François l’Olonnais – a French freebooter

Since I used the name Freebooters for this site, I owe you at least one French pirate story. Here it is.

If you check the website for the Biscay resort town of Les Sables d’Olonne, you will learn that the port is the starting and finishing point for the Vendée Globe – a single-handed, non-stop, no-outside-assistance round the world sailing race.

You will also learn about its history as a port: its creation in 1218 as a replacement for the irretrievably silted-up Talmont, its promotion to France’s main seaport around the time of Columbus, its heady days as a whaling and cod-fishing port, its decline during the Napoleonic wars, and its reincarnation as a resort full of bathing machines in the 19th century.

François l’Olonnais

You will not learn about the man who made its name notorious, François Naud. His origins seem uncertain, and some say his real name was Sean David Naud, but he was known as François l’Olonnais (Francois of Olonne).

Born in France, he was sent to Martinique as an indentured servant while still a child. Once he had served his time, he joined the buccaneers on the island of Hispaniola (now known as Haiti). This motley collection of international refugees included other indentured servants as well as escaped slaves and transported criminals, and their name comes from the Caribbean French patois boucan, originally the name for the fire pit and grating over which meat and fish were smoked, but later used for the strips of smoked flesh from the wild cattle the boucaniers hunted for much of their food.

L’Olonnais signed on as a seaman, but soon his courage caught the attention of de la Place, the governor of the island of Tortuga, who provided him with a ship and sent him out to seek his fortune. Although many of them were expert seamen, the buccaneers’ notorious exploits generally took place on land. In practice, sea battles were less likely to bring rich rewards.

At first, the young Olonnais was very successful, capturing or robbing several Spanish ships and returning with rich booty. However, he rapidly gained a reputation for cruelty towards his prisoners that was exceptional even among his kind, and eventually his fortunes changed.

His ship was wrecked off Campeche, on the Yucatan peninsula, and all hands came safely ashore. However, a group of Spaniards attacked and killed most of them. L’Olonnais, wounded, smeared himself with blood and sand before lying among the corpses of his crew and feigning death.

After the Spaniards had left, he cleaned and dressed his wounds, changed into Spanish clothes and headed for Campeche. There he recruited a small band of slaves, promising them their freedom, and stole a canoe.

Meanwhile, the Spaniards interrogated those crew members whom they had taken prisoner, and became convinced that their tormentor had been killed. Seeing the resulting celebrations, l’Olonnais and his ex-slave crew put to sea in the canoe and made their way back to Tortuga, whence he set out to re-establish his fortunes.

In two canoes, he approached the shallow harbour of the tobacco, sugar and hide producing village of los Cayos, on the southern coast of Cuba, but was spotted by fishermen. The villagers sent a message to Havana requesting support from the governor. With some misgiving (he had already received notification of the death of l’Olonnais from Campeche), the governor sent a ten-gun ship with a well-armed crew of ninety men, which anchored in the mouth of the nearby river Estera. They had been given instructions not to return until they had captured l’Olonnais and hanged all the remaining pirates. To this end their crew included a Negro nominated as hangman.

Instead of hiding, l’Olonnais captured two fishermen, forced them to navigate his two canoes into the river in the middle of the night, and boarded the warship from both sides simultaneously at daybreak, battening the crew below. He then brought them up one at a time and decapitated each in turn until he came to the hangman, who pleaded for his life in exchange for information.

L’Olonnais interrogated him at length, then killed him. He spared only one member of the crew, whom he sent back to the governor of Havana with the written message:

“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”

L’Olonnais had returned, and had developed a pathological hatred for all Spaniards. Joined by Michael de Basco, an experienced soldier turned pirate, he set out for Spanish America, determined to pillage and burn wherever he went. Eventually, he sacked Maracaibo and nearby towns, staying in the area for two months and returning with an immense fortune. He became even more vicious – when one prisoner failed to tell him where to find the treasures he was convinced his victims had hidden, he cut the man’s chest open, ripped out his heart and started to eat it, threatening similar treatment to the next person unwilling or unable to cooperate.

The next time fortune turned against him, he didn’t recover. Running ashore on a sandbank by the Islas de las Pertas near Honduras, he ended up dismembering his ship and building a longboat in which he set out with half of his crew for Nicaragua River, where they planned to steal canoes with which to take off those they had left behind.

When he landed, local Indians literally tore him to pieces.

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