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The dashing image in the banner above–in which Peter Blood’s posed-for-the-camera attack has been parried by the equally posed Captain Levasseur, and Blood needs to recover quickly before he finds a blade in his eye or his belly–is taken from an original publicity still for Captain Blood, 1935, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone. The film duel between Flynn and Rathbone, of clashing swords on California sand, is without doubt the most iconic of Hollywood sword fights, and although it has often been imitated, the results have almost never been quite as satisfactory. Certainly no other film “duel on the beach” is so evocative.
Therefore, in view of the foregoing, not to mention my long admiration for both the novel by Rafael Sabatini and its film version directed by Michael Curtiz, and as much for fun and nostalgia as for education, I’ll spend my first dozen or more blog posts working my way through authentic, literary, and film swordplay among pirates, with occasional associated digressions.
However, before we draw swords and explore the myth and reality of fencing with “sharps” among pirates and others, we’ll consider what the seafaring thieves of the 1680s Caribbean actually looked like, and how they were armed. Was this anything like Sabatini or Curtiz represented them? Was it anything like illustrators and Hollywood artists—Howard Pyle and Douglas Fairbanks, for example, whose works have come to define the image of the buccaneer—dressed them up and showed them off?
To begin, we require a few definitions. With a few exceptions, most of the Caribbean sea rovers from 1655, when England piratically seized Jamaica from Spain, to 1688, when Europe went to all out open war, existed in a gray area between legitimate privateering and outright piracy. At times these sea rovers had legitimate commissions, at times a mere “wink and a nod” from local authority, and at times no commissions at all, or forged ones, or falsely extended ones. In all cases these rovers eschewed the term pirate for two reasons: first, piracy was a hanging offense, and second, they considered themselves as something better than common pirates. After all, they not only attacked well-armed Spanish ships at sea, but they also, in military order, sacked Spanish towns.
Their preferred terms were, among the English-associated rovers, privateer and buccaneer. The former proclaimed their legitimacy, the latter their unique place. The term buccaneer derives from boucanier, the term for the French cattle and swine hunter of Hispaniola, which derives from boucan, a Tupi word meaning grill or grate for cooking and smoking meat and fish. (Similarly, barbecue derives from the Spanish barbacoa, which derives from the Taino word for the grill or grate.) The French-associated rovers, on the other hand, used the term flibustier, which, as far as we can tell, originated with the Dutch vryjbuiter, which was anglicized via a pretty much direct translation as freebooter, which the French adopted as fribustier and flibustier, which was later anglicized as filibuster. Occasionally the French used the term aventurier, or adventurer, which accurately reflected the men drawn from all walks of life to the trade.
From a number of eyewitness written descriptions we have a pretty good idea what these buccaneers and filibusters looked like, or at least enough of an idea to make some reasonable conjectures. Unfortunately, lacking archaeological evidence, we are likely to make some mistakes.We cannot even rely on period illustrations in first-hand accounts about buccaneers, for it is almost certain that the illustrators never saw their subjects. The only exception may be the illustrations of Henry Morgan, who is likely, given his fame, to have sat for a portrait in London while there after sacking Panama.
Worse, fiction, popular illustration, and film have corrupted our idea of what these gentlemen of semi-legitimate fortune may have looked like, as in the case of Howard Pyle’s romantic image above. Therefore, rather than provide several written descriptions first and speculate from them, we’ll cut to the chase and see with our own eyes exactly what Captain Peter Blood’s buccaneers and filibusters really would have looked like.
It turns out that in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) and the French Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer (ANOM), are a couple dozen charts of French Caribbean ports, primarily those of Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola, made during the 1680s by French engineers. In other words, these are charts rendered by eyewitnesses. And in the cartouches of a fair number are detailed eyewitness drawings of filibusters and boucaniers, as well as of the occasional common worker, probably an engagé (indentured servant), and the occasional slave.
I discovered these by accident a few years ago. I wasn’t the first to do so, but I was, as far as I know, the first to analyze some of them in detail and publish the results (Mariner’s Mirror, August 2012). Their significance had been almost entirely overlooked. For me, the discovery made me feel as if I had briefly traveled back in time—and left me disappointed I could not remain at least for a while.
And here’s why! In this first image, we see a pair of buccaneers or flibustiers at Petit Goave on Saint-Domingue, the western half of Hispaniola claimed by the French. By the 1680s Petit Goave had replaced Tortuga as the sea roving port on Saint-Domingue, and was populated by a large number of flibustiers of several nationalities, colors, and ethnicities.
The buccaneer on the left is armed with long-barreled fusil boucanier, or “buccaneer gun” in English, the common weapon of the Caribbean sea rover. He wears a large cartouche box at his left front, and a cutlass at the side behind it. We can assume from his scabbard that his cutlass is, like his companion’s, made with a clip point, a common style during the era. His hat is small-brimmed, turned up on the left side, and appears to have a small plume. He wears a stylish cravat. His coat is fairly long, and short-sleeved with large cuffs. He may be wearing a sash over it. His stockings are conventional and worn over the knee as was the practice at the time, and his shoes are conventional with short tongues.
His swashbuckling companion is armed with a cutlass whose hilt, given its style, is probably of brass. He likewise wears a large cartouche box at the left front. His hat is broad-brimmed with a large plume, and is turned up at the front. He appears to wear a cravat. His jacket is shorter, with two rows of buttons, short sleeves with cuffs (or rolled up sleeves), and he has a sash tied around his waist, almost certainly with a belt over it to hold cartouche box and cutlass. He wears seaman’s breeches, possibly un-gathered, with stockings that appear to be worn over the knee. His shoes are conventional. It’s impossible to know if they are buckled or tied.
Next we have a couple of flibustiers or buccaneers drawn at Île-à-Vache, a common rendezvous off the southwest coast of Hispaniola. Our buccaneer on the right is armed with a fusil boucanier, as most were. The musket is correctly depicted at half-cock, and the deep notch at the neck is the sort later known as “female.” His large cartouche box is worn at the left front over a sash and certainly on a belt. His jacket is short, with large cuffs. His wide, probably open breeches are those of a seaman. His shoes common, his hat broad-brimmed and with a plume. He may have a mustache, and, notably, his hair is shoulder-length and loose. Many seamen–and buccaneers were a combination seaman and soldier–wore their hair tied back or in a queue so that it would not get in their faces or get drawn into a block. But at least among the buccaneers and flibustiers, this rule did not always apply.
At the left is another buccaneer and his fusil boucanier, again correctly at half-cock, along with his typical large cartouche box–commonly holding thirty-six cartridges–at the left front. He has a cutlass, although all that’s visible is the scabbard on his right side, making him left-handed. Again, the cutlass is clip-pointed. His hat is turned up at the right side, with a plume on the left, although it’s possible the hat is actually a boucanier’s cropped hat (see next blog post). Like the previous buccaneer, his jacket is short, but with smaller cuffs. His shirt has a bit of lace at the cuffs, and he wears a cravat. His stockings are secured at the knee, and his shoes common, apparently with short tongues.
In the image below, made by “Partenay” aboard the small French man-of-war Le Marin in 1688, we can compare illustrators for accuracy. It depicts two aventuriers, the one on the left possibly a boucanier, given the wild pig at his feet, although he may in fact be a flibustier (boucaniers often accompanied flibustiers, and some men went back and forth between the trades), and the one on the right probably a flibustier. Both men wear fairly broad-brimmed hats turned up at the front, and both wear what are probably wide seaman’s breeches, but similar garments–caleçons of linen or canvas, often open at the knee–were common to boucaniers, indentured servants, and others. Both men have loose shoulder length hair. The hunter or flibustier on the left wears a common shirt, large and loose, and appears to have a cravat or kerchief at the neck and tucked into the shirt. The fusil boucanier is of the “club butt” style which, at least in the eighteenth century, came to be the most common. Note the short clay pipe smoked by the flibustier on the right.
In the image below, again by Cornuau, we see a flibustier with two captured Spaniards in chains. He is armed with cutlass with a small shell or shells, and a strongly curved blade with a clip-point. His scabbard hangs from a sword belt common to the period, that is, with two straps, with loops at the end, hanging from the belt. His large, obviously thirty round, cartouche box is on his right side, perhaps an illustrator error, perhaps personal preference. He wears a short, perhaps crude jacket, probably of osnabrig canvas or sackcloth. He also wears wide seaman’s breeches, as many of his associated do. His head covering is a boucanier cropped hat, and his footwear is a pair of crude boucanier shoes made of raw pigskin cut from pig hocks. This footwear seems common among flibustiers, and may be what Father Avila meant when referring to pigskin shoes among the flibustiers. (See also The Authentic Image of the Boucanier for more details on these shoes.)
These buccaneers or filibusters are probably dressed as they commonly were, particularly ashore in their own ports. The arms they bear in the images above are also largely what they would use during attacks at sea, even during boarding actions against ships whose crews had retreated to closed quarters: even here the musket had its uses. It was less useful, of course, in hand-to-hand action on open decks. Common arms used during attacks on ships were the musket to suppress enemy fire and pick him off, as well as to engage enemy loopholes in closed quarters; the cutlass and pistol for close combat; the boarding ax, often along with a hand-crow, for chopping into decks and bulkheads in order to breach closed quarters (and it from this purpose that the boarding ax gets its name); the cartridge box for reloading musket and pistol; and the grenade, fire-pot, or stink-pot for destroying men in the open on deck, and particularly for tossing into breaches made in closed quarters, in order to flush the enemy out or otherwise force him to surrender.
What we do not yet see are these sea rovers fully dressed and armed for an attack on a Spanish town–but Caruana, the creator of most of the charts that interest us, does not disappoint. He provides us with an iconic image of a buccaneer or flibustier fully equipped for an attack ashore! Beginning with his clothing, he wears a broad-brimmed hat. His hair is either short, or more likely, tied at the back. His jacket is moderately long, his belt narrow (as are all those in these images, not the wide Hollywood belts for these flibustiers), his breeches conventional, not of the sort commonly worn by seamen. He may or may not be wearing stockings: if his shoes are those worn by boucaniers (see next blog post), then he wears no stockings.
But it is his armament we are most interested in. He has a fusil boucanier over his shoulder, again at half cock. In his left hand is a paper cartridge which would hold both ball and powder, and sometimes seven or eight swan shot on top of a single ball, and power. The cartridge had been early adopted by boucaniers and flibustiers, and they learned early the lesson that conventional armies would learn after them: that the flintlock with cartridge was the most efficient weapon for campaigning, and, eventually, for conventional warfare.
At his waist is a cutlass, this one with an obvious brass hilt given its shape, and without a clip point as can be discerned by the shape of the scabbard and its chape. He has a cartouche box on his belt, again on the left front, and on his right front is a single pistol. Notably, its lock is against his body (this would help protect the lock), with the butt to his left for an easy draw. I’ve tested this way of carrying a pistol: it works well with small to medium pistols, although large pistols (12″ and longer barrels) are easier to carry putting the belt-hook on the inside, with the pistol hanging on the outside, although the pistol is less secure this way. With two pistols, one would be carried on the left side, the other left-front, assuming a right-handed shooter.
This setup is well-balanced: cutlass and cartouche box on one side, pistol (often a pair) on the other. At Veracruz flibustiers were noted as carrying two cartouche boxes: the second was probably worn at the back, and carried additional cartridges, most of which were almost certainly for use with the musket, the buccaneer’s primary weapon according to buccaneer and surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin. In our flibustier’s right front pocket is a small powder horn, almost certainly for re-priming the pan as necessary. Buccaneers primed from the cartridge as they loaded, but would require a horn to re-prime if, for example, the powder in the pan got damp.
Two more details deserve attention. First, above his belt is a thin cloth that serves as a mosquito netting. Such netting is described in at least three eyewitness sources. It was usually worn around the waist or over the shoulder like a bandoleer. Second, around his neck is a detail almost never seen: a musket tool used variously, depending on the tool, for clearing the vent, chipping a dull flint to get another shot or two before it must be changed out, tightening the cock, as well as other tasks associated with cleaning and maintaining a musket.
There exist substantial written evidence to support these images. Father Jean-Baptiste Labat has described the flamboyant dress of flibustiers, especially after pillaging a ship’s cargo (a scene that may well have inspired a similar scene in Frenchman’s Creek, 1944). The arms of the flibustiers–fusil boucanier, cartouche box, one or two pistols, a cutlass–are described several times by eyewitnesses. What we have not had is this eyewitness corroboration in the form of images.
We also have an eyewitness account by one of the victims of a buccaneer attack, in this case the brutal rape and pillaging of Veracruz in 1683, of which I will speak more of in a later blog. The account adds details we have hitherto lacked. According to Fray Juan de Avila, the flibustiers wore “sailcloth jackets, shoes of cowhide but more wore those of pigskin [possibly cheaper shoes, or even those the boucaniers commonly wore, or both], and others wore jackets of blue sackcloth [possibly dyed with indigo from Saint-Domingue]” and were armed with “a cutlass, a large (or long) flintlock musket [clearly a buccaneer gun], two pistols, and hanging from a waist belt two cartridge boxes with paper cartridges inside…”
In sum, these buccaneers or flibustiers are much as we imagined them: picturesque and picaresque, a combination of Hollywood and reality long before Hollywood ever existed. But note what we do not see: no peg legs (extremely rare in reality, for they make buccaneering difficult), no eye patches except due to injury (absolute myth created by literature and illustration and unfortunately further spread by Mythbusters, &c.), few obvious tattoos (some men and women, not just seamen, had a few but not to the degree we like to believe), no insignia of skull and bones (although some may have worn mortuary rings with such symbolism, as did people from all walks of life), no earrings (although foppish pirates may have worn them on occasion, and Dutch seamen, along with many Dutch in general, did wear them), and no parrots–although some pirates did in fact keep parrots, although more often than not probably as plunder. Also, please note that none wear boots. Fishermen wore boots at times, seamen in arctic waters did too, but otherwise, seamen, including sea rovers, did not. Worse, the boots we see pirates in film, television, and illustration wear are riding boots–and one doesn’t ride horses aboard ship.
I will get to discussing swordplay soon enough, but the next blog post will describe in similar detail the dress and arms of the boucanier, of the cow and pig hunters who often accompanied flibustiers on their attacks at sea and ashore.
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.
Captain Blood. Warner Brothers Pictures, 1935.
Cornuau, Paul. “Carte particulière de la rivière de la Plata.” Probably 1684. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “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 Cap et de son entrée,” 1684. 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.
——. “Plan du Petit Goave et de l’Acul, avec le Figuré du Fort du Petit Goave tel qu’il a été Reformé, avec Deux Autres Plans de ce Même Fort.” Circa 1688. Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer.
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.
——. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse Publishing ,2016.
——. “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.
——. “Las Tácticas de los Piratas del Caribe.” Desperta Ferro, no. 17 (August 2015), 27-32.
Partenay. “Ainsy se fait voir le Petit Gouave au Sud-est et nord oist éloignée . . . ,” 1688. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Pyle, Howard. The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow. In “The Fate of a Treasure-Town” by Howard Pyle. Harper’s Monthly Magazine (December 1905).
Sabatini, Rafael. Captain Blood, His Odyssey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.