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For your perusal, a list of a handful of swashbuckling historical novels–pirates, musketeers, various spadassins and bretteurs–with engaging swordplay, even if not always entirely accurate in its depiction. If you’re reading any of my blog posts, chances are you have friends who might enjoy reading some of these books, thus my suggestion as Christmas, Hanukkah, or other gifts this holiday season.
Three caveats are in order: all of the following are favorites of mine, all are set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and all are not “all” in the sense that the list, even narrowed strictly to my favorites, is quite incomplete. Without doubt I’ll add to it every holiday season. And maybe one day a list of swashbuckling films, another of table and board games, maybe even of video games too…
Upon reflection, perhaps a fourth caveat is in order as well: simply enjoy the stories and their swordplay for what they are. Don’t be too critical, especially of the latter. Except for the case of the reader who is an experienced fencer with a strong understanding of period fencing terms and technique (far more rare than you might think), complex historical fencing scenes cannot be written simply and just as simply understood. Nor can technique and actions in general be explained sufficiently for the neophyte to understand, at least not if the writer wishes to keep the action flowing. The writer must strike a middle ground, one that won’t lose the tempo and thus the reader. This is not so easily done.
It’s possible the Moby Dick technique would work–explain and teach prior to the event–but it’s just as likely that many readers would shun this, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, Moby Dick is by far my favorite novel and I consider it the greatest ever written. It is not, however, a book for readers who cannot step momentarily away from the narrative. As I’ve discovered after the publication of two of my books in which narrative history is interspersed with analysis and explanation, there are quite a few such readers, some of whom become plaintively irate and simultaneously–and often amusingly–confessional of more than a degree of ignorance when the narrative is interrupted for any reason. To sample this sort of reader’s mindset, just read a few of the negative reviews of Moby Dick on Amazon–not those by obvious trolls but those by apparently sincere reviewers. Put plainly, using Moby Dick as a template for swordplay scenes would probably be distracting in most swashbuckling novels.
In regard to acquiring any of these enjoyable titles, note that some are out of print except perhaps as overly-priced modern print-on-demand editions. Even for those still in print, I highly recommend purchasing earlier copies from used or antiquarian dealers–there are plenty of highly affordable copies, just look around for them. Abebooks is a great place to start, but only if you have no local independent used or antiquarian bookstores available to try first. And these days, alas, there might not be any…
Why an older edition? Because the scent of an old book helps set the period atmosphere. Add a comfortable chair, a sword or two on the wall, a fireplace in a reading room or a fire pit on the beach nearby, and, if you’re of age to drink, perhaps some rum, Madeira, or sherry-sack on a side table, and you’re ready to go. Or Scotch, especially a peaty single malt distilled near the seaside, it will evoke the atmosphere of Sir Walter Scot’s The Pirate. Scotch always works.
So just sit back and let the writer carry you along. Don’t forget to imagine the ring of steel on steel and the sharp smell of ozone after an exceptionally sharp beat or parry. And if you really enjoy scenes with swordplay, there’s no reason you can’t further your education by taking up fencing, whatever your age or physical ability. If you’d rather begin first by reading about swordplay, you can start here with Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen. And if you’re interested in how swashbuckling novels come to be–romance, swordplay, and all–read Ruth Heredia’s outstanding two volume Romantic Prince, details below.
Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Better known by its short title, Captain Blood, I list this first even though there’s really no significant description of swordplay, not even during the duel that is one of the best parts, of many, in the 1935 film version starring Errol Flynn. You must imagine the sword combat, yet in no way does it detract from this great swashbuckling romance that has inspired readers and writers worldwide, not to mention two major film versions (1924 and 1935). It is truly a modern classic. If you really want to judge the quality of the prose, read a few passages out loud: they’re wonderfully lyrical and evocative.
Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini
If it’s a description of swordplay in a tale of Captain Blood, you’ll have to settle for the “Love Story of Jeremy Pitt” in Captain Blood Returns, also known in UK editions as the Chronicles of Captain Blood. Great Captain Blood fare, follow up it with The Fortunes of Captain Blood.
The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini
One of the greatest of swashbucklers whose plot leads, line after line, to a dueling climax. The 1942 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, doesn’t do the book justice, not to mention takes great liberties with both plot and character.
Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini
An embittered former Cromwellian officer reassessing his life during the early days of the Restoration–and proper use of the unarmed hand in a sword fight too!
Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini
A novel evoking many of the elements of my Hungarian fencing masters’ own history: spies, duels, intrigue, war, revolution, narrow escapes, and above all, courage. Plus Venice!
“With delicate precision he calculated the moment at which to turn and face them. He chose to do it standing on the lowest step of the bridge, a position which would give him a slight command of them when they charged. As he spun round, he drew his sword with one hand whilst with the other he swept the cloak from his shoulders. He knew exactly what he was going to do. They should find that a gentleman who had been through all the hazards that had lain for him between Quiberon and Savenay did not fall an easy prey to a couple of bully swordsmen…”
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Add a sword and you have Scaramouche.
To my mind, a tie with The Black Swan in regard to a novel built around swordplay, and far superior in its scope. Easily has the best–most evocative, that is–description of a fencing salle, hands down.
To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston
Listed here primarily as representative of the genre at the time (the late nineteenth century) and because it influenced Rafael Sabatini, the novel has most of the classic clichés of the genre, including the duel for command of a pirate ship, something that never actually happened. A gentleman swordsman, pirates, Native Americans, a damsel incognita in distress… The duel takes place, as best as I can tell, on Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia.
Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer by Jeffery Farnol
The prequel to the following two novels, you may either love or hate the style in which it’s and the rest are written, the dialogue in particular. Even if you don’t much care for the style–I don’t much–the series are worth reading anyway for the adventure and swordplay, often including sword-armed women in disguise. Farnol will never come close to replacing Sabatini to me, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying Farnol’s swashbucklers. And at least Farnol’s dialogue doesn’t sound like, to paraphrase a friend of mine, suburbanites chatting inanely at a PTA meeting–a problem with much dialogue in modern historical fiction and television drama.
As for swordplay, Farnol often takes the evocative approach, providing broad strokes to give a sense of the action without providing detail which might confuse non-fencers:
“Once more the swords rang together and, joined thus, whirled in flashing arcs, parted to clash in slithering flurry, their flickering points darting, now in the high line, now in the low, until Adam’s blade seemed to waver from this line, flashing wide, but in that same instant he stepped nimbly aside, and as Sir Benjamin passed in the expected lunge Adam smote him lightly across broad back with the flat of his blade.”
Non-fencing authors take note of the critical vocabulary for swordplay scenes: rang, flashing, slithering, flickering, darting, flashing…
Black Bartlemy’s Treasure by Jeffery Farnol
Great swashbuckling fare, the first part of a two novel series.
Martin Conisby’s Vengeance by Jeffery Farnol
This quote alone sells this sequel to Black Bartlemy’s Treasure: “So-ho, fool!” cried she, brandishing her weapon. “You have a sword, I mind—go fetch it and I will teach ye punto riverso, the stoccato, the imbrocato, and let you some o’ your sluggish, English blood. Go fetch the sword, I bid ye.”
The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser
Enjoyable parody of swashbuckling pirate novels and films, much influenced by the works of Rafael Sabatini and Jeffery Farnol. Fraser, an author himself of wonderful swashbuckling adventure, was a great fan of Sabatini.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Requires no description. The swordplay, like that in The Pirates above, is affectionate parody, and much more detailed than in the film.
Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu by Paul Féval père
I’m going to pass on Alexandre Dumas for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ll eventually devote an entire blog to him. If, however, you feel he should be represented here, The Three Musketeers series is where to begin, but you must read the entire series of novels. Be aware that many such series are actually abridged. For a slightly different Dumas take on the swashbuckler, try Georges (an exception to the seventeenth and eighteenth century rule, an almost autobiographical novel in its focus on race and prejudice) or The Women’s War (or The War of Women, in French La Guerre des Femmes). Both are favorites of mine.
Instead, I’ll suggest a great swashbuckler by one of Dumas’ contemporaries. Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu is a true roman de cape et d’épée (swashbuckling novel) of revenge from the which the line, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” (“If you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!”), has passed into French proverb. The novel has been made into film at least nine times, plus into a couple of television versions as well as several stage versions. Unfortunately, I’m aware of only one English translation, and it is excessively–and understatement–abridged. Alexandre Dumas, Paul Féval, Rafael Sabatini are the trinity who truly established the swashbuckler as a significant literary genre.
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Not a novel, but mandatory reading nonetheless, with one of the two greatest stage duels ever written, the other being that in Hamlet. Wonderful drama, philosophy in action, and sword adventure, including a duel fought to impromptu verse. Like Captain Blood, it is one of the truly inspirational swashbucklers. To be read at least every few years, and seen on stage whenever available. There are several excellent film versions as well.
The Years Between &c by Paul Féval fils & “M. Lassez”
Two series of novels of the imagined adventures of the d’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas and the Cyrano of Edmond Rostand, filling the twenty years between The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After in the first, and immediately following Twenty Years After in the second. The books are filled with the expected enjoyable affrays and other adventures of the genre, including the usual improbable circumstances and coincidences. The first series consists of The Mysterious Cavalier, Martyr to the Queen, The Secret of the Bastille, and The Heir of Buckingham, published in English in four volumes. The second includes State Secret, The Escape of the Man in the Iron Mask, and The Wedding of Cyrano, published in English in two volumes as Comrades at Arms and Salute to Cyrano.
The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr
Fully enjoyable read about a modern history professor who travels to the seventeenth century via a bargain with the devil. The professor discovers that his modern swordplay is superior to that of the seventeenth century–a wonderful idea for a novel but otherwise flawed in reality. At best, if the professor were a “modern” epee fencer, there might be parity. But who cares? After all, who can travel back in time anyway except in the imagination? If you’re a fencer well-versed in historical fencing versus modern (again, not as many as you might think, including some who believe they are), suspend your disbelief. And if you’re not, just enjoy the novel for what it is.
Most Secret by John Dickson Carr
Pure genre by the famous mystery writer, this time entirely set in the seventeenth century. Cavaliers, spies, and a damsel in distress!
The Alatriste Novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Leaping forward almost two hundred years, the Alatriste novels are a highly recommended recent series by one of Spain’s great novelists, although some critics note that the books are a bit dark. I’d call them realistic. Unfortunately, the latest of the series, El Puente de los Asesinos (The Bridge of the Assassins or The Assassin’s Bridge) has not been translated into English and doesn’t appear likely to be anytime soon, if at all, an apparent casualty of insufficient sales of the previous volumes and a reflection upon the state of the genre at the moment. That the genre should not have a larger readership given the times we live in is curious, but perhaps the audience awaits a few real-life swashbuckling heroes to reappear first. I have read The Assassin’s Bridge, but in French, and enjoyed it. My Spanish is simply not up to the task. The first six volumes are available in English translation. I also suggest The Fencing Master (El Maestro de Escrima) by the same author.
Romantic Prince by Ruth Heredia
For readers seeking to understand how written romances come to be, you can do no better than to read Ruth Heredia’s two Romantic Prince volumes: Seeking Sabatini and Reading Sabatini. The first is a biography of Rafael Sabatini, the second a guide to reading his many works, including some discussion of swordplay. Ruth Heredia is the preeminent expert on all things Rafael Sabatini. Long an officer and significant contributor to the Rafael Sabatini Society, she is a gifted writer in her right, and, in my own experience, an eloquent voice for sanity, empathy, and justice in a mad world. Originally published in now hard-to-find soft cover, her two volumes are now available in revised editions for free for personal use by requesting them from the author. You can find details at attica-ruth.
Fortune’s Whelp by Benerson Little
Last, a blatant effort at self-promotion, although I honestly did enjoy writing the swordplay scenes (not to mention working them out sword-in-hand), and I do enjoy re-reading the associated passages, or at least as much as I’m able to enjoy my own writing (the urge to revise and improve, even after publication, is quite distracting). A sequel, Fortune’s Favorite, is forthcoming, and at least another after it. Then, if all goes well, a series of prequels.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First published December 14, 2017. Last updated December 30, 2018.
So, “Did pirates wear eye patches?”
The short answer: Only if they had lost eyes to disease or injury, and this was no more prevalent among pirates than among fighting seamen and soldiers. In other words, the eye patch is in no way a sign or symbol of the pirate per se, nor even of the seaman in general.
Still, the question is a good one, if only to give us a reason to dig into related history.
The Mythbusters television show and other speculators have recently added to the myth by working backward from the proposition, that is, “If pirates wore eye patches, why would they have worn them?” rather than looking first at primary sources to see if there is any evidence that pirates wore them at all. There isn’t, other than as noted below.
The associated suggestions that pirates may have worn eye patches to improve night vision or daylight lookout observations or to enable them to fight below decks isn’t supported by any primary source material. In fact, the loss of sight in an eye, even by wearing an eye patch, causes significant loss in both depth perception and visual breadth, making movement aboard a vessel, aloft especially, very dangerous. It would also make visual observation by a lookout much more difficult.
As for fighting below decks, pirates didn’t really do much of it: it was much easier to flush crew below decks by tossing grenades and firepots into breaches chopped into decks and bulkheads with boarding axes. In other words, the mere idea that eye patches might have been used to aid in fighting below decks shows a clear lack of understanding of the subject.
In other words: There is no historical evidence at all for any of these purported reasons why a pirate might have worn eye patches! Mythbusters and other popular “documentaries” are entertainment, not serious history. This includes “The History Channel,” now known I think as History.com: it’s “docu-tainment,” not real history.
Again, if a pirate wore an eye patch it was because he had lost an eye or was disfigured in his eye, and for no other reason!
The origin of the modern myth that pirates wore eye patches is largely literary. However, its roots lay deep in reality, both in the fact that eyes were often lost to disease and battle trauma, and that a one-eyed person often looks fearsome or sinister. The latter sense goes back millennia, and probably farther. Homer’s Cyclops, Polyphemus, is an early instance.
Some versions of Bernal Diaz’s The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico describe the fierce old musketeer Heredia, sent to frighten Native Americans, as a one-eyed, one-legged (or game-legged) soldier. The same work describes how Cortez’s enemy, Narvaez, lost an eye in battle.
Among seafaring journals and other records of the Golden Age of Piracy, there is only occasional mention of one-eyed seamen, usually in lists of those wounded in battle. Exquemelin’s various editions of The Buccaneers of America famously list compensation for the wounded, including the loss of an eye, and it is here that the primary source of the myth of pirates and eye patches is probably to be found, in combination with other works such as Bernal Diaz’s. The loss of an eye in battle was fairly common, in fact: seafarer Edward Coxere describes the use of oakum and tallow to stuff an eye socket in order to heal the wound, for example. Notably, none of the several eyewitness images of buccaneers or flibustiers from the 1680s show any with any of the usual Hollywood characteristics: wooden legs, eye patches, parrots, hooks, &c. This is to be expected. The large number of images of seamen, usually naval, with eye patches dates to a century later.
As a friend, “Tweeds Blues,” pointed out recently, it seemingly would not be surprising to find a fair number of one-eyed naval, privateer, and pirate seamen, given the damage done by splinters in action. Here I feel the need to point out yet again that Mythbusters is entertainment: an episode even suggested that splinters didn’t cause much damage in a naval action. In fact they did: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts of the damage done, not to mention at least one accurate test that proves the horrible extent of damage splinters can do. The Mythbusters test parameters were simply incorrect, not to mention that overwhelming historical evidence was largely ignored. The images above show splinters resulting from round shot striking a correctly-built hull section. The test was conducted by the Maritime Museum in Erie, Pennsylvania, home of the Flagship Niagara.
Of course, the most famous example of a naval mariner with an eye patch is that of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, who lost the sight in one eye during the capture of Calvi on Corsica in 1793–except that did not actually wear an eye patch. This has not stopped the popular assumption that he did from becoming prevalent, and, although out of our period, this has still influenced the idea of the one-eyed mariner, and therefore one-eyed pirate.
The fact is, patches were commonly used to cover any facial disfigurement. In the seventeenth century diarist and navy secretary Samuel Pepys wore a black patch, or possibly a large beauty patch, to cover a large cold sore. Similarly, King William III advised a soldier to remove the black patch covering the scar on his face because “It’s more honourable in a Soldier to wear a Scar than a Patch.” (For the latter reference, see Coke in the sources listed below.)
By the late eighteenth century the image of the eye-patched, peg-legged seaman was iconic, probably the result of the increased number of British naval actions brought on by the American Revolution and, especially, the Napoleonic Wars. Notably, in reality most such disabled seamen were pensioned from service, as shown above. These satirical images are probably the material origin of the popular identification of the naval seaman, and therefore the pirate, with eye patches.
Even with its legitimate historical roots in fact, this pirate myth, like many, didn’t come fully into being until the mid-nineteenth century, a hundred or more years after the Golden Age of Piracy. Sir Walter Scott in The Fortunes of Nigel describes “The noble Captain Colepepper, or Peppercull, for he was known by both these names, and some others besides, had a martial and a swashing exterior, which, on the present occasion, was rendered yet more peculiar, by a patch covering his left eye and a part of the cheek. The sleeves of his thickset velvet jerkin were polished and shone with grease, — his buff gloves had huge tops, which reached almost to the elbow; his sword-belt of the same materials extended its breadth from his haunchbone to his small ribs, and supported on the one side his large black-hilted back-sword, on the other a dagger of like proportions.” Here is the epitome of the swashbuckler, easily translated to the pirate.
Not long after, Charles Dickens described a pirate with “the one eye and the patch across the nose” and soon afterward similarly did many writers of popular fiction. However, many of our principle originators or propagators of pirate myths—Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, for example—do not appear to have bothered with this myth, although Barrie’s Captain Hook probably did encourage other images of pirates missing a vital part such as a limb or eye.
In 1926 Douglas Fairbanks propagated nineteenth century pirate myths, as well as a few he helped create, across the world with his film The Black Pirate. In it he established the modern pirate swashbuckler stereotype, based much on Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, Peter Pan, and probably Captain Blood (one of whose characters, by the way, was one-eyed, although he lost the eye at Sedgemoor, not at sea). Around the same time, we begin to see pirate book cover art and other illustrations showing pirates with eye patches. But it would take later films, such as The Black Swan and The Crimson Pirate to make the eye patch an obvious, routine part of the stereotypical pirate costume.
Roger Coke. A Detection of the Court and State of England. 4th ed. London: J. Brotherton and W. Meadows, 1719. Vol. 2:472.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España. Reprint, Madrid: Don Benito Cano, 1795. See vol. 1:213.
Edward Coxere. Adventures by Sea of Edward Coxere. Edited by E. H. W. Meyerstein. London: Oxford University, 1946.
Charles Dickens. “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners.” 1857. Reprinted in Charles Dickens’s Stories from the Christmas Numbers. New York: MacMillan, 1896. Page 144.
Alexandre Exquemelin [John Esquemeling]. The Buccaneers of America. London: Crooke, 1684. Reprint, New York: Dorset Press, 1987. Page 60.
Benerson Little. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016. Prologue.
——. “El Mito Pirata” in Desperta Ferro 17 (August 2015), 52-55.
Heidi Mitchell. “Does Reading in Dim Light Hurt Your Eyes?” Wall Street Journal online, April 8, 2013, http://www.wsj.com.
Mythbusters, Episode 71.
Samuel Pepys. Diary. September 26, 1664.
Walter Scott. The Fortunes of Nigel. Boston: Samuel H. Parker, 1822. Page 255.
The Telegraph. “Nelson didn’t wear eye-patch, says historian.” January 19, 2005.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2017. Last updated October 15, 2018.
Before we get, finally, to the swordplay, swashbuckling or not, of the late seventeenth century sea rover, we’ll take a closer look at the boucaniers who often accompanied buccaneers or flibustiers on their roving adventures, to use a polite term. Victims and objective observers were more likely to name these adventures for what they typically were: attacks and raids composed in part or all of killing, maiming, murder, torture, rapine, slaving, and rape, all foremost in the name of greed, and secondarily, although not always even then, in the name of national agendas. All was justified via the Black Legend (La Leyenda Negra) of Spain, an empire no less culpable than the privateers and pirates who attacked its far flung outposts. From these hunters did the buccaneers–the English-aligned Caribbean sea rovers–take their name. The boucaniers were hunters (chasseurs) of cattle and swine on Hispaniola, particularly on the French-claimed west, including on Île-à-Vache, and also in a small number at Samana on the Spanish-claimed east.
Boucaniers hunted in small groups with packs of dogs, typically focusing on wild cattle for their hides, or on wild pigs for their flesh, which the boucaniers smoked slowly into boucan, and for their fat, which the boucaniers rendered into lard (manteca). Often attacked by Spanish raiding parties, the boucaniers–already expert shots–developed quick-firing techniques, and also the practice of keeping up a constant volume of fire, as opposed to firing conventionally in volleys (a practice also seen among the Spanish conquistadores in the Americas).
There were usually only a few hundred at most of these hunters, typically two hundred to five hundred depending on the decade. When hunting was bad, or if the market was bad, they might sail with buccaneers temporarily, or become full-time buccaneers (many buccaneers began their careers as the engages or indentured servants of boucaniers), or serve as hunters of escaped slaves, or volunteer to serve the English at Jamaica or the windward islands as hunters. Boucaniers were in particular demand during the early years of Caribbean buccaneering, circa 1655 to 1670 or so, as hunters for provisioning the various privateering, quasi-piratical, and sometimes entirely piratical voyages.
I have described their general details elsewhere, particularly in The Buccaneer’s Realm (pages 39-51), and readers interested in further detail may also consult the works of the priests and cultural observers Jean Baptiste Du Tertre, Jean Baptiste Labat, and, to a lesser extent, Jean Baptist Lepers (a bit of a pattern here), and also buccaneer surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin, all of whose citations are given below. This blog post will focus on how boucaniers actually dressed and accoutered themselves, comparing written descriptions with secondhand illustrations and, in particular, with detailed eyewitness illustrations made by French engineers and cartographers in the 1680s. Again, as I noted in the previous post, these images have been largely overlooked and not analyzed in detail until I did so three years ago. Further, I did not have access to several of the illustrations below at the time I made my first analysis.
As is the case with our image or visual idea of the buccaneer, that of the boucanier has been influenced by illustrators who have interpreted written eyewitness descriptions, and these interpretations have been copied over the centuries. The illustration taken from Exquemelin’s 1688 French edition (above) has been reproduced, often altered in minor ways, over the centuries, but it has serious flaws. The musket is strongly suggestive of a fusil boucanier, given its length and large butt (although the lock is incorrectly placed on the left side), but it is otherwise incorrect in its details. The image is also largely incorrect in general except for the shirt and breeches. De Fer’s 1698 map of the Americas below includes a similar illustration with similar mistakes, given that it was clearly made by an engraver interpreting written descriptions and not from personal experience.
De Fer’s image shows a boucanier as described in Exquemelin, with a reasonable, if inaccurate in their details, imagining of a fusil boucanier, a cropped hat, and a sheath holding several hunting knives. Smaller vignettes show boucaniers dressing pigs and smoking their flesh, hunting with dogs, stretching a cowhide to dry, and relaxing by a fire.
But we can do better! Once more cartographer Paul Cornuau comes to the rescue. Below is his eyewitness illustration of a boucanier firing at a wild cow or bull who has a quizzical, almost “Looney Tunes” look on his face. The boucanier’s dog is keeping the bovine beast at bay. The dog is as described by Exquemelin: with “a long flat head, sharp muzzle, savage air, thin lean body.” This is pretty much the form of all wild dogs subsequently domesticated, even today. The hunting of wild cattle was dangerous, and both Exquemelin and William Dampier note its hazards. Exquemelin describes how boucaniers often hunted cattle from trees, then had an engagé run up and hamstring the dead or dying animal, just in case.
Taking a look at the boucanier’s dress, we find a shirt and the sort breeches worn by flibusters and common working men on Saint-Domingue. The hat is clearly the cropped hat described by Exquemelin (Dampier also notes a “crop’t hat”): the brim left long in the front but cut short the rest of the way around, akin to a modern baseball cap, the difference being that it appears that a small amount of brim was left at the back and sides. At the boucanier’s waist is what appears to be a large sheath to hold three or four “Flemish” knives, as described by Exquemelin and Labat, and confirmed shortly by other illustrations. His legs appear to be bare, and on his feet are surely the “field expedient” boucanier shoes–“souliers de cochon“–made from the skin cut from the hocks of wild pigs, which Du Tertre and Labat describe and which I’ll discuss in a moment.
Above is a boucanier carrying a gutted wild pig, its head removed but the skin still on. This was doubtless for convenience as the boucanier headed back to the ajoupa or camp (also known as a boucan). How the carcass is slung is open for conjecture: Dampier describes logwood cutters as cutting a beef carcass into four quarters, one per man who would then cut a hole in his and sling over his head “like a frock.” This may be what we see here, but with a pig carcass. The boucanier’s dress is as we see above, with little more detail except the hat, which is clearly cropped at the sides and back, with a long brim in front. The shoes are similar, obviously the “souliers de cochon” to be described in a moment: they have neither heel nor tongue, and extend beyond the toes. He carries a fusil boucanier, with a typical notch in the stock where the butt begins.
Above is another boucanier with a pig carcass slung, this one by the legs. His mouth is tied for some reason. Examined at the highest available resolution, the pig appears to be slung via holes cut into its carcass and worn like a jacket. This boucanier is clowning around a bit, holding his fusil boucanier with heavy butt over or on his head. His hat is probably of the cropped sort, his jacket is short, his breeches common, his legs bare, and his shoes surely the “souliers de cochon.” Around his neck (as in the case of a flibustier described in the previous post) is a musket tool, and at his waist appear to be two small pouches slung from his belt, and a small powder horn. Although boucaniers are typically described as wearing a large cartouche box holding thirty paper cartridges, clearly not all did, until this boucanier wears his at the small of his back on his belt. Boucanier belts were often of cowhide with the hair still on, and even at times of crocodile (and therefore probably caiman too). Note that buccaneer and boucanier belts tend to be narrow, and never more than of moderate width, unlike what we see in Hollywood films.
Above is a boucanier skinning a pig hung by the neck from a branch. Very likely, the carcass is hung from the same hole the boucanier probably thrust his head through in order to carry it, as described above. Typically, a pig carcass was gutted, skinned, and deboned, and the flesh cut into long strips roughly one and a half inches square and up to six feet long, then often salted (it would last longer this way), then smoked slowly on a barbecue over coals, on which were thrown the skin, bones, and offal for it was believed they gave the boucan–smoked pig–better flavor. (Note that boucan can mean the grill or barbecue, the smoked pig flesh itself, and the place.) This boucanier wears a cropped hat, has “souliers de cochon” on his feet, has a large sheath for three or four knives at his waist (we’ll see a better illustration soon). In his mouth is a probably Flemish knife of the sort commonly seen in this era.
Below is a boucanier stretching a hide, almost certainly a cowhide, to dry. William Dampier describes the process well as it was practiced at Laguna de Términos by cattle hunters among the logwood cutters, and the practice of scraping and drying the hides was likely the same among the hunters of Hispaniola. Of particular note in this illustration are the musket, cropped hat, knife sheath, and shoes. The musket is probably a fusil boucanier drawn poorly in perspective, therefore too short, but it could be that it is simply a shorter weapon. The hat is clearly cropped closely on the sides but left long at front. The sheath is the best illustration yet of the boucanier’s way of carrying several knives in a single sheath. It appears there is one large knife and several small. The small item hanging from the sheath is without doubt, as someone whose name unfortunately has momentarily slipped my mind, a sharpening steel.
The shoes are notable, especially the apparent projection at the toes, and they are distinct from the illustrations of shoes worn by Cornuau’s buccaneers (although one does indeed appear to be wearing “souliers de cochon,” and these may be what Fray Juan de Avila refers to as shoes of pigskin worn by the buccaneers who attacked Veracruz in 1683). Dutertre and Labat describe boucanier shoes as being cut from pig hocks (Dutertre) or from pig or cattle hocks (Labat)–peeled from the leg is a better description–into which the feet were thrust. These crude untanned shoes were trimmed to size, then tied at the ankle and just past the toes with raw pigskin laces. (We should also note that Exquemelin does describe boucaniers as also wearing shoes made of cowhide, which may be conventional shoes or similar crude shoes.)
Unfortunately, the details of precisely how these crude shoes were made are lacking in these descriptions. To our rescue is a description of Cuban hunters in 1803 who wore the same footwear: “Besides his untanned shoe, the chasseur often contrives in the woods a curious defence for his feet, which is greatly preferable. Having skinned the thighs and hocks of the wild hog, he thrusts his foot into the raw hide as far as he can force it, then cuts a small slip at the instep, and with his knife takes off the superfluous skin behind, adapting the remainder to his ancle and the lower part of his leg. The pliant hide takes the shape of a close short half boot, fitting like a glove on the foot, with a lengthened useless projection beyond the toe, something resembling the modern fashion of our beaux. This contrivance will last a march of weeks, or months; but once taken off, the skin dries, shrivels, and becomes useless.”
This is a rather nasty sort of footwear by modern standards, but boucaniers were invariably described as leading rather nasty lives: their hair and beards often matted with blood, their clothing black with dried blood, and, we may assume, seldom if ever bathing.
Notably, these crude shoes were also worn by the Jamaica equivalent of the French boucaniers. These English pig hunters, whose general practice was much the same as their French counterparts but for the manner in which they “jerck’t hog” (salted and smoked in two sides with the skin on), wore shoes made of “the skine of the hinde leggs of these hoggs…without ever sending it either to the tanners or curriers.” (John Taylor, his manuscript published in Jamaica in 1687, edited by David Buisseret, p. 135).
The knife sheathes shown in the boucanier illustrations above are probably similar in construction to those in the two seventeenth century Dutch images immediately above and below.
Above is a boucanier in conversation. The illustration confirms hat, knife sheath, and shoes. His jacket is buttoned all the way up. On the right below is a likely boucanier, given that he is, like the hunter on the left, paired with a flibustier. (Note that indentured servants and the common working class dressed somewhat similarly: an illustration of a worker at a cotton gin on a Cornuau chart has similar shirt, breeches, and cropped hat, and is barefoot.) Of note is the boucanier’s clothing: his hat is cropped, he wears a jacket over his shirt, and his shoes may be the “souliers de cochon” although it is difficult to tell. What we don’t necessarily see in these illustrations are the machete or bayonet commonly noted in addition to the skinning knives (although the latter may be the large-handled knife in some of the illustrations), and the “mosquito netting” worn around the waist or over the shoulder like a bandoleer, although the latter is seen in an illustration of a buccaneer in the previous post. Possibly the machete was worn only in the field, or may be hidden in some illustrations, and the mosquito netting worn only when on the march. None are bearded, although Exquemelin described some of them as such.
So here we have it–several eyewitness illustrations to go with eyewitness written descriptions, correcting past impressions and giving us a brief look into the visual reality of the boucaniers who hunted on Saint-Domingue, provided hides for sale, boucan for buccaneers and local populations, who fought Spaniards sent to stop their interloping, and who often accompanied buccaneers on their roving against the Spanish in the New World.
Anon. “Proposals for Carrying on an Effectual War in America, Against the French and Spaniards.” 1702. Reprinted in The Harleian Miscellany. London: T. Osborne, 1744.
Avila, Juan de. “Pillage de la ville de Veracruz par les pirates le 18 mai 1683 (Expedition de Lorencillo).” Amoxcalli manuscript no. 266, http://amoxcalli.org.mx/paleografia.php?id=266.
——. “Plan des passes et du bourg du levé et dessigné par ordre de Mr. De Cussy, Gouverneur pour le Roy de l’isle de la Tortue et coste St. Domingue.” 1685. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “Plan du cartier et de la rade de Nipe,” 1685. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “Plan du Cap et de son entrée,” 1684. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “Plan du cul de sac de Léogane,” 1685. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “Plan Ignographique du Fon et de l’Isle à Vache,” 1686. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “Plan ignographique du Fon et de l’Isle à Vache,” 1686 (second chart bearing this title). Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Dampier, William. Voyages and Discoveries. 1729. Reprint, London: Argonaut Press, 1931.
Dutertre, Jean Baptiste. Histoire Generale des Ant-Isles Habitées par les François. Paris: Thomas Jolly, 1671.
Exquemelin, A. O. [Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin]. De Americaensche zee-roovers. Amsterdam: Jan ten Hoorn, 1678.
——. Bucaniers of America. London: William Crooke, 1684.
—— [Alexander Olivier O’Exquemelin]. Histoire des avanturiers qui se sont signalez dans les Indes. 2 vols. Paris: Jacques Le Febure,1688.
——. Historie der Boecaniers, of Vrybuyters van America. Amsterdam: Nicolaas ten Hoorn, 1700.
——. The History of the Bucaniers. London: T. Malthus, 1684.
——. Piratas de la America, y luz à la defensa de las costas de Indias Occidentales. Translated from the Dutch by Alonso de Buena-Maison. Cologne: Lorenza Struickman, 1681.
Labat, Jean Baptiste. Nouveau Voyage aux Isles d’Amerique. 6 vols. Paris: Guillaume Cavelier, 1722.
Little, Benerson. The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674–1688. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2007.
——. “Eyewitness Images of Buccaneers and Their Vessels.” The Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 98, no. 3 (2012), 312–326.
——. “Las Tácticas de los Piratas del Caribe.” Desperta Ferro, no. 17 (August 2015), 27-32.
——. “El Mito Pirata.” Desperta Ferro, no. 17 (August 2015), 52-55.
——. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques 1630–1730. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005.
Partenay. “Ainsy se fait voir le Petit Gouave au Sud-est et nord oist éloignée . . . ,” 1688. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2015. First posted October 15, 2015, last updated April 30, 2018.
Copyright Benerson Little 2015-2018. First published October 15, 2015, last updated September 10, 2018.