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In My Good Books

Sailing By

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
25 February 2006

However far we get from the early literature of piracy, we still seem to find material preserved and handed down from the early sources. For instance, the Walt Disney film, Pirates of the Caribbean, may have a wild and ridiculous plot, featuring a ship manned by the Undead (thereby borrowing from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), but it still contains moments that seem historically convincing - the conception, for instance, of the riotous pirate community on Tortuga. That the pirates, in between expeditions, squandered their booty on food and drink and sex is perfectly well attested.

The authentic literature, conversely, is full of details that seem (to this reader) derived from children's television of the 1950s: ships do mysteriously blow up, trails of powder are indeed laid, and lit with a match, and put out by Captain Morgan; fire-ships are indeed sent against the Spanish. And there are pieces of eight in plenty. But the pirates were naturally cleaned up for the sake of the infant audience: L'Ollonais was no longer allowed to rip the heart out of a Spanish prisoner and gnaw on it as a warning to others; I don't remember seeing prisoners tortured on the rack, or burned alive, or starved to death.
The fictional pirates no longer had slaves, although in the 17th-century Caribbean there was slavery everywhere. The buccaneers had slaves working on board ship, and they traded in slaves as well. They also kept indentured servants, and Exquemelin [in The Buccaneers of America, London 1684] tells us (having been one himself) that these were treated by the local planters worse than negro slaves; the slaves they "endeavour in some manner to preserve, as being perpetual bondmen; but as for their white servants, they care not whether they live or die, seeing they are to continue no longer than three years in their service".

Pirate society was known to be democratic in character (to a degree sometimes alarming to the governments that had to deal with it) and to include runaway servants who had been tricked into signing up in England and France. But it was a slave-owning democracy. Among the original boucaniers - the men who lived by hunting wild cattle for their skins - there existed a form of total servitude of one man to another, voluntarily agreed. A witness to this is Louis le Golif, who, having escaped one form of indentured service, enlisted with a boucanier called Kulescher, and went hunting for skins in his company.

He tells us that "this Kulescher was the hairiest man that I have ever been near in my life, a filthy person who stank worse than a dung-soiled ass. And when I say near him, I do not speak figuratively, since I had to submit to the habits and customs of these men, who have no women at all within their reach." In other words, Le Golif was Kulescher's sex slave.

In due course, Kulescher dies and Le Golif buries him under a mound of stones, so that the animals will not eat him. He also says a few prayers for him - a detail that suggests at least a certain respect for this otherwise repulsive character, so hairy that he looked like a bear, and with a green complexion which had earned him the nickname Verdigris.

Le Golif returns to the coast with his load of skins, and becomes a pirate. During a battle on the Lake of Nicaragua, he has his left buttock shot off by a cannonball, and acquires the name Borgnefesse (One-buttock) as a result. Everyone on Tortuga now knows of his accident, but they are so depraved, Le Golif tells us, that they see in it "only an engaging peculiarity". He has to fight two duels in order to ward off the unwanted sexual attentions of the men.

Le Golif acquires a younger matelot or companion under the practice of matelotage, explained by Exquemelin as a solemn custom, with articles drawn and signed on both sides, whereby two men share their whole stock and agree in some cases that if one of them dies the other inherits everything. This practice of sharing extends to the favours of a woman if one of them gets married.

Eventually Le Golif marries, and time-shares his wife with his matelot. But one day the matelot returns to find Le Golif's wife in flagrante with another man. He kills them both and flees. Le Golif has no regrets about his whore of a wife, but he never ceases to mourn the loss of his matelot.

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The Memoirs of a Buccaneer by Louis le Golif was published by Allen and Unwin in 1954 from a French manuscript discovered in the second world war.


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