One of the more shadowy figures in the already hard-to-dig-into world of the buccaneers is Frenchman Jean Le Vasseur. Aside from occasional mentions by our old friend Alexander Exquemelin, who claimed to know him personally, and the use of his name for Basil Rathbone’s villainous character in Captain Blood, no one seems very forthcoming about the man. His legacy, however is – or was – carved in stone. Quite literally built rock by rock, Le Vasseur’s masterwork on the Island of Tortuga was known as the Fort of the Rock and it stood impenetrable for ten years.
Le Vasseur was a military engineer in his native land. He most probably came from Bordeaux or Gascony and is last documented in France in that hotbed of Huguenot rebellion La Rochelle. When that fortress fell to the Catholics many displaced Protestants set their sights on the New World and the potentially lucrative profession of piracy. Le Vasseur appears to have been among them as he turns up in Jamaica in 1640.
It seems Le Vasseur was better at organizing and leading men that he was as a sailor and by 1642 he was on the island of Tortuga off Hispanola. Here he managed to round up the somewhat savage boucaniers that ran wild in the forests hunting local pigs and generally doing manly things among men (women didn’t show up in force for another decade or so). Somehow Le Vasseur got this group of free thinkers to start thinking ahead, organize for the good of all, and build a fortress from which to head out on their piratical expeditions.
Le Vasseur chose the sheltered harbor of Basse-Terre, where the rocks that would be used to build the fort were plentiful and the high ground was almost impossible to get to, especially while being fired upon from a fortress. The 30 foot cliff up from the harbor had a rock outcropping perfect for defense and sighting prey. There was a natural spring (above) and behind that the island turned into a dense jungle that made an ideal retreat if the fortress was breached. Basse-Terre literally translates as low-ground and may have been named by Le Vasseur himself, although it is probable that the boucaniers were using that name for the harbor when he showed up.
By 1644 Le Fort de Rocher loomed over Basse-Terre Bay. According to Exquemelin it boasted 24 heavy cannon (probably 30 pounders) and could hold and support a force of 800 men. Over the course of the next 9 years the fort stood firm despite attempts to raid it made by both England and Spain. It was not until 1653 when Le Vasseur assigned a successor to his leadership and began to think about retirement, that the fort fell.
In January of 1654, Spanish ships invaded the harbor and began a siege on the fort. While the ships kept the boucaniers occupied, a spy abetted by Le Vasseur’s successor, who would be paid in Spanish gold, helped slaves open up a road to the back of the fortress. Cannon were dragged up the road and turned to smashing the weakest point of the fort. The boucaniers who could fled. Le Vasseur was assassinated in the melee and the Spanish overran the Fort of the Rock.
This signaled the slow decline of Tortuga as a buccaneering stronghold. By the 1690s, after much political shuffling, France would have a firm grasp on San Domingue (the future Haiti) including Tortuga. By then, though, the buccaneer port of choice would be Petit Goave where men like Nicholas Van Horn and Laurens de Graff would see their hey days as the true successors of the mysterious Jean Le Vasseur.