Tuesday, July 27, 2010

People: The Tale Of Half-Arse

The story of Louis le Golif, buccaneer extraordinaire, comes down to us from his own autobiography. Reading Memoirs of a Buccaneer is a little like watching an Errol Flynn movie. Monsieur le Golif was kicking ass and taking names pretty much up until the time he retired to France and wrote his book. Or was he?

According to the memoir, which I will say now is the only definitive documentation of any boucanier named Louis le Golif or going by the moniker Half-Arse (more on that in a bit), le Golif was born in France and sent off to the West Indies as an indentured servant in his 20s. The questions arise early and often. Le Golif tells us he was indentured to a planter named Monsieur Piedouille. A cruel, unyielding sort of fellow, Piedouille eventually drives le Golif to run away. In this he is joined by his "... good brother and matelot" Pulverin. The two men set out in a skiff at night looking for freebooting adventure. The issue here is that Piedouille's plantation is on the island of Tortuga, or so it seems. At no point during the period the story is supposed to have taken place, circa 1665, were there plantations on the buccaneer stronghold of Tortuga.

Le Golif and his pal are taken aboard the freebooting ship Salagrun, captained by a Frenchmen named Bigourdin. Things go relatively well in the prize taking business until a skirmish with the Spanish Navy gives le Golif his nickname. In a firefight, part of one buttock is shot away by grape from a cannon. Though the wound is decidedly painful, le Golif recovers quickly and it's back to a pirate's life for him.

The real set piece in the memoir is the taking of the Spanish man-of-war Santa Clara. Le Golif is forced to step up as commander of Salagrun when Bigourdin is killed by cannon fire from the Spaniard. The prose here is particularly compelling and le Golif gives us a clear-eyed picture of just how horrifying such a close battle at sea could be:

Bigourdin was stretched out in his own blood, without any legs, his belly burst open and his guts exposed, while all around me the deck was strewn with my friends, some without arms, others without heads, not counting those who had been crushed by yards, blocks, the debris of tops and other heavy objects which had fallen from above in great disorder.

A nasty and no doubt accurate picture. Le Golif rallies the men still of able body and cleverly sends a Spanish speaking crewman to the fore to chastise the Spanish over the rails about firing on one of their own merchants. The ruse works and the navy ship sends men and officers out in boats to assist the injured. Here the narrative again falters when le Golif notes that, to his delight, the Spanish "... had to come alongside our port". As you well know Brethren, port was not in common usage when referring to one side of a ship at the time. Though port was occasionally used in writing as early as the late 16th century, larboard would have been the standard language of a common seaman. The Spanish point of entry conceals their activity from the navy ship and allows the buccaneers to kill the enemy one by one as they climb up the ship's ladder. There's even an instance of expert knife throwing that kills the first officer on deck.

Le Golif and his men dawn the Spaniard's clothing and raid Santa Clara with harrowing if successful results. Le Golif himself is a whirlwind, dodging bullets, slicing up four and five men at once and jumping over pikes while lopping off heads. He even cuts down a Spanish boy who mistakes Half-Arse for his father. It's the best part of a Sabotini novel written as autobiography.

In the end, the buccaneers are victorious. They lock the still living Spaniards in Santa Clara's hold, move their wounded from Salagrun and scuttle her before setting a course back to Tortuga. Once there, le Golif and his crew are feted by one and all:

Having learned that a vessel captured from Spain had just dropped anchor below the fort of La Roche, Monsieur d'Ogeron, who was then Governor... did not hesitate to come aboard.

It is important to note here that d'Ogeron in fact governed from the San Domingue (now Haiti) capitol of Petit Guave, not Tortuga. All the same punch and wine are shared, d'Ogeron commissions le Golif as Captain of the ship and imparts the happy news that Monsieur Piedouille "... had passed away, having been quite neatly dispatched by one of his men." Le Golif is cheered by all the Brethren of the Coast on shore, he makes his matelot Pulverin second in command and reminisces about the night he escaped the island and how far he has come.

Le Golif goes on to more swashbuckling adventures with such memorable buccaneers as Rock Brasilliano and that Triple P favorite Laurens de Graff. While the writing is exciting and well informed, it's little details - port not larboard, sabre not hanger, the continued reference to flags (not colors or ancients) as identifying regalia aboard ship - that put it slightly off its time period. The most telling issue about the memoir, of course, is that it was not discovered until the end of the World War II when it came miraculously to light out of a bombed building.

Despite the colorful detail and engaging action, it's probably safe to say that Memoirs of a Buccaneer is a modern invention. Like Charlotte de Berry and Red Legs Greaves, it is a good bet that Louis le Golif, for all his adventures, never actually lived.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I'm only surprised that Jack Sparrow didn't show up somewhere in the story... just kidding. Oh well, I guess as long as it is entertaining and has some "grains of truth" to it like actual historical characters and locations, who cares if it is really factual or not, right? Oh wait, it's supposed to be a memoir, not fiction isn't it, Pirate Queen... I guess we could re-title it "A Million Little Pirates"?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Yeah, there's something to be said for a good and well researched read regardless.

"A Million Little Pirates"; hilarious!

Undine said...

Sounds rather like it was written by someone who had just read "Arthur Gordon Pym" while experiencing a terrible LSD flashback.

Yes, I definitely smell shenanigans, but unlike most historical forgeries, at least this seems to be a harmless and entertaining one.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine! Agreed on both counts. I remember trying to write a paper "... in the style of Poe's Pym" once in college. Failed miserably, as you can imagine.

Whoever wrote le Golif's memoirs, they really did a fine job. It's worth a read for anyone one who has an interest in seafaring and/or buccaneering (and can find a copy).