Thursday, January 7, 2010

People: "With The Look Of A Warrior"

Second only to the corsairs of the Gulf in Pauline's piratical heart are the precursors of the Golden Age of piracy: the buccaneers. These guys were flamboyant, cruel, loyal to one another and probably a whole lot of fun to hang out with (provided you didn't piss them off, of course). Most people who have even a passing knowledge of pirates know of Henry Morgan and many imagine him as the rightful king of the buccaneers. Today, Brethren, allow me to challenge that thought with this brief biography of the man I consider to be Le Roi des Boucaniers: Chevalier Michel de Grammont.

De Grammont was probably not born into nobility, although he liked to let people think so. He obtained the title of Chevalier from his mates on Tortuga and was known as Le Sieur - the Lord - when he made his base the port of Petit Goave (check out Monday's post for more on that).

Aside from France, there is no definitive documentation as to where Michel de Grammont came from. He claimed to have been born in Paris and to have served in the French navy. Some sources, including that buccaneer doctor turned biographer Alexander Exquemelin, state that de Grammont had been a privateer for France who went rogue by taking ships outside the reach of his letter of marque. The point is moot, really. By 1678 de Grammont was raising hell on the Spanish Main and, to Spain in particular, that was really all that mattered.

Le Sieur seems to have been a natural leader. Exquemelin tells us that he "was beloved of the buccaneers at San Domingue" and that these men "gladly followed his every command." He is described as handsome with dark hair and complexion and "with the look of a warrior". He made such an impression on his men that even when he teamed up with other famous buccaneers - the Ducthman Laurens de Graff in particular - his were the only orders obeyed.

In 1678, with France at war with the Dutch, de Grammont led buccaneers on a sanctioned raid on the Dutch held island of Curacao. A storm blew in, sending the French navy ships along on the expedition hurrying for safe ports and nearly wrecking de Grammont's flotilla off the Aves Islands. Dutch ships did sink in the storm and, with the navy gone, de Grammont and his men began a wracking operation to salvage the goods and munitions from the enemy fleet. The operation paid off well, and de Grammont returned to Petit Goave a hero.

Upon his return to port, de Grammont and de Graff got together and planned a raid on the rich Venezuelan coast. They hit the city of Maracaibo first, which had only recently been plundered by their brutal compatriot Francois L'Olonnais. The Spanish in the fort at the mouth of Lake Maracaibo watched the buccaneers begin building a trench around them in preparation for siege and decided to give up without a fight. To de Grammont's consternation there was little or no booty left after the previous raid. He and de Graff decided to turn inland.

After securing Gibraltar on the other side of the lake, the buccaneer commanders hit La Guayra further south. Here they found the treasures they were looking for, following the hapless locals into the jungle and wringing their money and jewels out of them. A Spanish force, sent from Caracas, intercepted de Grammont outside of the city and he was forced to retreat. Unable to load most of their booty on their ships, they took prominent citizens as hostages. One ship - of course the one most richly laden with goods - was sunk and de Grammont was wounded by an arrow to the neck. Legend has it that he simply snapped the thing in half and went back to the fight.

After recovering at Petit Goave, de Grammont took to the sea again with his sights on the port town of Campeche in Mexico. He teamed with de Graff once again and they captured the town in the summer of 1685. The municipality was not as rich as they had hoped and they decided to hold the city for ransom. Though they managed to repulse the Spanish army, the Viceroy of the territory refused to concede to their demands. In a rage, de Grammont had several prominent citizens beheaded in the town square. Though some sources claim it was only de Graff's intercession that stopped the bloodshed, Exquemelin is clear that de Grammont chose only those involved in the governance of the town - and only men - to be executed. Eventually the buccaneers burned Campeche and sailed away.

In 1686 de Grammont was offered a pardon and land by the French government in an attempt to get him to quit enraging Spain. He would have nothing to do with the offer and returned to sea with another flotilla. This time he hit the Yucatan peninsula and then sailed for Spanish Florida. It was hurricane season and the ships were caught off guard in the Gulf. De Grammont's ship was separated from the others and disappeared, presumed sunk. Never captured by the enemy to hang as a pirate, never left to grow old on some hunk of land, Michel de Grammont died the way great warriors want to die - right in the thick of what they love the most.

A master tactician, a man who literally led his men into battle rather than just exhorting them from the rear, an able seaman and a relatively humane enemy, the Sieur de Grammont seems to me the very model of the old school buccaneer. And that pretty much kicks ass.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, de Grammont was a pretty kick ass pirate. He should be in that "Badass" book you got last year. Although I'm pretty sure he probably would have rather died in an actual battle (like Blackbeard or Bart Roberts) than in a hurricane, he still went out with a bang rather than a wimper. Or, as they say, "it's better to burn out than to fade away." Personally, I think I'd rather just rust, but hey, I'm not a Chevalier.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Dude had some nuts, that's for sure. Clearly he was a charismatic personality. Add that to a willingness to risk your own hide and buccaneering sucess is pretty much a given. That hurricane did the Spanish a favor... Kinda like the Dariens with our old pal Francois L'Olonnais.