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A Short History of the Works of Exquemelin

The majority of this content originally appeared on my Instagram page, Piracyinpictures but I have set it out here as well for easier reading.

One of the most famous books in piracy history: ‘Die Americanische See-Rauber’ by A O Exquemelin was published in 1679. This was the first popular, first-person narrative of the mysterious and dramatic world of Caribbean sea-raiding. In desperation after losing a legitimate position as a surgeon, Exquemelin had sailed with a pirate crew in the Caribbean in 1660. He proved to be an eye-witness to many notorious events, including the sacking of Panama by Captain Henry Morgan.

The book was an instant best-seller and was quickly translated into multiple languages. The original Flemish edition is extremely rare. The one pictured here is held in the Library of Congress.

During the 17th century, the Spanish occupied the Flemish lands (present-day Belgium, Netherlands and parts surrounding them) and they spent decades fighting for their independence. The fact that this cover text revealed Exquemelin felt great sympathy for the Spanish victims of the infamous English and French sea-raiders makes the book even more extraordinary. What came next though is as interesting as the book itself.

Exquemelin’s view was erased and replaced with patriotic sentiment for the next 300 years. Through no fault of Exquemelin, publishers used his book to glorify the exploits of Caribbean sea-raiders, prop up patriotic sentiment for wars, and line their pockets by feeding a voracious appetite for stories about pirates.

Exquemelin in English

The first English edition came from William Crooke, published in 1684. It was translated directly from the Spanish version, not the Flemish. Note the use of terms like ‘unparallel’d exploits’ and ‘our English Jamaican Hero’. None of this text appeared in either the Flemish or Spanish cover page. All the translated versions (especially the French) emphasised the ‘heroism’ of their national hero.

Just like the original, the book was a roaring success.

In direct competition to Crooke, Thomas Malthus produced this edition, also in 1684. See how he noted his version is from the Dutch copy and ‘very much corrected, from the errors of the original’ – being Crooke. The two were bitter rivals.

Henry Morgan, who was still alive and then governor of Jamaica, was so aggrieved at how the two books portrayed him he sued both publishers for libel.

Within a year, William Crooke released a second edition of ‘Bucaniers of America’. This time he did not bother mentioning Exquemelin as the author at all, he just commandeered the title. He also included another narrative on Bartholomew Sharp that has nothing to do with Exquemelin at all.

Back then, authors had few rights to their work and publishers could pass it around between themselves in the hope of making money out of it.

Exquemelin: a decade later

Ten years after the first publication of Bucaniers of America in English, William Whitwood dusted it off and republished it in 1695. His version was based on Crooke’s second edition. He added more exploits of raiders in the South Seas.

England was embroiled in the Nine Years War. Within a year, the unfortunate William Kidd would be given a commission from the King to hunt pirates. Whitwood's edition showed the English patriotism was still very present in the text, indicating its re-publication in 1695 was to prop up support for the long war.

In 1699, Thomas Newborough got his hands on the text. By this time, the Nine Year War was over, and piracy was a real problem for the English in the Caribbean. Sensing the growing public fascination with pirates and a profit opportunity, Newborough tried his luck re-publishing Whitwood's edition, with Exquemelin's name, Basil Ringrose's Bartholomew Sharp story, and the South Seas piracy story from Sieur Raveneau de Lussan.

He was successful enough to publish it again in 1704, this time including a description of the voyage of the Sieur de Montauban to Guinea in 1695. The "Bucaniers of America" moniker now encompassed a range of stories with no relation to Exquemelin at all. The context of the book also shifted. It now included pirate events 40 to 50 years after Exquemelin's journey without addressing the changed geo-political landscape.

The War of Jenkin's Ear Editions

In 1741, three new editions of Bucaniers of America appear at once. They are now called ‘The History of the Bucaniers of America’ as they encompassed almost 80 years of pirate stories. The Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean was over and all the protagonists within the multiple editions long dead.

So these editions reached a brand new audience with only distant memories of piracy as an actual practice and threat. By this time, pirates were transitioning from criminals to romantic rogues and heroes in the public imagination. Present day research speculated the three books emerged as a way to raise patriotic fervour for the War of Jenkin’s Ear.

Clarke’s edition relied on Newborough’s 1695 edition. The content of Midwinter’s edition was very similar to Clarke’s. However, it was published in two volumes and with ‘copperplates’ as illustrations rather than Clarke’s maps. Powell took Midwinter’s edition and published it in Ireland. It claimed to be the ‘fifth edition’ of Exquemelin’s original book.

Exquemelin in the 20th Century

The 19th century saw few, if any, version of Exquemelin’s book emerge. Exhausted from the long 18th century of war, the European powers grew determined to maintain peace.

Then in the early 20th century, when piracy as a field of historical study began to emerge, Exquemelin’s book emerged again, especially from the USA.

The most prominent of these editions was the version most widely available today, ‘Pirates of Panama’, first published in 1924. It was based on Crooke’s original first edition. According to the editor, George Williams, the title change was to disassociate the ‘pirates’ from the United States of America. Williams’ eliminated Exquemelin’s ‘tedious’ descriptions of the local fauna and flora of Tortuga and the Caribbean to get to all the good pirate stuff.

This is the version that is also available online.

To conclude this series on Exquemelin, it is important to note the 1972 version (no screenshot available unfortunately). It was not another re-issue of the English language versions of the past 300 years. Instead, it was a new, direct translation of Exquemelin’s Flemish version.

Its title ‘The buccaneers of America: comprising a pertinent and truthful description of the principal acts of depredation and inhuman cruelty committed by the English and French buccaneers against the Spaniards in America’ and translated by Alexis Brown finally revealed Exquemelin’s true version of events to an English-speaking audience.

Exquemelin's story has distorted, corrupted and survived for over 300 years, Yet today, once all the patriotic guff is stripped out of it , Exquemelin’s narrative of piracy does stand up to historical scrutiny. He mixed up dates and places but for the most part, his story can be corroborated by independent evidence today. And that's a lot more than can be said about the other primary source book about piracy, Captain Charles Johnson's 'A General History of the Pyrates'.

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