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Piratical History of Tortuga

Author: Chris Rule

Ahoy there, shipmate, welcome to Ile de la Tortue, or Tortuga as us locals call island inhabited by pirates, showered with booty and soaked in blood, where violence isn’t just a daily occurrence, it’s a way of life!

Now you’ll find out all about the troubled and bloody history of the island of Tortuga and the piratical adventures of its more famous residents. You’ll also be presented with rules for fighting, pirating and plundering, along with a series of scenarios and a complete campaign, based on events from the islands history.


Tortuga lies on the north side of the great and renowned island of Hispaniola (modern Haiti), about three leagues from the coast. The island is small; some sixteen leagues in circumference and acquired its name (Ile de la Tortue, “Turtle Island”) because its shape is that of a turtle. Indeed, when viewed from the coast of Hispaniola, it resembles a monster sea turtle floating upon the waves.

Although extremely rocky, it is covered with large trees that grow where no soil can be seen, their roots lying naked on the rocks. The north side of the island is uninhabited and most inhospitable, having neither beaches nor harbour, apart from a few gaps between the crags. People live only on the south side and there is but one harbour which ships can enter.

(Illustration: map of Hispaniola and Tortuga)

The inhabited portion of Tortuga is divided into four parts:

The Low Country is the most important of these four parts on account of the port, named Cayonne. This is reasonably good and unimpeded by a reef – there are two channels to sail in by. Ships of up to 70 guns can enter and the harbour has a clear and sandy bottom.

Three miles along the coast from the port is the hamlet, named by the primarily French settlers as Basse-Terre, where the principal planters live.

The Middle Plantation is a region of cultivation and very rich in tobacco, as is the district called La Ringot; both these places lie to the west of the island.

The Mountain is the region where the first plantations were made.

The main plantation crops are tobacco, but the island does produce some excellent timber, including: fustic (wood which yields a yellow dye); red, white and yellow sandalwood; candlewood (which is called so because it will burn as bright as a candle and serves for making torches with which to go night fishing). As well as timber, much sought after for the building of ships and houses, Tortuga produces aloes and many other medicinal herbs and shrubs along with all sorts of fruits and plants, an abundance of which I will not weary the reader with listing.

There are many wild boars, but hunting them with dogs is forbidden, lest they be exterminated. Should enemies attack, the people could retire to the woods and live by hunting. Nevertheless, hunting is dangerous: the islands innumerable crags are more often than not, covered in scrub and a man could tumble down a concealed precipice completely unawares. A number of the island hunters have been lost this way.

At a certain time of year wild pigeons flock to the island in such numbers, that the inhabitants could live on them alone, eating no other meat. But when this season is past, they are no longer good to eat as they become thin and bitter to taste because of a certain seed that they eat, which is bitter in the extreme.

There are many very large, edible sea-crabs and land-crabs found on the shore. The slaves and indentured servants often eat them; they taste good but they are most harmful to the eyes! Frequent eating of them brings on a fit of giddiness so that for a quarter of an hour or so, one is unable to see.


Spanish planters began to cultivate Tortuga in 1598, with tobacco as their main crop, although there was not much fertile land to grow it on. They also tried planting sugar but it proved too costly a venture.

In 1605, the French, having settled colonies on the island of St. Christopher and being reasonably strong there, equipped a number of vessels and steered westward to discover what they could, and so reached the coast of Hispaniola. On landing they found it to be very fertile, abound with all kinds of animals – wild bulls and cows, swine and horses. Attempting to settle, they were set upon by the Spanish who had lay claim to the island. Since Hispaniola was well populated by the Spanish, the French decided to take refuge in Tortuga. This they did, chasing off a small number of Spanish planters. They stayed there for half a year before anyone disturbed them. They made journeys to and from the big island in canoes and began making plantations of their own and sent for more settlers.

Meanwhile, the Spaniards didn’t view this behaviour favourably. They fitted out some ships and tried to take back Tortuga. They succeeded in doing so, because as soon as the French saw them coming, they fled with their possessions to the forest and crossed over to Hispaniola in their canoes at night. They had the advantage of not being encumbered with women and children, so everyone could take to the woods to hunt for food and also give warning to the other settlers there.

The Spaniards crossed back intending to drive them out or make them die of hunger as they had done with the Indians, but they had little success, for the French were well provided with powder, bullets and good firearms. Taking advantage of the fact that most of the Spanish troops had sailed back to the big island with their guns and men, intent on harrying the French, the settlers sailed once more for Tortuga. They drove out all the Spaniards that were still there, prevented the others from coming back again and remained masters of the island.

By 1620, the cattle hunters had a rough place of settlement near the harbour where they sold hides to visiting traders.

Sea rovers passing through from Europe found a convenient harbour at Tortuga. The island provided good access around the northern coast of Hispaniola and on to the coast of Central America. A little further south, Cuba and Mexico are easily reached through what is known as the Windward Passage. The Tortuga huntsmen soon began to supplement their income by turning their hand to piracy. By the late 1620’s, Dutch fleets had weakened Spanish naval power, which encouraged freelance marauders. According to events recounted in “The Buccaneers of America” by A. O. Exquemelin, a man known as Pierre Le Grande was the first to turn to piracy.

(Insert: A. O. Exquemelin. See bottom)

Le Grande, with just one small boat and 28 men, managed to capture a Spanish flagship straggling behind a treasure fleet as it passed Cape Tiburon on Hispaniola. He and his men had been at sea in their boat for a long time without meeting any prey. With food supplies low and the boat in bad shape, they were about to turn for land when they caught sight of a ship which had fallen behind the rest of the Spanish fleet. Le Grande decided to try and take the ship, boarding her and capturing the vessel, as they would not expect an attack from such a quarter. He and his men swore an oath to fight to the death, but Le Grande nevertheless had the ship’s surgeon bore holes in the bottom of the boat to bolster their courage and so that they would fight bravely as escape was prevented, should the attack fail.

Thus motivated and under cover of the night the small pirate boat pulled up alongside of the Spanish galleon. In utter silence, they climbed up the side of the ship and clambered onto the deck, each man armed only with a pistol and a cutlass. They met no resistance and made it to the captain’s cabin unmolested. Inside, the captain and some of his officers were playing cards. With a pistol barrel shoved into his face before any aboard the galleon could react, the captain surrendered the ship. Meanwhile, others of Le Grande’s men seized the arms in the gunroom, killing some of the Spanish sailors who defended themselves.

Sailors aboard the ship had, in fact, noticed Le Grande’s boat earlier in the day, but upon hearing reports of the sighting, the arrogant captain had declared that he did not fear a warship of his own size, let alone such a small and tattered boat.

(Illustration: Le Grande takes the ship)

Le Grande kept as many of the Spanish sailors as he needed to run the ship and then set the rest ashore. Happy with their ill-gotten gains, Le Grande and his men sailed to the port of Dieppe in France, never to sally forth again.

The news of Le Grande’s great success, regarded by the pirates as a “happy event”, encouraged more and more of the settlers to try pirating. It precipitated such a rush to the sea amongst the hunters and planters on the island, that men were so eager to emulate the pirates they left whatever work they had and sought boats “wherein to exercise piracy.”

Over the next 10 years buccaneer raiders issued forth from Tortuga in rapidly escalating numbers. The buccaneers preferred small, easily maneuvered sloops, holding as many as forty or fifty men and carrying twelve or fourteen guns. Equipped with both sail and oars, they were swift and could operate in very shallow waters. The buccaneers, in particular the older, veteran boucaniers who had been hunters, were excellent marksmen. Their incredible boldness tipped the scales in their favour as they sailed right up to crowded merchant vessels and opened fire on the helmsman and any sailors in the rigging. As they closed in on the stern, they would disable the rudder before clambering aboard with their guns ready and knives clenched in their teeth. After a fierce hand-to-hand battle, victory was often theirs.

To end raids from Tortuga, Spanish troops from Santo Domingo invaded the island in late 1630 or early 1631, but the settlers simply fled to the wooded hills, returning as soon as the Spanish ships had left.

For the next four years, the island fell under the protection of the Providence Company, which already had other bases of operation in the Caribbean. Anthony Hilton, a former ship captain managed to persuade the company to adopt Tortuga and was appointed governor. Hilton’s agreement with the company was a ruse to protect his buccaneer associates. Having realised the island’s potential, Hilton set up a base to supply, repair and trade with the vessels of buccaneers. Hilton enjoyed a few years of this way of life before he died in 1634, owing the Company money, having never paid for the cannon and ammunition it supplied. Shortly afterwards, the Providence Company withdrew from Tortuga.

Then, in early 1635, the Spanish, guided by an Irish sailor who had quarreled with Hilton, sent a force from Santo Domingo and sacked the Tortuga settlement.

Three years later, the Spaniards once again attacked. Spanish galleons swooped down and killed any of the residents it could find. Soon after, Captain Roger Flood arrived with 300 English settlers from the island of Nevis. The French inhabitants that were left on the island claimed that Flood abused them, forcing them to flee to Hispaniola.

At around 1640, the piratical inhabitants of Tortuga took to calling themselves the ‘Brethren of the Coast’ and to join this democratic fraternity a man vowed to subscribe to a strict code, known as the ‘Custom of the Coast’. Among the fiercely independent buccaneers, this took precedence over national codes or laws.

These ‘articles’ were put in writing by way of a bond to which all men must adhere. They specified and set down very distinctly what sums of money each particular person ought to receive for that voyage, the fund for all the payments being the common stock of what was captured during the whole expedition. There was even recompense for those who were maimed or wounded during any actions: a buccaneer who suffered the loss of his right arm, for example, would receive 600 pieces-of-eight (or 500 for a left arm); someone unfortunate enough to lose a leg would be rewarded 500 pieces-of-eight for his right leg and 400 for his left; an eye was worth 100 pieces-of-eight.

(Insert: Buccaneers. See below)

When the French inhabitants requested aid from Phillipe de Poincy, the French governor-general of the island of St. Christopher, he appointed a governor, one Jean Le Vasseur. Thanks to Le Vasseur, Tortuga became the pirating capital of the Caribbean.

Le Vasseur arrived in Tortuga during August 1642, bringing with him around 100 men, including a number of buccaneers he had picked up in Hispaniola. After a brief battle, the English were easily expelled.

Being aware of the numerous earlier Spanish raids, Le Vasseur (an engineer by trade) built a fort overlooking the port. It was erected on the relatively flat top of a hill that was crowned by steep rock about 30 feet high. Le Vasseur shaped terraces into the hillside that could hold hundreds of men. On top of the rock, he placed his own palace, several cannon and a storehouse for ammunition. A carved stairway reached halfway up the rock and visitors had to climb the rest of the way by ladder, which was raised or lowered, from the top. Supplied by water gushing forth from a natural spring, Le Vasseur had constructed an impregnable fortress. He then cut all of his ties with France and during the next decade or so, he reigned over the island like a buccaneer king, taking a percentage of all buccaneer loot and taxing the animal hides brought into Tortuga from Hispaniola, amassing a fortune in jewels and treasure.

(Illustration: the Fort de Rocher)

The Spaniards regarded the settlement on Tortuga with jealous eyes and the daily increase of the French upon the small island with great concern. They feared that in time, the French might achieve a position strong enough to force the Spanish out of Hispaniola in much the same way that they had on Tortuga. And so it was that shortly after the completion of the building work, the Spaniards at Santo Domingo sent ships with 500 men to destroy the new fort. The artillery stationed at the fort sank one of the ships and scattered the rest. When the Spanish troops eventually landed away from the harbour, they fell into an ambush, lost almost 200 men and fled to their ships and then back to Hispaniola.

News of the victory spread Le Vasseur’s reputation far and wide and Tortuga became a haven for anyone in trouble with the law. The island of Tortuga became “the common place of refuge for all sorts of wickedness, the seminary of pirates and thieves.” Dutch traders would regularly stop by, trading for pirate plunder with guns, ammunition, brandy and fancy clothing.

With such great and total power over the less-educated men around him, Le Vasseur changed: he lost all self-control, he became suspicious and intolerant. Any opposition would ignite his cruel and overbearing temper. He banned services for Roman Catholics and banished their priests. He had installed at his mountaintop fortress, an iron cage, which was nicknamed the “Little Hell” in which its prisoner could neither stand nor lie down.

The many raids continued. Not only were the Tortugan buccaneers plundering vessels along the shipping lanes around Hispaniola and the surrounding area, they were also provisioning their ships for the journeys by raiding the Hispaniola farms. While the plunderings were mostly on small hog-pen farms and small coastal towns and villages, the buccaneers also executed some large and daring attacks including those on Santiago de los Cabaleros in 1650 and San Juan de los Remedios in 1652.

From his invincible stronghold, Le Vasseur was safe to insult both the French and Spanish, but he was eventually killed by a couple of his henchmen in 1653. Le Vasseur left the fort to inspect a warehouse with Tibuat and Martin, two of his lieutenants. Tibuat was enraged by the fact that Le Vasseur had stolen away his young mistress and abused her. The traitors wounded him with a musket and then finished him off with their daggers.

A new governor, Chevalier de Fontenay, was sent by de Poincy. However, he also welcomed buccaneers and so the raids continued. Fontenay was as ruthless as his predecessor, but only ruled for a short time, for the Spaniards once again crossed to Tortuga to drive out the pirates and this time found a permanent colony. It was not to be easy for them, however.

While many of the buccaneers were at sea or off hunting, the Spanish seized their chance and crossed to the small island. The Spaniards were 800 strong and were guided by some French prisoners. The remaining settlers could not prevent the Spanish forces from landing and so withdrew to the fort. The governor had all the trees around the fort cut down so that he could get a better view of the enemy. As there was no way of forcing the stronghold without artillery, the Spaniards tried to figure out the best way to set about the assault.

Seeing that only the tall trees sheltering the fort had been cut down, they realised that the place could be brought under fire from a nearby mountain and so they made a road by which they could bring ordinance up to the top.

The mountain is quite high and from the summit, one can see the whole of the island. It is level on top and surrounded by crags, making it inaccessible save by the track the Spaniards made.

The invading troops had brought with them many slaves and labourers – matates or half-breeds and Indians. They set them to work making a road through the rocks and dragging artillery up the mountain, in order to mount a battery and fire on the fort where the French were, forcing them to surrender. But while the Spaniards were busy with this undertaking, the settlers sent word to the hunters who were away hunting on Hispaniola and the buccaneers at out at sea and ask their comrades to come to their aid, which they did. The hunters united with the buccaneers and, having landed on Tortuga by night, succeeded in climbing the mountain from the north side, thanks to their familiarity with the place.

The Spaniards had, with great difficulty, managed to get two cannon up the mountain ready to bombard the fort the next day but knew nothing of the arrival of the French. The following morning, just as the Spanish troops were busy setting up the cannons, the French attacked from their rear. Most of the Spaniards, in great fear and panic at the sudden and unexpected attack, sprang headlong over the sides of the mountain, where they broke necks and legs, not one of them landing safely. The Frenchmen killed the rest, allowing no quarter. Hearing the shrieks, the Spaniards below judged that matters were going badly on the mountaintop so they went to the shore and at once put out to sea.

However, in January 1654, the Spaniards finally managed to drive out the French. Gliding past the settlements on the coast, the Spanish ships bombarded the French. Several hundred troops disembarked further down the coast and marched back overland to lay siege to the fortress. One night, the Spanish commander sent a large group of men with grappling lines to scale the heights behind the fort and there install artillery. After a week of bombardment, the French were so battered and starved that they requested terms and two days later surrendered. More than 500 hundred captives were taken, among them 330 buccaneers. All save two hostage leaders were allowed to leave the island.

(Illustration: Spanish troops attack)

The Spaniards had won back Tortuga along with considerable booty: seventy cannon in the fortress and shore batteries; three ships; a frigate and eight lesser craft. On this occasion, they decided to hold on to their hard-won conquest and placed a garrison of one hundred troops on the island. However, when an English fleet invaded the following year, the Spanish government withdrew the troops in order to defend Santo Domingo.

In 1656, shortly after the English had settled in to occupy Jamaica, a certain Elias Watts acquired a commission as governor of Tortuga and recruited English and French settlers. The islanders soon returned to piracy and a Captain de L’Isle led a major raid against Santiago in Hispaniola. Using a fraudulent claim that a Spanish warship had killed some innocent Frenchmen, de L’Isle along with three other captains and about 400 men purchased a letter of reprisal (a governmental license allowing a private individual to seize persons and property from a specific foreign country) from Watts.

Commandeering a frigate from a French captain, along with two or three other boats, they landed at Puerto Plata in northwestern Hispaniola. Marching through the jungle for three days, the pirates managed to sneak into Santiago at night on the Wednesday before Easter. Surprised in his bed, the governor turned over part of a promised ransom of 60,000 pesos. The raiders pillaged the town for a day, taking special care to strip the church bare.

After having enjoyed their victim’s food and wine, the buccaneers left the town, taking with them their plunder, the governor and several other prominent members of the Santiago community. As they returned to the coast, more than a thousand Spaniards, who had rallied throughout the district, ambushed the raiders. The Spanish gave up the attack when the buccaneers threatened to stab the governor and other prisoners through the heart.

Although they never got their hands on the rest of the promised ransom, the pirates set their prisoners free. The raiders returned to Tortuga with their spoils, delighted at the rich plunder they had gained.

A French adventurer expelled Watts in 1659 and Tortuga fell under French control in 1665, when Bertrand d’Ogeron was made governor. d’Ogeron encouraged French settlement along the northern and western coast of Hispaniola, creating the French colony of Saint Domingue (modern Dominican Republic). He also imposed some order on Tortuga, but never tried to suppress the pirates, who formed the colony’s best defense during wartime. One method employed by the new governor to help keep the pirates in line was the importation of dozens of harlots from Paris for the men to marry.

In the early 1660’s there came to Tortuga, one of the most famous, fierce and cruel pirates ever known. His name was Jean David Nau, but he was known as L’Ollonais. L’Ollonais was a cattle hunter on Hispaniola in the 1650’s and his hatred of the Spanish is attributed to a militia raid that slaughtered most of his fellow hunters.

(Illustration: Francis L’Ollonais)

Upon his arrival in Tortuga, L’Ollonais received a ship from the governor along with a French privateering commission. Through many ‘privateering’ attacks, L’Ollonais gained significant booty, although his infamous, psychopathic mistreatment of prisoners actually made it harder to take Spanish prizes. Instead of surrendering, Exquemelin wrote, merchant ships “fought until they could fight no more, for he granted Spaniards little mercy.”

Indeed, Exquemelin goes on to write “it was the custom of L’Ollonais that, having tormented any persons and they not confessing, he would instantly cut them to pieces with his hanger (cutlass) and pull on their tongues.” The writer also describes other tortures favoured by the French fiend, including “burning with matches and such-like 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 till his eyes shoot out, which is called woolding.”

During one voyage, the Frenchman’s ship was wrecked just off the coast of Campeche, where the Mexicans killed most of his men. According to Exquemelin, L’Ollonais escaped by smearing himself in the blood of his fallen comrades and hiding under the corpses. Stealing a canoe, he made it back to Tortuga.

Soon back at sea in a large boat, he attacked a small port in north Cuba. His men seized a warship in the harbour and L’Ollonais personally cut off the heads of the entire crew except one. He gave this man a letter to be delivered to the governor of Havana, declaring that he intended to kill every Spaniard he captured. Taking this ship as his prize, the pirate seized another ship and large sums of money in the Gulf of Venezuela.

L’Ollonais committed these crimes during peacetime, but a brief war between France and Spain (1667-1668) presented him with an excuse to mount a larger expedition against the Venezuelan coast. Calling together the Tortuga and Hispaniola buccaneers, he set out in July 1667 with eight small ships and 660 men. Along the way, they managed to take a rich merchant prize and a warship.

The buccaneers headed towards Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela and easily occupied the prosperous town of Maracaibo, but its inhabitants fled to the woods with their treasures. The raiders managed to capture 20 Spaniards with about 20,000 pesos. Torturing their captives, L’Ollonais hacked one to pieces with his cutlass. The other fugitives, knowing that any captives would be forced to talk, had already moved their goods to another hiding place.

Two weeks later, L’Ollonais moved his men on to Gibraltar, a small town across the lake. Despite fierce resistance, the town fell to the buccaneers. They spent a month here enjoying its food and women and extorting 10,000 pesos. The pirates returned to Maracaibo and exacted a 20,000 pesos ransom. Altogether, the buccaneers took 260,000 pesos worth of coins jewels and merchandise.

Back at home in Tortuga, their spoils soon vanished. As Exquemelin put it, “the tavern keepers got part of their money and the whores took the rest.” The following year, taking six ships and 700 men, L’Ollonais headed for Lake Nicaragua, but the pirate fleet was becalmed and drifted into the Gulf of Honduras. Pillaging the Indian villages along the way, they eventually reached the impoverished port of Puerto Caballos. The buccaneers plundered the warehouses and a Spanish ship, but most of the inhabitants escaped and they found little to steal. A few prisoners were tortured to obtain information. Exquemelin describes the scene in gory detail: “When L’Ollonais had a victim on the rack, if the wretch did not instantly answer his questions he would hack the man to pieces with his cutlass and lick the blood from the blade with his tongue, wishing it might have been the last Spaniard in the world he had thus killed.”

Two prisoners finally agreed to lead the raiders to San Pedro, 30 miles away. Along the way, the pirates were met by and broke through a Spanish ambush. With his usual savagery, L’Ollonais asked his prisoners if there was another road that would avoid further ambushes. “Then L’Ollonais, being possessed of a devil’s fury, ripped open one of the prisoners with his cutlass, tore the living heart out of his body, gnawed at it and then hurled it in the face of one of the others, saying, ‘Show me another way, or I will do the same to you.’”

(Illustration: L’Ollonais tears the heart out of a prisoner)

Overrunning more ambushes and a valiant defence, the buccaneers took and burned San Pedro, but found little booty. After they had careened their boats, they captured a Spanish ship, which turned out to be empty.

Disappointed with their meager spoils, the other captains deserted with the smaller boats. L’Ollonais went on to Nicaragua in the captured Spanish vessel. As they sailed down the coast, the pirates ran the vessel aground on a small cay. After five or six months, some of the men left in a small boat and were killed by Indians and Spanish troops. L’Ollonais continued on to the Gulf of Darien, where he was captured by cannibals, hacked to pieces and roasted limb by limb. This was, perhaps, a fitting end of a cruel man who had spilt so much guiltless blood and committed so many grisly atrocities.

Pirate raids continued to issue forth from the Tortuga settlement for a few more years, but with many of the buccaneers having married d’Ogeron’s imported whores and settled down, with new families to think of, the Tortugan buccaneers all but gave up their sea-roving days. And so, from the 1670’s, Petit Goave replaced Tortuga as the main pirate haven in the French Islands.

Sources & further reading:

The Pirates – Botting, Douglas : Time Life Books 1987
Life Among the Pirates – Cordingly, David :
Little, Brown & Co. 1995
Pirates Fact & Fiction – Cordingly, David & Falconer, John: Collins & Brown Ltd. 1992
Pirates Terror on the High Seas – Cordingly, David (ed.) : Turner Publishing 1996
Caribbean Companion – Dyde, Brian : Macmillan Press 1992
Buccaneers of America – Exquemelin A.O. : Penguin Classics 1969
Buccaneers of America – Exquemelin, A.O. : The Folio Society 1969
Buccaneers of America – Exquemelin, A.O. : Rio Grande Press 1992
Pirates Adventurers on the High Seas – Marley, David : Cassell 1997
Pirates – Mitchell, David : Thames & Hudson 1976
Buccaneers & Marooners – Pyle, Howard : Rio Grande Press 1990
Pirates an A-Z Encyclopedia – Rogozinski, Jan : Da Cappo Press 1996
A Brief History of the Caribbean – Rogozinski, Jan : Meridian Press 1992
Exquemelin & the Pirates of the Caribbean – Shuter, Jane : Raintree Streck-Vaughan Pub. 1995

EXQUEMELIN, ALEXANDER OLIVER (French surgeon and historian, about 1645 – 1700)

Exquemelin traveled to the Caribbean aboard a French trading ship as an indentured servant (these were people who signed an agreement to work for a person or a company for a number of years in return for free transport. Often this was the only way that poorer people could afford to emigrate) of the French West India Co. He was sold when the company collapsed. His first master, the Deputy-Governor of Tortuga treated him badly and when he fell ill due to his poor treatment, he was sold on to a doctor. The doctor was a much kinder master and eventually allowed Exquemelin to buy his freedom.

He then went on to join the pirates as a barber–surgeon, due to his accumulated knowledge from working with the doctor. Exquemelin took part in major raids by the buccaneers of Tortuga serving under L’Ollonais and later, Henry Morgan. He drew on his experiences to write the book Buccaneers of America, published in 1678. His detailed account remains the most important source about pirate customs.

BUCCANEERS (Caribbean pirates, about 1620 – 1720)

An English name for pirates cruising from Caribbean havens, primarily raiding Spanish shipping and cities in the Caribbean and along the Mexican coast.

The French word boucanier is the source for the word buccaneer. The boucan is a grill used to smoke meat for later consumption. This method of food preservation is native to the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean islands, who passed on this technique to the men illegally camping on Spanish Hispaniola. These squatters hunted the abundant wild cattle and pigs and used the boucan to preserve the meat for later use and for sale to passing ships. The hunters, who lived off the boucan, became known as boucaniers.

Driven out by the Spaniards, the hunters joined groups of runaway slaves, deserters and others who preyed on Spanish ships. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the word buccaneer was being applied generally to most of the privateers and pirates who operated from bases in the West Indies.