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Buccaneers, Zeerovers, and West India Companies
By Cindy Vallar

Close your eyes. Imagine yourself as a young man, perhaps fifteen or twenty years old. You walk up a gangplank onto the deck of a wooden ship. Behind you lies all that you have ever known – your family; the house where you live; the cobbled street where you play; the foods you eat; even the vagaries of the weather that greet you each day.

Around you all is abustle. Seamen weigh anchor, cast off lines, and unfurl sails. Fellow passengers crane to get a last look at loved ones. You stand in their midst, wondering what lies ahead. As the ship slowly moves away from the dock, water stretches as far as the eye can see. For weeks and months, you endure confinement within the finite space of the ship. You sleep belowdecks with everyone else, where little light shines, where the air is foul, where rats scurry. Food spoils or is infested. Green scum coats the drinking water.

Somewhere far beyond the horizon is your destination – a place where you know no one, where the flora and fauna are as strange as the people, where the food is different, and unknown dangers abound. Amid all these people, all this noise, you feel truly alone. How do you cope? How will you adapt to no longer being free to choose? For the next three years, your life is not your own. You must do another’s bidding. How will you survive?

Welcome to the world of the engagé!
In the year 1666, on the second of May, we left Havre de Grace in the St. John, under the direction of the West India Company’s delegate. The ship mounted twenty-eight guns and carried twenty seamen and two hundred and twenty passengers, including indentured servants of the Company and free persons with their servants.

We came to anchor below the Cape of Barfleur, in order to meet with seven more of the Company’s ships . . . together with a warship mounting thirty-seven guns and two hundred men.

. . . Altogether, we formed a fleet of about thirty ships, and at once we made ready for action, as we feared four English frigates (each of sixty guns) were cruising around the Isle of Ornay, in wait for us.

After our commodore . . . had given his orders, we got under sail with a good wind, in foggy weather. This favoured us, as the English might not spot us, and we hugged the French coast in order to elude the enemy. We encountered a Flemish ship from Ostend, which complained to our commodore it had been plundered that very morning by a French corsair. The warship gave chase directly, but was unable to overtake the pirates. (Exquemelin, 25)
Fascimile of a Plan of Le Havre in 1583,
                        from 'Les Premiers Oeuvres de Jacques Devaulx
                        Pillote en la Marine' downloaded from PBS
                        LearningMedia, http://www.pbslearningmedia.org.
                        Rights to use this asset expire on 12/31/2099 .
                        Asset Copyright This work is out of copyright,
                        with photographic rights held by the Bridgeman
                        Art Library.
Fascimile of a Plan of Le Havre in 1583, from 'Les Premiers Oeuvres de Jacques Devaulx Pillote en la Marine'
(Downloaded from PBS LearningMedia. Rights to use this asset expire on 12/31/2099. This work is out of copyright, with photographic rights held by the Bridgeman Art Library.)

Thus begins the tale of perhaps the most famous of the engagés, not because he was an indentured servant, but because of his account of De Americaensche Zee-Roovers. Nearly 350 years ago, a Dutchman published this book. The following year, in 1679, a German edition was released and a Spanish one came out two years after that. Two English versions appeared in 1684, but these Bucaniers of America resulted in Sir Henry Morgan, one of those buccaneers, successfully suing the publishers for libel. A French edition, published in two volumes, was released two years later. The author of the original title upon which all subsequent translations were based – to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy – was a Frenchman named Alexandre Exquemelin. This book, which remains in print today, was a firsthand account of the buccaneers, for Exquemelin had sailed with the Brethren of the Coast for three or four years. But he first came to the Caribbean as an engagé of the French West India Company.

Left: First page of De Americaensche Zee-Rovers, 1678 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Right: Bust of Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin in the Garden of Personalities in Honfleur, France by evergreen68
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Front page De Americaensche Zee-Rovers, 1678
                  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin in Garden of
                      Personalities in Honfleur (Source: evergreen68 @
                      Wikimedia Commons)
We sailed along the coast until at last we arrived at Tortuga, on the seventh of July of the same year, without having lost a man on the whole voyage.

. . . The governors of Tortuga always acted as proprietors of the island, until 1664, when the French West India Company took possession and installed M. d’Ogeron as governor. They settled a colony there, with their delegate and indentured servants . . . . (Exquemelin, 28 & 33)
La Compagnie française des Indes occidentales (French West India Company) came into existence on 28 May 1664, and was headquartered in Havre de Grace (Le Havre).1 Its charter (monopoly) was granted for forty years, but ten years after its founding, King Louis XIV dissolved the company. He paid its debts, which amounted to 3,025,000 livres; what remained of la Compagnie’s capital (1,287,185 livres) reimbursed the king. At the time of its dissolution, all colonies managed by the Company became royal colonies.

17th-century drawing of Tortuga (Source:
                  Wikimedia Commons)
Seventeenth-century drawing of Tortuga, artist unknown (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The intent of la Compagnie on Tortuga was to trade with Spaniards and the Dutch.
But this plan was not successful. They wanted to trade with a foreign nation, yet could not manage commerce with their own people. When the Company started up, everyone – privateers, hunters, planters and all – bought from them, for the Company supplied everything on credit. But when it came to paying, nobody was to be found. So the Company was obliged to send for its factors, ordering them to sell up everything which could be sold, and close down the enterprise.

All the indentured servants of the Company were sold, some for twenty pieces of eight and some for thirty. As a servant of the Company myself, I was among those sold, and had just the ill luck to fall into the hands of the wickedest rogue in the whole island . . . and he did me all the harm he could think of. He even made me suffer intense hunger, depriving me of my food. He wanted me to buy my freedom for 300 pieces of eight, offering to let me go for that amount. (Exquemelin, 33-34)
The selling of contracts from one person to another, such as when la Compagnie sold Exquemelin’s contract to Tortuga’s deputy governor, was not unusual. Nor was it uncommon for engagés to be ill-treated, as Exquemelin was. Setting the price of his freedom so high ensured that he remained an indentured servant.
Finally, I fell into a severe illness through all the discomfort I’d been through, and my master, fearing I should die, sold me to a surgeon for seventy pieces of eight. When I began to recover my health, I had nothing to wear except an old shirt and a pair of drawers. My new master was considerably better than the first. He gave me clothes and everything I needed, and when I had served him a year he offered to set me free for 150 pieces of eight, agreeing to wait for payment until I had earned the money. (Exquemelin, 34)
While the majority of engagés were men, some were women or even whole families. The last had to understand that if one master bought the parents, there was no guarantee that same master would buy the children, which meant families could be separated for the length of their commitments.

In the beginning, indentured servants provided the primary source of labor in the West Indies. Many engagés were whites of lower incomes, ranging in age from fifteen to thirty. Unlike slavery, royal guarantees were in place to provide these servants some protections, although as in Exquemelin’s case, as well as many others, that was more theory than practice. Those stipulations, in combination with the fact that an engagé was only under contract for eighteen months to six years, made slaves a more attractive alternative for planters. Nor were they obliged to pay a slave, as they did the engagés at the end of the term of their contracts. This payment was made in tobacco, which initially provided the engagé with sufficient funds to pay for his passage back to France – few indentured servants ever planned to stay in the West Indies – but after the bottom fell out of this commodity, the payment, if made, never proved enough to cover that cost any longer.
When I was free once more, I was like Adam when he was first created. I had nothing at all, and therefore resolved to join the privateers or buccaneers, with whom I stayed . . . accompanying them on their various voyages and taking part in many important raids . . . . (Exquemlin, 34)
What set la Compagnie apart from its European counterparts was that it was very much bankrolled by the State. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, contrôleur general des Finances (Comptroller-General of Finances) and secrétaire d’État à la Marine (Secretary of State of the Merchant Navy) founded the Company and King Louis XIV was its largest shareholder. Both were also directors of la Compagnie and contributed large sums to the company’s coffers. For example, in 1665, Colbert gave 30,000 livres, whereas the Sun King supplied 1,387,000 livres. During the next four years, his contributions exceeded 4,261,545 livres. Little surprise that only he and Colbert had the authority to declare la Compagnie’s bankruptcy, and they could do so without regard as to what the shareholders desired.

Louis XIV c.1661
                      by Charles Le Brun (Source: Wikimedia Commons)Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1655) by Philippe de
                      Champagnie (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Left: King Louis XIV, circa 1661, painted by Charles Le Brun (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Right: Jean-Baptiste Colbert, 1655, painted by Philippe de Champaigne (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Its letters patent gave control of and sole trade rights to the “mainland of South America from the Amazon to the Orinoco, together with the island of Cayenne, all the French West Indies, Canada, Acadia, Newfoundland, and ‘other islands and the mainland of North America, from the north of Canada to Virginia and Florida,’” and the west coast of Africa between Capes Verde and Good Hope. (Mims, 69) One of the West Indian islands to which France laid claim was Tortuga.

Tortuga, of course, was better known as a buccaneering haven, than a colony of the French West India Company. Pierre le Grand was supposedly the first buccaneer to use the island as a base of operations.2 In time, the buccaneers referred to themselves as the Brethren of the Coast. Anyone who wished to join them swore to adhere to a strict set of articles known as the “Custom of the Coast.” Most were French or English, but some were Dutch. Both Henry Morgan and l’Olonnais were among the buccaneers who visited this pirate haven.

Howard Pyle's engraving of Pierre Le Grand
                  catches a Spanish captain off guard in his cabin.
                  Engraving by Howard Pyle. (Source: Dover Pirates CD)
Pierre le Grand attacks a Spanish captain in his cabin. Engraving by Howard Pyle.
(Source: Pirates CD from Dover)

The French settled on the island in 1625, even though Spain considered it their property. Control of the island fluctuated between France, Spain, and England throughout the century, but in 1635 it was in France’s hands and Jean Le Vasseur became its governor. He welcomed any buccaneer to Tortuga as long as he gave Le Vasseur a share of his plundered booty. In 1650, he brought several hundred prostitutes to the island to accommodate the buccaneers. Three years later, two of his own men murdered Le Vasseur. Spain forcibly seized Tortuga in 1655, and the buccaneers fled. The following year, when the English learned that the sole garrison had departed the island, men from Jamaica occupied Tortuga and invited the pirates to return. The governor of Jamaica’s attempts to rule the island failed; three years later, the French regained control and the buccaneers defended the island. In 1664, responsibility for the island fell to la Compagnie, which appointed Bertrand d’Ogeron as Tortuga’s new governor. He arrived the following year.
The colony set up by the French West India Company on Tortuga in 1664 included the planters on Hispaniola. These men strongly resented the attempt to bring them under subjection, in a land which belonged neither to the King nor the Company, and resolved not to work rather than be dominated. Deriving nothing but loss from the enterprise, the Company promptly closed it down. (Exquemelin, 62)
Between 1660 and 1715, a total of 5,200 engagés of la Compagnie left La Rochelle, France for the West Indies. Prior to departure, a representative gave a sum of money to a potential indentured servant, or his parent if a minor; in return, a suit of clothes, food and drink, and transport to the West Indies was provided after the engagé signed a contract in which he, or she, agreed to work for a specified period of time. (The master might be the Company itself, as was the case initially for Exquemelin, but it could sell an engagé’s contract as happened to him when all its assets were liquidated.) One reason many took advantage of this opportunity was because periods of famine plagued France between 1630 and 1665. (Whether this was why Exquemelin signed such a contract is unknown.)

Exquemelin was not the only buccaneer to initially arrive in the West Indies as an engagé. Jean David Nau
was shipped out to the Caribbean Islands as a boy in the usual way, as an indentured servant or slave. When he had served his time, he stayed among the hunters on Hispaniola for a period. Later on he took to robbing the Spaniards, gaining immense booty and committing unspeakable atrocities. (Exquemelin, 89)
Francois l'Olonnais from De
                    Americanaesche Zee-Rovers, 1678
                    (http://beej.us/pirates/pirate_view.php?file=lolonais.jpg)Among the Brethren of the Coast, Nau was better known as François l’Olonnais. He proved quite adept at his new career, which also gained him many men eager to accompany him on his excursions in spite of his penchant toward the sadistic. In 1667, he sailed from Tortuga with at least 600 pirates aboard eight ships. They seized a Spanish prize laden with 40,000 pieces of eight, jewels, and cacao. Upon reaching Maracaibo, they targeted the sixteen-cannon fort protecting the lagoon, approaching from land rather than sea. Their ultimate destination was the city itself, but the forewarned residents had fled. The buccaneers hunted them down.
[T]he expedition returned in the evening, bringing with them about 20,000 pieces of eight, several mules laden with various goods, and some twenty prisoners – men, women and children. Next day they put some of the prisoners to the rack to find if they knew the whereabouts of other hidden stores, but nobody wanted to tell tales. (Exquemelin, 99)
L’Olonnais and his men plundered the countryside for a month, netting 260,000 pieces of eight, gems, silver, silks, and linen. When they divided their booty, each man received the equivalent of more than 100 pieces of eight.

During his marauding, l’Olonnais didn’t distinguish between rich and poor. If they were Spanish, he pillaged whatever they possessed. If his victims didn’t freely give up their possessions, he had no qualms about stretching the bonds of decency to acquire what he wanted.
[P]ossessed of a devil’s fury, [he] ripped open one of the prisoners with his cutlass, tore the living heart out of his body, gnawed at it, and then hurled it in the face of one of the others, saying, ‘Show me another way, or I will do the same to you.’ (Exquemelin, 107)
For seven years, l’Olonnais menaced the Caribbean. When his reign of terror came to an end, his demise was particularly fitting.
[I]t seems God would permit this man no further wicked deeds, but was ready to punish him for all the cruelties he had inflicted on so many innocent people . . . in the Gulf of Darien, he and his men fell into the hands of those savages the Spaniards called Indios Bravos. According to one of his companions, who only saved himself from a like fate by running away, l’Olonnais was hacked to pieces and roasted limb by limb. (Exquemelin, 117)

To be continued . . .

1. The French West India Company was neither the first nor the last trading venture to the New World. The earliest entity came about in the 1620s. Cardinal Richelieu promoted and was a director of la Compagnie des Îles de l’Amérique (Company of the American Islands), which was founded in 1635 and was focused primarily on the West Indies. Other companies would follow Louis XIV’s French West India Company. Louis XV, the great-grandson of the Sun King, reestablished la Compagnie in 1684, under the name of the Mississippi Company. Its territory extended from Louisiana into Canada. This entity lasted until 1717, at which time it was replaced by la Compagnie d’Occident, which folded in 1719. In that year, John Law combined all the French Companies under one umbrella and called this la Compagnie perpétuelle des Indes or the Everlasting India Company, which existed until 1770. Law was a Scottish banker, who became France’s General Financial Auditor. Operating costs during the War of Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) virtually bankrupted the Company, and it was dissolved in 1770.

2. Among historians, there is some question as to whether le Grand did or did not truly exist. In either case, he wasn’t the only buccaneer to be considered the first to settle one of the Caribbean islands. In 1550, François le Clerc, better known as Jambe de Bois or Pegleg because of his wooden prosthesis, frequented Pigeon Island (part of St. Lucia), because it provided an ideal place from which to attack merchant ships. Eleven years later, la Compagnie purchased St. Lucia from the Caribs.

For additional information, I recommend the following resources:

Appleby, John C. Women and English Piracy 1540-1720: Partners and Victims of Crime. Boydell, 2013.

Bick, Alexander. Governing the Free Sea: the Dutch West India Company and Commercial Politics, 1618-1645. Princeton University, 2012 [dissertation].
Bosscher, Philip. “Shipping Economics and Trade,” The Heyday of Sail: the Merchant Sailing Ship 1650-1830. Chartwell Books, 1995, 133-151.
Boucher, Philip P. France and the American Tropics to 1700: Tropics of Discontent? Johns Hopkins, 2008.
Bowen, H. V., John McAleer, and Robert J. Blyth. Monsoon Traders: the Maritime World of the East India Company. Scala, 2011.
Brooks, Baylus C. Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World. Baylus C. Brooks, 2016.
Bruyneel, Mark. “Short History of Tortuga, 1625-1688,” Isle of Tortuga. 2000.

Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, 1574-1660 edited by W. Noël Sainsbury. Longman, Green, Longman, & Roberts, 1860.
Chet, Guy. The Ocean Is a Wilderness: Atlantic Piracy and the Limits of State Authority, 1688-1856. University of Massachusetts, 2014.

De Vries, Hubert. “The French Companies,” National Arms and Emblems. 2015.

Earle, Peter. The Sack of Panamá: Captain Morgan and the Battle for the Caribbean. Thomas Dunne, 1981.
Edit Du Roy Donné à Paris, le 28 May 1664.” Michael Brown Rare Books.

Esquemling, John. The Buccaneers of America. Rio Grande Press, 1992.
Exquemelin, Alexander O. The Buccaneers of America translated by Alexis Brown. Dover, 1969.

Ferris, John P., and Paul Hunneyball. “John Pym (1584-1643) of Westminster,” The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629 edited by Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris. Cambridge, 2010.

Goslinga, Cornelis CH. The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast, 1580-1680. LibraryPress, 2017.
The Great Trade Routes: a History of Cargoes and Commerce over Land and Sea edited by Philip Parker. Naval Institute Press, 2012.

Hanna, Mark G. Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740. University of North Carolina, 2015.
Haring, C. H. The Buccaneers in the West Indies in the XVII Century. E. P. Dutton, 1910.
Heijmans, Elisabeth. “Investing in French Overseas Companies: A Bad Deal? The Liquidation Process of Companies Operating on the West Coast of Africa and in India (1664-1719).” Itinerario 43:1 (2019), 107-121.
History and Culture,” Saint Lucia.

Konstam, Angus. The Pirate World: a History of the Most Notorious Sea Robbers. Osprey, 2019.
Konstam, Angus. Scourge of the Seas: Buccaneers, Pirates and Privateers. Osprey, 2007.
Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Piracy: Treasures on the Seven Seas. Lyons Press, 2010.

Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in he Americas 1500-1750. M. E. Sharpe, 1998.
Lunsford, Virginia W. “A Model of Piracy: the Buccaneers of the Seventeenth-century Caribbean,” The Golden Age of Piracy: the Rise, Fall, and Enduring Popularity of Pirates edited by David Head. University of Georgia, 2018, 129-150.
Lunsford, Virginia West. Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Marley, David F. Pirates of the Americas v.1: 1650-1685. ABC-CLIO, 2010.
Marx, Jenifer. Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean. Krieger, 1992.
Mattingly, Garrett. “No Peace beyond What Line?”, Transactions of the Royal Society. 13 (1963), 145-162.
Mims, Stewart L. Colbert’s West India Policy. Yale, 1912.

Newton, Arthur Percival. The Colonising Activities of the English Puritans: the Last Phase of the Elizabethan Struggle with Spain. Yale, 1914.

Pestana, Carla Gardina. “Why Atlantic Piracy?” The Golden Age of Piracy: the Rise, Fall, and Enduring Popularity of Pirates edited by David Head. University of Georgia, 2018, 15-31.

Rogozinski, Jan. A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and Carib to the Present. Plume, 2000.

Satsuma, Shinsuke. Britain and Colonial Maritime War in the Early 18th Century: Silver, Seapower and the Atlantic. Boydell, 2013.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. World Food: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture and Social Influence from Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Globalization. ME Sharpe, 2013.
Sousbie, Denis. Voyages à la croisée des regards sur l’Amérique colonial: le récit de quatre voyageurs européens (XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle). Histoire, 2012. [thesis]
Stanziani, Alessandro. “Labour Regimes and Labour Mobility from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century,” Global Economic History edited by Tirthankar Roy & Giorgio Riello. Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, 175-190.

Taber, Robert D. “‘To Strengthen the Colonies’: French Labor Policy, Indentured Servants, and African Slaves in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean,” Library Research Grants 10. Brigham Young University, 2007. [thesis]
Thrush, Andrew. “John Coke (1563-1644) of Hall Court,” The House of Parliament: the House of Commons, 1604-1629 edited by Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris. Cambridge, 2010.

Westergaard, Waldemar. The Danish West Indies under Company Rule (1671-1754). Macmillan, 1917.


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