The Most Bloodthirsty Buccaneer of the Caribbean
The brutalities of 17th-century buccaneer François l’Ollonais are so cruel they are almost unbelievable. Indentured servitude brought him to the Caribbean at a young age. After gaining his freedom, he would become a ruthless pirate who was not afraid of torturing and murdering anyone who got in his way, especially if they were Spanish.
The Buccaneers of America by Alexandre Exquemelin was originally published in 1678, and it details many of l’Ollonais’ voyages. Exquemelin interviewed pirates who had served at l’Ollanais’ side and witnessed his brutality.
A pirate is born
Jean David Nau was born in the 1630s in Les Sables d’Ollone in Vendee, France. According to Biographics, his parents sold him into indentured servitude when he turned 15, and he ended up in the Caribbean islands. Most of his time was in Hispaniola (the present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti) under Spanish masters.
In the late 1650s, Nau finished his servitude, and instead of becoming a farmer himself, he took to the sea. The island of Tortuga was a hotbed for pirates. It is a small turtle-shaped island just to the north of Hispanola, and it is where he took to the seas.
Although the Spanish controlled Hispanola, Tortuga was inhabited by the French, English, and Dutch. According to History, Tortuga's pirates and privateers called themselves the "Brethren of the Coast."
Nau quickly gained a good reputation as a mariner on a ship and took the new name François l’Ollonais, an ode to his hometown. According to Exquemelin, l’Ollonais did so well in his first few missions that the Governor of Tortuga gave him command of his own ship.
Back from the dead
He successfully led pillaging missions on the Spanish, and his reputation preceded him. Exquemelin writes, "The Spaniards, in his time, whensoever they were attacked by sea, would choose rather to die or sink fighting than surrender, knowing they should have no mercy nor quarter at his hands."
L’Ollonais’ success did not last forever. On one voyage, his ship crashed along the coast of Campeche, Mexico. His crew was mostly unharmed, but the Spanish confronted them. The majority of l’Ollonais’ pirates were slaughtered.
L’Ollonais was wounded in the battle to the point where he knew escape was impossible. Instead, he mixed his own blood with sand and smeared it all over his face and body. Next, he lay down in a pile of his dead men and waited for the Spanish to leave.
His strategy worked, and as the Spanish celebrated his death, l’Ollonais snuck into town and convinced some slaves to help him steal a canoe in exchange for their freedom.
L’Ollonais set his sights on De Los Cayos, a small village in Cuba, where he hoped to get another ship. The buccaneer recruited 21 pirates to his cause. The Spanish governor of Cuba got word that l’Ollonais was, in fact, alive and sent a 10-gun warship crewed with over 90 men with instructions to kill him and his whole crew.
According to Exquemelin, when the Spanish ship landed in De Los Cayos, there was no sign of the pirates. However, at daybreak, the two canoes commanded by l’Ollonais appeared on either side of the ship, and the pirates boarded. The crewmembers on deck tried to fight the pirates but were easily bested, and the ship surrendered.
L’Ollonais had all the crewmembers brought up on deck and began beheading them. One man offered to tell l’Ollonais any information he wanted in exchange for his life. L’Ollonais questioned the man thoroughly, and the man answered all his questions truthfully. Then l’Ollonais had him beheaded.
In all, 87 men were beheaded by l’Ollonais and his men, but one man’s life was spared to deliver a message to the Governor of Cuba, "I shall never henceforward give quarter to any Spaniard whatsoever; and I have great hopes I shall execute on your own person the very same punishment I have done upon them you sent against me. Thus I have retaliated the kindness you deigned to me and my companions."
Tactics, torture, and starvation
After returning to Tortuga, L’Ollonais set his sights on the Bay of Maracaibo in Venezuela. His fame had spread on Tortuga, and he was able to raise a fleet of pirate ships.
According to Exquemelin, on the way to the Bay of Maracaibo, L’Ollonais’ fleet easily took over two Spanish ships, which was seen as good fortune by the pirates, and it would prove to be.
L’Ollonais arrived near the mouth of the Bay of Maracaibo (Gulf of Venezuela) but was sure to hide his ships from the Spanish watchtowers. The city of Maracaibo had been pillaged by pirates multiple times, and it was about to be sacked again.
However, the governor of the area did get word that L’Ollonais had landed and approached the town on foot. He decided to split his forces into two groups, one that would approach the pirates from the front. The other would circle behind the pirates and hopefully ensure the defense of Maracaibo.
Unfortunately for the governor and Maracaibo, the pirates sniffed out the group sneaking up on them and slaughtered them. With half the forces of Maracaibo defeated, the pirates marched forward. A little later, when the pirates entered the city, they found it abandoned. The townspeople had run to the woods. The pirates moved in, pillaged, and feasted.
As the pirates planned their next move on Gibraltar, they were able to find about 20 citizens who l’Ollonais decided to torture. Some of them were put on the rack. The rack is a brutal torture device. It can be used to stretch a person, putting them in excruciating pain, or a cord can be used to wrap around the head of a victim, squeezing them around the temples or neck.
One Spanish prisoner was dispatched by l’Ollonais personally in a show of intimidation and brutality. L’Ollonais used his cutlass to cut the prisoner into pieces while about a dozen other prisoners watched. He did this while saying, "If you do not confess and declare where you have hidden the rest of your goods, I will do the like to all your companions."
This brutality got the others to talk, but ultimately their information proved unsatisfactory, and l’Ollonais was not one for mercy anyway. About two weeks later, Gibraltar fell and was pillaged and destroyed by l’Ollonais and his buccaneers in a similar fashion. To break the fort, l’Ollonais again imparted an interesting tactic.
After a short attack, he began to flee, and his men followed. The Spanish took the bait. They left the fort and gave chase to the pirates, who turned around and cut them down easily. 40 pirates were killed during the battle, but over 500 Spanish were killed. Some prisoners were tortured, but none were treated well.
The pirates ended up with many prisoners, 50 Spanish, and 500 slaves. Despicably, the pirates kept the food for themselves, only offering the prisoners unstomachable mule and donkey meat. The majority of the prisoners died from starvation.
Eat your heart out, buccaneer
During L’Ollonais’ final voyage, he lived up to his reputation in every way. Due to his successes, he was again able to raise a fleet of pirate ships, but this time he set his sights on the Spanish in Central America.
According to Biographics, l’Ollonais’ goal was to take over the entire Spanish territory of Nicaragua. However, a storm took l’Ollonais’ fleet off course, and they ended up landing northwest of their goal in modern-day Honduras.
They pillaged the coast, destroying the homes of natives as they went until they worked their way to the Spanish city, Puerto Cavallo. There the pirates spotted a great Spanish ship and immediately seized it. L’Ollonais then cruelly tortured the men to get any information out of them he could. As he broke each man, after getting his fill of information, he took their lives. According to Exquemelin, "It was the custom of L’Ollonais that, having tormented any persons and they not confessing, he would instantly cut them in pieces with his hanger, and pull out their tongues."
After sacking Puerto Cavallo, the pirates decided to march inland to take the city of San Pedro. As they marched through the dense forest, they started to encounter ambushes by Spanish forces. And after successfully defeating two Spanish ambushes with rudimentary thrown explosives, the pirates managed to capture some Spanish troops. The murdering buccaneer took his torture to the next level.
According to Exquemelin, l’Ollonais, after not getting the answers he wanted, took out his cutlass and carved into one prisoner’s chest. He then removed the man’s heart in front of the other prisoners and began biting and gnawing on it to give the other prisoner’s a preview of their fate. As blood dripped down his face, he threatened, "I will serve you all alike if you show me not another way."
This display of cruelty prompted confessions from the other prisoners, and they attempted to lead the pirates away from any other Spanish ambushes. They were unsuccessful, and the pirates continued to fight their way out of the Honduran jungle taking heavy losses. Eventually, the pirates reached San Pedro and burned it to the ground.
A fitting end
The pirates now had to decide on what to do next. L’Ollonais wanted to continue his mission, but two other factions arose that had other plans. The group waited in San Pedro for three months until a ship they had procured information about arrived. They used cannon fire to distract the ship while the pirates boarded the ship with canoes, but they realized there was little value onboard upon taking the vessel.
According to Biographics, two groups of pirates parted ways with l’Ollonais, which left him with around 300 men under his charge. Soon after, their ship ran aground, stranding all of them. They tried for six months to free their ship from the coast of Honduras but were unsuccessful. Over the six months, they were repeatedly attacked by natives, and about half of them were killed.
L’Ollonais ordered the ship dismantled to be built into rafts. The men drew lots, and about half of the men with l’Ollonais boarded the rafts to search for a way of rescuing the rest of the men. Unfortunately for the pirates, they ran into Spanish troops who wanted to kill them all. L’Ollonais and a few of his men managed to escape, and they continued to drift south.
They landed in the Darien Isthmus, where natives captured them. L’Ollonais’ reputation was known to the tribespeople and, according to Exquemelin, "The Indians within a few days after his arrival took him prisoner and tore him in pieces alive, throwing his body limb by limb into the fire. and his ashes into the air: to the intent, no trace nor memory might remain of such an infamous, inhuman creature."
L’Ollonais might take solace in the fact that his death was not at the hands of the Spanish, whom he hated with such fervor.
François l’Ollonais’ fate was a fitting one because of how he tortured and killed so many people himself. He was notorious for his brutality and, in fewer than 10 years as a pirate, became feared throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America.
His hatred for the Spanish fueled him. Whether he wanted vengeance for his treatment while an indentured servant or because the Spanish sent ships to kill him, it is not clear, but it would be hard to find anyone in the history of the world who had more hate for the Spanish.
His hate drove him to excessive cruelty. His pattern of torturing people until they revealed information only to then kill them shows a complete lack of empathy. He was cruel, brutal, and unforgiving.
On the other hand, he would not likely have been successful in the buccaneering profession if he possessed a better moral compass. He rose to the top of buccaneering because he was more brutal than other pirates. He was feared throughout the Caribbean. Perhaps if he weren’t killed, Nicaragua would have been renamed "New Ollone."
The surviving accounts of l’Ollonais’ exploits as a buccaneer in the 17th century paint a horrifying picture of what life was like in the Caribbean at that time. Piracy out of Tortuga continued for a few decades after l’Ollonais’ death, but it heavily declined by the start of the 18th century.