaneer author, "till his unfortunate death." With two canoes he captured a ship which had been sent after him, carrying ten guns and a hangman for his express benefit. This hangman, much to the fellow's chagrin, L'Olonnois put to death like the rest of his prisoners. His great achievements were in the Gulf of Venezuela or Bay of Maracaibo. The gulf is a strong place; the mouth, no wider than a gun-shot, is guarded by two islands. Far up the inlet is Maracaibo, a town of three thousand people, fortified and surrounded by woods. Yet farther up is the town of Gibraltar. To attack these was a desperate enterprise; but L'Olonnois stole past the forts, and frightened the townsfolk into the woods. As a rule the Spaniards made the poorest resistance; there were examples of courage, but none of conduct. With strong forts, heavy guns, many men, provisions, and ammunition, they quailed before the desperate valour of the pirates. The towns were sacked, the fugitives hunted out in the woods, and the most abominable tortures were applied to make them betray their friends and reveal their treasures. When they were silent, or had no treasures to declare, they were hacked, twisted, burned, and starved to death.

Such were the manners of L'Olonnois; and Captain Morgan, of Wales, was even more ruthless.

Gibraltar was well fortified and strengthened after Maracaibo fell; new batteries were raised, the way through the woods was barricaded, and no fewer than eight hundred men were under arms to resist a small pirate force, exhausted by debauch, and having its retreat cut off by the forts at the mouth of the great salt-water loch. But L'Olonnois did not blench: he told the men that audacity was their one hope, also that he would pistol the first who gave ground. The men cheered enthusiastically, and a party of three hundred and fifty landed. The barricaded way they could not force, and in a newly cut path they met a strong battery which fired grape. But L'Olonnois was invincible. He tried that old trick which rarely fails, a sham retreat, and this lured the Spaniards from their earthwork on the path. The pirates then turned, sword in hand, slew two hundred of the enemy, and captured eight guns. The town yielded, the people fled to the woods, and then began the wonted sport of torturing the prisoners. Maracaibo they ransomed afresh, obtained a pilot, passed the forts with ease, and returned after sacking a small province. On a dividend being declared, they parted 260,000 pieces-of-eight among the band, and spent the pillage in a revel of three weeks.

L'Olonnois "got great repute" by this conduct, but I rejoice to add that in a raid on Nicaragua he "miserably perished," and met what Mr. Esquemeling calls "his unfortunate death." For L'Olonnois was really an ungentlemanly character. He would hack a Spaniard to pieces, tear out his heart, and "gnaw it with his teeth like a ravenous wolf, saying to the rest, 'I will serve you all alike if you show me not another way'" (to a town which he designed attacking). In Nicaragua he was taken by the Indians, who, being entirely on the Spanish side, tore him to pieces and burned him. Thus we really must not be deluded by the professions of Mr. Kingsley's sentimental buccaneer, with his pity for "the Indian folk of old."

Except Denis Scott, a worthy bandit in his day, Captain Henry Morgan is the first renowned British buccaneer. He was a young Welshman, who, after having been sold as a slave in Barbadoes, became a sailor of fortune. With about four hundred men he assailed Puerto Bello. "If our number is small," he said, "our hearts are great," and so he assailed the third city and place of arms which Spain then possessed in the West Indies. The entrance of the harbour was protected by two strong castles, judged as "almost impregnable," while Morgan had no artillery of any avail against fortresses. Morgan had the luck to capture a Spanish soldier, whom he compelled to parley with the garrison of the castle. This he stormed and blew up, massacring all its defenders, while with its guns he disarmed the sister fortress. When all but defeated in a new assault, the sight of the English colours animated him afresh. He made the captive monks and nuns carry the scaling ladders; in this unwonted exploit the poor religious folk lost many of their numbers. The wall was mounted, the soldiers were defeated, though the Governor fought like a Spaniard of the old school, slew many pirates with his own hand, and pistolled some of his own men for cowardice. He died at his post, refusing quarter, and falling like a gentleman of Spain. Morgan, too, was not wanting in fortitude: he extorted 100,000 pieces-of- eight from the Governor of Panama, and sent him a pistol as a sample of the gun wherewith he took so great a city. He added that he would return and take this pistol out of Panama; nor was he less good than his word. In Cuba he divided 250,000 pieces-of-eight, and a great booty in other treasure. A few weeks saw it all in the hands of the tavern-keepers and women of the place.

Morgan's next performance was a new sack of Maracaibo, now much stronger than L'Olonnois had found it. After the most appalling cruelties, not fit to be told, he returned, passing the castles at the mouth of the port by an ingenious stratagem. Running boatload after boatload of men to the land side, he brought them back by stealth, leading the garrison to expect an attack from that quarter. The guns were massed to landward, and no sooner was this done than Morgan sailed up through the channel with but little loss. Why the Spaniards did not close the passage with a boom does not appear. Probably they were glad to be quit of Morgan on any terms.

A great Spanish fleet he routed by the ingenious employment of a fire-ship. In a later expedition a strong place was taken by a curious accident. One of the buccaneers was shot through the body with an arrow. He drew it out, wrapped it in cotton, fired it from his musket, and so set light to a roof and burned the town.

His raid on Panama was extraordinary for the endurance of his men. For days they lived on the leather of bottles and belts. "Some, who were never out of their mothers' kitchens, may ask how these pirates could eat and digest these pieces of leather, so hard and dry? Whom I answer--that could they once experience what hunger, or rather famine is, they would find the way, as the pirates did." It was at the close of this march that the Indians drove wild bulls among them; but they cared very little for these new allies of the Spaniards: beef, in any form, was only too welcome.

Morgan burned the fair cedar houses of Panama, but lost the plate ship with all the gold and silver out of the churches. How he tortured a poor wretch who chanced to wear a pair of taffety trousers belonging to his master, with a small silver key hanging out, it is better not to repeat. The men only got two hundred pieces-of-eight each, after all their toil, for their Welshman was indeed a thief, and bilked his crews, no less than he plundered the Spaniards, without remorse. Finally, he sneaked away from the fleet with a ship or two; and it is to be feared that Captain Morgan made rather a good thing by dint of his incredible cruelty and villainy.

And so we leave Mr. Esquemeling, whom Captain Morgan also deserted; for who would linger long when there is not even honour among thieves? Alluring as the pirate's profession is, we must not forget that it had a seamy side, and was by no means all rum and pieces-of- eight. And there is something repulsive to a generous nature in roasting men because they will not show you where to steal hogs.


Andrew Lang

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