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The literary pirate: Alexander O Exquemelin

The absence of pirate and victim narratives is extremely common throughout the long history of piracy. By nature of their operating environment, pirates rarely had the opportunity to tell their own stories. Even when they did, as Alexander O Exquemelin’s 1678 Americaensche Zee-Rovers (American Sea Rovers) showed, commercial interests and patriotic agendas competed with the pirate’s own propensity to paint themselves in a flattering light. By weaving his personal narrative elements into factual information, Exquemelin unwittingly created a template for many pirate narratives to follow over the centuries. Contemporary historical analysis of Exquemelin showed that even though he had a propensity to confuse dates and place names, his book is an important historical source on Caribbean piracy.[1]

Exquemelin portrayed himself as a highly virtuous man: a socially humble, yet respectable and authoritative witness to history. We only know of him what he wrote in his own book. He was a Hollander and had voluntarily travelled to Tortuga, a small island off the coast of Hispaniola (the present day Haiti side), in the service of the French West India Company.[2] The Company collapsed soon after his arrival. In desperation (according to him) he offered his very rudimentary medical knowledge to the pirates based there.[3] As a ‘barber-surgeon’ he then proceeded to sail with the pirates and accompanied them on numerous raids from 1670 to 1674.[4]

First published in Dutch, Americaensche Zee-Rovers presented a novel and candid portrait of Alexander Exquemelin’s time sailing with sea rovers in 1660s Caribbean. He wrote the book in three parts. The first related his departure from France to Tortuga, the pirate haven and he then described the land, its inhabitants and their way of life. Part two was a social history of the French, Dutch, and English buccaneers living in Tortuga and Hispaniola against the Spanish in 1668-9. Part three concerned the raiding careers of the notorious French sea-raiders L’Ollonois, Pierre Le Grand, and Henry Morgan, the English sea captain renowned for his violent depredations against the Spanish in the Caribbean. Morgan was a man revered and reviled for his raiding exploits, depending on what side of them one was on.

Exquemelin’s factual style of writing was very common in the mid-17th century yet it had not previously been applied to the mysterious and dramatic world of sea-raiding. Newspapers carried occasional reports of pirates but were still very new in his time, so his elaborate, sensational and descriptive narrative caused an immediate sensation. Each translated version tended to ‘magnify the deeds of its own national hero’, compromising the integrity of Exquemelin’s text.[5] It was first translated into Spanish with this version quickly translated into English and published by William Crooke in 1684 as Bucaniers of America.[6] Thomas Malthus, a rival bookseller, quickly produced an edition of Exquemelin’s narrative with a new translation and a slightly different title, The History of the Bucaniers, the same year. Malthus also described the ‘unparalleled achievements of Sir H.M.’ but took pains to note that his version was ‘very much corrected from the errors of the original’, sparking off an intense commercial dispute between the publishers.[7]

Eager to cash in on the popularity of Exquemelin’s story, Crooke’s second edition, swiftly published in 1685, included a new narrative on Captain Bartholomew Sharp. This was originally written by a Basil Ringrose, who was apparently ‘all along present at those transactions.’[8] Sharp had already been the subject of a separate publication by Philip Ayres that also included a narrative of Henry Morgan, among others.[9] Ayres also derided Crooke’s translation in his preface, inserting himself into the dispute between Crooke and Malthus over who had the more correct translation.[10]

The publishers’ rivalry was only eclipsed by the anger of Sir Henry Morgan. By 1680, Morgan had retired from sea-raiding to the semi-credible position of acting lieutenant governor of Jamaica. He was so incensed at what he perceived to be an unflattering portrayal of his character that he later sued the English publishers for libel.[11] The judge found in his favour, stating the books ‘contained many false, scandalous and malicious reflections’ on his life.[12] Despite the finding, neither publisher produced amended editions of their books and any defences of Morgan included in the front matter lay within the context of the publishers’ dispute, rather than Morgan’s court case.[13]

Crooke’s version was republished by William Whitwood (1695) and the two editions combined into one by Thomas Newborough in 1699. Crooke’s emphasis on Henry Morgan was diminished to give equal billing to Le Grand, L’ollonois, Roche Brasiliano, Bat the Portuguese, and Captain Sharp, among others. Newborough seemed to replicate Crooke’s success, republishing his edition in 1704. No further versions emerged until three versions by J Clarke, D Midwinter, and S Powell emerged all at once in 1741, all based on Newborough’s version. These coincided with the War on Jenkin’s Ear and seemed to position Exquemelin’s book as patriotic propaganda for the masses.

In English, variations of Exquemelin’s narrative went on to be re-translated and republished multiple times all subjectively reflecting the context of their publication. A New York published version in 1914 removed the ‘America’ descriptor and retitled the book ‘The Pirates of Panama’.[14] The Pirates of Panama is freely accessible online so of course it holds a prominent position among undergraduate students studying piracy today. Unfortunately, it removed all of Exquemelin’s ‘tedious’ natural history discussion to get to all the pirate-y stuff, so it is not even an accurate representation of the first flawed versions by Crooke and Malthus.

The final new version appeared in 1972. This included the first direct translation of Americaensche Zee-Rovers from Dutch to English and an introduction by Jack Beeching, an English poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer. This version completely refocused the title around the buccaneers’ victims: ‘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.’[15]

Three hundred years later, Exquemelin still assumes a little niche in academia that covers 17th century imperial politics, language and piracy. As W Adolphe Roberts concluded in 1933, ‘the value of Exquemelin’s book lay in the fact that whenever he describes a happening at which he was present, his account is colourful, checks with other records, and can be taken as authentic. Its great defect is, that faced with the necessity of gathering evidence to complete an historical episode or give the background of a character, his version is not to be trusted.’[16] Nevertheless, Exquemelin’s narrative influenced English language portrayals of pirates for centuries, particularly Treasure Island, the definitive fictional story of piracy by Robert Louis Stevenson that thrilled generations of young readers.[17]

The level of truth within Exquemelin is still the subject of academic fervour today.


[1] Payton, Jason M., 'Alexander Oliver Exquemelin's the Buccaneers of America and the Disenchantment of Imperial History,' Early American Literature, no. 2 (2013) 337: 339.

[2] Roberts, W Adolphe, Sir Henry Morgan: Buccaneer and Governor (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1933), 73.

[3] Payton, 'Alexander Oliver Exquemelin's the Buccaneers of America and the Disenchantment of Imperial History,' 339.

[4] Roberts, Sir Henry Morgan: Buccaneer and Governor, 73.

[5] Esquemeling, John, The Buccaneers of America: A True Account of the Most Remarkable Assaults Committed of Late Years Upon the Coasts of the West-Indies by the Bucaneers of Jamaica and Tortuga, Both English and French: Wherein Are Contained More Especially the Unparalleled Exploits of Sir Henry Morgan, Our English Jamaican Hero Who Sack'd Puerto Velo, Burnt Panama, &C. (London: G Routledge & Sons: 1925), Editor's Note.

[6] The full title was Bucaniers of America, or, A true account of the most remarkable assaults committed of late years upon the coasts of the West-Indies by the bucaniers of Jamaica and Tortuga, both English and French . Wherein are contained more especially the unparallel'd exploits of Sir Henry Morgan, our English Jamaican hero who sack'd Puerto Velo, burnt Panama, &c.

[7] Esquemeling, J, The History of the Bucaniers: Being an Impartial Relation of All the Battels, Sieges, and Other Most Eminent Assaults Committed for Several Years Upon the Coasts of the West-Indies by the Pirates of Jamaica and Tortuga, Both English & Other Nations : More Especially the Unparallel'd Atchievements of Sir H.M. (Henry E Huntington Library; London: Thomas Malthus: 1684).

[8] Exquemelin, A O, Bucaniers of America. The Second Volume. Containing the Dangerous Voyage and Bold Attempts of Captain Bartholomew Sharp, and Others; Performed Upon the Coasts of the South Sea, for the Space of Two Years Etc. From the Original Journal of the Said Voyage. (Henry E Huntington Library; London: William Crooke: 1685).

[9] This was entitled The Voyages and Adventures of Capt. Barth. Sharp and Others, in the South Sea: Being a Journal of the Same. Also Capt Van Horn with His Buccanieres Surprizing of La Vera Cruz. , (London: P A Esq, 1685).

[10] Frohock, Richard, 'Common Mischaracterizations of Early English Translations of Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America,' Notes & Queries 57, no. 4 (2010) 506-08.

[11] Ibid. See also Gibbs, Joseph, '‘A Certain False, Malicious, Scandalous and Famous Libel’: Sir Henry Morgan’s Legal Action against a London Publisher of Alexandre Exquemelin, 1685,' International Journal of Maritime History 30, no. 1 (2018) 3-29.

[12] Frohock, 'Common Mischaracterizations of Early English Translations of Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America.'

[13] Ibid.

[14] Exquemelin, A O, The Pirates of Panama; or the Buccaneers of America; a True Account of the Famous Adventures and Daring Deeds of Sir Henry Morgan and Other Notorious Freebooters of the Spanish Main (Henry E Huntington Library; London: Frederick A Stokes Company: 1914).

[15] 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 (London: Folio Society: 1972).

[16] Roberts, Sir Henry Morgan: Buccaneer and Governor, 75.

[17] Arnold, A. James, 'From Piracy to Policy: Exquemelin's Buccaneers and Imperial Competition in 'America',' Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas 74 (2007) 9-20.

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