BORN c. 1635 • Les Sables-d’Olonne, France
DIED: 1668 • Panama
“I shall never give quarter [show mercy] to any Spaniard whatsoever.”
François L’Olonnais was known as one of the cruelest pirates in the Caribbean Sea. He treated the region’s Spanish and native inhabitants with such savagery that many historians believe he was insane. He conducted many treasure raids against Spanish possessions and was killed while attempting a raid.
The man known as François L’Olonnais was born around 1635 in the town of Les Sables-d’Olonne, France. His birth name is believed to have been Jean-David Nau, but after he arrived in the Caribbean he was called by his nickname, L’Olonnais, which means “man from d’Olonne.”
Few details about L’Olonnais’s childhood are known. Because he came from an area with a large Protestant population, historians believe it likely that the family was Protestant, making them an often-persecuted minority in Catholic France. In his teens, probably around 1650, L’Olonnais was sent to the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean as an indentured servant. Page 158 | Top of ArticleIndentured servitude was a type of business arrangement that enabled poor Europeans to come to the Americas to work. The terms of indenture were often harsh. The employer paid the price of the voyage; when the workers arrived at their destination, they were required to pay back the cost of the journey through their labor, staying with that employer for a specified number of years before they were legally released. Only when the contract was fulfilled was a worker allowed to leave that employer and look for a better position. In many cases indentured servants worked alongside slaves from Africa and were subjected to the same treatment. According to some historians, L’Olonnais may have been abused in some way during his service, causing him to lose his sanity.
Becomes a buccaneer
After three years of indentured servitude, L’Olonnais made his way to the island of Tortuga. The island lies off the northwest coast of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). By the mid–1600s, groups of French, English, and Dutch pirates had created a major base of operations on Tortuga. From here they could easily ambush Spanish treasure ships loaded with gold, silver, and other precious materials on their way back to Spain.
Spain had completely dominated this valuable trade since 1494, when the Treaty of Tordesillas gave sole control of the Americas to Spain and Portugal. With the treasure it took every year from the gold and silver mines of the Americas, Spain soon became the most wealthy and powerful country in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. Not wishing to share any of this valuable trade with rival countries, Spain had strictly regulated access to its ports in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, by the 1600s other European countries, particularly England, France, and the Netherlands, had begun to challenge Spain’s dominance in the region, building colonies of their own or even, in a few cases, conquering Spanish territory.
France’s major possessions in the Caribbean in the early 1600s were the island of Martinique, in the eastern Caribbean north of Venezuela, and the islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis, slightly north and west of Martinique. In 1625 French settlers from these colonies established an outpost on Tortuga. Many of them were buccaneers, a group of outcasts such as runaway indentured servants, pirates, and escaped African slaves. They lived mainly by hunting. Although the buccaneers generally Page 159 | Top of Articleshunned society and kept mostly to themselves, Spain could not tolerate their presence so close to Hispaniola, which it considered a Spanish possession. Spain began aggressive efforts to drive the buccaneers and the other settlers out. As a result, the buccaneers developed a hatred for the Spanish. They took to piracy and resolved to get their revenge on Spain. Tortuga became a pirate haven for the buccaneers. (A pirate haven is safe place for pirates to harbor and repair their ships, resupply, and organize raiding parties.)
Tortuga lies near the eastern tip of Cuba, and every year, the Spanish flota (treasure fleet), laden with gold, stopped at Cuba before sailing with its cargo across the Atlantic to Spain. These ships provided good prey for the buccaneers, who often launched sea raids with the permission of the French or English colonial authorities. During the seventeenth century, France and Spain were often at war. France worried that its Caribbean colonies, much smaller and more vulnerable than Spain’s, might be invaded by the enemy. It became common practice to hire buccaneers to act as an unofficial navy, protecting the colonies by harassing the Spanish wherever they could be found. Buccaneers received no official pay but were allowed to keep a portion of any treasure they took.
On Tortuga, L’Olonnais joined the buccaneers and began sea raiding. By 1667 L’Olonnais had become the owner and captain of a small, ten-gun ship. The French colonial governor had called for buccaneers to plan attacks on Spain, so L’Olonnais gathered a crew of about twenty men and signed up. In the Mona Passage, which lies between the east coast of Hispaniola and the island of Puerto Rico, they fired on a large Spanish trading vessel, capturing the ship after a long fight. On another occasion, L’Olonnais and his men seized a ship carrying the payroll for Spanish troops in the Americas. L’Olonnais sent his booty back to Tortuga, selling any merchandise at a hefty profit and refitting the Spanish ships for his own use. (Booty is the goods stolen from ships or coastal villages during pirate raids or attacks on enemies in time of war.)
“The Flail of the Spaniards”
During his early years of buccaneering, L’Olonnais raided the town of Campeche, on the southern coast of Mexico near the Yucatán Peninsula. According to one account, some of his crew had been shipwrecked on the voyage from Tortuga, leaving the buccaneers without enough men to carry Page 160 | Top of Articleout an attack on the town. But L’Olonnais attacked anyway. The fight was fierce, and the buccaneers lost the battle. L’Olonnais barely escaped; he pretended to be dead, lying among the bloody corpses of his crew all day. When night finally fell, he and a handful of other survivors were able to sneak away in a couple of small wooden boats that they found. According to another account, however, there was no battle at Campeche. L’Olonnais was shipwrecked near the town in 1666 or 1667 with a small band of followers but was chased by Spanish soldiers until he finally made his escape.
Soon after his failure at Campeche, L’Olonnais sailed near Cay Largo, off the southern coast of Cuba. A patrol boat lay in the harbor, sent by the Spanish colonial authorities to protect local fishermen who had complained about pirates in the area. On the patrol boat was an executioner, with instructions to hang any pirates that were captured. During the night, the buccaneers boarded the Spanish vessel, slaughtered the soldiers onboard, and sent the single survivor back to shore with a message for Cuba’s governor. The letter, quoted by Angus Konstam in Piracy: The Complete History, states: “I shall never henceforward give quarter [show mercy] 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.”
By the end of 1667 L’Olonnais had increased his force to eight ships and several hundred men. He was able to launch major attacks, and these were known to be so gruesome that the mere mention of his name created terror. Throughout the region he became known as the “flail of the Spaniards.” Like many other pirates, L’Olonnais tortured his captives to force them to reveal the hiding places of their treasure. Such violence was not unusual at the time, but L’Olonnais’s behavior was particularly cruel. According to an account quoted by Konstam, “it was the custom of L’Olonnais that, having tormented any persons and they not confessing, he would instantly cut them to pieces with his hanger (sword) and pull on their tongues.” This account also states that the pirate’s other tortures included “burning with matches and suchlike torments, to cut a man to pieces, first some flesh, then a hand, then an arm, a leg, sometimes tying a cord about his head and with a stick twisting it until his eyes shoot out, which is called ‘woolding.’” L’Olonnais would also slice a victim to pieces with his sword and lick the blood off the sword.
In late 1667 or early 1668 L’Olonnais and his crew, numbering about seven hundred men, sailed to the coast of Venezuela to attack the city of Maracaibo, near the entrance to Lake Maracaibo. But the residents had fled, and the buccaneers found little treasure in the empty city. They moved on to Gibraltar, a city on the lake’s opposite shore that was guarded by a strong fort. After a long battle, L’Olonnais entered the town. He demanded, and received, a ransom of ten thousand pieces of eight, or Spanish dollars, to spare the city from total destruction. Then he sailed back to Maracaibo, demanding another twenty thousand pieces of eight as ransom. With the booty from this expedition, L’Olonnais was welcomed back to Tortuga as a hero. He had seized treasure worth an estimated 260,000 pieces of eight.
Leads an assault on San Pedro
In 1668 according to some accounts, L’Olonnais planned a major attack on the eastern coast of Nicaragua. But bad weather forced him off course, and he landed near the small port of Puerto Cabellos (present-day Puerto Cortés) on the northern coast of Honduras. After capturing the town, as well as the Spanish trade ship in the harbor, he marched with three hundred of his men 30 miles (48 kilometers) inland to the region’s capital, San Pedro Sula.
Along the way, L’Olonnais forced two captured soldiers to act as his guides. When the buccaneers marched into a Spanish ambush, L’Olonnais accused the soldiers of deliberately misleading them. Allegedly he sliced open the chest of one prisoner, ripped out the beating heart, and chewed on it before forcing it into the other man’s face. This terrified prisoner immediately suggested a new course, which led the buccaneers safely to San Pedro. L’Olonnais and his men drove out the defending troops and then spent several days plundering (robbing of goods by force) the town before burning it to the ground. Once they had carried their loot back to their ships, L’Olonnais learned that a vessel carrying Spanish treasure was due in the area any day. He decided to wait there for it. When it finally arrived, three months late, the buccaneer and his crew attacked the ship only to find, after a furious battle, that it held no treasure at all. It had unloaded its precious cargo in another port nearby.
Shortly after the attack on the treasure ship in Honduran waters, L’Olonnais lost the support of many of his men. Two captains under his command
refused to continue sailing with him, and when they returned to Tortuga, they took most of the ships in the pirate’s fleet with them. L’Olonnais was left with only his own flagship and a crew of approximately four hundred buccaneers.
Sailing south from Honduras, L’Olonnais ran aground in southern Nicaragua, along a stretch known as the Mosquito Coast. The survivors made a camp on the shore and then divided into two groups. One group began building a smaller boat from the wreckage of their ship. The other, led by L’Olonnais, made its way along the San Juan River to the town of Solentiname. But the Spanish were ready and ambushed the invaders.
The surviving buccaneers were barely able to escape back to their camp. By this time the small boat was finished, and L’Olonnais used it to sail farther south along the coast, hoping eventually to reach safety in the Gulf of Darien, which lies to the east of Panama. With little protection from the weather in this small boat, and without food or water, the men soon became exhausted. Going ashore to search for food along the coast of Panama, they discovered what they thought was a small native village that would be easy to attack. But the natives surrounded the buccaneers, killing most of them with poisoned arrows and hacking L’Olonnais to pieces. Only one man survived. According to one version of the survivor’s story, the Indians killed L’Olonnais and then ate him. According to another version, the Indians burned the pieces of L’Olonnais’s body and scattered all of his ashes. Hating the pirate for his cruelty toward them, they wanted to destroy any trace of his existence.
For More Information
Burg, B.R. “The Buccaneer Community.” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, edited by C.R. Penell. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2001, pp. 211–243.
Konstam, Angus. Piracy: The Complete History. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2008, pp. 122, 124–125.
Pennell, C.R., ed. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2001.