Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Sam Bellamy & Olivier Levasseur
Two Pirates Just Kickin' Around the Caribbean
By Laura Nelson
For a few months in 1716, Samuel Bellamy and Olivier Levasseur were the terror of the Caribbean, capturing an estimated fifty ships during their travels. While most pirate crews traveled aimlessly, voting on destinations as they went, Bellamy and Levasseur seemed to head in a definite direction: toward the area of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Some sources say they headed that way because Bellamy was eager to reunite with a sweetheart; others say their intention was to establish their own pirate republic in Maine.
Untitled by Howard Pyle, 1921
There are two versions of when Olivier Levasseur first appeared in the historical records. Former captive Jeremiah Higgins stated that he didn’t appear until after Sam Bellamy had a falling out with Benjamin Hornigold over whether or not to attack English ships. Bellamy had been in command of the sloop Mary Anne and sailed in consort with Hornigold when this fallout happened.
Jeremiah’s tale, given in his deposition before his trial for piracy in New York in 1717, described how he was forced to join the pirates; how Benjamin Hornigold was voted out of the company; and how they met up with Levasseur.
That about Two & Twenty months ago he sailed out of Jamaica a foremastman on Board a certain Sloop called the Blackett, Abraham Lamb Master, bound for the wrecks on the coast of Florida. That before they came to the wrecks, one Capt. Hornigold Commander of a Pyrate Sloop called the Benjamin came on board their sloop and after some time Desired the Examinate and some other of the Men belonging to the said Sloop Blackett to row him on board the said sloop Benjamin which they did and after they were aboard the said Sloop [He] refused to let the Examinant and one John Fletcher his companion Returne to their Sloop Blackett againe but detained them and Altho their Master Abraham Lamb came on Board and prayed the said Hornigold to Release his said Men Yet he utterly refused to do so but detained them and Carryed them away by force against their Wills.
That the said Sloop Benjamin afterwards sailed to the coast of the Havana having upwards of Eighty Men on Board, and off the Coast of the Havana at a place called Porta Maria they took the Sloop Mary Anne then belonging to the French & Spaniards Loaded with Dry Goods and Liquors, and then the Pyrates Divided their company and putt some of the company on Board the Mary Anne and chose one Samuel Bellamy to be Commander of both sloops and Turned out Hornigold and for some time after consorted together with the said Sloops until a quarrel happened among the Company and then they gave the said Sloop Benjamin to the said Hornigold and some Company and parted from him detaining the Examinant on board the said Sloop Mary Anne.
That afterwards the said Sloop Mary Anne Cruizing about from place to place met with another Pyrate sloop called the Postillion off Cape Mayos, one Capt. La Boos Commander with whom they consorted and cruised about . . . (Examination)Another version of the story has Levasseur already sailing with Hornigold before the falling out over the attacking of English ships happened.
In his interrogation before his trial for piracy in Boston, Massachusetts, on Monday, 6 May 1717, John Brown, who became a member of Bellamy’s crew and would ultimately be hanged for piracy in November, told of his time as Levasseur’s captive and how Bellamy and Hornigold quarreled and went their separate ways.
About a year ago he belonged to a Ship Commanded by Capt. Kingston, which In her Voyage with Logwood to Holland was taken to the Leeward of the Havanas by two piratical Sloops, one Commanded by Hornygold and the other by a Frenchman called Labous, each having 70 Men on Board. The Pirates kept the Ship about 8 or 10 Days and then having taken out of her what they thought proper delivered her back to some of the Men, who belonged to her. Labous kept the Examinate on board his Sloop about 4 months, the English Sloop under Hornygolds command keeping company with them all that time . . .What is known is that after they parted company with Hornigold, Bellamy and Levasseur sailed eastward in consort.1
From thence they Sailed on to Hispaniola in the latter end of May, where they tarryed about 3 Months. The Examinate then left Labous and went on board the Sloop Commanded formerly by Hornygold, at that time by one Bellamy, who upon a difference arising amongst the English Pirates because Hornygold refused to take and plunder English Vessels, was chosen by a great Majority their Captain & Hornygold departed with 26 hands in a prize Sloop, Bellamy having then on Board about 50 men, most of them English. (Trials, 2:317)
Levasseur was known by many names: Olivier or Oliver La Buse, Louis Labous, and Oliver de la Bouche, just to name a few. His nicknames were la Buse (French for “the Buzzard,” – earned because of the speed and ruthlessness with which he attacked his targets) and la Bouche (French for “the Mouth”). Adding to the confusion, Levasseur apparently had the habit of altering his name at will, causing people who encountered him to come away with a different name each time.2
The only information historians agree on regarding Levasseur is that he was born in Calais, France, to a bourgeois family and received an excellent education.3 Historians give his birth date as sometime during the time of the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697).
However he got his start, by 1716 he was sailing around the Caribbean with the Sam Bellamy, attacking and plundering ships and collecting treasure as they went. Between attacks they sometimes found remote islands where their ships could be cleaned and readied for their next attack.
"The money and spoil were divided among all the buccaneers."
George Varian, 1908
Bellamy and Levasseur’s story is one of many conquests. During their travels around the Caribbean they went such places as Cape Corante, the Isle of Pines, and Hispaniola.
During September 1716 and off the coast of Puerto Rico, the pirates attempted to attack a 44-gun French ship. “After an hour-long fight, [they were] driven off with little loss.” (Clifford, 55) October found them plundering ships along the north coast of Hispaniola. In November and December, Bellamy and Levasseur took up residence on the island of St. Croix for a few weeks, using it as a base to take “at least a dozen ships in the Virgin and Leeward Islands.” (Clifford, 58)
Part of the reason for their ease in capturing vessels was the reputation established by previous pirates who had tortured sailors, particularly captains, who did not immediately surrender upon being approached by a ship bearing a Jolly Roger and firing a shot across their bow. The early 1700s was a time of low (and sometimes no) pay for sailors, with generally no chance of advancement. Most did not feel any loyalty toward their captain or the company that owned whatever ship they served on, and thus saw no reason to sacrifice themselves defending that ship. Most hoped that by giving up and staying out of the way they would survive the pirate encounter unscathed. That being said, “There is no record that Captain Bellamy and his crew ever used force or violence to capture any of the scores of vessels they plundered.” (Vanderbilt, 23)
An interesting incident occurred while Bellamy & Levasseur sailed together. When they captured a ship named the Bonetta, Bellamy allowed a boy named John King to join his pirate crew. In the early 1700s it was not unusual for a boy from a poor family to sign aboard a ship as a cabin boy or powder monkey. It was an opportunity to learn a trade and earn a living. But John King came from a family of means. When he joined the pirates, he wore French woven-silk stockings and leather shoes fastened with buckles, both reflecting “18th-century upper-class style.” (Clifford, 132)
In his deposition about the capture of the Bonetta, her master Abijah Savage said that on 9 November two large sloops chased him for about six and one-half hours. He gave the names of the pirate captains, some information about Levasseur’s crew, and told the tale of John King, who willingly joined the pirates.
One of the said Sloops called the Mary Anne was Commanded as he was told by one Samuel Bellamy who declared himself to be an Englishman born in London, and that the other, called the Postillion was Commanded by one Louis de Boure who was a French Man, and has his Sloop chiefly Navigated with men of that Nation. That each of the said Sloops was mounted with Eight Guns and had betwixt Eighty or Ninety Men apiece on Board . . .
[H]e could not learn the Names of any of the Men on board the Postillion excepting the Quarter Master, who went by the name of De Lorme . . .Researchers estimate that John King could have been as young as eight years old when he joined the pirates. Excavations of the wreck of the Whydah, Bellamy’s ship, found the fibula of a young boy along with a silk stocking and one leather shoe. (Clifford, 132)4
[O]ne John King who was coming as a Passenger with him from the Said Island of Jamaica to the Island of Antigua deserted his Sloop, and went with the Pirates, and was so far from being forced or compelled by them as the Deponent could perceive or learn, that he declared he would kill himself if he was restrained, and even threatened his Mother who was then on board as a passenger with the Deponent. (Dethlefsen, 127-129)
When Bellamy and Levasseur caught up with Savage’s ship, they fired their guns and hoisted their black flags, at which point the Bonetta’s master struck his sails and lowered his boat to go meet with them. The pirates detained him, his crew, and the passengers until 24 November. Before letting them go, they took some of their clothes, other items, a black man, and an Indian boy.
After they were finished with the Bonetta in late November 1716, the pirates sailed towards the Caribbean island of Saba, a five-square-mile islet located off the Virgin Islands. There they chased and captured two ships, one of which was the Sultana commanded by Captain Richards. According to pirate John Brown, “Having plundered the Ships and taken out some Young Men they dismist the rest . . . and made a Man of War of Richard’s [vessel], which they put under the Command of Bellamy, and appointed Paul Williams Captain of the Sloop.” (Trials, 317)
Near the island of Blanco, sometime around January 1717, Bellamy and Levasseur parted company. Some sources say they were separated by a storm, and others that Levasseur’s crew simply voted to strike out on their own in another direction. Whatever the exact reason for the separation, their parting was propitious: Bellamy and the majority of his band of pirates perished in a storm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on 26 April 1717.
Historians differ as to where exactly Levasseur went between his parting from Bellamy and his arrival in Nassau in the Bahamas.5 One recorded sighting occurred off the coast of New England on 4 July 1717, when he was in command of a 250-ton ship with twenty guns and two hundred men from various nations. One crewman, Mr. Main, was reportedly the chief negotiator with their captives. On this date “La Buse’s gang plundered a sloop from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, off the coast of Virginia; the pirates told the ship’s captain, John Frost, that they were headed for the New England coast where they ‘had a consort ship of twenty guns.’”(Woodard, Black, 116)6
Captain Frost later said the pirates chased him for twelve hours, finally catching up to him at nine o’clock in the evening. In David Cordingly’s book Under the Black Flag, Levasseur’s ship had twenty guns and a crew of 170.
She fired a broadside of ‘double round and partridges, and a volley of small shot,’ which meant that each of the ten guns on one side of the ship was loaded with two round cannonballs and a bag of partridge shot. This would have been a lethal combination at close range, and it was accompanied by a volley of fire from the muskets and pistols. The bombardment beat the men off the deck and so shattered the hull, rigging, and sails of Frost’s ship that he surrendered without a fight.” (Cordingly, 120)Frost was ordered to board, but sent his Mate instead. The Mate was met with swords and told that if he had been the Master they would have cut him down for trying to run from them. When Frost finally did go on board the pirate ship in the morning, he was used roughly until Mr. Main attempted to “make things easy” between the pirates and Frost.7
Then Levasseur’s quartermaster and some other pirates boarded Frost’s ship and helped themselves to “40 Hogsheads of Rhum, one Hogshead and several Barrels of Sugar, some Money, Watches, a Negro Man, one of the Pumps,” and some linens, woolens, bedding, and various other items.8
A couple of other ships happened along while Frost’s ship was being plundered, and the pirates promptly plundered them also. When they were done, Levasseur sent Frost back aboard the merchant ship, at which point Levasseur’s quartermaster and other crew members stripped Frost down to his shirt, cut and beat him, and threatened to skin and barbecue him. Belatedly becoming aware of the fracas, Levasseur fired a shot and ordered his crew back aboard the pirate ship.
Eight days later, Levasseur took a ship named the Dispatch in the vicinity of the Damariscove, Monhegan, and Matinicus islands of Maine. The ship’s master, Joseph Christophers, described his attacker as a “Ship of 250 Tons, 20 Guns, about 200 men, who ordered him in French and then in English to strike unto a Pirate, hoist out his Boat and come on board.”9 When the pirates learned that he had neglected to bring his ship’s papers with him, “They beat Christophers with about 40 stripes on his back and sent for his Papers.”10 They then took a “Hogshead of Bear, a Hogshead of Water, half of his Bread,” and assorted other items, such as brandy, wine, and clothes.11 Most of the master’s papers and letters were thrown overboard. The Boston Newsletter identified the pirates as being the same ones who, only a few days earlier, had robbed Captain Frost. This was the last reported incident of piracy in New England for many months. (Woodard, Black, 116)
Sometime between September and December 1717, Levasseur arrived in Nassau. During these four months, Paul Williams – Bellamy’s friend and cohort who missed perishing in the storm that killed Bellamy because he had temporarily separated from him and gone to Block Island – reentered Levasseur’s life when he sailed into Nassau harbor in the same Mary Anne that Bellamy originally commanded. The Mary Anne was now in pitiful condition. During the journey from New England to Nassau most of her crewmen had died of starvation or deserted. She was followed by the Anne Galley commanded by Richard Noland, also a former crewmember of Bellamy’s. Together they announced the demise of Sam Bellamy.(Woodard, Republic, 321)12
Some references from 1717 have Levasseur flying a white ensign, rather than a black one, for his pirate flag. One such sighting happened while Governor Walter Hamilton of the Leeward Islands was touring the Virgin Islands in a ship called the Seaford. They had just turned around to begin their return journey to Antigua when they encountered a “pirate ship ‘of about 26 guns and 250 men’ off St. Thomas. The ship flew a ‘white ensign with a figure of a dead man spread in it’ and, according to Captain Rose, was commanded by none other than Olivier la Buse.” (Woodard, Republic, 221) Despite being out-gunned, Captain Rose tried to chase the pirates, but was out-sailed by Levasseur.
A possible reference to Levasseur between the time he left New England and reached Nassau comes from a note “on the flyleaf of a well-worn edition of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying. The handwritten inscription reads: ‘Septr. 28th: 1717 at 8 in the morning in ye Lat. Of 32 degrees 8 minutes about 160 Leag: west from Madaira we were attacked by a French Pirate with Death’s head in black in ye middle of a white ensign, and by the Providence of God were delivered, altho’ they were once so neare that there shott flew a great way over us, and were Likewise once a head of uss’”. (Cordingly, 116)
The last recorded encounter with Levasseur in the Caribbean happened on 12 June 1718. Captain Frances Hume, commanding HMS Scarborough, nearly captured Levasseur while his ship was anchored at La Blanquilla and he was preoccupied with plundering a small prize sloop. Levasseur and the majority of his crew managed to escape in their faster vessel.
From the Caribbean it has been generally assumed that Levasseur sailed for the Indian Ocean, thus avoiding the arrival of Woodes Rogers there in Nassau in July 1718. Eventually Levasseur would be captured on Reunion Island and hanged for piracy on 7 July 1730.
1. When Hornigold sailed away, his supporters included a man named Edward Teach, soon to be known as Blackbeard.For more information, Laura recommends the following resources:
2. My research has found Levasseur listed as: Oliver La Buse, Olivier Levasseur, Louis Lebous, M. Leboos, La Buze, La Bouze, Oliver La Bouche, Olivier de la Bouche, Louie Lebous, Louis de Boure, and Louis La Buse.
3. In France at this time, bourgeois families educated their children at home by hiring private tutors. When they completed their education with the tutor, they were sent to college, where instruction in religion was offered.
4. All three items are on display as part of National Geographic’s Real Pirates traveling exhibit. (Editor’s Note: There may actually be more than one traveling exhibit, because the first one I saw in Philadelphia had this display, but the one visited on Galveston Island in Texas did not.)
5. Most records don’t mention him again until 1719, when Edward England found out that Levasseur had arrived at Whydah Road before him and “forestall’d the Market, and greatly disappointed their Brethren.” (Defoe, 117)
6. At the time Levasseur separated from Bellamy, Bellamy was in command of the Sultana. Bellamy captured the Whydah in late February or early March, and this was the ship he commanded when she sank off Cape Cod.
7. Boston Newsletter, 19 July 1717.
8. Boston Newsletter, 19 July 1717.
9. Boston Newsletter, 25 July 1717.
10. Boston Newsletter, 25 July 1717.
11. Boston Newsletter, 25 July 1717.
12. Williams would appear in historical accounts again in 1720 as quartermaster of a ship Levasseur commanded.
Carr, John Laurence. Life in France under Louis XIV. B.T. Batsford, 1970.
Clifford, Barry, and Kenneth J. Kinkor. Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship. National Geographic, Washington, 2007.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. Random House, 2006.
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
Dethlefsen, Edwin. Whidaw: Cape Cod’s Mystery Treasure Ship. Seafarer’s Heritage Library, 1984.
“Examination of Jeremiah Higgins” New York, 22 June 1717. Records of the Vice-Admiralty Court of the Province of New York 1685-1838, 36-3.
Jugement du Pirate La Buse, du 7 Juillet 1730. Archives departementales de la Reunion, Serie C, Registre du greffe du Counseil Superieur de Bourbon siegeant au judiciare.
“The Trials of Eight Persons Indited for Piracy” in British Piracy in the Golden Age edited by Joel H. Baer. Pickering and Chatto, 2007, 2:289-319.
Vanderbilt, Arthur T. Treasure Wreck: The Fortunes and Fate of the Pirate Ship Whydah. Schiffer, 2007.
Woodard, Colin. “Black Flags Down East,” Down East, the Magazine of Maine 54:1 (August 2007).
Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Harcourt, 2007.
About the Author
Laura Nelson lives in the Denver Metropolitan area and is an Unemployment Fraud Investigator for the state of Colorado. When she's not researching or reading about pirates, she enjoys Tai Chi, walking, cats, and reading adventure and true crime, and watching way too much TV. Her short story, "Rosa and the Pirate," was recently published by Dark Oak Press in the pirate anthology A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder. She also has her own blog, The Whydah Pirates Speak. Pirates and Privateers has published several of her non-fiction articles: Peter Cornelius Hoof and Me, John Julian – The Teenage Pirate, and The Unknown Survivor.
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