In the days which we are considering there were all sorts of pirates, some of whom gained much reputation in one way and some in another, but there was one of them who had a disposition different from that of any of his fellows.
He was a regular pirate, but it is not likely that he ever did much fighting, for, as he took great pride in the brave deeds of the Brethren of the Coast, he would have been sure to tell us of his own if he had ever performed any. He was a mild-mannered man, and, although he was a pirate, he eventually laid aside the pistol, the musket, and the cutlass, and took up the pen,—a very uncommon weapon for a buccaneer.
This man was John Esquemeling, supposed by some to be a Dutchman, and by others a native of France. He sailed to the West Indies in the year 1666, in the service of the French West India Company. He went out as a peaceable merchant clerk, and had no more idea of becoming a pirate than he had of going into literature, although he finally did both.
At that time the French West India Company had a colonial establishment on the island of Tortuga, which was principally inhabited, as we have seen before, by buccaneers in all their various grades and stages, from beef-driers to pirates. The French authorities undertook to supply these erratic people with the goods and provisions which they needed, and built storehouses with everything necessary for carrying on the trade. There were plenty of purchasers, for the buccaneers were willing to buy everything which could be brought from Europe. They were fond of good wine, good groceries, good firearms, and ammunition, fine cutlasses, and very often good clothes, in which they could disport themselves when on shore. But they had peculiar customs and manners, and although they were willing to buy as much as the French traders had to sell, they could not be prevailed upon to pay their bills. A pirate is not the sort of a man who generally cares to pay his bills. When he gets goods in any way, he wants them charged to him, and if that charge includes the features of robbery and murder, he will probably make no objection. But as for paying good money for what is received, that is quite another thing.
That this was the state of feeling on the island of Tortuga was discovered before very long by the French mercantile agents, who then applied to the mother country for assistance in collecting the debts due them, and a body of men, who might be called collectors, or deputy sheriffs, was sent out to the island; but although these officers were armed with pistols and swords, as well as with authority, they could do nothing with the buccaneers, and after a time the work of endeavoring to collect debts from pirates was given up. And as there was no profit in carrying on business in this way, the mercantile agency was also given up, and its officers were ordered to sell out everything they had on hand, and come home. There was, therefore, a sale, for which cash payments were demanded, and there was a great bargain day on the island of Tortuga. Everything was disposed of,—the stock of merchandise on hand, the tables, the desks, the stationery, the bookkeepers, the clerks, and the errand boys. The living items of the stock on hand were considered to be property just as if they had been any kind of merchandise, and were sold as slaves.
Now poor John Esquemeling found himself in a sad condition. He was bought by one of the French officials who had been left on the island, and he described his new master as a veritable fiend. He was worked hard, half fed, treated cruelly in many ways, and to add to his misery, his master tantalized him by offering to set him free upon the payment of a sum of money equal to about three hundred dollars. He might as well have been asked to pay three thousand or three million dollars, for he had not a penny in the world.
At last he was so fortunate as to fall sick, and his master, as avaricious as he was cruel, fearing that this creature he owned might die, and thus be an entire loss to him, sold him to a surgeon, very much as one would sell a sick horse to a veterinary surgeon, on the principle that he might make something out of the animal by curing him.
His new master treated Esquemeling very well, and after he had taken medicine and food enough to set him upon his legs, and had worked for the surgeon about a year, that kind master offered him his liberty if he would promise, as soon as he could earn the money, to pay him one hundred dollars, which would be a profit to his owner, who had paid but seventy dollars for him. This offer, of course, Esquemeling accepted with delight, and having made the bargain, he stepped forth upon the warm sands of the island of Tortuga a free and happy man. But he was as poor as a church mouse. He had nothing in the world but the clothes on his back, and he saw no way in which he could make money enough to keep himself alive until he had paid for himself. He tried various ways of support, but there was no opening for a young business man in that section of the country, and at last he came to the conclusion that there was only one way by which he could accomplish his object, and he therefore determined to enter into “the wicked order of pirates or robbers at sea.”
It must have been a strange thing for a man accustomed to pens and ink, to yard-sticks and scales, to feel obliged to enroll himself into a company of bloody, big-bearded pirates, but a man must eat, and buccaneering was the only profession open to our ex-clerk. For some reason or other, certainly not on account of his bravery and daring, Esquemeling was very well received by the pirates of Tortuga. Perhaps they liked him because he was a mild-mannered man and so different from themselves. Nobody was afraid of him, every one felt superior to him, and we are all very apt to like people to whom we feel superior.
As for Esquemeling himself, he soon came to entertain the highest opinion of his pirate companions. He looked upon the buccaneers who had distinguished themselves as great heroes, and it must have been extremely gratifying to those savage fellows to tell Esquemeling all the wonderful things they had done. In the whole of the West Indies there was no one who was in the habit of giving such intelligent attention to the accounts of piratical depredations and savage sea-fights, as was Esquemeling and if he had demanded a salary as a listener there is no doubt that it would have been paid to him.
It was not long before his intense admiration of the buccaneers and their performances began to produce in him the feeling that the history of these great exploits should not be lost to the world, and so he set about writing the lives and adventures of many of the buccaneers with whom he became acquainted.
He remained with the pirates for several years, and during that time worked very industriously getting material together for his history. When he returned to his own country in 1672, having done as much literary work as was possible among the uncivilized surroundings of Tortuga, he there completed a book, which he called, “The Buccaneers of America, or The True Account of the Most Remarkable Assaults Committed of Late Years Upon the Coasts of the West Indies by the Buccaneers, etc., by John Esquemeling, One of the Buccaneers, Who Was Present at Those Tragedies.”
From this title it is probable that our literary pirate accompanied his comrades on their various voyages and assaults, in the capacity of reporter, and although he states he was present at many of “those tragedies,” he makes no reference to any deeds of valor or cruelty performed by himself, which shows him to have been a wonderfully conscientious historian. There are persons, however, who doubt his impartiality, because, as he liked the French, he always gave the pirates of that nationality the credit for most of the bravery displayed on their expeditions, and all of the magnanimity and courtesy, if there happened to be any, while the surliness, brutality, and extraordinary wickednesses were all ascribed to the English. But be this as it may, Esquemeling’s history was a great success. It was written in Dutch and was afterwards translated into English, French, and Spanish. It contained a great deal of information regarding buccaneering in general, and most of the stories of pirates which we have already told, and many of the surprising narrations which are to come, have been taken from the book of this buccaneer historian.