Pirates liked to torture people. That is one of those statements that is hard to refute. Its right up there with dinosaurs roamed the Earth. It happened a lot and no amount of argument will take away the hard evidence.
There were standard tortures that just about every pirate utilized at some point without much thought. Beatings were popular. Fists and pieces of wood or the flat of a cutlass you already have are pretty economical ways to get information out of another person. If we're to believe The Sopranos the mob still takes that approach today and the bos before there were "bosses", Jean Laffite, kept a hulking rock of a blacksmith name Thiac around to dole out the occasional dose of piratical justice.
More inventive but equally common tortures were "sweating", in which the generally naked prisoner was forced to run around a tree, stump or the mainmast while the pirates poked and jabbed at him with lances, swords, bayonets and even forks. Flogging always won the day and was a particular favorite to use on merchant or navy Captains who were found to be excessively fond of the same sort of punishment for their men. Usually the torture was applied to extract information about treasure hidden either aboard ship or in the town being raided. Sometimes, though, it was just a slow day and what else is a sociopath gonna do? No hard feelings, mate.
Whether its sucking up to the boss or torturing prisoners, there's always that one guy who has to take things right to the edge. The guy who isn't satisfied with the "usual" and really dips deep into the well of creativity for all he's worth. In the case of pirates and torture, that guy was Francois L'Olonnais.
We've spoken about The Man from Olon, who was born Jean-David Nau in Brittany, France, before so I won't get caught up in the details of his life. What is pertinent to this discussion is that L'Olonnais - or L'Olonnois if you prefer - was sold into indentured servitude at a young age. His master took him to one of the Spanish holdings in the Caribbean and he was worked mercilessly and beaten regularly for years of his life. He was probably a few fries short of a Happy Meal from childhood but this brutal treatment turned him from slightly tweaked to psychopath. When his indenture was up, he went to the island of Tortuga and began a bloody career whose savagery and success would be surpassed only by Henry Morgan.
But back to the torture. L'Olonnais was very probably an extremely intelligent guy and he had the kind of insight into human nature that allowed him to manipulate others without even taking out a sword. L'Olonnais had a penchant for torturing one prisoner with extreme prejudice while his or her friends and neighbors watched helplessly, wondering who would be next.
Alexander Exquemelin, who sailed with L'Olonnais as ship's surgeon, wrote quite candidly of his murderous habits in Buccaneers of the Americas. From the book: "It was the custom of L'Olonnois that, having tormented any persons and they not confessing, he would instantly cut them in pieces with his hanger and pull out their tongues." He frequently racked prisoners and, notorious for his impatience, just got fed up when they tried to fight the torture. On one occasion he dismembered a man on the rack and licked the blood from his sword while the man's associates stood by, probably soiling themselves.
Other tortures favored by L'Olonnais included slow, keep-them-alive-as-long-as-possible dismemberment. Again from Exquemelin: "...to cut a man to pieces, first some flesh, then a hand, an arm, a leg..." L'Olonnais also employed the torture of woolding which involved tying a rawhide or rope tightly around the head with knots over the eyes and tightening it with a stick until the person's eyes popped out of their skull. Unlike many other pirate leaders, L'Olonnais often performed the tortures himself and only on Spanish citizens. Hatred combined with insanity turned a man into a demon.
His most notorious act of torture, pictured above in a woodcut from Exquemelin's book, took place in Central America while he was trying to avoid the Spanish army. His prisoners, taken from Nicaragua, led he and his men into a Spanish trap. When the pirates managed to beat back the Spanish, L'Olonnais secured his prisoners and asked them what route would be safe on his march back to the Gulf. When one of the men said that no one knew a safe route, L'Olonnais opened the man's chest cavity with his sword, pulled out the beating heart, gnawed on it a moment and then shoved it in the face of another prisoner. "Tell me the way," he screamed. "Or I shall do the same to one and all!" No further Spanish ambushes were encountered.
The history of piracy is generally awash in blood and guts and not a jolly three hour cruise where we all talk a little funny. The story of Jean-David Nau surely brings that point home. Though in possession of wealth beyond most men's wildest dreams, Francois L'Olonnais met an end that befit his reign of terror. He was slowly cut to pieces by angry Darien natives whose villages he had previously raided. His body parts were burned while he watched and his ashes scattered to the winds. I often wonder if he died well. The surviving members of his crew do not say.
Tune in again tomorrow when Horror on the High Seas takes us out to the great South Pacific where we meet a very young woman who courageously faced down Malay pirates.