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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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The Pirate Known as La Buse
Olivier Le Vasseur

By Cindy Vallar


Sometime around 1680, a son was born to Paul Le Vasseur, a French corsair, according to Denis Piat, author of Pirates and Privateers in Mauritius. Named Olivier, the boy grew up without his mother, who had died giving birth to him, but his father taught him the art of navigation.1 The next time he surfaced in historical records he was in the West Indies, perhaps as early as 1714.

Some accounts say Olivier Le Vasseur sailed in consort with both Benjamin Hornigold and Samuel Bellamy, but others say he joined forces with Bellamy only after Hornigold’s crew voted him out as captain. Jeremiah Higgins, the boatswain aboard Paulsgrave WilliamsMary Anne, testified on 22 January 1717, that after parting company with Hornigold, they sailed
about from place to place [and] met with another Pyrate sloop called the Postillion off Cape Mayos one Capt. La Boos Commander with whom they consorted and cruized about and Between St. Thomas and Porta Rico they mett with a french ship of about forty guns whom the said Two Sloops Attackett for the space of about an houre and was at last forc’d to quitt her they haveing One Man Kill'd also the Examinent and three more of their men wounded in the Engagemen­t.2 (Whydah, 154)
John Brown contradicted this timeline in his deposition, given in Boston, Massachusetts on 6 May 1717, where he was awaiting trial on a charge of piracy.3 Initially he was a captive, before he signed the articles and joined Bellamy.
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 Havana 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. (Trials, 2:317)
At this time Hornigold was in command of the Benjamin and Le Vasseur was captain of the Postillion (8 guns). They met up in March 1716, at which time they counted 140 men between their two pirate vessels. They would sail in consort until August of that year. Their first prize together was a merchantman, which was smuggling goods ashore at Mariel, Cuba when she was taken. The pirates plundered her for a week before setting sail after spotting a flotilla of vessels heading toward them. Those vessels were under the command of Henry Jennings, but he and Hornigold never got along well.

Le Vasseur and Hornigold next encountered two Spanish brigantines near Cape Corrientes, Cuba, laden with cacao from Maracaibo. The pirates held the ships for ransom, but the Spaniards were unable to raise the necessary funds. After setting the captive crews ashore, the pirates burned both vessels.

They continued to prowl the Cuban coast and came upon several English sloops, which had already discharged their cargo, at Isla de los Pinos. Although they lacked any treasure, the pirates utilized them to careen their own ships before allowing the captured crews to sail off in their sloops. Thereafter, Le Vasseur returned to St. Domingue in late May, 1716.

 In October and November of that year, Le Vasseur again sailed in consort with Sam Bellamy near the Virgin Islands. On the morning of 9 November, they sighted a British sloop. Le Vasseur hoisted his flag, “a death’s head and bones across,” to the top of the mast. (Woodard, 147) They captured the sloop and one of the new recruits who joined Sam Bellamy was a young lad named . The next day, they captured Sultana, which became Bellamy’s ship, after which the pirates sailed for La Blanquilla, located 100 miles from Venezuela, where they spent Christmas and New Year’s and converted the merchant Sultana into a pirate ship. At this point Le Vasseur and his men decided to part ways with Bellamy.

After 30 April 1717, Le Vasseur was in Nassau with a new vessel of 250 tons and twenty guns. His purpose was to garner 150 new hands, before heading north to New England, to reconnect with Sam Bellamy and perhaps venture into the waters around Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. What he didn’t realize at the time was that Bellamy was already dead, having gone down with the Whydah during a storm off Cape Cod.

La Buse's Jolly
                  Roger by TheLastBrunnenG (Source: Wikimedia Commons)In late November, Governor Walter Hamilton of the Leeward Islands was touring the Virgin Islands aboard the twenty-two gun HM Frigate Seaford, commanded by Captain Jonathan Rose. Another vessel “of about 26 guns and 250 men” was spotted near St. Thomas. Flying on her mast was a “white ensign with a figure of a dead man spread on it.” (Woodard, 221) Rose identified her as Le Vasseur’s ship, so they gave chase, but were unable to catch the pirates.

June 1718 found Le Vasseur anchored off La Blanquilla plundering a sloop. On the twelfth of that month, Captain Francis Hume and HMS Scarborough surprised the pirates, but Le Vasseur and many of his men escaped on the sloop. With the Caribbean becoming less safe for pirates, they headed for Africa where they met up with Edward England, Paulsgrave Williams, and other pirate friends from the Bahamas.

In late February 1719, a sloop ventured up the Gambia River where the Royal James, under the command of Howell Davis, was anchored. Being a pirate ship, the men aboard the Royal James prepared to fire a shot across the sloop’s bow until she hoisted her own Jolly Roger and fired upon the James. Seeing the black flag, Davis ordered his own ensign hoisted. The sloop belonged to Le Vasseur and when the two captains met, he revealed that his sloop was armed with fourteen guns and he had a crew of thirty-two Frenchmen and thirty-two blacks. After partying and getting to know each other for more than seven days, the pirates weighed anchor and sailed downriver together on 7 March. They seized a merchant ship along the way, whose master guided them through the channels. They also met up with Edward England, sailing upriver, but he opted not to join Davis and Le Vasseur.

Although Le Vasseur’s sloop was the ideal vessel for a pirate, she was no longer agile and leaked. He was determined to replace her at the first opportunity, which came when they seized another merchantman. This replacement possessed the good qualities of being of stout construction and large; on the other hand, she was also lumbering and slow. Once the master’s knowledge was no longer needed, he, his ship, and his crew were released minus his second mate, a carpenter, a boatswain, and five others who were either forced to join or willingly joined Le Vasseur’s crew.

Their next venture took them to Sierre Leone, where merchant ships put in at the fort to take on cargoes of slaves and ivory. Since it was small and lacked good defenses, the fort posed little threat to the pirates. Around this time, another pirate captain and crew joined them. Le Vasseur knew Thomas Cocklyn because they had sailed together once before. Cocklyn invited his old shipmate and Davis aboard his galley, Mourroon. No sooner did Davis step onto the deck than he was accosted by a sailor who begged for his help in saving the lives of those men taken from the Edward and Steed, which Cocklyn had seized the day before.

The captives’ fear was not without cause, for after Cocklyn and his men plundered their new prize, his boatswain fired a weapon at William Hall. The shot wounded Hall, who fled into the rigging to save himself. Brandishing a cutlass, the boatswain pursued Hall into the shrouds and hacked the wounded man to death before dumping the corpse into the sea. His mates, fearing that some pirate might suddenly decide to end their lives in a similar manner, sought help from Davis and his men.

Davis reprimanded Cocklyn for allowing such a foolish act to occur, especially since the captives had already surrendered without a struggle. Two of Cocklyn’s men didn’t take kindly to the scolding, for their hands strayed close to their weapons, but Davis’s men surrounded them to make certain no harm came to their captain. As far as Davis was concerned the slaughter had been a foolish and cowardly act. Only Le Vasseur’s intervention prevented the two pirate crews from engaging in battle. Draping his arms around the shoulders of the other two captains, he soon had them laughing and led them into Cocklyn’s cabin to discuss what to do next.

In addition to taking the Edward and Steed, Cocklyn had also captured the Two Friends. Since six ships now sheltered close to the fort, it was decided that Davis and Le Vasseur would blockade the river to prevent any of the merchant vessels from escaping. Cocklyn, on the other hand, took his two prizes out for sea trials to see which was the better sailer so he might assume command of her instead of Mourroon. Upon his return the next day, the three pirate crews would attack the fort.

Once the sun rose on the morrow, there was no sign of Cocklyn or his vessels. Le Vasseur thought he and Davis should attack without further delay, but Davis felt three vessels would have a better chance of capturing the fort and the merchant ships anchored there. Rather than wait, Le Vasseur sailed alone toward the merchantmen, who had no intention of surrendering without a fight. They fired several guns. One shot put a hole in Le Vasseur’s mainsail. A second ball fell close enough to Le Vasseur’s bow to make him veer away. The last shot landed in the water close enough to douse those on board the sloop.

Cocklyn eventually arrived with still another prize in tow. This was the second time this merchant ship had been captured by a pirate, for Davis had taken her at Gambia to use for storage and to provide his wounded and sick with shelter to recover. (He apparently released the ship once he left Gambia.) With Cocklyn’s return, the three pirate captains launched another strike at the fort and merchant ships. This time when Le Vasseur approached in the company of Cocklyn’s Mourroon and Davis’s Royal James, the merchant masters fled their vessels and sought safety within the fort. The pirates easily captured their ships.

Ship's Name
Type of Vessel & Home Port
Master's Name
Robert and Jane Brig from Antigua Captain Bennet
Parnel Snow from Bristol Captain Morris
Nightingale from Bristol
Queen Elizabeth
Captain Creighton
Jacob and Jael from London Captain Thompson
Society from London

Their holds contained ivory, provisions, alcoholic beverages, and cloth. In addition to taking these, the boatswains added to their supplies of rigging, sails, tallow, and pitch, while the master gunners took powder and firearms. Whatever gold and cash had been aboard, however, disappeared with the ships’ masters into the fort. To acquire these sums, the pirates ransomed the vessels back to four captains. Thompson and Bennet refused to pay, so the pirates stove holes in the Robert and Jane and Jacob and Jael. They painted palm leaves with tar, pitch, and sulfur then littered the decks with these flammable objects. They also deposited gunpowder kegs in the holds. Once safely back aboard their own ships, the pirates lobbed fiery torches onto the merchant ships. The wooden ships quickly caught fire. One exploded; her remains sank into the river. As the flames on the other eventually went out, she smoldered through the night.

Once the sun set, the pirates armed themselves, muffled the oars of their boats, and headed for the fort. They attacked at dawn, while those still aboard their vessels fired round shot at the fort’s crumbling walls. Those within the fortification fired their weapons, but the humidity had caused their cannon to rust, making them useless against the bombardment. After a few hours, one wall fell, but the pirates didn’t cease firing. Their attack continued until smoke and flames shrouded the fort. Unable to return fire because they had used up what ammunition they had, the defenders attempted to flee through a rear exit. Some pirates saw the escape attempt and seized them. What occurred next is unknown.



To Be Continued . . .


Notes:
1. In Memoirs of Captain Sam Bellamy, The Prince of Pirates, John Boyd wrote of a manuscript that he acquired access to that claimed to have been written by Bellamy. Unfortunately, no one else has seen this document and Boyd was not permitted to copy it. Aside from recounting Bellamy’s story, it also discusses Le Vasseur’s early life.

Born in 1683, Le Vasseur was the second son of a nobleman whose family lived on the Île de France near Paris. He studied both military history and religion, since he wasn’t destined to inherit his father’s land or title. At sixteen, he became a priest who wished to join the Knights of Malta. This required him to serve a year aboard one of their Mediterranean galleys, where they defended the Catholic faith against the Ottoman Empire. This service permitted Le Vasseur to implement the military strategies he had acquired and he soon acquired the nickname “La Buse” because “[l]ike a buzzard, he would jump from a perch on his ship to the deck of the victim’s ship plummeting downward in a spiral, twisting and turning with his sword in motion towards any enemy he saw, finally reaching his intended target who he ruthlessly dispatched.” (Boyd, 9) Whereas his fellow knights acquired significant treasure and led less than celibate lives, Le Vasseur donated his shares to the order and never took hostages. It was the custom to ransom these hostages and his not doing so angered other knights. Eventually, he asked to be released from his vows and sought a letter of marque from the king of France. After acquiring a ship, he spent seven years privateering in the Mediterranean before heading west to the Caribbean and becoming a pirate.

2. Jeremiah Higgins, who was captured in New York, was later released after news of King George I’s pardon was received. Cape Mayos is Cape Maisi, Cuba.

3. John Brown was found guilty of piracy and hanged.



For additional information I recommend the following resources:

Benaben, Yannick. “Sur les Traces du Trésor de La Buse Entre Histoire et Légendes Insulaires,” Au-Delà des Mers et des Océans 15 August 2015. (English translation)
Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Time-Life Books, 1978.
Boyd, John A. Memoirs of Captain Sam Bellamy, the Prince of Pirates: Saint Croix, 1716-1717. CreateSpace, 2015.
Brooks, Baylus C. Quest for Blackbeard. Baylus C. Brooks, 2016.
Burl, Aubrey. Black Bart: The Real Pirate of the Caribbean. Sutton, 2006.

Captured by Pirates: 22 Firsthand Accounts of Murder and Mayhem on the High Seas edited by John Richard Stephens. Fern Canyon, 1996.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates. Random House, 1995.

De Bry, John. “Christopher Condent’s Fiery Dragon: Investigating an Early Eighteenth-century Pirate Shipwreck off the Coast of Madagascar” in X Marks the Spot: the Archaeology of Piracy edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006.
Dia, Luis. “Pirates, Gold and Ghosts: Goa’s ‘Treasure Island’ Connection Is a Movie Waiting to be Made,” Scroll.in 28 April 2017.
Dolin, Eric Jay. Black Flag, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates. Liveright, 2018.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. Thomas Dunne, 2003.

Fox, E. T. Pirates in Their Own Words: Eye-witness Accounts of the ‘Golden Age’ of Piracy, 1690-1728. Fox Historical, 2014.

Gosse, Philip. The Pirates’ Who’s Who. Rio Grande Press, 1924.

Konstam, Angus. The History of Pirates. Lyon, 1999.

Little, Benerson. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. Skyhorse, 2016.

Marley, David F. Pirates of the Americas. ABC-Clio, 2010, 2: 1686-1725.
Mingren, Wu. “French Pirate Olivier Levasseur Left Behind a Curious Cryptogram – Does It Lead to His Long-lost Treasure?Ancient Origins 19 November 2017.

Piat, Denis. Pirates and Privateers in Mauritius. Editions Didier Millet, 2004.

Rediker, Marcus. “The Seaman as Pirate: Plunder and Social Banditry at Sea” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001, 139-168.
Rogoziński, Jan. Honor among Thieves: Captain Kidd, Henry Every, and the Pirate Democracy in the Indian Ocean. Stackpole Books, 2000.
Rule, Chris. “Piratical History of Madagascar,” Pirates! Fact & Legend. Date unknown.

Selinger, Gail. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates. Alpha, 2006.
Selinger, Gail. Pirates of New England: Ruthless Raiders and Rotten Renegades. Globe Pequot, 2017.
Snelgrave, William. A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave Trade. Gale, 2012.

“The Trials of Eight Persons Indited for Piracy,” British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer, volume 2. Pickering & Chatto, 2007, 289-319.

The Whydah Sourcebook compiled and edited by Kenneth J. Kinkor. Unpublished manuscript, 2003.
Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Then Down. Harcourt, 2007.
 

 
 

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