Jean- David Nau aka François l’Olonnais – the horrible Buccaneer
Jean-David Nau (c. 1635?- 1670?), also known as François l’Olonnais or Fleau des Espagnoles, was considered to be one of the most terrible Buccaneers of the 17th century.
Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin (Exquemelin came to the islands as an indentured servant. From his last master, he learned the skills of a surgeon and later sailed with Henry Morgan), whose book De Americaensche Zee-Rovers, published in 1678, is one of the most important sources on the history of piracy in the Caribbean. The second part of his book describes the life of L’Olonnais, who was born in the harbor town of Les Sables-d’Olonne in the Bas-Poitou on the French Atlantic coast at unknown date but presumably around 1635. The account in De Americaensche Zee-Rovers is regarded as fact, but it’s more of the Legend of François l’Olonnais.
L’Olonnais arrived in the Caribbean as an indentured servant at a young age and served his indentured time. When that had been completed, he traveled to the island of Hispaniola and after spending time with the Buccaneers, became one of their leaders.
He stood out as a psychopath in a world of psychopaths and sociopaths. L’Olonnais’ cruelty in extracting information became his hallmark. Whether he hacked people to death with a cutlass, burned them alive, or cut out their tongues or hearts while they were still living, he managed to get the information that he wanted.
He received his first seagoing command from the governor of Tortuga, Monsieur de la Place. After some time, l’Olonnais ran his ship on the rocks near Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico. A group of Spanish soldiers attacked him and his crew, killing almost the entire crew. L’Olonnais survived by smearing himself with the blood of the others and hiding among the dead. After the Spaniards left, he escaped with the help of some slaves and set off in a boat for Tortuga, where he obtained another boat by trickery.
Shortly afterward, he and his crew took the inhabitants of a small town on the north coast of Cuba hostage and demanded a ransom from the Spanish crown. The governor of Havana sent a ship to kill l’Olonnais’ crew, but things didn’t go to plan. The ship sent to kill him fell into the hands of the pirates. L’Olonnais had all but one of the crew beheaded. The man who was spared took a message to Havana in which l’Olonnais declared that from now on he would show no mercy to any Spaniard.
In 1667, l’Olonnais set sail from Tortuga with a fleet of eight ships and a crew of 1,600 pirates to plunder Maracaibo (present-day Venezuela). On the way there, he encountered a Spanish treasure ship off Hispaniola, which he and his fleet successfully captured. He brought in a rich booty of cocoa, precious stones, and more than 40,000 pesos in silver. A second Spanish ship fell into his hands without a fight, along with ammunition, gunpowder, and 12,000 pesos.
Access from the Gulf of Venezuela to the lake of Maracaibo (and thus to the city itself) was secured by a fortress with 16 cannons. L’Olonnais attacked the fortress from the unfortified landward side and captured the city. The pirates looted the town but found that most of the inhabitants had fled and hidden their gold.
The pirates tracked down the inhabitants and tortured them until they revealed the hiding places of their possessions. For weeks, the pirates raped, tortured, and harassed the townspeople. They removed the cannons from the fortress and destroyed almost the entire city’s fortifications to allow for a quick retreat. The pirates then turned south towards the village of Gibraltar (Zulia), on the southern shore of Lake Maracaibo. They wanted to plunder it too, because many of Maricaibo’s inhabitants fled there with their goods.
Although the pirates were outnumbered, they overpowered the 500-man garrison of Gibraltar, plundered the village, and then returned to Maracaibo. They demanded a ransom of 20,000 silver pesos and 500 cows and oxen for their departure. In total, they brought away 260,000 silver pesos, precious stones, silverware, silk fabrics, and a number of slaves in this raid. They divided the take among themselves. The damage done in this way was so great that the city, which had previously been a major center for the export of cocoa, almost ceased to exist.
Word of his attack on Maracaibo and Gibraltar reached Tortuga, and he was henceforth nicknamed “Plage des Spaniers” (French: Fléau des Espagnols). This made it easier for him to recruit crews and ships for future ventures.
Later that year he led 700 pirates in an attack on the Central American mainland. They headed for the coast of Nicaragua with Cabo Gracias a Dios, but drifted with the current into the Gulf of Honduras where they were becalmed for a period. After plundering Puerto Cavallo, l’Olonnais was ambushed by a large number of Spanish soldiers on the way to San Pedro, from which he narrowly escaped. He took some Spaniards prisoner. Exquemelin writes of this:
“He drew his sabre, and with it he cut open the breast of one of these poor Spaniards, and pulling out its heart with his blasphemous hands, bit and tore at it with his teeth, like a wild wolf, and said to the others: I will treat you likewise, if you show me no other way.”
In fear for their lives, the surviving Spaniards showed him another way to San Pedro. L’Olonnais and his surviving men attacked and were repulsed. They retreated to the ships. In the Gulf of Honduras, his ship ran onto a sandbank. Unable to get it free, they carpentered a new one from the remains. Sailing off, misfortune overtook him again and he fell into the hands of the native population in the Gulf of Darién around 1670. Exquemelin writes that:
“they tore him to pieces alive, threw his body limb by limb into the fire, and his ashes into the air.”