Thursday, October 15, 2009

People: Is There a Doctor in the House?

The man we're going to discuss today is one of those people that would be on my "who would you invite to that hypothetical dinner party, living or dead" list. I think the exercise is silly, really, because most of us would end up entertaining about twenty or thirty and at that point you're never going to be able to really talk to each person and get the goods on their life. But so little is known about Dr. Exquemelin that he would definitely stay on the guest list even after the initial culling process.

Alexander Exquemelin was born in Honfleur, France around 1646. Honfleur is a port town on the northern coast so it is safe to say that young Alex was exposed to ships and shipping - and very likely privateers - from an early age. Some historians claim that the young man had a hankering to become a ship's surgeon. Others go so far as to have him studying medicine in France. While Alexander may have set his sights on doctoring early, his later life hints at a pauper's youth and in all probability school of any kind was out.

At some point in his early life Alexander really hit the skids and either sold himself or was sold into indentured servitude. He sailed to Hispaniola and there was put to work at hard labor for his new master. Indenture in the Caribbean was nothing more than slavery and Alexander was worked so hard that he fell deathly ill. Seeing that the young man was of no further use, his master put him up for "resale".

At this point, Alexander's luck began to change. A local physician took up his indentured, saw him through his illness and made the young man his assistant. Alexander learned the skill of doctoring over three years and the elbow of this unknown gentleman and, when the term of indenture was up, Alexander's benefactor gave him not only the money he was owed but a set of surgical tools as well. What had started out as a potential death sentence became a door to an entirely new life.

With the proliferation of buccaneers on the local islands, it wasn't hard for Alex to find work as a ship's surgeon. By his own account he sailed with the psychopathic Francois L'Olonnais and witnessed his horrors at Maracaibo. It is documented that Exquemelin was with Henry Morgan when he sacked Panama in 1671. The doctor also claimed to know other buccaneers personally, including Rock Brasilliano and Michel de Grammont.

Evidently Alexander came to a point where enough was enough and some time between 1671 and 1678 he returned to Europe. He settled in Holland, where the Amsterdam Surgeon's Guild Book indicates that he passed his exams and become a legal surgeon in 1679. Before that, though, Exquemelin published the book that would make him famous to this day.

Buccaneers of America, first published in Holland in 1678, would be a runaway bestseller in Europe for the next ten years. A lot of the stories still told about the men Alexander knew and claimed to know come from this original work. While many historians have tried to discredit Exquemelin's work as pure fantasy, more and more information comes to light that proves them wrong.

In fact only one man has managed to successfully challenge Exquemelin's description of a buccaneer. Henry Morgan, who did not care for the way he was portrayed in the book, sued Exquemelin for slander and won (of course, it probably helped that Morgan was Governor of Jamaica at the time).

Alexander Exquemelin's book is still in circulation today and it is a fascinating read. All the same, I think it would be even more fascinating to hear the Doctor's stories first hand. I'll seat him between Andrew Jackson and Horatio Nelson. His sense of humor might keep the dueling to a minimum. Crack open the wine and let the good times roll!


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! Wow, another "who knew" post... And as usual, you did. Good idea to seat him between Jackson and Nelson too, since there would definitely be a brawl if they were seated next to each other. I hope you are starting to feel better and we won't need the doctor to make a house call...

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! I'm just glad I don't live back in ye olde tymes when I'd have to rely on somebody like Exquemelin. He may have been a great doctor but I'll take the antibiotics, thankee!