François l’Olonnais: Cunning and Cruel Pirate and Flail of the Spanish
François l’Olonnais was a notorious French buccaneer who lived during the 17th century. l’Olonnais’ career as a pirate lasted about 10 years, from 1660 till his death in 1668/9. During this period, he succeeded in establishing a fearsome reputation for himself, which is echoed even till this day. He is still often considered to be one of the most ruthless and barbaric pirates to have lived. The Spanish were often the victims of his cruelty, and hence he acquired the nickname ‘Flail of the Spanish’.
The Young Buccaneer
François l’Olonnais was born as Jean-David Nau in 1635. His place of birth was Les Sables-d'Olonne, a seaside town in the Vendée, in the western part of France, hence his demonym, ‘Olonnais’. Little is known about the early life of l’Olonnais, except the fact that as a young man, l’Olonnais was taken to the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean as an indentured servant. The future buccaneer apparently served his indenture for 10 years, from 1650 to 1660. According to another source, however, l’Olonnais escaped from his master three years into his service.
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Whether l’Olonnais gained his freedom by serving his indenture to the end, or by escaping, it is clear that he did not return to France. Instead, he decided to stay in the Caribbean and joined the buccaneers. Originally, these were men who made their living by hunting wild game in the jungles and selling the meat. As the meat was cooked over a special fire called a ‘boucan’, they became known in French as ‘boucaniers’, which then became ‘buccaneers’ in English. Later on, this word was used to denote the pirates / privateers operating in the Caribbean during the 17th and 18th centuries.
‘The Buccaneer was a Picturesque Fellow.’ ( Public Domain )
The buccaneers were mainly from France and England, and often targeted the Spanish. l’Olonnais was no exception to this rule. Together with other buccaneers stationed in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, l’Olonnais robbed and killed Spanish colonists in the Caribbean. l’Olonnais’ talent as a buccaneer was recognized by M. de la Place, the French governor of Tortuga, who gave him a small ship to command.
l’Olonnais gained a fearsome reputation during his career as a buccaneer, as he would mercilessly kill everyone on board the ships he captured. As a comparison, it has been pointed out that Blackbeard, another famous pirate, is not recorded to have killing anyone that he took captive.
Blackbeard. ( Public Domain )
In 1663, l’Olonnais was shipwrecked on the Yucatan Peninsula. Although the buccaneer and his men survived, they had the ill fortune of encountering Spanish troops. A battle ensued and most of l’Olonnais’ crew lost their lives. According to one source, l’Olonnais was the only survivor. It was due to his cunning that l’Olonnais survived the attack. By smearing his face and body with blood, and lying still amongst the corpses of his comrades, l’Olonnais tricked the Spanish in to thinking that he was dead. Once the troops left, the pirate disguised himself as a Spaniard, made his way to Campeche, persuaded some French slaves to aid him, and made his way back to Tortuga.
In the following years, l’Olonnais continued terrorizing the Spanish. He is best known for being one of the first buccaneers who conducted land raids. This strategy served l’Olonnais well during his famous attack on the city of Maracaibo. This city is located on the strait connecting Lake Maracaibo to the Gulf of Venezuela, and was guarded by a fort with 16 cannons. Instead of attacking the city from the strait, l’Olonnais and his men decided to approach the city from land, which was undefended. As a result, the pirates took the city with relative ease.
Illustration of pirates fighting. ( Public Domain )
The Gruesome Last Expedition
One of the most gruesome stories about l’Olonnais comes from his last expedition. In 1668, l’Olonnais assembled six ships and 700 men, with the coast of Nicaragua as his destination. He was, however, blown off course, and ended up in the Gulf of Honduras. The pirates proceeded to raid the Spanish settlements around the area, though without getting much loot. Eventually, l’Olonnais made his way to the town of San Pedro, which is located near a Spanish gold mine. The buccaneers were ambushed by Spanish troops, and were forced to retreat, though not before capturing a few prisoners. l’Olonnais questioned them to find out if there were unguarded routes to the gold mine. As they refused to co-operate, the buccaneer made an example of one of them by cutting open his chest with a cutlass, took out his heart, and began biting it. Terrified, the rest of them complied with l’Olonnais’ wishes.