François l’Olonnais

Perhaps less well known than the most notorious pirate captains of the Golden Age of Piracy that followed him such as Edward Teach, John Rackham or Charles Vane, Frenchman François l’Olonnais was more than a match for any of them when it comes to his sheer malice and ruthlessness. Unlike other famous names who made their names sailing the Pirate Round, l’Olonnais came earlier, a key figure in the buccaneering period of the later 1600s. Over a ten-year career, l’Olonnais plagued the Spanish ships and settlements of Central America, earning him the epithet ‘Flail of the Spanish’.

l’Olonnais seems to have started out from relatively humble beginnings. Born Jean-David Nau in the seaside town of les Sables-d’Olonne, he left France during the 1650s to work as an indentured servant on the island of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). By 1660 he had left this role, although accounts differ on whether this was due to him completing his ten-year servitude or having simply ran away. Either way, he soon became a buccaneer based in Saint-Dominigue. Originally referring to landless hunters that made a living hunting boar or cattle on Tortuga and Hispaniola, the term buccaneer came to describe the ‘Brethren of the Coast’, a loose alliance of pirates and privateers.

‘Buccaneer of the Caribbean’ from ‘Book of Pirates’ by Howard Pyle. Image: Harper and Brothers/ Public Domain

l’Olonnais’s ruthless streak saw him advance rapidly amongst the buccaneers, predominantly raiding Spanish colonists. Given command of a small ship by the Governor of Tortuga, l’Olonnais gained a fearsome reputation for slaughtering the entire crew of any ship he captured.

In 1663 l’Olonnais’ ship was wrecked on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. While the majority of the crew survived they were found by patrolling Spanish soldiers shortly after. After a brief battle they were wiped out apart from l’Olonnais, who smeared himself with blood and hid amongst the bodies of his slaughtered crew. Having evaded death or capture he made his way to the port city of Campeche. There he assembled a new crew of escaped slaves and returned to Tortuga.

The Mexican city of Campeche, where l’Olonnais raised a crew of escaped slaves. Image: Victory

He soon resumed raiding the Spanish. Unlike many buccaneers that predominantly preyed on ships, l’Olonnais was unafraid to take his crew ashore to raid settlements. After capturing a Spanish town and demanding a ransom for the release of the occupants, the incensed Governor of Havana dispatched a heavily armed crew to apprehend the French pirate. One man returned with the message from l’Olonnais that he would never show quarter to any Spaniard he encountered. The rest of the crew had been captured and beheaded.

By 1666 l’Olonnais commanded a fleet of eight ships and over 600 pirates. Assembling his crews with the intention of capturing the city of Maracaibo, during the voyage the fleet encountered and captured a Spanish treasure galleon. Amongst the plunder was around 260,000 Spanish dollars, frequently referred to as pieces of eight, as well as valuable gemstones and cocoa beans.

Spanish silver dollars, or ‘pieces of eight’. Image: Numismatica Pliego

Maracaibo possessed formidable coastal defences in the form of the San Carlos de le Barra Fortress, a limestone star fort armed with 16 cannons. Rather than face the guns, l’Olonnais took his crew inland and attacked the fort from the less defended landward side, capturing it in a few hours. On finding that many of the townspeople had fled and hidden their valuables he spent some time indulging his enthusiasm for torture to ensure those he captured revealed their hiding places. His men spent almost two months picking over the city and hunting down residents before departing across Lake Maracaibo towards San Antonio de Gibraltar on its southern bank.

An aerial view of San Carlos de la Barra Fortress. Image: Harold Hidalgo

Despite a large garrison the pirate attack was successful, killing over 500 Spanish defenders and holding the city to ransom. Even after a fee of 20,000 pieces of eight was paid his crew continued to ransack the city, stealing a further 260,000 pieces of eight as well as carrying off slaves and valuables.

l’Olonnais’ growing reputation and the wealth he had brought to the men that accompanied him to Venezuela saw some 700 join him in his next endeavour, this time to raid Central America. After a successful raid on the coast of Honduras the fleet were ambushed by the Spanish. Most of his men were killed, although again l’Olonnais escaped, taking two Spanish prisoners with him.

Once free of his pursuers, l’Olonnais forced one captive to watch while he carved open the chest of the other, tearing out his heart and eating part of it. The terrified survivor willingly lead the surviving pirates along a safe route to the port of San Pedro, but their small number meant an attempted attack was unsuccessful. Again put to flight, l’Olonnais eventually ran aground on the coast of modern-day Panama.

A cigarette card illustration depicting the eventual fate of l’Olannais. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Perhaps aptly, l’Olonnais ultimately met a fate just as gruesome as any of those meted out to his victims. Unable to free their ship, the small band of pirates set out inland. Shortly after the group were captured by the native Kuna tribe. Warriors of the tribe butchered the feared French pirate alive, tossing the pieces one by one into a fire before scattering the ashes. Other accounts suggest that he was eaten by the Kuna. The career of the ‘Flail of the Spanish’ had come to an ignominious end. He was likely 39 years of age at the time of his death.

Featured Image: An illustration of l’Olonnais taken from a 1684 publication ‘The History of the Bucaneer in America’. Image: Library of Congress

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