Biography of French Pirate François L’Olonnais

A French Ship and Barbary Pirates (c 1615) by Aert Anthoniszoon
 Aert Anthoniszoon [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

François L’Olonnais (1635-1668) was a French buccaneer, pirate, and privateer who attacked ships and towns – mostly Spanish – in the 1660s. His hatred for the Spanish was legendary and he was known as a particularly bloodthirsty and ruthless pirate. His savage life came to a savage end: he was killed and reportedly eaten by cannibals somewhere in the Gulf of Darien.

François L’Olonnais, Buccaneer

Francois L'Olonnais was born in France sometime around 1635 in the seaside town of Les Sables-d'Olonne ("the Sands of Ollone").

As a young man, he was taken to the Caribbean as an indentured servant. After having served his indenture, he made his way to the wilds of the island of Hispaniola, where he joined the famous buccaneers. These rough men hunted wild game in the jungles and cooked it over a special fire called a boucan (hence the name boucaniers, or buccaneers). They made a rough living by selling the meat, but they were also not above the occasional act of piracy. Young François fit right in: he had found his home.

A Cruel Privateer

France and Spain fought frequently during L’Olonnais’ lifetime, most notably the 1667-1668 War of Devolution. The French Governor of Tortuga outfitted some privateering missions to attack Spanish ships and towns. François was among the vicious buccaneers hired for these attacks, and he soon proved himself an able seaman and fierce fighter. After two or three expeditions, the Governor of Tortuga gave him his own ship.

L’Olonnais, now a captain, continued attacking Spanish shipping and acquired a reputation for cruelty so great that the Spanish often preferred to die fighting than to suffer torture as one of his captives.

A Close Escape

L’Olonnais may have been cruel, but he was also clever. Sometime in 1667, his ship was destroyed off the western coast of the Yucatan.

Although he and his men survived, the Spanish discovered them and massacred most of them. L’Olonnais rolled in blood and sand and lay still among the dead until the Spanish left. He then disguised himself as a Spaniard and made his way to Campeche, where the Spanish were celebrating the death of the hated L’Olonnais. He persuaded a handful of slaves to help him escape: together they made their way to Tortuga. L’Olonnais was able to get some men and two small ships there: he was back in business.

The Maracaibo Raid

The incident fanned L'Olonnais' hatred of the Spanish into a blaze. He sailed to Cuba, hoping to sack the town of Cayos: the Governor of Havana heard he was coming and sent a ten-gun warship to defeat him. Instead, L'Olonnais and his men caught the warship unawares and captured it. He massacred the crew, leaving alive only one man to carry a message back to the Governor: no quarter for any Spaniards L'Olonnais encountered. He returned to Tortuga and in September of 1667 he took a small fleet of 8 ships and attacked the Spanish towns around Lake Maracaibo. He tortured the prisoners to make them tell him where they had hidden their treasure. The raid was a huge score for L'Olonnais, who was able to split some 260,000 Pieces-of-eight among his men.

Soon, it was all spent in the taverns and whorehouses of Port Royal and Tortuga.

L’Olonnais’ Final Raid

In early 1668, L’Olonnais was ready to return to the Spanish Main. He rounded up some 700 fearsome buccaneers and set sail. They plundered along the Central American coast and even marched inland to sack San Pedro in present-day Honduras. In spite of his ruthless questioning of prisoners – on one instance he ripped out a captive’s heart and gnawed on it – the raid was a failure. He captured a Spanish galleon off of Trujillo, but there was not much loot. His fellow captains decided the venture was a bust and left him alone with his own ship and men, of which there were about 400. They sailed south but were shipwrecked off of Punta Mono.

The Death of François L’Olonnais

L’Olonnais and his men were tough buccaneers, but once shipwrecked they were battled constantly by the Spanish and the local natives.

The number of survivors dwindled steadily. L’Olonnais attempted an attack on the Spanish up the San Juan River, but they were repulsed. L’Olonnais took a handful of survivors with him and set sail on a small raft they had built, heading south. Somewhere in the Gulf of Darien these men were attacked by natives. Only one man survived: according to him, L’Olonnais was captured, hacked to pieces, cooked over a fire and eaten.

Legacy of François L’Olonnais

L'Olonnais was very well known in his time, and greatly feared by the Spanish, who understandably loathed him. He would probably be better known today if he had not been closely followed in history by Henry Morgan, Greatest of the Privateers, who was, if anything, even harder on the Spanish. Morgan would, in fact, take a page from L'Olonnais' book in 1668 when he raided the still-recovering Lake Maracaibo. One other difference: whereas Morgan was beloved by the English who saw him as a hero (he was even knighted), François L'Olonnais was never greatly revered in his native France.

L'Olonnais serves as a reminder of the reality of piracy: unlike what the movies show, he was no noble prince looking to clear his good name, but a sadistic monster who thought nothing of mass murder if it gained him an ounce of gold. Most real pirates were more like L'Olonnais, who found that being a good sailor and charismatic leader with a vicious streak could get him far in the world of piracy.

Sources:

  • Exquemalin, Alexandre. The Buccaneers of America. Online edition from the Harvard University Library.
  • Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009
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Minster, Christopher. "Biography of French Pirate François L’Olonnais." ThoughtCo, Mar. 14, 2018, thoughtco.com/biography-of-francois-lolonnais-2136220. Minster, Christopher. (2018, March 14). Biography of French Pirate François L’Olonnais. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-francois-lolonnais-2136220 Minster, Christopher. "Biography of French Pirate François L’Olonnais." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-francois-lolonnais-2136220 (accessed May 26, 2018).