Thursday, April 28, 2011

People: Perpetual Sidekick

The name Olivier La Bouche comes up in stories of more familiar pirates like the name of an actor who consistently plays the wingman. Howell Davis, Sam Bellamy and Bartholomew Roberts are all said to have sailed with La Bouche. After a while, it’s only natural for the curious student of piratical history to wonder about the Frenchman’s story in and of itself. Today, then, I offer what I could piece together.

Some authorities claim that La Bouche was born in France and went to sea early in life. These theories point to a birthplace on the Bay of Biscay, such as La Rochelle, while the minority put the La Bouche family in Saint-Mayo on the Channel. Judging from the dates of known events in his career, however, it is possible that Olivier (or Oliver) La Bouche may have been a native of Saint Domingue, now Haiti. This would have made him a potential son of the original boucaniers, born to be a pirate. Regardless, La Bouche was almost certainly born some time in the 1680s and at sea by the first decade of the 18th century.

We first hear of La Bouche in 1716. By this time he is captaining his own vessel when he meets up with Sam Bellamy. Bellamy, of Whydah fame, had been elected captain of the sloop Mary Anne after her former commander, Benjamin Hornigold, had been marooned by his crew for refusing to attack British ships. La Bouche, who seems to just mysteriously appear in all the stories told of him, hails Bellamy in the fall of 1716 and the two captains decide to sail in company. Whether or not they were familiar with one another prior to meeting is never revealed, but they cruised together with some success until February or March of 1717 when their ships were separated by a storm.

All these exploits took place in the Caribbean and it may be that La Bouche was using one of the French held islands such as Saint Domingue, Guadalupe or St. Kitts as a base. Whatever the case, the captain seems to have set his sights on the slave trade because we next hear of him in 1718 off the coast of Gambia in West Africa. Here La Bouche attacked Buck, the brig of pirate-masquerading-as-slaver Howell Davis. The two captains fired broadsides until both, according to legend, raised their black flags. Recognizing each other as brothers-in-arms, the ships hoisted white flags and the crews settled in to make merry and enjoy the barrels of wine taken from a recent prize. La Bouche informed Davis he was hunting for a new ship and Davis suggested they form a partnership, offering the next prize taken to La Bouche. The agreement was sealed, and the ships began to cruise the African coast.

Perhaps curiously, one of the few details that makes it into every retelling of this story is the ethnicity of La Bouche’s crew. Invariably, although there is no description of La Bouche or even a mention of his ship’s name, historians write that the Frenchman’s crew was half French and half African (with older sources using “negro”). Obviously this is a salient point, or it was at one time, since it comes up so consistently. For me it raises more than one question. Were the black crewmen free or slaves? If they were free men – as I would speculate they were – how did they feel about their French captain capturing slavers and selling the people within for a profit? The list of related issues could go on and on. As usual, history creates more puzzles than it solves.

The next ship La Bouche and Davis met was another freebooter, this one captained by Thomas Cocklyn. The three commanders agreed to sail together with Davis in charge of their flotilla. They captured the English slaver Bird and her captain, William Snelgrave, left a written account of his experiences published in A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave Trade in 1734. Snelgrave basically rates the raiders and their crews on a 1 to 10 cruelty scale, giving Cocklyn and his men a 10 for absolute sadism, Davis’ crew a 1 for good nature and putting La Bouche and his multinational seaman firmly in the middle.

The pirate captains began to disagree more and more frequently as time went on. By the end of 1719, they had gone their separate ways but not before capturing the ship Princess out of London. Her second mate, a sober scholar but snappy dresser, would soon become the infamous Bartholomew Roberts upon the untimely death of Davis.

It seems La Bouche continued to cruise the African coast for he is next documented in 1721 at the island of La Reunion where he is now in company with John Taylor. Here the two pirates happened upon the galleon of the Viceroy of Goa, in harbor for repairs after a storm. She was a virtual treasure ship and La Bouche and Taylor descended on her like ants on a sugar loaf. According to documentation the gold, silver and gems stripped from the ship were worth well over 100 million in modern dollars. Each sailor – approximately 200 in all – received a bag of 40 loose diamonds and La Bouche personally carried away a solid gold cross so heavy that it took three men to lift it. The haul was the stuff of legend, prompting La Bouche to consider retirement or so it seems.

Olivier La Bouche parted with Taylor in December of 1721 but what became of him thereafter is pure speculation. One story says he settled down in the pirate colony at Isle Saint-Mary off Madagascar, living comfortably with a local woman until his natural death. Another says the authorities at La Reunion caught up with the Frenchman and hanged him when they discovered he still owned that enormous gold cross.

Even La Bouche’s name is scrambled like so much gibberish in various stories. In some he is Le Bouche, which is doubtless incorrect. Bouche in French means mouth or muzzle of a gun and is a feminine noun; “la” would be the only prefix possible. In others he is Le Bouse or de le Bouse. Since bouse translates as dung, let’s hope not. Wikipedia tells us authoritatively that Olivier La Bouche was in fact Olivier Le Vasseur, a name I can find in no other source and one which seems to confuse La Bouche with the Tortuga buccaneer Jean Le Vasseur who built the fortress at Basse-Terre. The article proceeds to tell stories similar to what I have recounted with added piratical set-pieces such as an eye patch and an encoded map to “buried treasure”. Finally, a researcher from Louisiana once told me that La Bouche was an alias for Beluche, and Olivier was a relative – possibly even a brother – of my ancestor Charles Beluche. This grandfather to the famous Renato Beluche was born near the Bay of Biscay around 1697 but that’s probably where any similarity, much less relation, to Olivier La Bouche ends.

Whatever the facts, La Bouche, the perpetual sidekick, will be remembered if only by association.

Header: Attack on a Galleon by Howard Pyle c 1905


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! That was a fun post. For all of the speculation, there are some great piratical moments here... and even the potential of a "happy ending", which is certainly unusual in pirate lore. Nicely done.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! La Bouche seems to have been a genial sort, anyway, and I like the ease with which these guys seem to slip in and out of each other's business. And of course the Goa galleon is a prize for the record books (even if only half of the story is true).