The Caribbean islands during early colonialism were an extremely polarized place fraught with injustice and enslavement—ultimately creating a society of force, not choice. To say that those without power blindly and submissively accepted their position in such a stratified system would be untrue, however, as examples of human agency run rampant across the wild tropics of the Caribbean. From this pressurized inequality sprung extreme acts of rebellion and revolt, one of the most notable of which is the establishment and popularity of piracy, particularly among the unfree populations. French-Dutchmen Alexandre Exquemelin proved himself as a buccaneer in the 17th century and was of the very few whom actually recorded his experience as a pirate. Through Exquemelin’s writings in History of the Buccaneers of America, he explained the oppressive system that gave rise to the complex society of piracy, ultimately proving that from the ascendency of colonialism came a ruthless, yet somewhat democratic, system of justice at sea.
A prominent figure in Exquemelin’s History of the Buccaneers of America is the pirate Francis L’Ollonais of the French territory Les Sables d’Ollone, off the French Atlantic Coast. Forced into indentured servitude in his youth, L’Ollonais subsequently established himself as a pirate in Saint-Dominique (Haiti), facing the Spaniards and surviving an attack on the shores of Campeche. L’Ollonais was a man of strategy, and knew the value of slaves if he could gain their loyalty and allegiance. In Campeche, “he spoke with certain slaves, unto whom he promised their liberty in case they would obey him and trust in his conduct. They accepted his promises, and, stealing one night a canoe from one of their masters, they went to sea with the Pirate”(Exquemelin, 82). While in plain terms it appears as though the aforementioned slaves were merely trading their terms of servitude from one white man to another, the issue is much more complex than that. Within the realm of piracy, race and color did not play such a hand in power. L’Ollonais himself was a former servant, one whom had fought out of his indecent station in life and found power and agency in the debauched world of piracy. The slaves he recruited chose to join him, they actively chose to follow this leader and be captained by him. That decision in itself was their very first step towards an entirely different life than the one they had been living.
In his essay “Masterless People: Maroons, Pirates, and Commoners,” historian Isaac Curtis mirrors this argument, explaining the attractive quality of piracy to both blacks and whites—any person whom society had cast shackles onto, be they literal or metaphorical. Furthermore, “Creoles and experienced seafarers made particularly adept pirates… estimates suggest that black and mulatto sailors comprised at least one-quarter of all pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pirate ships were tightly knit communities, and solidarity among the ranks extended across racial lines”(154). The sea was a frontier of its own kind, and one where slavery and traditional law could never grab such a strong foothold. For those that ultimately chose such a life, the concept of taking to the seas as pirates meant the end of living beholden to or enslaved within an unfair economic system, lacking in autonomy, personal wealth, and rights. Curtis also makes the argument that in a polarized society such as this, one was either caste as a master or a slave. The anomalies of such a culture were the brave, licentious enough few who chose to be neither (153). To look at the colorful figures that emerge from pirate society is to see firsthand how lacking in fundamental human rights colonial society in the Caribbean was. For instance, “like the slaves, sailors recoiled against their working conditions. Justice was so often applied arbitrarily…Sixteenth-century Spanish sailors made only slightly more than day laborers in urban Spain, while working under much more dangerous conditions” (152). Thus, the social unrest transcended race and color and background—whether one had been shipped across the Atlantic in chains, or forced from one’s home in Ireland, France, or England into servitude across the seas, these varying groups of people shared a struggle (154). Even more than that, they shared an anger. An anger at a system that carved no place for them other than that of blind oppression, violence, and pain.
That is not to say that pirates were upstanding heroes, freeing men and women alike from bondage wherever they went. Rather, they too were violent, at times barbarous fiends whom made it their mission to take all that had been deprived of them and more. They murdered, pillaged, and plundered those that oppressed and attempted to put them down, often leaving innocents dead in the collateral damage. Amongst themselves, however, there was a baseline pirate code, a system of muddy democracy that allotted them riches and wealth in a manner they decided for themselves. Some pirate ships even operated under a system called the “’free ship,’ that is, they agreed every man should have an equal share in all prizes” (Bromley, 182). The irony of piracy is evident in the fact that a body of outcasts, peasants, outlaws, maroons, and slaves effectively gained a firm grip of power on the high seas—disrupting trade, inspiring fear in European government, and enacting their own crude form of democracy—despite the oppressive and derogatory social class from which they escaped. “Pirates constructed that world in defiant contradistinction to the ways of the world they had left behind, in particular to its salient figures of power, the merchant captain and the royal official, and to the system of authority those figures represented and enforced” (Rediker, 146). While the moral compasses of Caribbean pirates surely did not point due north, it cannot be discounted that these buccaneers carved out an entirely original system of life for themselves—one that spoke truer of justice than the one they had run from.
The growing presence of piracy made ports like Tortuga meccas of the pirate trade, and the people that resided there became entrenched within the buccaneer culture to some degree as well. During his time in the Caribbean, Exquemelin wrote of the importance of Tortuga often. In regards to L’Ollonais, Exquemelin wrote that the pirate often sought Tortuga out for support and fortifications—both human and otherwise:
With these prizes he returned unto Tortuga, where he was received with no small joy by the inhabitants, they congratulating his happy success and their own private interest. He continued not long there, but pitched upon new designs of equipping a whole fleet, sufficient to transport 500 men, with al other necessaries. With these preparations he resolved to go unto the Spanish dominions and pillage both cities, towns, and villages, and finally take Maracaibo itself. For this purpose, he knew the island of Tortuga would afford him many resolute and courageous men, very fit for such enterprises. Besides that, he had in his service several prisoners, who were exactly acquainted with the ways and places he designed upon (86).
In this excerpt it is obvious the dualities that existed within pirate societies. It was by no means absolute autonomy, nor was it freedom in its most pure form. That aside, however, the explanation of L’Ollonais descending upon Tortuga in this particular instance highlights another interesting aspect of pirate culture and lure. It not only inspired a sense of individualism amidst its members, but also lent a sense of untethered freedom within port society. The people of Tortuga, for example, rejoiced in the pirates’ raids and successes, perhaps for the sole reason that they symbolized a strength and power existing entirely separate from the colonial system whose thumb they, too were trapped beneath. Those in such a situation also steadily tried to defy the colonial system in their own ways ashore, be it through rampant prostitution, smuggling, and general lack of adherence to higher political authority. A very unlikely hero to be sure, evidence does exist that in some circles, pirates were icons of rebellion. Whether intentional or not, pirates were proof that a separate system of justice, an entirely different way of life could, in fact, exist in opposition to the monarchic powers of Europe. And more than that, their system did not flounder—it succeeded for many who entrenched themselves within it. Alexandre Exquemelin and Francis L’Ollonais are only two examples of such figures.
The system from which piracy emerged was a hideous abomination to the basic rights of man, robbing those labeled as “less than human” of upward mobility, economic prosperity, and self-governance. To cast piracy in a similar light would be one-sided and unfair, as the rebels and bandits that chose a life under the infamous black flag were the daring few that saw a different path and chose it for themselves, in varying degrees of willingness (Curtis, 155). The Caribbean islands can perhaps be viewed as a microcosm of colonialism, and the tangled threads of justice, morality, agency, and power that inherently accompany it. But more so than in the story of the beaten, the distressed view of the unfree as lacking in any semblance of opposition would be a further injustice to the truth of the past; the truth of the maroons, the pirates, the sailors and slaves and servants, black and white and in between, who took to sea and made an entire system different because of their hand in it.
Bromley, J.S., “Outlaws at Sea, 1600-1720; Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity among the Caribbean Freetbooters,” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, edited by C. R. Pennell. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Print.
Curtis, Isaac, “Masterless People: Maroons, Pirates, and Commoners,” in The Caribbean, A History of the Region and Its Peoples, edited by Stephan Palmie and Francisco A. Scarano. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.
Exquemelin, Alexandre Olivier. The Buccaneers of America. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1684. Print.
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: New York University Press, 2001. Print.