I shall assure the reader that I shall give no stories taken on hearsay, but only those to which I was eyewitness.

- Exquemelin


Alexander Oliver Exquemelin (c1645-c1700), surgeon, historian, bloodthirsty pirate

Frenchman Alexander Oliver Exquemelin provided posterity with one of the only eyewitness accounts of Caribbean piracy written by an actual pirate when his book De Americaensche Zee-Roovers ("The Buccaneers of America") was published in Amsterdam in 1678. Exquemelin's account tells us virtually everything we know about some of history's most famous pirates, including Henry Morgan and his famous raid on Panama, in which Exquemelin took part. Exquemelin had fully experienced both the rewards and the privations of a pirate's life firsthand, and his conscious efforts to insure the accuracy of his narratives makes him one of the more reliable historical sources in an era given to fantastical tales.

Details of Exquemelin's biography are sketchy, but we know enough to say that his life was one of almost constant adventure. Born in the town of Honfleur on the western coast of France, Exquemelin sailed for Tortuga in 1666 under bond for three years as an indentured servant to a planter he had never met. His master, whom Exquemelin would later recall as "the most perfidious man that was ever born of a woman," was exceedingly cruel and almost starved him to death. Fortunately however, his bond was bought out before the end of the three years by a local barber-surgeon, from whom he learned what medicinal knowledge there was at the time.

Exquemelin gained his freedom at the end of 1669, but was unable to find work on Tortuga. "Naked and destitute of all human necessities," he later wrote, "I determined to enter into the wicked order of the pirates." He spent the next five years as a pirate under several different French and English pirate captains. The most well known of these was the Englishman Henry Morgan, and Exquemelin participated in all of Morgan's most famous raids. Exquemelin was extremely valuable for his surgical skills, and reported that he commanded princely sums of 200 to 250 pieces of eight on top of his full share of the booty following a successful raid.

Eventually, Exquemelin saved up enough money to return to Europe in 1674, where he set himself up as a surgeon in Amsterdam and began to write his book. When the book appeared four years later, it was an instant smash, selling out several print runs in the original Dutch edition, with translations into German, Spanish, English, and French following soon thereafter.

The translations were rather loose however, with each country translating it to make themselves look better. The Dutch version for example, made the reviled Spaniards out to be the villains, whereas the Spanish version emphasized English depravity. Oddly however, the English first edition translated from the Dutch did not sell well so a second edition was published translating from the Spanish translation, and was relatively faithful in keeping the English-as-villains viewpoint. Henry Morgan in particular was made out to be a bloodthirsty monster, to the point that Morgan actually sued the English publishers for libel, and a judge ordered several sections removed. English publishers continued to publish this revised translation of the Spanish version for centuries, and a new English translation of the Dutch original did not appear until 1969!

But no matter the version, the book's impact was extensive and profound, and Exquemelin's account is largely responsible for some of the most enduring images of piracy and pirate life. It was Exquemelin's book that inspired early novelists like Daniel Defoe and others to begin writing pirate fiction, often paraphrasing his vivid descriptions almost word for word, as well as serving as a model for a deluge of later much more spurious and fanciful "pirate histories." It would be difficult to argue that any other book of the 17th century resulted in quite so many imitations and later fictions.

Almost nothing is known of Exquemelin's later years. In 1686 he was in Paris, working on commission for the French Navy to write a history of the Chagres River. At some point he must have returned to the Caribbean, as he is recorded taking part in a sack of Cartagena, Colombia in 1697. By 1699, however, he was back in France, as records show he was asked to assist in the publication of a second edition of the French version of his book, but refused because he had plans to travel to America. After this he disappears from the historical record, and into the mists of time, but his influence on ideas and ideals of piracy endures to this day.

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