Reprinted in full from the 2004 Rare Book Review magazine article.
Sara Waterson slices through the cut-throat stories from the earliest pirate books of the 17th century to the blockbuster movies of today
The success of the film Pirates of the Caribbean has been followed by the blockbuster Master and Commander based on the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian. This vogue for all things maritime led me to wonder what precisely was the distinction between a pirate ship and a privateer? During my research I uncovered a veritable treasure trove of books on this romantic subject, but the sheer wealth of writing is less astonishing given the importance in history of these buccaneers, whose exploits changed the course of wars and the fates of kingdoms and their economies.
As HA Ormerod demonstrated in Piracy in the Ancient World: An Essay in Mediterranean History (1924), piracy had been endemic in the Mediterranean since ancient times. The growth of trade and the constant warfare between classical city-states honed the skills that were the very stuff of piracy – looting, plundering, and taking prisoners for ransom or slavery. One man’s privateer is another man’s pirate, that much is clear.
The legal definition of a privateer is a privately owned armed vessel whose Captain holds a commission, known as ‘Letters of Marque’, to engage in armed naval warfare against enemy ships and especially to prey on their merchant fleets. The same acts, without such a commission, are deemed to be piracy. In practice, such distinctions were often blurred. Many a famous naval admiral or explorer, including Drake and Raleigh in England, the Frenchman Jean Bart, and De Ruyter and Dampier of the Netherlands, were essentially pirates at some stage of their illustrious careers.
Such buccaneering was not always a matter of choice. The fledgling American navy was forced during the Revolution to rely on freelancers to disrupt British shipping. Indeed, privateering was not expressly renounced by the United States until the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Our prevailing Treasure Island image of the pirate is based however on the corsair (or buccaneer, or filibuster) active in the West Indies in the late 17th century. This is unsurprising since the earliest first-hand account from which all others seem to spring was written by just such a one of these reluctant desperados. The story of Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin exemplifies just how easy it was for those who found themselves on the margins of society to fall into such a role.
The author was long considered to be a Dutchman, as the First Edition of his seminal book De Americaensche Zee-Roovers (‘The Buccaneers of America’) published in Amsterdam 1678 was in Dutch. But the historian LC Vrijman finally proved that Exquemelin was born in 1646, at the northern French port of Honfleur and was a descendent of Huguenot apothecaries. His detailed research, followed up by H. de la Fontaine Verwey, and then by Henri Pignet, now gives us a fairly clear view of the author’s eventful life.
Exquemelin spent six years studying surgery in Rouen and Paris but his lifelong ambition to be a naval surgeon was thwarted when Louis XIV issued a decree in 1666 forbidding Huguenots from practising. Therefore he signed on as an engagé (or ‘indentured servant’, possibly a surgeon’s mate) to the Compagnie des Isles d’Amerique, setting sail for Tortuga in the Saint Jean. Upon his arrival a year later, the Compagnie went bankrupt; so Exquemelin – or rather his contract – was sold to the ‘filibusters’.
He joined them as a ship’s surgeon, although as-yet still unqualified, and took part in the infamous raids on Maracaibo in 1669 and Panama 1670-71 under the command of Captain Henry Morgan, one of the most famous names in the annals of piracy.
Disgusted with Morgan’s cut-throat methods, Exquemelin jumped ship. Eventually he was transferred to a Dutch ship that took him to Amsterdam in January 1672. Still unable to take his Amsterdam Ship’s Surgeon’s exam (a necessary qualification for service in the fleets of the East India Company and of the Amsterdam Admiralty), Exquemelin once more set sail in search of a future, this time arriving in the Yucatan by way of Spain in 1673. With his surgical career stalling yet again, he joined the buccaneer flotilla of ‘Rock the Brazilian’ (in reality a Dutchman from Gröningen) in their retreat from a failed raid on the city of Merida.
With his surgical career stalling yet again, he joined the buccaneer flotilla of ‘Rock the Brazilian’ (in reality a Dutchman from Gröningen) in their retreat from a failed raid on the city of Merida. They sailed north to Jamaica, now a British colony, whose Governor was by now our old friend Henry Morgan. No doubt discomforted by this circumstance, Exquemelin found his way back to Amsterdam and by 1674 had joined the Dutch Navy. In 1767 he tried to join the British navy as Surgeon’s Mate for the second time; but after an interdict on foreign surgeons being made in Parliament that year, he again returned to Amsterdam; where at last he stayed long enough to be granted citizenship and to gain his qualification in October 1679.
During the previous two years he completed the manuscript of his experiences that were published by the Amsterdam printer and bookseller, Jan ten Hoorn. He also published the works of Hendrik Smeeks, once believed to be Exquemelin himself. Both publications were heavily edited by ten Hoorn, explaining the similarities of style. Indeed Exquemelin’s manuscript was probably written in French, and translated. This First 1678 Edition of De Americaensche Zee-Roovers is of the utmost rarity – the Dutch 19th century librarian and bibliophile F. Mulder knew of only three copies. Published in three parts, the author tells his own life story, and then describes in some detail the places he has visited. Part II contains the vivid accounts of the pirates’ life, rules and customs that have provided the basis of our knowledge of their dangerous world ever since. The third part recounts Morgan’s raid on Panama and its disastrous consequences. The appendices are probably not the author’s own work.
The book quickly took on a life of its own, with numerous editions appearing throughout Europe in the following years, many of them fittingly ‘pirated’, including the Second Edition of 1679, in German, published in Nuremburg under the title Die Americanischen See-Raüber. A Spanish Edition followed in 1681, titled Piratas de la America; this too was probably published in Amsterdam and not Germany as the title-page claims; the Dutch and Spanish were frequently at war at this time.
The translator, credited as Alonzo de Buena-Maison, has been shown by Vrijman to be Exquemelin’s housemate and fellow surgeon, a Marrano or Christianized Jew who had fled the Inquisition in southern Spain. In spite of a certain bias against Spain in the book as a whole, it was nevertheless reprinted there every few years until 1793. A Spanish Marquess later claimed to have had Buena-Maison and Exquemelin expelled from Amsterdam for their insults to his country. Whatever the truth of this, the two did set sail in 1681 aboard the ‘San Jeroboam’ bound for Jamaica. Exquemelin set up as a surgeon on San Domingo in the Spanish West Indies. This proved uncongenial however. Before long he made contact with the French Vice-Admiral Jean d’Estrès, and was granted the post of surgeon in the flagship, returning to Brest with the squadron in 1684 after 18 years’ wanderings.
It seems the author had kept his original manuscript throughout all these vicissitudes that was published by the Paris printing house of Jacques le Febvre in a First French Edition in 1686, titled Histoire des Avonturiers qui se sont signalez dans les Indes. It is marginally less rare than the Dutch one, and being produced in two volumes it contains much additional material, especially botanical descriptions. Roelof Mulder notes too, that by Exquemelin’s own admission he was frequently in a port when the filibusters attacked: could he, Mulder suggests, have been a spy? And could he then not have been a prototype for Patrick O’Brian’s famous creation, Stephen Maturin: naval surgeon, natural scientist, and informant?
When Exquemelin returned to France in 1687 to find his book a roaring success, he brought out a Second Edition; but by 1697 he was taking part in a French attack on Cartageña in Columbia. Accepted in his native land at last, Exquemelin spent his final years recording all his experiences since 1678, and these became the Third French Edition of his book, published in 1699 as Histoire des Avanturiers Flibustiers in which he added further pen portraits of his confrères to his rogues’ gallery. Still later editions contain material not by Exquemelin, including Raveneau de Lussan’s tales of his Pacific buccaneers, in which the Scot Alexander Selkirk who is generally regarded as the model for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is first mentioned. Although Exquemelin vanishes from the records after 1707, his book remained a bestseller in France, growing to four volumes over new editions in the years 1744, 1774 and 1775 (Paris and Lyon).
The First English Edition – aptly published by one William Crook –appeared in 1684 under the title Bucaniers of America: Or, a True Account of the Most Remarkable Assaults Committed of late Years upon the Coasts of The West-Indies… with a heavy emphasis on the ‘unparallel’d Exploits of Sir Henry Morgan, our English Jamaican Hero’. The book was a runaway bestseller and the Second Edition came out within three months, with added chapters on the English buccaneers Cook and Sharp. Thomas Malthus joined in with The History of the Buccaniers, an abridged translation straight from Dutch, but with the critical chapters on Morgan transformed into a panegyric. The reformed Morgan objected however to such attention, and sued his fellow ex-pirate and both publishers for libel; incidentally the first ever such successful lawsuit against a book. Crook, having been let off for an apology to Morgan, published on the heels of the verdict in 1685 The South Seas Waggoner, Basil Ringrose’s journal of his buccaneering exploits in the Pacific, in which Crook amusingly observes that Exquemelin’s only libel was to have cast doubt on Morgan’s birth as a member of the gentry.
After Morgan’s death in 1688, editions came thick and fast, altering as further accounts became known. By the 1690s a four-volume edition by Newborough was current, which now became the template and was even translated by ten Hoorn, the original publisher, back into Dutch for his 1700 reissue. It is known that Daniel Defoe had a copy of Newborough’s edition, and he was long credited as the author of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most Notorious Pyrates ascribed to a ‘Captain Charles Johnson’, brought out in 1724 by Charles Rivington of London. This attribution is now discounted, although Defoe did write of piracy in Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, and prompted by this success followed with The King of Pirates, being an Account of the famous Enterprises of Captain Avery… and The Life, Adventures and Pyracies of the famous Captain Singleton, both in 1719.
The elusive Captain Johnson’s book published in 1728 and 1728 combined historic fact with romanticised fiction, such luminaries of pirate folklore as Captains Avery, Kidd and Tew, Black Sam Bellamy, and the female filibusters Mary Read and Anne Bonny, rubbing shoulders with imaginary villains like Mission and Cornelius.
Once more the work captured the imagination of a new public, and spawned offspring that have themselves become classics. Foremost among these is the American illustrator Howard Pyle’s The Buccaneers and Marooners of America. Being an Account of the Famous Adventures and Daring Deeds of Certain Freebooters of the Spanish Main, a combination of Exquemelin and Johnson, with Pyle’s illustrations for the First 1890 Edition fixing our images of these cut-throats forever in our imagination.