John David Nau: The Most Violent in Pirate History?

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Pirates

By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

One of the better known names to appear in Alexandre Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America include François L’Olonnais. His given name was John David Nau. He was born in France but came to the Caribbean when young as an indentured servant. Once he had gained his freedom, he joined the Buccaneers and was apparently one of the most violent sociopaths among them.

A poster showing the death of John David Nau
John David Nau was an extremely merciless buccaneer. (Image: Allen & Ginter/Public domain)

John David Nau

A year or two into his piratical career, Nau was shipwrecked off the coast of Campeche. He covered himself in the blood of fallen sailors and hid under the corpses on the beach until the Spaniards who preyed on the wreck had passed on. He then talked to a group of enslaved captives into helping him steal a canoe so he could escape to Tortuga, leaving everyone to think that he was dead.

Rather than retiring safely, however, he stole a new ship, supposedly a Spanish marauder sent to be certain that he was really dead and not besieging Tortuga. The Spanish governor was enraged and intended to launch a major anti-buccaneering campaign, but his subjects in Cuba persuaded him not to. The Buccaneers greatly outnumbered the Spanish ships, and starting a campaign of revenge against them would inevitably mean suffering for the Spanish Cubans, even if it solved his ego.

The incorrigible Nau next gathered a force and attacked Maracaibo and nearby Gibraltar towns in modern-day northwestern Venezuela around 1666. The prisoners whom they did not torture or starve to death were eventually ransomed, and the wealthy buccaneers returned to party in Tortuga. “The tavern keepers got part of their money, and the whores took the rest,” wrote Exquemelin. 

Cross of burgundy, the old flag of Spain
It seemed that John David Nau hated the Spanish people and considered them his enemies. (Image: Ningyou/Public domain)

The Fate of a Cannibal

And then they set sail again, this time for Nicaragua. At this point, the Buccaneers of America pauses to talk about torture for several pages. The gist of it is that Nau particularly hated Spanish people and seems to have had a little bit of a bent for cannibalism.

There’s one story, totally unverifiable mind you, that pirate writers loved to reprint to horrify their readers. One day, incensed when he did not get the answers he needed from some prisoners and “being possessed of a devil fury” as Exquemelin put it, Nau “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”. 

Maybe this was bad PR, as in any case, Nau’s forces were turned back by indigenous people living near the Nicaragua River. Escaping to Darien in what is now Panama, they were captured by the goner people of that region who hacked Nau to bits. The narrator hints strongly that this was only fair.

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

Rock the Brazilian

Esquemelin seemed to whet the appetites of the English reading public for more tales of buccaneers. The other known name in his pages is Rock the Brazilian, also known as Jose Braziliano, who was actually a Dutchman, possibly named Garrett Gerrit Gerritszoon, although Exquemelin had no way of knowing that. Rock, we are told, made all Jamaica tremble, for he had no self-control at all, chopping off limbs and burning prisoners alive if they displeased him. 

We don’t seem to have any other eyewitness accounts to this behavior, but the lurid detail is typical of Exquemelin, sometimes weary and sometimes traumatized narrative style.

Buccaneers of America the Second Volume

In 1685, the bookseller William Crooke brazenly published Buccaneers of America the Second Volume, which was really the journal of Basil Ringrose, a well-educated, intelligent marine cartographer, who sailed with such eventually famous privateers as the circumnavigator William Dampier, and the highly violent buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp. 

These men had been on a piratical voyage against the Spanish main and elected to march across the isthmus of Panama, allying with the Guna people of Darién, whom you may recall from the story of John David Nau. They eventually reached the coast and resumed sea rating, returning eastwards around Cape Horn to head home to the Atlantic.

Common Questions about John David Nau: The Most Violent in Pirate History

Q: Who was John David Nau?

Among the notorious names appearing in Alexandre Exquemelin’s book, Buccaneers of America, is François L’Olonnais, also known as John David Nau. Born in France, he later came to the Caribbean as an indentured servant at a young age. After gaining his freedom, he joined the buccaneers and became one of the most violent among them.

Q: What was the story of John David Nau in Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America?

A year or two after the piratical activities, John David Nau was shipwrecked off the coast of Campeche. He then hid among the bodies on the beach so that the Spanish could not find him. With the help of a group of prisoners, Nao stole a canoe and fled to Tortuga. Later he stole a new ship and enraged the Spanish governor. The governor also planned to launch an anti-buccaneer campaign, but his subjects in Cuba persuaded him to stop.

Q: How did John David Nau die?

Around 1666, John David Nau rallied and invaded Maracaibo and nearby towns of Gibraltar in northwestern present-day Venezuela. Prisoners who survived the torture and starvation were released on ransom, enriching Nao and his buccaneers. They then headed back to Nicaragua, but Nao’s forces were repulsed by indigenous people living near the Nicaraguan River. When they fled to Darién, they were captured by goners who harshly killed Nau by tearing him to pieces.

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