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Did Pirates Wear Eye Patches?

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Costume illustration of an eye-patched, peg-legged seaman by Paul Gavarni for the Carnival in Paris. The popular image–meme, if you prefer–of the disabled seaman had been in place for more than a half a century by now, if not longer, in both Britain and France. This image was created between 1838 and 1843. British Museum.

 

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.

 

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Polyphemus by Jan de Bisschop, after Daniele da Volterra, after Michelangelo, after Pellegrino Tibaldi, 1671. Odysseus, aka Ulysses by the Romans, blinded him. British Museum.

 

 

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.

 

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A British army pensioner with eye patch and wooden leg. Again, the image was not restricted to naval seamen, much less, and popularly, pirates. By Isaac Robert Cruikshank, late eighteenth or early to mid-nineteenth century. British Museum.

 

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.

 

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Images of splinters produced by round shot during an accurate test of the damage done in action. Author’s photos taken at the Erie Maritime Museum.

 

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.

 

Burgin

Joseph Burgin, a Greenwich pensioner, who lost and eye and a leg in action in the Royal Navy in the early eighteenth century. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

 

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.

 

Portret van Johann Karl von Thüngen, anonymous, 1675 to 1711

“Portret van Johann Karl von Thüngen,” the German field marshal. Period images of him show this eye patch worn without a thong, string, or other tie. Anonymous, 1675 – 1711. Rijksmuseum.

 

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.)

 

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Scottish soldier Sir William Brog, 1635, with a patch covering a scar on his nose. (And an earring too.) Pring by Crispijn van Queborn. British Museum.

 

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Eye patches, stumps aloft and ‘alow, not to mention peg legs. “Plumpers for Sr Judas, or the Chealsea Pensioners Revenge,” a satirical print, 1784. British Museum.

 

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.

 

Colepepper

The bold and swaggering Captain Colepepper, from The Fortunes of Nigel by Sir Walter Scott. Nineteenth century, unknown edition.

 

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.

 

Quinn

Publicity still from The Black Swan, 1942. An eye-patched Anthony Quinn is on the right.

 

Sources

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.

 

The Authentic Image of the Boucanier

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.

 

Boucanier Exquemelin 1A

An oft-reproduced, typically with small changes, of a boucanier. However, this is not an eyewitness image and has some apparent inaccuracies. From Exquemelin’s 1688 Histoire des avanturiers qui se sont signalez dans les Indes.

 

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.

 

Boucanier depicted in Nicolas De Fer's 1698 map L'Amérique. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

Boucanier depicted in Nicolas De Fer’s 1698 map L’Amérique. As with the illustration above, this is not an eyewitness image and has some inaccuracies. (Courtesy of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.)

 

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.

 

Boucanier firing his fusil boucanier at a wild cow or bull, from a 1685 map of Cap Francois by Cornuau. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

Boucanier firing his fusil boucanier at a wild cow or bull, from a 1685 map of Cap François by Cornuau. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

 

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.

 

Boucanier carrying a pig carcass at Léogane, from an illustration by Cornuau, 1685. Courtesy of the ????

Boucanier carrying a pig carcass at Léogane, from an eyewitness illustration by Cornuau, 1685. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

 

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.

 

Boucanier (described as a

An eyewitness image of a boucanier, described as a “Chasseur” (hunter) in the legend) at Cap Francois, 1685, from a map by Paul Cornuau. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

 

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.

 

Boucanier Skinning

Boucanier skinning a wild pig, an eyewitness image from a chart by Cornuau of Nipe on Saint-Domingue, 1685. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

 

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.

 

Boucanier staking a hide to dry, from a chart of Léogane by Paul Cornuau, 1685. (Courtesy...

Boucanier staking a hide to dry, an eyewitness image from a chart of Léogane by Paul Cornuau, 1685. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

 

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).

 

Sheath 1

Detail of a hog butcher’s knife sheath, from December by Caspar Luyken, 1698 – 1702. (Rijksmuseum.)

 

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.

 

RP-P-1906-3096

November by Cornelis Dusart, 1679 – 1704. The butcher has a knife sheath similar to those of the boucaniers. Note that the child on the left with the “balloon” is actually inflating a pig bladder. My father described the same practice when he was a child and his family slaughtered hogs for the winter. (Rijksmuseum.)

 

A boucanier in conversation with a flibustier (cropped out), from a ?????

A boucanier in conversation with a flibustier (cropped out), an eyewitness illustration from a chart of Île-à-Vache by Paul Cornuau, 1686. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

 

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.

 

Probably boucanier sitting, from a

Probable boucanier sitting, an eyewitness illustration from a chart of Île-à-Vache by Paul Cornuau, 1686. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

 

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.

A boucanier, or probably so, given the wild pig at his feet. His fusil boucanier is of classic style.

A boucanier, or probably so, given the wild pig at his feet. His fusil boucanier is of classic style. From an eyewitness image of Petit Goave circa 1688 by Partenay. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

 

 

Select Bibliography

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.

Cornuau, Paul.

——. “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.

The Authentic Image of the Real Buccaneers of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini

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?

Romantic, largely imagined painting of a buccaneer. From Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates.

Fanciful illustration, “The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow,” by Howard Pyle, from “The Fate of a Treasure-Town” in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, December 1906. Reprinted in Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates.

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.

Buccaneer A

A somewhat more accurate illustration of a buccaneer threatening a Spanish prisoner, from the frontispiece to Exquemelin’s Historie der Boecaniers, of Vrybuyters van America, 1700. (John Carter Brown Library.)

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.

A pair of flibustiers or buccaneers at Petit Goave, 1688, from a chart by P. Cornuau. (Courtesy of the Archives Nationale d’Outre-Mer.)

A pair of flibustiers or buccaneers at Petit Goave, 1688, from a chart by P. Cornuau. (Courtesy of the Archives Nationale d’Outre-Mer.)

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.

xxxx

A buccaneer or flibustier at Île-à-Vache, 1686, from a chart by P. Cornuau. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

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.

Another flibustier or buccaneer at Île-à-Vache in 1686, from a chart by P. Cornuau. (Courtesy of the Biblitheque nationale de France.)

Flibustier or buccaneer at Île-à-Vache, 1686, from a chart by P. Cornuau. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

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.

Boucanier et Flibustier Partenay 1688 LR

Boucanier and buccaneer, or two buccaneers, at the French sea rover haven of Petit Goave in 1687 or 1688, drawn by Partenay in 1688. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

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.)

flibustier-with-captured-spaniard

Flibustier with captured Spaniards in chains. From the French chart “Carte particulière de la rivière de la Plata” by Paul Cornuau, probably 1684 based on a nearly identical chart he drew of the River Plate dated 1684.

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.

Flibustier from a chart of Le Cap Francois on Saint-Domingue, 1686, by P. Cornuau.

Flibustier from a chart of Le Cap Francois on Saint-Domingue, 1686, by P. Cornuau.

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.

Bibliography

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.

——. “Did Pirates Wear Eye Patches?” On the Under the Black Flag website at <http://undertheblackflag.com/?p=2904&gt; or at <http://www.benersonlittle.com/bio.htm&gt;.

——. “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.