by Bullet Valmont
Being a true Account of Adventure, Avarice, Inquisition, Evisceration and Peril on the Spanish Main. Of desperate Men on Blood-dimmed Shores, the Lure of Gold and the Spoils of Whores. Savage Cannibals, epic Crossings, Brutality, Honor and heroic Resolve. The first of the great Caribbean Pirates, whose Life was a dread Portent of the wild Age to come...
1. Rise of the Buccaneer
The first Caribbean pirate to achieve widespread infamy came from a port town on the Atlantic coast of France called Les Sables d'Ollone, and the name history bestowed on him was inspired by that place; Francois L'Ollonais.
He arrived in the Caribbean as a youth and was indentured for several years, probably on the island of Martinique. Once freed, he made his way to Hispaniola where he hunted the wild beasts of that island among the buccaneers. The Spanish sought to purge the buccaneers through constant raids and harassment and it's likely they routed L'Ollonais from there, for he soon afterward began his robberies of their vessels and demonstrated a singular hatred for them.
The isle of Tortuga is to the north of western Hispaniola. Its only port is on the south side at a town called Cayona, a haven for the buccaneers, which is rampant with taverns and strumpets. Hunters and pirates congregated there to sell or trade what goods they'd earned or stolen and to squander what wealth they had on debaucherous pursuits. A French Governor, Monsieur de la Place, oversaw the island, welcoming and profiting by its godless and criminal activity.
After only a few voyages L'Ollonais' courage and ferocity had so distinguished him that Governor de la Place gave him a ship of his own, thus beginning the most sanguinary career in all the history of piracy. It may appear odd for a pirate to be given a ship rather than to steal one, but L'Ollonais seems to have made a binding pact with the Governor in that L'Ollonais trusted him to receive and unlade captured vessels, let him make first bid on plunder, and maintained Tortuga as a base for planning, preparing and recruiting for his voyages, always returning to it as a home port.
L'Ollonais was a successful investment for the Governor, returning often and with great plunder. But it was his extreme cruelties against the Spaniards which grew his legend and made him feared. Before long, the Spanish vessels he attacked would choose to sink or die fighting rather than surrender, for they had heard of the grievous tortures he would inflict on them. It is said that most pirates would rather a victim surrender than risk a bloody conflict but L'Ollonais seemed to live for the fight and for the slaughter, as though some dismal hunger his soul could be slaked only by the blood of Spain.
Yet his cruelty was equaled by his fearless resolve, and even the harshest of misfortunes only urged him to greater triumphs.
2. Resurrection and Vengeance
In the year of 1666 a storm wrecked his ship upon the coast of Campeche. The men all survived this tragedy but as they came upon dry land they were immediately ambushed and pursued by Spaniards and most of them killed. L'Ollonais, although injured, was able to escape capture by smearing sand over himself, which stuck to the blood of his wounds, and laying himself among the dead causing the Spaniards to mistake him for a corpse. They took their leave, making prisoners of the few remaining pirates.
Binding his wounds as best he could, L'Ollonais made his way on foot through the jungle to the city of Campeche. The Spaniards had meantime cast his surviving crew into a dungeon and upon asking them what had become of their Captain were told repeatedly that: "He is dead." This news caused much celebration in the town and as word passed through the Spanish Main the populace rejoiced that the "debtor of so much innocent blood" was at last killed.
But by this time L'Ollonais was in the town itself, moving among them disguised in Spanish habit. He allied himself with several slaves whom he promised their liberty if they would only trust and follow him. These slaves helped him steal a canoe from one of their masters which they rowed out to sea. Eventually, after stealing a second vessel, L'Ollonais sailed toward the fishing village of De Los Cayos, on the south of Cuba, where he hoped to find prey.
A fishing boat, escaping him, brought word to the governor in Havana that L'Ollonais had come to destroy them in two canoes. The governor had already heard of L'Ollonais death yet nonetheless sent a ship of ten cannon and 90 men, as well; one negro to serve as executioner, with the instructions to capture and immediately hang every one of the pirates except their captain, L'Ollonais, who should be brought back to Havana alive. Further; they were not to return at all until the pirates were totally destroyed.
This ship arrived at Cayos but L'Ollonais had been forewarned of it's coming and hid out in the River Estera where he captured some fishermen and forced them to show him to the harbor where the ship rode at anchor. Arriving by night very near to the ship, the watch mistook the buccaneers for fishermen and hailed them to ask if they'd seen any pirates, to which they answered that they had seen no pirates nor anything else. This succeeded to persuade the ship that the pirates had fled at hearing of their coming.
But through the night L'Ollonais maneuvered his canoes to either side of the ship and just before daybreak began his assault from both sides. The Spaniards fought back well with sword and pistol but the pirates, though outnumbered, attacked relentlessly and succeeded in beating them down under the hatches until, at sword's point, they surrendered.
L'Ollonais had the Spaniards each brought up in turn, their heads cut off and then cast into the river until its current flowed red in apt portent of his future. When the negro hangman was brought up he pleaded quarter passionately, promising to tell L'Ollonais anything he wished to know about the Spaniards' activities against pirates in return for his own life being spared.
L'Ollonais questioned him for all he could learn then ordered his head cut off as with the rest. The entire ship's company were murdered excepting one man who was let live and sent back to Havana with L'Ollonais' written message for the Governor; "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 on those you sent against me..."
Having thus acquired a new ship equal to the one he'd lost at Campeche, L'Ollonais cruised for a while finding no prey and soon suffered a dearth of provisions. He made the desperate gambit of entering the port of Maracaibo wherein he was able to steal a vessel heavy laden with plate and other goods. He sailed thence directly to Tortuga, arriving to much exaltation among the pirates and celebrated for evading the Spanish and then returning "from the dead" with a new ship and vast plunder. He was now the most famous and feared pirate captain in the new world yet his exploits of legend were still before him.
3. Clarion of Gold
At Tortuga, L'Ollonais began assembling a fleet and announced his intention to raid towns and fishing villages in the Spanish dominions and return to Maracaibo to pillage the entire city. His reputation at this time was enough to lure many to his cause; sailors and fighters, destitute and desperate men, rogues of petty greed who looked no further than their next vice's slaking, and dreamers of majestic avarice who saw glory and fortunes to be made. Whatever miscreant aspiration compelled them, they saw in L'Ollonais the vessel of it's deliverance and, on faith, they followed him.
Among the few whose names are known was a retired pirate called Micheal deBasco, who had achieved great wealth already. He had no more need of returning to sea but L'Ollonais scheme and the promise of it's success roused him to offer his service, assuring L'Ollonais that he possessed invaluable knowledge of the area of their targets. L'Ollonais accepted his offer and they had in a very short time more than 400 men enlisted for the voyage.
4. The Voyage of Avarice
Late in April, 1667, they embarked from Tortuga in eight vessels, stopping first at Bayala on the north side of Hispaniola, where they armed and victualed for the voyage, and recruited many of the hunters to join them. Resuming on the last day of July, they encountered a Spanish ship of 16 guns which L'Ollonais decided to take himself, sending the rest of the fleet to the isle of Savona where he intended to rendezvous with them afterward. To his surprise, the Spaniards (apparently aware of who stalked them) chose to fight. This battle lasted three hours after which the pirates boarded. We can only speculate what miserable agonies those Spaniards died by. The ship was found laden with 40,000 pieces of eight, 10,000 more worth of jewels, and a cargo of coconuts and cacao. L'Ollonais sent it back to Tortuga that the spoils could be unloaded and gave orders that it should return posthaste to join the fleet at Savona.
The others, on arriving at Savona, captured yet another Spanish vessel, this one bound for Hispaniola carrying payroll for the garrisons and military provisions of powder and muskets. L'Ollonais took one of the prize ships for himself, giving command of his original vessel to a buccaneer named Antony du Puis. The fleet then set off toward the Gulf of Venezuela, almost directly south of them. The pirates were greatly emboldened by their early successes yet many would perish by land and sea, by cutlass or cannon before they attained their objective.
5. The Fortress on the Strait of Blood
The Lake of Maracaibo is a mix of fresh and salt waters, being fed by 25 rivers as well as the Gulf sea. The entrance from the Gulf is protected by a long, narrow island which stretches most of it's distance, leaving only thin passages on either side. Too shallow on the east to admit large vessels, incoming ships have to navigate a strait on the other side just over two fathoms deep, perilous with sandbars, and guarded on the west by a castle fortress called De la Barra, standing on the high ground of the mainland, requiring ships to steer within range of it's guns in order to enter the lake.
The flotilla dropped anchor a league from De la Barra and went ashore, intending to advance over land and take the fortress by surprise. But their landing had been discovered and a detachment was sent to ambush them from behind and drive them toward a battery of cannon which would fire on them from the front. This trap was detected by the pirates and they slaughtered most of those Spaniards, routing the rest, who fled inland. Rushing thence to engage the defenders, the pirates armed only with pistols and cutlass faced 16 cannon as well as riflemen protected by ramparts. Yet, following a valiant, frenzied offensive which lasted several hours, the walls, at length, were breached and the fortress taken. This accomplished, they signaled the fleet that it was safe to pass.
Thru the day the fort was looted, its guns nailed, its flammable contents burned. The dead were buried and the wounded carried aboard ships. Entering the lake at sunrise, the fleet was thwarted by a dearth of wind hence didn't reach Maracaibo until the following morning.
The city of Maracaibo, comprised of about 4000 inhabitants, is on the west side of the lake, about six leagues south of de la Barra. It's exports being mostly tobacco and the flesh and hides of cattle. Boats are built in it's port from local timber and plantations surround it deep into the country. Across the lake and further south is the much smaller town of Gibraltar which produces sugar, oranges, lemons and cacao nuts that it trades with Maracaibo in exchange for flesh.
Those few soldiers who had survived their attempted ambush on the pirates, being unable to return to the fort, had retreated to Maracaibo and raised the alarm that de la Barra had been overcome and "Pyrates will presently be here with two-thousand men..." greatly inflating the number and inciting a panic. The citizens began immediately to vacate the town, withdrawing inland or fleeing in boats and canoes, taking all they could carry of their money and possessions.
Anticipating an ambush, the pirates went ashore via canoes with the ships cannon firing on the town to give them cover. But there was nobody firing back at them and they found the city deserted of people. Food and liquors were abundant, however, and discovering most of the homes well stocked they moved in and commenced to indulgence, a welcome respite after four weeks at sea.
6. Execution Marks the Spot
Despite what you've heard from revisionist historians, (you know; those pedantic killjoys who live only to piss on every last element of history's romantic awesomeness?) the burying of treasure is not a myth invented by R.L. Stevenson but was indeed a common practice in the pirating days of old. Citizens of a town, in expectation of their homes being looted, would often attempt to conceal any valuable thing they couldn't carry off with them upon fleeing. Yes, even to the point of burying said valuable things in the ground. Pirates would thus have to search for and dig up these treasures. Maps to such burial sites were probably rare, so their locations would have to be extracted by either threat or torture.
In the case of L'Ollonais at Maricaibo, 160 pirates were sent into the woods to bring back the fleeing townsfolk and captured 20 prisoners of men, women, and children. Several of these were stretched on a rack to make them divulge the hiding places of their possessions. L'Ollonais, not satisfied with the forthcoming information, drew his cutlass and hacked to pieces one of his prisoners in full view of the rest, declaring to them: "If you do not confess where you have hidden the rest of your goods, I will do alike to all your companions." Tongues were cut out and eyes removed and many an innocent suffered agonizing death, all over buried treasure. Try telling those poor souls that it was only a myth.
7. "Have a Good Courage..."
The pirates stayed fifteen days in Maracaibo -long enough to drink the town dry of it's liquor- before crossing the lake to Gibraltar. But the Governor there was an experienced military man who had resolved to fight back and "to exterminate" the pirates. On being warned of their coming he brought 400 armed men into Gibraltar from the surrounding area and ordered the inhabitants of the town to arm themselves, thus achieving a force of 800 men. He mounted a battery of 20 cannon toward the lake, as well another eight at a different location then barricaded the road in case the pirates should try to enter by land.
L'Ollonais sailed for the town and only upon sighting their flag realized he would have to fight for it. It would be a hard battle, for only about 380 pirates had reached Gibraltar so they were facing more than twice their own number and the Spaniards had spent two weeks in preparing for them. L'Ollonais called his officers to council and acknowledged the direness of their situation then, redolent of Shakespeare's Saint Crispin's Day speech, he asserted: "Notwithstanding, we must either defend ourselves like good soldiers, or lose our lives with all the riches we have gotten. Do as I shall do, who am your Captain. At other times we have fought with fewer men than we have in our company at present, and yet we have overcome greater numbers than there possibly can be in this town. The more they are, the more glory we shall attribute unto our fortune, and the greater riches we shall increase unto it."
The pirates, believing any wealth the Maracaibans escaped with had been brought into Gibraltar, promised to follow L'Ollonais without question. To this, he answered: "'Tis well; but know ye withal that the first man who shall show any fear, or the least apprehension thereof, I will pistol him with my own hands."
Dropping anchor nigh the town, they shook hands among themselves and swore resolve to one another and L'Ollonais commanded: "Come, my brothers, follow me, and have a good courage."
8. Taking Gibraltar
At sunrise the pirates marched on the town until their guide led them into the barricade which they could not pass. Taking another path they were ambushed by Spaniards, who fired so furiously that neither side could hear nor see through the smoke. Following this, they cut their way through dense jungle and into the clearing of the town where they came upon a battery of six cannon which immediately fired. Bullets, glass fragments, and small jagged pieces of metal grievously maimed and killed many of them causing the rest to fall back into the woods. Protected by their barricades, the Spaniards continued firing. The pirates held their ground but were unable to advance any further.
L'Ollonais at this point made a great show of retreating still further with all his men, thus encouraging the Spaniards to come over their barricades and pursue him into the woods. After having drawn them some distance from the town, the pirates turned suddenly and engaged, killing more than 200 Spaniards, fighting their way back into the town and taking control of the guns. The other battery, of eight cannon, surrendered on promise of quarter for their lives. L'Ollonais took prisoners of all that remained in the town -about 150 Spanish and hundreds of slaves- holding them in the church. The next day, discovering more than 500 Spaniards had been killed, the prisoners were made to load the dead onto two boats which were floated out into the lake and sank. Within a couple weeks most of the prisoners, who were allowed only the flesh of a few mules for sustenance, would also be dead; from hunger. Of the pirates only 40 were killed, though scores died afterward of injuries and fever.
9. "..or Your City Shall be Burnt into Ash."
L'Ollonais' men took all that was left in the town, including pigs, cows, sheep and chickens, some plate and household goods. Yet finding not the riches they had hoped for they began to torture the prisoners to reveal where their valuables were hid. Many suffered brutal deaths for denying what they knew or for not knowing enough. Four of the prisoners were sent into the woods to find where the townsfolk were hiding and demand from them a ransom, the pirates threatening to burn the town unless 10,000 pieces of eight were collected within two days. This not being delivered in time, several buildings were set alight convincing the scattered citizenry to cough up the requested amount.
L'Ollonais returned thence to Maracaibo and informed the governor that for 30,000 pieces of eight he would refrain from burning his entire city to the ground. This was negotiated to 20,000 pieces of eight and 500 cows, as well a competent pilot to steer one of the ships back through the precarious banks at the entrance to the lake.
After two months of terror and privation the town rejoiced at last upon watching the pirates depart.
10. The Tavern's Toll and the Spoils of Whores
Returning to Hispaniola, the take was counted at 260,000 pieces of eight in cash, as well as other valuables. After payments to the maimed or otherwise wounded, the division amounted to more than 100 pieces of eight to each pirate, paid out in cash and other commodities. The value of jewels and uncoined plate could only be guessed at, and shares due the dead were entrusted to their friends for delivery to heirs or relatives.
Their spoils divided, they made quick crossing to Tortuga where the town received them anxiously and L'Ollonais was applauded as a hero. The Governor purchased their entire cargo of cacao for a twentieth of it's actual value. Upon beholding the pirates' largess, the taverns greatly increased their prices on every form of liquor while merchants and strumpets plied their offerings to the drunken and profligate buccaneers, relieving them of their hard-gained fortune in much less time than it had taken them to steal it. Thus it was a very few weeks before squalor compelled their return to the sea.
11. The Final Voyage
By the time word spread that L'Ollonais intended another expedition wherein he devised to make for Nicaragua to despoil the costal towns, his reputation was so great he had no trouble assembling a crew. His flotilla included 300 men on his own ship and 400 on five others. The ports they meant to prey upon having not the depth to accommodate large vessels, they sailed first to the south side of Cuba where they robbed as many of the local fisherman as they met of as many canoes as could be taken, much to the despair and ruin of the fishermen. From there they made for a cape called Gracias a' Dios at the northern part of Nicaragua.
Whether fickle fortune simply turned her back on him or Nemesis took notice of his deeds at last, matters not. Only that Destiny can be yet as cruel as men themselves. Indeed, nigh as cruel as even L'Ollonais.
Finding themselves on a stagnant sea, the fleet were pushed by waves and current into the Gulf of Honduras wherein the lacking of winds opposed all struggles to regain their course. By the time they were delivered from these doldrums they were in such need of victuals they resolved to put to the first port for provisions. Entering the river Xagua in canoes, they robbed the local Indians of pigs, hens, and millet grain. Remaining until the weather turned, they then commenced to plunder several coastal villages yet found only enough to sustain themselves on. Eventually they came to a Spanish port called Cavallo, where was docked a vessel of 24 cannon and 16 swivel-guns which they were able to capture.
Burning every structure in the port, they tortured and murdered all but two whom they kept to show them a path to the town of St. Pedro, 12 leagues inland, which they designed to plunder. Leaving Moses van Vin in command of several men at the port, L'Ollonais marched toward this town with 300 pirates. Shortly along the way they were ambushed by Spaniards who killed many of them in a fierce fight before the pirates chased them off, taking prisoners of those who had been wounded and left behind. L'Ollonais killed these until a few remained whom he asked if there were any more Spaniards waiting along the road to ambush them. Being informed that there were, he asked if there was another route into the town and on being told there was none he became enraged. He drew his cutlass and opened the breast of one of them and thrusting his hands into the wound, pulled forth the man's heart and bit into it, rending, with his heretical teeth, like a voracious beast then, holding it aloft that the others could see, pushed it into the mouth of another prisoner and, blood spraying from his lips, declared: "I will serve you all alike if you show me not another way!"
At once, each of the prisoners confessed that they could show him another way. Yet, for their efforts to find one, there was no other route that suited the pirates and they returned to the road, resolved to face the ambuscades they knew awaited them. L'Ollonias, in his outrage proclaimed: "Mort Dieu, les Espagnols me le payeront!" ("By God's death, the Spaniards shall pay me for this!")
Twice more they were ambushed and each attack stronger than the previous, yet the pirates, spurred by the hateful fury of L'Ollonais, repelled their adversaries by sword, pistol and grenade until most of the town's defenders had been killed or injured before the pirates had even arrived there.
Finding their path barricaded and the town surrounded by a thick and very thorny shrub called raqueltes, which was nigh impassable, and several cannon behind that which began at once to fire on them, the pirates were discouraged for a moment. But taking cover from the fusillade they waited patiently for moments at which they could advance and, by degrees, moved forward hurling grenades that killed many inside the town, finally coming close enough to shoot at them with precision before, at last, charging in and engaging by sword.
Both sides fighting valiantly, the conflict lasted until night when the Spaniards surrendered on condition that the citizens be given quarter for two hours. L'Ollonais agreed to this and the pirates entered yet caused no hostility though aware the inhabitants would use that time to vacate the town with as much wealth and possessions as they could carry away with them. As soon as the hours had passed, L'Ollonais ordered that all of them should be followed and brought back along with what they had taken away. But though making prisoners of most the pirates found but very few of their possessions and this situation incited L'Ollonais, resulting in several days of torturing and murders and the entire town being burnt to ashes before the pirates moved out.
Arriving back at the port they resolved to sail for the islands on the far side of the gulf to careen the vessels, as well to victual themselves with the tortoises which were plentiful in that area. Leaving behind two canoes to bring them word of an incoming ship which was expected from Spain. Returning thence, they attacked the vessel as it lay at anchor but having discerned pirates approaching, the Spaniards were prepared to fight and managed to repulse them until, through the smoke and disorder of battle, L'Ollonais sent four small canoes to board the ship from either side and compel the Spaniards to surrender.
12. Dissent and Separation
Besides the ship itself which was armed by 42 cannon, the pirates found only a negligible prize as it had already been unladen. Vexed by their situation, L'Ollonais called a council. He informed the others of his intention to sail for Guatemala but there was no consensus among the company this time, many of whom were by now disillusioned of their faith in him to bring about success. Moses Vanclein, who now captained the ship taken at Puerto Cavallo, was the first to secede, joined soon by Pierre le Picard and anon by most of the others, all intending to return whence they came and take what they could along the way rather than face further perils such as those already experienced. Yet L'Ollonais had his loyalists; those who preferred starvation or shipwreck over returning in penurious failure. So it was that the fleet split up, with L'Ollonais keeping the largest of the vessels while most of the others departed for Coasta Rica which they pillaged.
13. Probity/Mercy < Nemesis/Fate
His fleet having left him to scatter their separate ways, L'Ollonais remained in the Gulf of Honduras as the shallow draft prevented his heavier ship from sailing out. Their provisions soon became so depleted the pirates had to go ashore daily and hunt animals, including monkeys, to sustain themselves.
At last they came to a group of small islands called De las Pertas where the ship stuck upon a sandbank and, despite unlading it of all their cannon and heavy objects, could not be floated free. In their desperation they broke apart the vessel and from it's planks and parts intended to construct themselves a new boat. As this proceeded, two of the pirates, foraging in the woods, encountered and were pursued by cannibals, one of them being captured. Twelve pirates searched for the man, finding only the remains of a fire where his bones had been roasted, some pieces of his skin, and a hand with two fingers still attached.
After a pursuit, several of the cannibals were captured and brought back to the pirates' camp. In drastic contrast to his treatment of Spanish captives, L'Ollonais did not murder or torture these savages but rather sought to communicate with them, perhaps to learn something from them of the area wherein they were marooned. But the natives were unresponsive to inquiry and after a few days were released, at which occasion they bolted into the jungle and the pirates saw no more of them.
The longboat took six months to complete and was too small to carry all of them. They drew lots to determine who would stay, the rest setting out toward the river of Nicaragua intending to capture some canoes and return with them to rescue the remaining men. Upon arriving at the river, however, the pirates were attacked by both Spaniards and Indians who killed most of them, the survivors escaping with much injury. L'Ollonais, in evidence of his probity, resolved not to return to De las Pertas until he had stolen the boats he needed. Cruising further south along the coast of Cartagena, he landed in Darien, which was populated by a wild and savage tribe, and captured. L'Ollonais and his crew were slain, their limbs being torn from their bodies and cast into a fire. The flames consuming his flesh in apt portent of the fate to which his immortal soul was destined.
At least one, perhaps only one, of L'Ollonais crew escaped this fate and through much adversity was delivered to give account of the horrors he had witnessed.
14. The Blood Tide's Ebb
Many books on piracy assert that L'Ollonais real name was Jean David Nau. So far, I've yet to locate one that provides a source for that claim.
A few years after L'Ollonais departure, Maracaibo and Gibraltar were raided by Henry Morgan. This time Gibraltar was laid so to waste and devastation that it disappeared from maps of the region for the next century afterward.
The fortress which guards the Lake of Maricaibo (called "de la Barra" by Esquemeling), is Fort San Carlos de la Barra. Though the site of many battles over three centuries, including a bombardment by two vessels of the German navy in 1903, much of it still stands today.
Those of L'Ollonais crew who remained stranded at De las Pertas were rescued after several months by a passing pirate ship and joined it's crew in a failed raid on the city of Cartagena. Fleeing through the jungle, starving, and compelled to eat their own shoes and scabbards, the greater part of them perished in piteous misery.
Les Sables d'Olonne, a fishing port with a population of around 14,000 in the 17th century, is only slightly larger today. L'Ollonais remains it's most famous offspring.