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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.
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——. “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.
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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.