Thursday, February 24, 2011

People: Monsieur le Filibustier

The stories surrounding today’s buccaneer are as colorful as any that might be told about, or by, a sea rover. He was a gentleman of Paris until creditors forced him into piracy for money. He had a winning way with the ladies and left the Spanish Senoras of towns he sacked in love with him. He retired to a chateau along the Seine a wealthy and much sought after adventurer. He wrote about his experiences and left his journal for the entire world to witness.

The list could fill a page or two but the truth of the matter is no one knows any of it for sure. Raveneau de Lussan surely could have done all those things for he handily documented all in the thrice-published tome The Filibusters of the South Sea which first appeared in 1689. But we’re not sure he wrote that book, or that his name was actually Raveneau de Lussan, or where he came from. The sparse information we do have, however, makes the entire story even more tantalizing.

Much like many of the great pirates and privateers, de Lussan appears in a hotbed of freebooters, seemingly out of nowhere. He turns up as an indentured servant in Sante Domingue in 1679. How old he was at the time is unknown but one can assume he was relatively young as his master was evidently a grower of sugar cane and a sadist to boot. Much like the real Francois L’Olonnais and the fictional Captain Blood, de Lussan and his fellows suffered mightily at the hands of their master. Some hints indicated that the man may have himself been a boucanier from the old days and therefore quite possibly a runaway indentured servant himself. Whatever the actual circumstance, de Lussan turned to that sure-fire occupation for indentures denied their promised piece of land: piracy.

It seems that de Lussan was a well educated and even refined man. His prose in Filibusters rivals that of Exquemelin, who was a trained doctor. Though there is no real “story arc” per ce the entire experience of being a buccaneer and attacking prey by land and at sea is documented, probably with a good deal of accuracy. Much like Exquemelin and Pere Labat, de Lussan leaves nothing out. He even goes so far as to quote letters left behind by the enemy he most distrusted: the Spanish. Here is part of one:

… advance within the shot of your arquebusses, let not your men fire but by twenties, to the end your firing may not be in vain. And when you find them weakened, raise a shout to frighten them, and fall in with your swords…

This snippet says a lot about Spanish fire power – or lack thereof – in the face of the buccaneers. Fearing rebellion, the Spanish governments would not allow even their soldiers in the New World the more technologically advanced muskets so favored by the French. The Spanish were forced in these cases to advance within twenty paces of the threatening ladrones while the French, expert shots, picked them off.

At sea de Lussan notes similar tactics. He indicates that captains would order those deadly muskets fired at will, killing officers and cutting rigging more capably than cannon. He notes in one case that “Using our fusils, we made so great a fire upon them that they were forced to close their port holes and bear up to the wind.”

De Lussan is also in no way shy about the buccaneers’ use of torture. He consistently refers to “persuasion” of any kind as le chevalet – the “little horse” – meaning the rack. There is very little discrimination as to who will be put on the little horse, with a few noted exceptions. De Lussan is clear that he would never allow a woman, child or member of the clergy to be tortured or even threatened if he could help it at all. He goes out of his way to note that at every city sacked from the Panama Coast to Guayaquil in Peru he, at the very least, would take the time to hear Mass in the local church before even thinking of plunder.

And really, it is the ladies upon whom de Lussan most dwells. While he repeats vehemently his distrust of all the Spanish time and again, he seems rather taken by their elite Donas. He is personally mortified when, while escorting a young and particularly lovely noblewoman to safe haven in a church, she begins to weep uncontrollably. He enquired more than once as to her obvious apprehension until she finally blurted: “Oh please Senor; do not you eat me!” To his dismay he would later learn that the Spanish told their children stories of monkey-like buccaneers descending from the dark forests to cannibalize the unsuspecting – and one assumes naughty – young person.

The finest story involving the fairer sex in de Lussan’s catalogue involves the young widow of the Spanish Treasurer at the city of Guayaquil. De Lussan took part in sacking the city in 1684 and does not seem ashamed to say he was involved in a good deal of the carnage there. He stops short of saying he himself killed the widow’s husband but tells us that he went to pay a call upon the Treasurer’s house all unaware that he had been a married man. He found the widow “… dissolved in tears and most disheveled” and excused himself immediately “… with all gallantry”. The widow evidently thought quite a bit of de Lussan, calling him back to her house the next day and virtually throwing herself at him. She promised her husband’s position and all his wealth if de Lussan would elope with her into the woods and hide there until his mates had gone. She even went so far as to remove her dainty shoes and silk stockings, baring her feet to the buccaneer as proof of her love.

Raveneau de Lussan, for all his courtly gestures, could not be tempted and returned to his ship to sail back to Tortuga. Five years later his book was available in France but what had become of the dandy filibuster is still a mystery. The book was republished in 1690 and again in 1695 with revisions but whether or not those were done by Monsieur de Lussan is up for debate. Like so many other free booters, Raveneau de Lussan simply disappeared leaving more than most but very little to hold on to nonetheless. But a good story is always worth while, and a good pirate story is so much more.

Header: Engraving of a French musketeer c 1685


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Sounds to me like de Lussan mixed in a little fiction (and fantasy) with his facts there. But you're right, it is an entertaining story... And isn't that what it's all about?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I'd say so. Monsieur reminds me of bit of another French buccaneer with a name that starts with "L"...