Alexandre Exquemelin’s ‘The Buccaneers of America’

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Pirates

By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

The Buccaneers of America is the Anglicized title of De Americaensche Zee-roovers. It is a profoundly important 17th century firsthand account of piracy written by Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin, who described himself as an indentured servant in Tortuga in the service of the French West India company. Finding his existence insupportable, he ventured to live among the buccaneers, probably as a surgeon.

A painting of buccaneers
Exquemelin used his experience of living among the buccaneers to write his book. (Image: Howard Pyle/Public domain)

How Exquemelin Joined the Buccaneers

At some point in the middle of the 1670s, Exquemelin left the Caribbean for Amsterdam, where he did two noteworthy things. He got himself professionally certified in surgery, and he wrote a book about his experiences which was printed in 1678, in Dutch. His volume, slim and eminently readable by the standards of the time, combines reportage, politics, lurid violence, geography, travel, botany, and adventure, as it relates its tales of terrifying pirates.

By way of background, the French West India company, founded in 1664, overextended its credit, and the colony it designed on Tortuga found itself in trouble. In the resultant fire sale, the company liquidated everything it could, including its indentured servants, whose number included Exquemelin. And, Exquemelin’s new bondholder starved and abused him until he fell ill. 

At which point his contract was sold again, this time to a surgeon for the bargain price of seventy pieces of eight. After a year, the new master freed Exquemelin on the condition that he repay him 150 pieces of eight, quite a markup. Exquemelin noted that, “I was like 1 when he was first created. I had nothing at all, and therefore, resolved to join the privateers, or buccaneers.”

Subject to No Government

Illustration of a buccaneer
Since buccaneers were not protected by any government, they were in constant danger. (Image: Internet Archive Book Images/Public domain)

Exquemelin mentioned in his pages that the buccaneer’s communities were parallel to and sometimes allied with the maroon groups. Both were made up of people who fled a shoot or revolted against labor camps of the expanding plantation system. Buccaneers were overwhelmingly male groups, although they could be multiethnic. They were primarily English and French, but also included Dutch, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Carib, and Moskito Indians, as well as African members. 

Indeed, their heterogeneous national mix gave the nations they benefited some plausible deniability, which placed them at constant risk, as we’ll see again and again, pirates at sea could be condemned as men of no nation, meaning that no law or power protected them. Exquemelin wrote that the Spanish ambassadors “were informed that these men were not subjects of the French and English kings, and that his Catholic majesty could do what he would with them if they fell into his hands”. 

The lives of the buccaneers were dangerous and their temperaments were unruly. But they followed important traditions and norms that affirm their existence outside the rigid hierarchies of royally sanctioned colonies. Even as they were intimately connected to the colonial economy.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Exquemelin’s Experience with Pirates

Exquemelin figured out very quickly that the men he had joined were not law-abiding, but he felt he had no better options, and he raided with them. “I was driven to join the pirates,” he explained. “I don’t know what other name they deserve, as they were not backed by any prince.”

His experience actually took place toward the end of the era of buccaneers, who went to supplement their raiding and hunting. English, French, and Dutchmen set up camps to harvest logwood. Logwood, despite the indifferent name, was an incredibly important dye component and, therefore, a major European trade item. 

Incidentally, logwood dye had been banned in England, but Charles the Second, repealed the ban shortly after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, prompting a new market for the products that logwood could make.

The Buccaneers of America

The Buccaneers of America was a hit. It was rapidly translated into German, then Spanish, then in 1684, into English. On the other hand, translation in the 17th century was approached somewhat differently to today. Adaptation might be a better word for the modern reader.

The Spanish translation made many changes to the original, which was decidedly uncomplimentary toward the Spanish. To be fair, it is also uncomplimentary toward the French, the Dutch and the English. The English version follows the Spanish more closely than the original Dutch, while also making adjustments of its own.

So, The Buccaneers of America is less a historical document in the usual sense, than it is a colorful account by a man who had eyes on the ground and an account that has moved and shifted significantly depending on its audience.

Significantly, its tales of depravity and torture are notably more detailed and perhaps embellished, compared to other accounts such as the colonial documents presented in the present state of Jamaica. An anonymous work that appeared shortly before the English translation of Exquemelin. Exaggerated or not, the influence of the Exquemelin book is indisputable, and much of what it relates has some portion of truth.

Common Questions about Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America

Q: What is Alexandre Exquemelin’s famous work of piracy?

Written in the 17th century by Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin, The buccaneers of America is one of the most important works on piracy. Exquemelin describes himself as a servant in Tortuga, who eventually dares to live as a surgeon among buccaneers.

Q: How did Exquemelin join the buccaneers?

In the mid-1670s, Exquemelin left the Caribbean for Amsterdam. He first received a professional certification in surgery and then wrote a book about his experiences. For some reason, Exquemelin was fired from the company he worked for and later decided to join the buccaneers.

Q: Why were buccaneers’ lives always in danger?

The buccaneers were sometimes with and sometimes against the maroon groups. Their heterogeneous combination of different nationalities had put them in constant danger because no law or power protected them, so they met an unknown fate if arrested.

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