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Keelhauling, in Living Color.

sk-a-449

The Keelhauling of the Ship’s Surgeon of Admiral Jan van Nes. Lieve Pietersz Verschuier. 1660 – 1686. Note the enormous crowd gathered for the punishment. (Rijksmuseum.)

As is the case with much pirate history, a great deal of it is wrong, often either anachronistic or culturally mis-associated, or not specifically associated with piracy per se, but with the maritime in general. And so it is with keelhauling, a Dutch practice at first, to which the French later added their mark. It had little to do with piracy, though, although this hasn’t stopped it from being including in discussions about pirates and piracy, nor included in pirate fiction and film, most notably and recently in the fourth season of Black Sails. (Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails for all four seasons.)

The original Dutch practice, as described in “A Relation of Two Several Voyages Made into the East-Indies” by Christopher Frick and Christopher Schewitzer, 1700:

“He that strikes an Officer, or Master of the Ship, is without hopes of pardon to be thrown into the Sea fasten’d by a Rope, with which he is thrown in on one side of the Ship, and drawn up again on the other, and so three times together he is drawn round the Keel of the Ship, in the doing of which, if they should chance not to allow Rope enough to let him sink below the Keel, the Malefactor might have his brains knockt out. This Punishment is called Keel-halen, which may be call’d in English “Keel-drawing.” But the Provost hath this Priviledge more than the other, that if any one strikes him on Shoar, he forfeits his hand, if on Board, then he is certainly Keel-draw’d.”

keelhauling-b

Detail of the victim, from the painting above. The keelhauling line has been rove through a block at the end of the mainyard, and would be similarly rigged on the opposite side. (Rijksmuseum.)

 

keelhauling-c

From An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, edited by Nathan Bailey, 1765.

 

A mid-1850s century French version, described by a former midshipman in the British navy and published in Onward magazine, November 1869, was conducted slightly differently:

keelhauling-d

The writer continues with a description of what he witnessed:

keelhauling-e

Terrible indeed!

Of Buccaneer Christmas, Dog as Dinner, & Cigar Smoking Women

Classic romanticized buccaneers! The pirate captain and his woman ashore on a Caribbean island or an isolated part of the Main, perhaps to share plunder or while careening, or simply to celebrate the holiday. We can always count on Howard Pyle to make the romantic appeal to our imaginations. And indeed, buccaneers did celebrate Christmas (and probably smoked cigars on occasion too), as I discuss below.

howard-pyle-how-the-buccaneers-kept-christmas

“How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas,” Howard Pyle, Harper’s Weekly, December 16, 1899, a special two-page image.

 

BUCCANEER CHRISTMAS & DOG FOR DINNER

We do have multiple brief accounts of one buccaneer Christmas. Buccaneers, like other Europeans and European-derived Christian peoples, did observe the holiday, far more often with raucous, inebriated celebration than with religious devotion.

William Dampier noted that the captains of salt ships at Saltudos, or Salt Tortuga–where the very real Dr. Henry Pitman, inspiration for Sabatini’s novel Captain Blood, His Odyssey, was marooned–were always well-supplied with rum, sugar, and lime juice for visiting “privateers,” the euphemism for buccaneers, as opposed to the term “pirates.” Piracy after all was a crime.

“I have seen above 20 Sail at a time in this Road come to lade Salt; and these Ships coming from some of the Caribbe Islands, are always well stored with Rum, Sugar and Lime-juice to make Punch, to hearten their Men when they are at work, getting and bringing aboard the Salt, and they commonly provide the more, in hopes to meet with Privateers, who resort hither in the aforesaid Months, purposely to keep a Christmas, as they call it; being sure to meet with Liquor enough to be merry with, and are very liberal to those that treat them.”

Clearly, a buccaneer Christmas at any time of the year was a drunk-fest.

Our most famous description of an actual buccaneer Christmas dates to 1681, during the final days of the South Sea voyage of Captain Bartholomew Sharp and his companions in arms, in plunder (often as wishful as real), and in debauchery.

Sharp, already having been deposed once as captain once during the voyage during a stay at Juan Fernandez Island, a stay which coincidentally began on Christmas Day. Now, at the end of the voyage and almost home, with numbers depleted by buccaneer desertions, accidents, and deaths in battle, with the remaining crew on short allowance, Sharp remained a divisive leader, not for the least reason that by gambling with his fellow buccaneers he had increased his profit by leaps and bounds, leaving some of his comrades with little profit during the course of a long bloody voyage–not the best way to show leadership by any means.

On December 7th, according to buccaneer surgeon Basil Ringrose (I almost wrote Rathbone!), “This day our worthy Commander, Captain Sharp, had very certain intelligence given him that on Christmas Day, which was now at hand, the company or at least a great part thereof, had a design to shoot him; he having appointed that day some time since to be merry. Hereupon he made us share the wine amongst us, being persuaded they would scarce attempt any such thing in their sobriety. The wine we shared fell out to three jars to each mess.”

Mess size varied, as did Spanish jar size. Five to seven to a mess was common, but could even have been as small as four men. Spanish wine jars often, but not always, held a Spanish arroba, roughly four and a quarter gallons. At 750 milliliters to a modern wine bottle, we do some simple math and find that each mess received the rough equivalent of slightly more than sixty-four modern bottles of wine per mess, to last eighteen days: or, three and a half bottles of wine per day per mess. This wine may have been stronger than what we’re familiar with. It might have been very similar to Peruvian wine fortified with modern Pisco, the latter of which is usually 80 proof when sold in the US, but I’m speculating here based on a description of some of the wine found by buccaneers on the Peruvian coast. (And no, I won’t touch the “Who first came up with Pisco–Peru or Chile?” argument. We’ll leave the swords and poniards sheathed for now.)

Buccaneer surgeon Basil Ringrose provided the details: “This day being Christmas day, for celebration of that great festival we killed yesterday in the evening a sow. This sow we had brought from the Gulf of Nicoya, being then a sucking-pig of three weeks old, more or less, but now weighted about fourscore-and-ten pounds. With this hog’s flesh we made our Christmas dinner, being the only flesh we had eaten ever since we turned away our prizes under the equinoctial and left the island of Plata. We had this day several flaws of wind and some rain…” The holiday was celebrated roughly in the latitude of Rio de Janeiro.

ossabaw-island-pig

An Ossabaw Island pig long-descended from Spanish and Canary Island stock, perhaps quite similar to the buccaneers’ Christmas pig. (The Livestock Conservancy.)

Sharp himself is a bit more direct: “When to Solemnize that Festival as well as we could, we eat the only Hog we had left, drank some Jars of Wine, and made our selves as merry as we were able, which I did the rather that my Men might not Mutiny.”

How they seasoned the pig is not noted. Given that their only way at sea of cooking was in a copper kettle, they would have boiled the flesh rather than roasting it over coals and seasoning it with a pimentade of lime juice, salt, hot peppers (pimento, or chili peppers as we know it), probably allspice, and perhaps a black or similar common pepper, as was common. The seasoning would have been similar in the copper pot, assuming they had the ingredients. The buccaneers would have served it with coarse boiled cornmeal (imagine a coarse polenta or coarse yellow grits, the latter are hard to find anymore) seasoned with salt and manteca (pig lard), which had been their only fare since departing the isle of Plata.

However, diarist John Taylor who visited Jamaica in 1687 wrote that Sharp’s buccaneers also served dog for Christmas dinner:

“Soe that they killed one hog, which was all they had left, and a spanell dog which they bought of one of their quartermaster for 40 dollars, on Christmas Day for their dinner.”

Alas poor beast, alas man’s best friend! But Taylor was no eyewitness, he was just repeating what he had heard from local sources. There was in fact a dog, a little curly shaggy-coated canine, like that of a poodle. And, according to one buccaneer, John Cox, who was there, they did in fact eat him:

“When we took the two Barks at Nicoya, we had a little sucking Pigg in one of them, which we kept on Board ever since for our Christmas days Dinner, which now was grown to be a large Hogg; so we killed it for Dinner, but thinking it not enough for us all, we bought a Spaniel-Dogg of the Quarter-Master for forty pieces of eight, and killed him; so with the Hogg and the Dogg, we made a Feast, and we had some Wine left, which made us merry: This being the only think we had eaten that had blood in it since our departure from the Duke of York‘s Island.”

But no one’s memory is perfect. Did they in fact eat dog for Christmas dinner? Was Cox inspired to exaggerate based solely on the rhyme of Hogg and Dogg? Do we see the interfering hand of an editor trying to “sex up” the manuscript? Again Basil Ringrose comes to the rescue, writing of a day in late January, well after Christmas, just prior to making landfall in the Leeward Islands:

“On that day [January 26, 1682], therefore, a little Spanish shock-dog, which we had found in our last wine-prize taken under the equinoctial and had kept alive till now, was sold at the mast by public cry for 40 pieces-of-eight, his owner saying that ll he could get for him should be spent upon the company at a public merriment. Our Commander, Captain Sharp, bought the dog, with intention to eat him, in case we did not see land very soon.”

The money raised was added to one hundred more pieces-of-eight that were left over from a previous sharing of plunder, in which the boatswain, carpenter, and quartermaster had refused to accept shares owing to some disagreement “with the sharers.” The coins were laid up, to be spent ashore in celebration of their return to the Caribbean from the South Sea.

Two days later the buccaneers sighted Barbados, but were scared off by the barge belonging to the English man-of-war Richmond lying at anchor Bridgetown harbor. Two days later the buccaneers sent a canoe ashore at Antigua, or Antigo as they called it, and from here they went their separate ways.

So it was not a Christmas dog after all! Or was it? We hope it was part of no Christmas dinner except to have gnawed any scraps ravenous buccaneers may have cast his way. “Perros Ingleses!” we have heard Spaniards call the buccaneers, or at least buccaneer surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin said they did on one occasion, and surely in fact on many. But dog don’t eat dog, or so they say, and we hope, more from Ringrose and the buccaneer arrival at Antigua and not necessarily from common proverb, that Cox was wrong and that Sharp may have been mostly joking about eating the dog.

Mostly.

 

WITH A WILLING WOMAN IN A HAMMOCK

So, would buccaneers have celebrated Christmas as in Pyle’s image above? With a willing woman in a hammock, smoking a cigar? It’s a common image in fiction, that of a romance between a pirate and a lady on the seashore. We almost imagine this as the setting in the aftermath of The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini, but when we recall the noble manner in which the romance unfolded, his gentlemanly behavior, her lady-like sensibilities, we can’t imagine Priscilla Harradine smoking a cigar. On the other hand, we recall her attraction to men of adventure and her propensity for slipping off to swim nude, and we think perhaps she might after all.

cisne-negro

From the cover of a Buenos Aires edition of The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini.

For the sake of romantic notions, combined with the fact of romantic relations between buccaneers and some women, I will forego a discussion of the often profoundly disturbing treatment of women by pirates at times, a fact often ignored or only hinted at it film. You may find these sordid details in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, and in other works as well.

Some, probably many, buccaneers were married but they did not take their wives, or their women in general for that matter, to sea with them, the one known exception being John Beare who took his woman, the daughter of a rum punch woman in Port Royal, to sea at least once dressed as a man. Accused of piracy by the English–and yes, he was in fact a pirate–he fled to Havana where he married his true love and began serving as a Spanish privateer, or, as the English would have it, a Spanish pirate. Perhaps Beare did celebrate a Christmas ashore while careening, his inamorata waiting languidly in a hammock.

We also have the example of Dutchman Jacobus (James) Marquess, or “Copas” [Cobus] for short, a buccaneer “lingusiter”–also known as a “truchman” or interpreter–in the South Sea with Bartholomew Sharp. Copas fell in love, or perhaps merely deeply in lust, with a “Mustees” Spanish woman at the island of El Cavallo while the buccaneers were ashore taking in water over the course of four days and three nights. Many of his companions worried that he was a turncoat who intended to betray them to the Spanish. A Native American boy also ran away while at the island, perhaps with Copas.

“[T]he woman lieing on borde one or two nights, was very familiar with one Copas a dutch a man, who formerly had saild with the Spaniards…but was mainly Inamoured with thiss women, makeing her severall presents of some Vallew,” wrote a buccaneer who is best identified as Edward Povey.

Copas pretended to go hunting but deserted to her instead, leaving all but two hundred pieces-of-eight of his plunder behind–some 2,200 pieces of eight, plus jewels and other goods. He must truly have been in love, indeed! Or perhaps he thought he could sell his knowledge of the buccaneers to their enemies. Alas, this instance of buccaneer love did not occur over Christmas, but late in May, 1681.

Raveneau de Lussan, buccaneer author, wrote that during the occupation of Guayaquil by French flibustiers in 1687, he was almost seduced away by the “widow of the local treasurer,” who suggested they hide in the woods until the pirates were gone, and then they could marry and he would have “her husband’s office in addition to her own extensive holdings.” Quite an offer! But de Lussan turned it down, and again, this flibustier love did not occur over Christmas, but in April. Spring is the time for love, so it is said. Or perhaps just for mating.

If any buccaneers did take their wives or inamoratas with them to sea, I imagine it may have been some of the early flibustiers and boucaniers who did so with their “Amazon wives who could shoot and hunt well,” as one chronicler noted of them, supporting the expeditions and perhaps even participating in the assaults themselves.

 

CIGAR SMOKING WOMEN

But IF a buccaneer did have his woman with him at Christmas (and I speak of buccaneers solely as men only because, although there may have been one or more women in disguise among them as actual crew members, to date we know of none), might she have smoked a cigar?

To find an answer we must first know if people smoked cigars in the 17th century Caribbean or anywhere else for that matter. We turn to Jean-Baptist Labat, priest and also chronicler of the late 17th and early 18th century Caribbean for the answer:

“We do not use pipes in the Americas; the Spanish, Portuguese, many English and French, nearly all blacks, and all our Caribs smoke bouts [“ends”], or as the Spanish say, cigars… It is rare to find a Spaniard without his provision of cigars.”

(Notably, Labat mis-heard cigaro and wrote it as cigale, or cicada in French. His description of cigars is quite modern: six to seven pouces long, and five to six lignes in diameter, roughly six and a half to seven and a half inches long, and around half an inch in diameter.)

english-merchants-wife-1641-rm

Detail from a Dutch print by Crispijn van de Passe, 1641, showing an imaginary English merchant’s wife with wine and tobacco. (Rijksmuseum.)

So Spaniards and others smoked cigars. But did buccaneers? Most buccaneers were English, French, and Dutch, although there were many other peoples, nationalities, and ethnicities among them, including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and other European origins, plus African, Native American, even Asian via Mexico via the Manila galleon, plus a variety of mixed races. They were, in other words, a variety of white, black, and brown of many origins. Among the English, French, and Dutch they chewed tobacco or more commonly smoked it in pipes, small to medium bowl size among the English and French, large among the Dutch. White clay pipes were the most expensive and typically from England and the Netherlands; terracotta pipes were cheaper and often made locally; and wooden pipes were the cheapest (and doubtless the worst to smoke).

However, Spanish buccaneers among them would likely have smoked cigars (or seegars as they became known among the English by the early 18th century), and some English, French, and Dutch may have preferred them at sea as they did ashore. Certainly some African slaves and former slaves among the buccaneers smoked cigars, and it’s probable that some English, French, and Dutch buccaneers smoked captured cigars, if only by cutting them up and smoking the tobacco in their pipes. There is no question that cigars were smoked at sea: the 18th century Spanish Álbum de Construcción Naval of the Marqués de la Victoria shows the cigar along with the pipe among the forms of tobacco used by Spanish seamen. Having smoked both pipe and cigar, I can say that a cigar is no more dangerous aboard a wooden ship than is a pipe: both can be hazardous if appropriate measures are not taken.

Ah, but did women smoke cigars? Well, we know that among the English, French, and Dutch many women smoked pipes, along with many African women in the Caribbean. And there were Native American women who smoked cigars. So why not Spanish women of any ethnicity? And why not cigars, given that they were the predominant means on the Spanish Main of taking tobacco? In fact, we know that in the 18th century there were  Spanish creole women who smoked cigars, thus it’s almost certain they did in the 17th century as well.

cigar-woman

Detail from Pyle’s painting, “How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas.”

John Cockburn, writing of the year 1735 in which he was captured by a Spanish guarda costa, or as the English would probably have it, a Spanish pirate, noted the following of three Spanish friars who had just crossed some mountains in Nicaragua:

“The gentlemen gave us some seegars to smoke, which they supposed would be very acceptable. These are leaves of tobacco rolled up in such a manner, that they serve both for a pipe and tobacco itself. These the ladies, as well as gentlemen, are very fond of smoaking; but indeed, they know no other way here, for there is no such thing as a tobacco-pipe throughout New Spain, but poor awkward tools used by the negroes and Indians.”

And who’s to say the woman in Pyle’s painting is Spanish in any case, although it is a romantic notion.

Of course, Pyle’s use of a woman smoking a cigar is even more provocative than merely putting her recumbent and languid in a hammock. Since the late seventeenth century, smoking in women has often been seen as a sign of promiscuity rather than as a notion of budding equality. But Pyle’s image is not merely a sexual provocation: it is an image of aggressive independence. This woman is no wallflower, she is no quiet being who fully accepts the purely feminine role imposed upon her. Rather, she is a suitable companion adventurer: a modern progressive woman even by the standards of Pyle’s day. I wouldn’t usually consider Howard Pyle as a feminist per se, but in this case I think he has already proved the argument.

 

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cockburn, John. The Unfortunate Englishmen: or, a Faithful Narrative of the Distresses and Adventures of John Cockburn. “New edition.” London: Hamilton and Co. Shakespeare Library, 1794 (63-64).

[Cox, John]. The Voyages and Adventures of Capt. Barth. Sharp, and Others, in the South Sea. London: P. A. Esq. [Philip Ayers], 1684.

de Lussan, Raveneau. Journal du Voyage Fait a la Mer de Sud, avec les les Flibustiers de l’Amerique en 1684. et Annés Suivantes. Paris: Jean Baptiste Coignard, 1690.

——. Journal of a Voyage into the South Seas in 1684 and the Following Years with the Filibusters. 1689. Reprint, translated and edited by Marguerite Eyer Wilbur. Cleveland: Arthur C. Clark Company, 1930.

——. Journal of a Voyage Made by the Freebooters into the South Sea, 1684, and in the Following Years. 1699. In The History of the Buccaneers of America by Alexandre Exquemelin [Joseph Exquemelin]. Reprint, Boston: Sanborn, Carter and Bazin, 1856.

——. Les Flibustiers de la Mer du Sud. 1695. Reprint, edited by Patrick Villiers. Paris: Éditions France-Empire, 1992.

[Dick, William]. “A Brief Account of Captain Sharp . . .” In The Buccaneers of America by Alexander Exquemelin [John Esquemeling], 257–83. 1684. Reprint, New York: Dorset, 1987.

Labat, Jean-Baptiste. Nouveau Voyage aux Isles de l’Amerique. The Hague: P. Husson et al, 1724.

Lepers, Jean Baptiste. La Tragique Histoire des Flibustiers: Histoire de Saint-Domingue et de l’Ile de la Tortue, Repaires des Flibustiers, Écrite vers 1715 par le Rév. P. Lepers. Edited by Pierre-Bernard Berthelot. Paris: G. Crés, 1922.

Little, Benerson. The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674–1688. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2007.

——. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth About Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016.

——. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630–1730. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005.

Navarro de Viana y Búfalo, Juan José. Álbum de Construcción Naval del Marqués de la Victoria. Museo Naval de Madrid.

[Povey, Edward?]. “The Buccaneers on the Isthmus and in the South Sea. 1680–1682.” In Jameson, Privateering and Piracy.

Pyle, Howard. How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas. An illustration in Harper’s Weekly, December 16, 1899.

Ringrose, Basil. “The Buccaneers of America: The Second Volume.” In Exquemelin, Buccaneers of America (Crooke, 1684).

——. Buccaneer Atlas: Basil Ringrose’s South Sea Waggoner. Edited by Derek Howse and Norman J. W. Thrower. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

——. “Captains Sharp, Coxon, Sawkins, and Others . . .” In The History of the Buccaneers of America by Alexander Exquemelin [Joseph Esquemeling], 180–313. 1699. Reprint, Boston: Sanborn, Carter and Bazin, 1856.

Sabatini, Rafael. The Black Swan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Sharp, Bartholomew. Captain Sharp’s Journal of His Expedition. In A Collection of Original Voyages by William Hacke. 1699. Facsimile reprint, edited by Glyndwr Williams. New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1993.

Taylor, John. Jamaica in 1687: The Taylor Manuscript at the National Library of Jamaica. Edited by David Buisseret. Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2008.

Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know

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. (French National Library.)

EXQUEMELIN’S HEROES & THEIR CUTLASSES

Although the fusil boucanier–the long-barreled “buccaneer gun” of which more blog posts are forthcoming–was the primary weapon of the buccaneer and flibustier, the cutlass was an invariable part of their armament, which also included one or two pistols and a cartouche box (sometimes two) that often held as many as thirty cartridges each. Grenades, firepots, and boarding axes were additional specialty weapons.

Yet in spite of all the romance of buccaneers and their swords–cutlasses usually in reality, but often rapiers in cinema–we don’t know as much about the swords themselves as we would like. Much of what we think we know is based on conjecture, and this conjecture is based on what little we know about cutlasses and hangers of the late 17th century. Unfortunately, the archaeological evidence is for all practical purposes non-existent in regard to demonstrable buccaneer swords 1655 to 1688.

Cinema, the source of much of the popular image of the pirate cutlass, almost always gets these swords wrong. Typically they are anachronistic, often imitations of nineteenth century “soup bowl” hilts (and occasionally authentic 19th century cutlasses) drawn from prop stocks. Money is always a concern in film-making, and it is much cheaper to use existing swords than to make historically accurate ones in large quantities, or, too often, even in small quantities. Good historical consulting and the willingness to follow it is, of course, mandatory, but some filmmakers take the view of “Who cares? Hardly anyone will notice, what matters is that the swords look cool or ‘Rock and Roll’ or otherwise meet audience expectations, and anyway, we don’t have the budget for accurate ones, the actors and computer graphics have consumed it all.” On occasion, though, we do see fairly accurate swords in cinema–just not very often.

rock-brasiliano-1678

Rock the Brazilian aka Roc or (in Jamaica) Rocky aka (probably) Gerrit Gerritsen, from Alexandre Exquemelin’s De Americaensche Zee-rovers. Amsterdam: Jan ten Hoorn, 1678. (Library of Congress.)

Our typical idea of a “true” pirate cutlass is taken from the illustrations, such as that above, in Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America. First published in Amsterdam in 1678 in Dutch, the illustrations have been copied to other editions, typically with little or no alteration. Herman Padtbrugge, draftsman and engraver, may have been the illustrator according to the British museum. It is unknown how much influence Exquemelin had on him, or on whomever was the illustrator. In other words, it is unknown how accurate the physical representations the buccaneers are, nor how accurate their arms and accoutrements. The cutlasses depicted in Exquemelin may simply reflect the illustrator’s Dutch nationality and familiarity with Dutch arms.

The cutlasses, however, are accurate representations of classical late seventeenth century Dutch or German weapons with large iron shell-hilts, manufactured well into the mid-18th century with basically no design changes, although such shell hilts were also manufactured by other European nations, if generally smaller. The Dutch and German shells are large and often scalloped, the pommels often heavy for balance, the blades mildly to strongly curved, often with clip points. Typically these shell hilts may have had a single shell on the outside, with or without a thumb ring on the inside, although usually with one; or a large outside shell and smaller inside shell, both most commonly facing toward the pommel. A thumb ring may be present or absent in the case of two shells. These heavy-hilted cutlasses may have two short quillons with no knuckle bow, or a conventional short or medium upper quillon along with a lower quillon converted to a knuckle bow as in the image below. Pommel style and grip style and material–wood, bone, occasionally antler, shagreen (“fish skin,” ray skin), wire, or even iron–vary widely. Blade balance varies just as widely, with some heavy-bladed cutlasses balanced more like cleavers than fencing swords. This is not a criticism: cleaving strokes with a cutlass are quite effective at close range.

The cutlass wielded by Rock the Brazilian above appears, on close examination, to have a single outside scalloped shell, two quillons (although it’s possible the lower quillon might actually be a knuckle bow, but I doubt it is), a heavy pommel, and a thumb ring.

rmm-cutlass-17th-century

Late 17th century iron shell-hilt cutlass in the collection of the Royal Museums Greenwich, maker and national origin unknown. The slightly curved blade does not have a clip point but it has either a sharpened or false back edge for a short distance. The cutlass is listed as a “hanger.” See discussion below on the term hanger versus cutlass.

lolonois

“Francisco Lolonois”–Jean David Nau aka L’Ollonois or L’Ollonais–depicted in the first Spanish edition of Exquemelin work: Piratas de la America, translated by Alonso de Buena-Maison. Cologne: Lorenzo Struickman, 1681. (Library of Congress.)

L’Ollonois above holds a typical Dutch or German scalloped shell-hilt cutlass of the late 17th century. Its shell is medium to large, the quillons small and curved, the pommel round and heavy, the blade moderately curved and with a clip point useful for thrusting. It appears it may have a thumb ring or an inner shell, probably the former.

european-iron-shell-hilt-cutlass-late-17th-century-no-thumb-ring

Late 17th century scalloped shell hilt cutlass with no thumb ring or shell on the inside. The blade form would make for powerful cleaving cuts. From George G. Neuman’s Swords & Blades of the American Revolution. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1973, page 181.

dutch-18th-century-cutlass-with-thumb-ring

Dutch shell hilt cutlass with un-scalloped shell, 3rd to 4th quarter 18th century, virtually identical to some 17th century examples. There is a thumb ring but no shell on the inside. Neuman, page 181.

EYEWITNESS IMAGES OF BUCCANEER & FLIBUSTIER CUTLASSES

What we do not know is how common these swords were among buccaneers and flibustiers. Doubtless there at some among them, given how common these cutlasses were. However, the most direct evidence we have of the sort of cutlasses used by these adventurers comes from several drawings of flibustiers in the 1680s by Paul Cornuau, a cartographer sent to survey French Caribbean ports, in particular those of Saint-Domingue (French Hispaniola, modern Haiti). Typically he included local figures flanking his cartouches, and most of these figures are flibustiers and boucaniers. Notably, these are eyewitness illustrations! (See also the The Authentic Image of the Real Buccaneers of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini (Updated) and The Authentic Image of the Boucanier pages for other eyewitness images.)

In the image at the very top of the page, the flibustier holds a cutlass with a small hilt of indeterminate shape, without a knuckle bow, and with a strongly curved clip point blade. There is no baldric: he wears a sword belt of the sort common at the time, with a pair of hangers with loops (one of them is not shown) hanging from the belt itself. None of these period images of flibustiers show baldrics, although they were a common way of carrying a smallsword into the 1680s for civilian use, and prior to this by infantry and other military branches. However, most infantry began abandoning them in this decade, if not earlier, and they remained in use afterward primarily by mounted troops and Scottish Highlanders.

Flibustiers 1688 Petit Goave Cornuau

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

In the image above, we can tell little of the cutlass belonging to the flibustier on the left except that it has a clip point and that it may be of brass, based on its probably monster, beast, dog, or bird pommel, although some iron pommels have a similar profile. It appears to lack a knuckle bow. Its scabbard is worn from the belt. The flibustier on the right holds a cutlass with a moderately curved blade and clip point. Its hilt has two shells, both small and scalloped. Its pommel may also be of some sort of beast or bird, although we cannot be certain, and there is no knuckle bow. Again, the scabbard is worn from the belt. A similar illustration of a flibustier (on the Authentic Image post, of a flibustier at Île-à-Vache, 1686, from a chart by P. Cornuau) shows only a scabbard with an obvious clip point. It, too, is worn from the belt.

Flibustier

Flibustier dressed and armed for a campaign ashore, from a chart of Le Cap Francois on Saint-Domingue, 1686, by P. Cornuau.

In the image above we have more detail of the hilt. It is clearly of the monster, beast, dog, or bird pommel type, almost always brass. There is a bit of shell showing, but what sort we can’t tell other than that it is scalloped, although if brass we know it is comparatively small. Again, there is no knuckle bow. Notably, the scabbard, which also has a chape (metal protection for the tip of the scabbard), does not necessarily reveal the blade form: it may be with or without a clip point.

So, what would these cutlasses depicted by Cornuau actually have looked like? And what is their origin? For the latter answer, the cutlasses could be of Dutch, English, or possibly French origin. There are numerous English cutlasses and hangers of this form still extant, and of the Dutch as well; the Dutch are often credited as the likely creators of this form. There is less information, though, and few examples, of French cutlasses from this period, although the French may have produced similar arms. There are numerous examples from English and Dutch naval portraits. Most of these swords appear be gilded brass hilts. Although some flibustiers and buccaneers may have carried cutlasses with gilded hilts, most were probably simple brass.

PERIOD EXAMPLES

cutlasses-without-knuckle-bows

Brass-hilt cutlasses or hangers, probably gilded, worn by English admirals, from the Royal Museums, Greenwich, dating to the 1660s. From left to right, Penn, Lawson, Berkeley, Harman, Monck, & Sandwich. Notably, Admiral Penn commanded the fleet at the capture of Jamaica in 1655.

Starting with brass-hilt cutlasses similar to most of those in the Cornuau illustrations. We see a variety of shells and pommels above, although most grips appear to brass, or possibly wire, twisted in a sharply ascending manner. Pommels include a bird of prey, lions, and one or two indeterminate forms similar to that shown in the illustration above of the flibustier armed and equipped to march against a town or city.

de-ruyter-detail

De Ruyter’s cutlass hilt, from a painting in the Rijksmuseum. The pommel is perhaps a dolphin?

If we consider that this form of cutlass is likely Dutch in origin, it behooves us to look closely at one. The image above is of the hilt of the cutlass of famous Dutch admiral Michel de Ruyter. Note that it too lacks a knuckle bow.

Below are several hilts with a variety of knuckle bows. The 4th from the left looks somewhat like a transitional rapier or smallsword hilt, but it appears it may lack the usual arms of the hilt, plus the sword hangs low from the belt and at a steep angle, making it possible that it is a hanger or cutlass. The last image has a knuckle bow of chain,  as if a hunting hanger, which it might well be. Again, we see dog or monster pommels, and also lion pommels.

brass-cutlasses-with-knuckle-bows

Brass-hilt cutlasses or hangers with naval provenance, from the Royal Museums, Greenwich, dating from the 1660s to the very early 18th century. From left to right, Admirals Byng, Fairborne, Balchin, Montague, & Allin.

possible-hanger-or-cutlass-hilt

Hilt artifacts from the 1690 wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary, a small New England vessel wrecked after the Phips attack on Quebec. (Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History: The 1690 Siege of Quebec: The Story of a Sunken Ship.)

The hilt shown above may be that of a hanger or cutlass, or other cutting or cut-and-thrust sword such as a broadsword or backsword. The shells, while identical to those of a period smallsword, are, with the form of the knuckle bow, very similar to those found on some late 17th century brass-hilted English naval cutlasses. However, it is impossible to know what sort of blade was mounted in the hilt. The Elizabeth and Mary was ferrying New England militia, who were armed with a variety of non-standard arms.

myngs-sword

The sword of Sir Christopher Myngs, who led many of the early raids on the Spanish Main soon after the capture of Jamaica in 1655. (Royal Museums Greenwich.)

Note the similarity of the sword of Sir Christopher Myngs–possibly a transitional sword with a “rapier” style blade, or a light cut-and-thrust broadsword–to that of the shipwreck hilt.

cavalry-1640s

A cavalry broadsword hilt circa 1640s, of a form common throughout most of the 17th century. (Harvey J. Withers: The Sword in Britain.)

Thankfully, there remain a fair number of extant examples of hangers and cutlasses other than the few shipwreck artifacts, although maritime or naval provenance is often difficult to prove. A few examples are shown below. Note that two of them have iron shells and/or knuckle guards, with brass pommels. Some buccaneer cutlasses could have been of this form.

brass-hilts

Brass, and brass & iron, cutlass and hanger hilts, dating the late 17th and early 18th centuries, from a variety of online antique arms dealers, including Harvey JS Withers and Thomas Delmar.

In addition to online sources, several good illustrations of brass-hilt cutlasses can be found in William Gilkerson’s Boarders Away, With Steel (Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray, 1991). Images of cutlasses from Harvey JS Withers’s collection for sale and sold can not only be found online, but in his book, The Sword in Britain, volume one. There are other available sources as well, including several additional reference in this blog.

Below is a detail from an illustration of the famous Jean Bart–a Flemish corsaire in French service–showing him with a cutlass. (Several other period images show him armed with a smallsword, but at least in the image below he is on the deck of a ship.) The cutlass has what appears to be a bird pommel, a small outside un-scalloped shell (or possibly a disk shell), an upper quillon, and a clip point. The hilt is probably brass, and, given its owner, might be gilded.

jean-bart-detail

Detail from a circa 1701-1702 image of famed corsaire Jean Bart, by Nicolas Arnoult. (French National Library.)

The illustration of Bart’s cutlass may represent a common cutlass carried by French naval and privateer officers, or it may represent Bart’s Flemish nationality. It appears to be a fairly accurate representation of a Dutch or English cutlass or hanger as discussed previously, although, if we look at the pistol in the belt, we may draw some reservations about its accuracy. The pistol, carried as many were, tucked behind the sash or belt on the right side to protect the lock and make for an easy left-handed (non-sword hand) draw, has errors: both the belt-hook and lock are shown on the left side of the weapon, for example, and the lock is inaccurately drawn. (The lock should be on the right side, and the cock and battery are unrealistic. It is possible, but highly unlikely, that the pistol represents a double-barreled pistol with double locks.)

OTHER CUTLASS HILT FORMS & SOURCES

Other forms were doubtless used, including the Dutch/German discussed above, as well as the very common smaller iron shell-hilt cutlasses as in the example below. Both William Gilkerson in Boarders Away, With Steel (Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray, 1991) and Michel Petard in Le Sabre d’Abordage (Nantes: Editions du Canonnier, 2006) include a fair number of illustrations of common iron-hilted 17th and early 18th century cutlasses. These cutlasses range from a simple outside shell with no thumb ring, to inside and outside shells (the inside typically smaller) with or without thumb rings. On occasion the inside shell faces forward, especially if small. Invariably either an upper and lower quillon exist, or an upper quillon and knuckle bow. Grip material varies as with the Dutch cutlass first described, although wood and bone are the most common materials.

ealry-18th-century-simple-shell-hilt-cutlass-no-thumb-ring

Simple shell hilt cutlass of the first quarter of the 18th century, virtually identical to 17th century examples. There is no thumb ring or shell on the inside. From Neuman, page 182.

Another common enough form with a pair of bows, one for the knuckles, the other for the back of the hand, is shown below. This form is occasionally seen combined with small shells on brass hilts as well, as in an example above.

european-cutlass-or-hanger-1660-to-1690

A fairly common form of cutlass, with a bow, rather than a shell, protecting the outside of the hand. There are no shells. Circa 1660 to 1690. A lighter-bladed cutlass would be more suited for convention cut and thrust swordplay. From Neuman, page 181.

Of the late seventeenth century cutlass identified as French, Michel Petard in his excellent Le Sabre d’Abordage describes only one form, shown below. It is iron-hilted and has a single simple outside shell, a small quillon, a knuckle bow carried to an un-ornamented pommel. Almost certainly there were brass-hilted versions of this sword; the French grenadier sword of roughly the same date is identical, except in brass. It’s quite possible, even likely, that some flibustiers carried swords like these, both iron- and brass-hilt versions, but they do not appear to match those in Cornuau’s illustrations.

french-cutlasses-1670-to-1680

French cutlasses–sabres de borde–of estimated 1670 to 1680 origin, of the “Louvois” type. From Le Sabre d’Abordage by Michel Petard. Nantes: Editions du Canonnier, 2006, page 41. In general, when boarding cutlasses are mentioned in 17th century French maritime documents, the term is often “sabre,” which at the time generally referred to any single-handed European (Eastern or Western) cutting sword, although coutelas is also used, notably in the French editions of Exquemelin.

French paintings of admirals and other officers are typically of no help in identifying French cutlasses or hangers. Most of these portraits are highly stylized and show officers in full armor. When swords are shown at all they are typically smallswords (epees de rencontre).

export28

Allegorical image by Paul Cornuau from his chart, Plan du cartier du Portepaix, levé l’année, 1684. (French National Library.)

In Cornuau’s allegorical image above, perhaps of France as Neptune or Mars, the swordsman wields a cutlass of indeterminate shell construction (possibly a simple flat disk, as in the case of some 17th and 18th century hangers and cutlasses, see image below, or a crudely drawn double shell hilt), a cap pommel, and mildly curved blade with a sharp, non-clip point and a single fuller along the back of the blade. Again, it is unknown whether this cutlass is intended to portray a flibustier weapon. Similar examples from the 17th and 18th centuries are known, including a Spanish cutlass. In general, these cutlasses consist of a simple roundish shell with a small upper quillon and a knuckle bow, or of a simple roundish shell with a small upper and lower quillon forged from the same piece of iron.

export36

Detail from image above.

peterson-page-81

Cutting swords–hangers and cutlasses–with simple shell hilts from Harold Peterson’s Arms and Armor in Colonial America 1526-1783, page 81.

1733-fleet-cutlasses

Cutlass examples from the wreck of the 1733 Spanish treasure fleet, quite possibly of Spanish origin. From Noel Wells, Small Arms of the Spanish Treasure Fleets. Dallas: Rock Bottom Publications, 2006, page 66.

export29

Allegorical image by Paul Cornuau from his chart, Plan de la Petite-Rivière de Léogane, 1685. (French National Library.)

The allegorical image above by Cornuau, shows a man–again perhaps France depicted as Neptune or Mars–wielding a falchion or falchion-like cutlass with a simple hilt, round pommel, and curved blade with clip point.At the man’s feet lies a corpse cut in half through the torso. It is unknown whether this cutlass is intended to portray a flibustier weapon. That said, there were similar mid- to late 17th century cutlasses and hangers, the one below for example.

Opnamedatum: 2012-02-10

The naval sword of Dutch Admiral Cornelis Maartenszoon Tromp, mid- to late 17th century. The heavily-curved blade would make cutting, not thrusting, its primary purpose. Heavily-curved blades are difficult to thrust with (see below). (Rijksmuseum.)

cornelis-tromp-lely-detail

Detail from Sir Peter Lely’s portrait of Cornelis Tromp. Note the similarity of the pommel and hilt to that above; it may be the same sword. (Royal Museums Greenwich.)

CUTLASS DESIGN AND USE

A few notes on the design and use of the cutlass are in order. Note that a thumb ring serves a very useful purpose in a sword with an unbalanced hilt, that is, one in which the outside shell is significantly larger than the inner, or in which the inside shell is entirely absent: it permits a stronger grip, preventing the blade from turning as a cut is made. If one’s grip is not firm when cutting with an unbalanced hilt, the blade may turn slightly and cut poorly or not at all. In cutlasses with a single large outside shell, any looseness in the grip will cause the cutlass to turn in the hand toward the heavier side.

Ideally, for a cutting blade to cut properly, a “draw” or drawing action must be made if the blade is straight or mostly straight. Some backsword and broadsword texts make obvious note of this, that the blade must be drawn toward its wielder in order to cut. (It may also be pushed away, in the 18th century this was known as a “sawing” cut.) However, the diagonal cuts from high outside to low inside, and high inside to low outside, have a natural “drawing” motion as the arm is brought toward the body. To make a powerful drawing cut is fairly easy: simply draw the elbow toward the body as the cut is made. A lightly laid on cut with a straight edge, one made with small arm movement, will require a deliberate drawing motion.

Sweeping cuts are the most common sort of drawing cuts, but they are dangerous in practice unless one is mounted (and moving quickly) on a horse, or has a shield, targe, or other defense in the unarmed hand. Sweeping cuts are easily “slipped”–avoided–and as such leave the attacker vulnerable to a counter stroke in tempo. They are also subject to counter-attacks in opposition. Tighter cuts may also be made with a natural draw, and this sort of cutting action is generally preferable when fighting without a shield or targe, as is the case in boarding actions. Note that wide sweeping cuts are more likely to injure one’s companions in a boarding action, and to get caught up in rigging and fittings.

In particular, a straight-bladed cutlass or other sword requires a drawing action in order to cut well. A curved blade has a natural cutting action, and the more curve there is the less drawing action must be added–the severe curve suffices. However, the greater the curve the less suitable for thrusting a sword is. A direct thrust made with such a sword (see Tromp’s sword, for example) will result not in the tip penetrating the adversary, but with the first inch or two of the edge hitting. It is very difficult to push the edge of a sword deeply into tissue, and most wounds caused this way are superficial. Note that the clip point found on many cutlasses is designed to make a curved blade more effective at cutting.

I am going to devote only a few words to the popular misconception that a heavily-curved sword, such as a scimitar, can be used to thrust effectively. Its thrusts must be hooked, and the typical example one finds in discussions by self-appointed “experts” is that of a hooked (aka angular) thrust made after one’s adversary has parried quart (four, inside). In theory, the attacker can roll his hand into tierce (pronated), and slip around the parry with a hook thrust. This will only work if the attacker also has a shield or targe in his (or her) unarmed hand: otherwise there is nothing to prevent the adversary’s riposte. In other words, try this with a curved cutlass, and while you may be able to make a thrust (which may or may not penetrate ribs) as an arrest or stop hit against a riposte, you will almost certainly also be on the receiving end of a powerful cut. In other words, try this at your peril in the 17th century.

A powerful drawing cut can also be made, vertically high to low, the hand drawn down and backwards, from close quarters distance, and even when grappling if the blade is free. It is a highly effective cut: I have cut through twelve inches of brisket with it.

All this said, cleaving–non-drawing–blows can cut through skin and muscle, and even break bones. One need only to test this with a common kitchen cleaver to see the efficacy of such blows, although they are generally inferior to those made with a natural drawing action. Also, a cleaving blow, even with a dull blade, can still break bones. Getting hit on the head with a heavy cutlass would be akin to getting hit with a steel rod.

Cutlass balance determines how well the cutlass may be wielded in terms of traditional fencing actions, and which forms of cuts work best. A heavily-balanced cutlass, with much of its weight forward around the point of percussion (that is, near the end of the blade), makes for very effective cleaving and close cutting actions, and will cut well with even crude swings. However, it is less effective for skilled fencing. A well-balanced cutlass–less point or tip heavy–is a more effective fencing sword, in that it permits quicker actions such as cut-overs, but requires a bit more training or finesse to cut well. In other words, give a cleaver to an unskilled seaman, but a better-balanced cutlass to one with reasonable skill at swordplay. All this said, a skilled “complete” swordsman or swordswoman can fence pretty damn well with anything.

Switching to a discussion of how the cutlass is held, the cutlass grip, like that of period broadswords and backswords, is a “globular” one–the thumb is not placed on the back of the grip or handle. Placing the thumb on the back of the handle, assuming there is even room (typically there is not), given the weight a cutlass and its impact against its target, may result in a sprained thumb, possibly a broken one, and at the very least the thumb being knocked from the grip, thus losing control of the weapon. The “thumb on the back of the handle” grip is suitable for lighter weapons only.

Shells are quite useful–mandatory, in my opinion–to protect the hand. A single outside shell, especially in conjunction with an upper quillon and a knuckle bow, provides merely adequate protection to the hand. The inside hand and forearm remain vulnerable to an attack or counter-attack (best made in opposition). The addition of an inner shell, typically smaller, goes far to maintain adequate protection to the hand. As already noted, inner shells were usually smaller, given that the inner part of the hand (the fingers, basically) is smaller than the outer, typically 1/3 to 2/5’s of the entire fist. Again, though, differently sized shells, especially if the difference is significant, will unbalance the weapon, making a thumb ring useful for gripping well and preventing the edge from turning and thereby not cutting.

THE TERMS HANGER VERSUS CUTLASS

In regard to the myth that ‘hanger’ was the sole term used to refer to the common cutting sword at sea–to the cutlass, in other words–in the 17th century, and that ‘cutlass’ was only an eighteenth century term, I’ve excerpted the following from a Mariner’s Mirror article I wrote a few years ago (“Eyewitness Images of Buccaneers and Their Vessels,” vol. 98, no. 3, August 2012). I added it to the original draft after a pre-publication editorial reader for the journal suggested I may have used the term cutlass in error. Even the author of British Naval Swords & Swordsmanship, an excellent work, falls into this error of assuming that only the term hanger was used–and it often was the sole term, other than ‘sword,’ in the Royal Navy.

From my article: “Still debated today are the issues of whether hanger or cutlass is the more appropriate English name for the short cutting sword or swords used by late seventeenth century mariners, and whether the words refer to the same or different weapons. Hanger and cutlass (also cutlash, cutlace) are each found in English language texts of the late seventeenth century. In some cases there appears to be a subtle distinction made between them; in others they are used interchangeably.

“The English 1684 Malthus edition of Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America refers only to ‘cutlace’ or, more generically, sword as the buccaneer’s arme blanche. There is also at least one reference in the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, dating to the 1680s, associating the term cutlass with Caribbean pirates.[1] The 1684 Crooke and 1699 Newborough editions of Exquemelin refer to both hanger and cutlass, and use the terms interchangeably in reference to the sword of the notorious buccaneer Jean David Nau, better known as l’Ollonais. (Hanger once, cutlass twice, as well as a note that his men were armed with cutlasses.)

“It is possible that the description of l’Ollonais’s use of his sword to mutilate and murder prisoners may have given first rise to the reputation of the cutlass as the arm of the romanticized ‘cutthroat pirate’, a reputation enhanced by Charles Johnson’s pirate history forty years later, and then by Robert Louis Stevenson and other nineteenth century novelists. Even so, the cutlass already had a sanguine reputation, doubtless inspired in part by its descriptive, alliterative name: ‘by the bloudy cut-throat cuttleaxe of swaggering Mars’ wrote Thomas Coryate in 1611. By the eighteenth century, cutlass was the predominant English term for the seaman’s short-bladed cutting sword.”[2]

The earliest Caribbean reference to cutlasses I’ve found to date is in “The Voyages of Captain William Jackson (1642-1645),” a first-hand account describing Jackson’s most famous plundering voyage from one end of the Caribbean to the other: “The Armes delivered out to each company were, Muskitts, Carbines, Fire-locks, Halfe-pikes, Swords, Cutlases, & ye like offentius weapons…” Notably the term “hangers” is not used. Given that English naval inventories of the 17th century tend to list “hangers” and “swords” as the two sorts of swords carried aboard, it is unlikely that the “swords” category mentioned in Jackson includes hangers. [The journal was published in Camden Miscellany vol. 13, 3rd series vol. 34, 1924; the quote refers roughly to September-October 1642.]

MORE INFORMATION

For more information on the use of the cutlass at sea and ashore 1655 to 1725, in particular on its effectiveness as well as on its use in dueling, see The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth About Pirate Myths, chapter 8. (My publisher won’t appreciate my repeating the information here; by agreement I am not supposed to.) Both The Sea Rover’s Practice and The Buccaneer’s Realm also include information on the cutlass and other swords; the latter has an entire chapter devoted to associated late 17th century swords and swordplay. Unfortunately, there are no existing cutlass swordplay texts from the seventeenth century. It is likely that none were ever written.

NOTES

[1] CSPC, 1685-1688, no. 1509. January 19, 1684. “A Relation of the capture of Providence by the Spaniards. On Saturday, 19th January, about 3 o’clock, Juan de Larco with two hundred and fifty Spaniards came down the harbour and landed at Captain Clarke’s, half a mile to east of Charlestown. Captain Clarke being out of doors near the waterside, some men in ambush shot him through the thigh and cut his arms with a cutlass, and then they marched away with all haste to the town, firing into some houses as they went…”

Another instance described in CSPC, 1677-1680, no. 1624. December 30, 1680, deposition of Robert Oxe.”The Spaniards killed two men and cruelly treated the deponent, hanging him up at the fore braces several times, beating him with their cutlasses, and striking him in the face after an inhuman cruel manner.” The Spanish pirate hunters were commanded by Captain Don Felipe de la Barrera y Villegas. Under his command were Juan Corso and Pedro de Castro, two captains noted for their reprisal cruelty against English and French seamen.

[2] Thomas Coryate, ‘Laugh and be Fat’ in Coryat’s Crudities (reprint London, 1776), vol. 3:n.p. Regarding foreign terms for cutlass, the original Dutch edition of Exquemelin’s work (1678) uses sabel (saber), as does David van der Sterre’s 1691 biography of Caribbean sea rover Jan Erasmus Reyning, but a 1675 English-Dutch dictionary notes kort geweer as the Dutch term for cutlass. Exquemelin’s Spanish edition (1681) uses ‘alfange’ (alfanje), whose root is the Andalusian Arabic alẖánǧar or alẖánǧal, from the Arabic ẖanǧar, a dagger or short sword, which some scholars have suggested is the origin of the English word hanger. The OED (2nd ed.) doubts this and derives it instead from the Dutch hangher. Although the Spanish connection to the Low Countries, and thus a connection to the Dutch term, appears suggestive, the English use of hanger predates Spanish rule. Alfanje is typically translated as cutlass, hanger, or scimitar. Exquemelin’s French editions (1686, 1688, 1699) refer to both coutelas and sabre. Most etymologists consider cutlass to be derived from coutelas. Saber, sabre, and the Dutch sabel derive from the German sabel, with authorities noting the term’s Slavic origin.

Walking the Plank: An Associated Image

RP-P-OB-80.916.jpg

“Kapitein Lambert Hendrikszoon laat 125 zeerovers ophangen aan de ra’s van zijn schepen of in zee gooien voor de haven van Algiers, ca. 1619, Jan Luyken, 1682 – 1684.” (Rijksmuseum.)

In The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, I’ve devoted an entire chapter to this myth of walking the plank. The image above is of a Dutch flotilla commanded by Captain Lambert Hendrikszoon in the early 1680s harshly negotiating a peace treaty with Algiers, notorious for its “Barbary corsairs.” Note that a corsair was a privateer, not a pirate, although often the Barbary corsairs were referred to as pirates–after all, they were not “Christians.” Even so, they were lawfully commissioned and were pirates only if they went to sea without a commission to hunt prey. A major part of Barbary corsair plunder consisted of prisoners–Christians, often–taken as slaves. This was naturally an objectionable, heinous, barbaric (note the origin of the word) practice. Yet Europeans often hypocritically failed to note the irony that Barbary corsairs were enslaving people who themselves engaged in the slave trade of Africans, Native Americans, mixed races, and sometimes even of Asians–and, at least to the early 18th century, North Africans.

lambert-at-algiers-detail

Detail. (Rijksmuseum.)

In the detail below, Algerine prisoners are being murdered in reprisal, in this case  via “walking the plank”–but clearly no plank was necessary.

A Brief Interlude: An Early Skull & Crossbones at Sea

Invariably as one of my books is published, my continued research uncovers relevant information ranging from corrections to supplementary material. In the past I have posted this information in a pdf file, often quite lengthy, on my website, but for this book I intend to post on the webpage itself and also especially on this blog.

And for my first supplement, a painting by Jacob Gerritsz, mid-seventeenth century, of an allegorical ship representing the Holy Roman Catholic Church. The painting is intended as anti-Calvinist propaganda demonstrating that Calvinists and other “Reformers,” including Calvin himself firing a musket at the ship, cannot harm the Holy Church. One of the banners the ship flies is a skull and crossbones, the earliest I’ve seen to date. The flag is merely a symbol here, representing death, but could the painter have been aware of the flag flying for real somewhere?

ship-of-the-church

“Das Schiff der Kirche” by Jacob Gerritsz, circa 1640 to 1649. Copyright DHM/Museum Catharijneconvent Utrecht.

Probably not, for why would the Church depict a ship (one of decidedly Spanish design) representing the Church flying a pirate banner? This is hardly the message the Vatican would like to present as an argument against Calvinism. More likely would be Calvinism, in the Roman Catholic Church’s eye, flying the flag of piracy.

skull-and-bones-ship-of-the-church-detail

Detail from “Das Schiff der Kirche” by Jacob Gerritsz.

The fact is, although the skull and bones was used extensively as a mortuary symbol, and may have been flown at this time by some Barbary corsairs, it does not appear to have been regularly flown, with extensive attached symbolism, until the coming of the Anglo-American pirates in the early 18th century. Details, of course, are discussed in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth About Pirate Myths.

The same black flag with skull and crossbones is similarly used in an allegorical poem of the early 18th century, prior to the American pirates who flew the skull and bones, to represent the banner of Charon, ferry-master of the Styx in Hades.

The death’s head in the painting above has a frightening three dimensional aspect, which would take a talented pirate to replicate with paint and brush. Most, we imagine–and we can only imagine, having no existing pirate flags from the Golden Age from 1655 to 1725, only written descriptions–would be simple fabric cutouts or simple painted images. However, in The Golden Age of Piracy I do discuss the flag of Jean Thomas Dulaien who sailed shortly after the period, for which we have a written description, as well as images of a purported drawing and of a purported woodblock made from the drawing. All are similar but none exactly matches the other. The original flag was reportedly destroyed on the order of Louis XIV.

Except for a skull and bones flown on a red field–a flag of no quarter–by French flibustiers in 1688, and perhaps before and after, we have no evidence of their use among pirates and other sea rovers of European origin until the early 18th century.

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. 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. (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 filibusters 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 illustration by Cornuau, 1685. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

On the right 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

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.)

On the left 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, from a chart by Cornuau of Nipe on Saint-Domingue, 1685. (Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

On the right 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, but the construction of the sheath–In particular, how the knives are inserted, are there for example partitions within the scabbard as we would expect?–cannot be determined. It’s feasible that the scabbard could be filled with some material–rags, grasses, &c.–into which knives are randomly thrust, much as with “universal” knife blocks today, but this is speculation.

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.)

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

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

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 skipped 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.

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

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

On the left 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, 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 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.

The Authentic Image of the Real Buccaneers of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini (Updated).

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.

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——. 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.

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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.

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Sabatini, Rafael. Captain Blood, His Odyssey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.