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The author's departure for the western part of America, in the service of the French West India Company. Encounter at sea with an English, warships. Arrival at the island of Tortuga.
IN the year 1666, on the second of May, we left Havre de Grace in the St John, under the direction of the West India Company's delegate. The ship mounted twenty-eight guns and carried twenty seamen and two hundred and twenty passengers, including indentured servants of the Company and free persons with their servants.
We came to anchor below the Cape of Barfleur, in order to meet with seven more of the Company's ships due to arrive from Dieppe, together with a warship mounting thirty-seven guns and two hundred and fifty men.
Two ships were bound for Senegal, five for the Caribbean Islands, and ourselves for the island of Tortuga. Some twenty vessels bound for Newfoundland also joined us, along with a few Dutch ships making for La Rochelle, Nantes and St Martin. Altogether, we formed a fleet of about thirty ships, and at once we made ready for action, as we feared four English frigates (each of sixty guns) were cruising around the Isle of Ornay, in wait for us.
After our commodore, the Chevalier de Sourdis, had given his orders, we got under sail with a good wind, in foggy weather. This favoured us, as the English might not spot us, and we hugged the French coast in order to elude the enemy. We encountered a Flemish ship from Ostend, which complained to our commodore it had been plundered that very morning by a French corsair. The warship gave chase directly, but was unable to overtake the pirate. The French peasants were in alarm all along the coast, thinking we were English and intending to land. We showed our flags, but they put no trust in them.
After this, we dropped anchor in the roadstead of Conquet in Brittany (near the Isle of Ushant) to take on provisions and fresh water. Supplied with all we needed, we continued our voyage, passing by way of the Raz de Fonteneau, as we dare not approach the Sorlingues because of the English cruisers. This Race, as its name implies, is a strong and rapid current, flowing over many rocks. It is situated close to the French coast, latitude 48° 10' north, and is a very dangerous passage on account of the reefs, some lying submerged and some showing above water. By way of celebration, all those on our ship who had never previously made the passage were baptized in the following manner.
The bos'n of the ship dresses himself up in a long robe, with an outlandish cap on his head, a wooden sword in his right hand and a pot of blacking in his left. His face is daubed with black, and round his neck he wears a garland of blocks and other ship's tackle. Everyone who has never passed this way before has to kneel in front of him. He makes a cross on their forehead and gives them a blow on the nape of the neck with his wooden sword, and then they have water flung over them by the other bystanders. What is more, they must put a bottle of wine or brandy by the mainmast, but those who haven't any are excused. If the ship has never made the passage before, then the captain has to pay up. Afterwards, the wine and brandy found by the mast are shared out in the fo'c'sle.
The Dutchmen too used to have a baptism on passing these rocks, and also the rocks known as Berlingues which lie close to the coast of Portugal, 39° 40' north. These reefs are extremely dangerous, for they cannot easily be seen at night on account of the high coastline. The Dutchmen have a completely different ceremony from the French, for when anyone is being baptized, he has to fall three times from the mainyard into the water, like a criminal, and if those on board are agreeable, they tow him behind the ship. It is a great honour to fall yet another time for His Highness, or for the captain's credit. The first who drops has a gun fired in his honour and the flag waved.
Anyone not willing to fall is bound, according to their laws, to give a shilling, and if he's an officer, he must pay two. Any passengers who refuse the baptism have to pay as much as they think fit. If the ship has never passed that way before, the captain has to give a hogshead of wine or else they saw off the roundhouse from the ship, and the captain can make no claim on that account. All the proceeds are given into the bos'n's hands until they get to port, where wine is bought and shared out among the whole ship's company in the fo'c'sle.
Nobody from either nation can give the reasons for doing these things, apart from its being an old custom among seamen. Some say the matter was so ordained by the Emperor Charles V, but it is not to be found in his book of laws. Having in passing described these ceremonies of the sailors, we will now continue our voyage.
When we had passed the Race, we got a favourable wind until Cape Finisterre, where we met with a very heavy storm which scattered us from each other. This storm lasted eight days. It was wretched to see how the people on our ship were slopped about from port to starboard, and had not the heart to stand upright, they were so seasick; the sailors had to step over them to do their work. Afterwards we had calm weather and followed our course, passing below the Tropic of Cancer. This is a circle imagined by the star-gazers, marking the limit of the sun towards the north, and lies 23° 30' north of the Line. There we were again baptized in the manner I have described above – for the French always hold a baptism at this point, and on crossing the Line, and at the Tropic of Capricorn south of the Line. We had a favourable wind, which we badly needed, for we were running short of water, being each rationed to a pint and a half a day.
About the latitude of Barbados, we caught sight of an English naval vessel, which gave chase, but seeing he had no advantage on us, he drew off. We pursued him, firing on him with our eight-pounders, but he was better rigged, so we had to let him go. We then resumed our course, and the island of Martinique came in sight. We did all we could to reach the roadstead of St Peter, but were prevented by a strong current. We then made for Guadeloupe, but neither could we reach this shore on account of the current, so we carried on towards the island of Tortuga, which was our destination.
We passed along the coast of Puerto Rico, an extremely lovely and pleasant island, covered with beautiful trees up to the tops of the mountains. The island of Hispaniola, which we shall describe later on, then came in view. We sailed along the coast until at last we arrived at Tortuga, on the seventh of July of the same year, without having lost a man on the whole voyage. The Company's goods were unloaded here, and the ship proceeded to Cul de Sac, taking those passengers who had to go there.CHAPTER 2
Description of the Island of Tortuga : its plants and fruits. How the French came there, and were twice driven out by the Spaniards. How the author came to be sold on two occasions.
TORTUGA lies on the north side of the great and renowned island of Hispaniola, about three leagues from the coast, 20° 30' north. The small island is some sixteen leagues in circumference, and acquired its name because its shape is like a turtle, which the Spanish call 'tortuga'. Although extremely rocky, it is covered with large trees, which grow where no soil can be seen, with their roots lying naked on the rocks. The north side is uninhabited and most inhospitable, having neither harbour nor beaches, apart from a few gaps between the crags. People live only on the south side, and here there is but one harbour which ships can enter.
The inhabited portion is divided into four parts, of which the Low Country is the most important, on account of the port. This is reasonably good and unimpeded by a reef; there are two channels to sail in by. Ships of seventy guns can enter, and the harbour has a very clear sandy bottom. The town is called Cayona and is where the principal planters live. The Middle Plantation is a region recently cultivated, and is very rich in tobacco, as is the district called La Ringot; both these places lie to the west of the island. The Mountain is the region where the first plantations were made.
As for the vegetation, some excellent timber grows on Tortuga, including fustic [a wood which yields a yellow dye] and red, white and yellow sandalwood. The inhabitants call the yellow sort bois de chandelle, or candlewood, because it will burn as bright as a candle, and serves for making torches with which to go fishing at night. Another tree which grows here is the lignum sanctum – known in these parts as pox-wood. There are many of the trees which provide gummi elemi, and also radix chinae or China-root, but this is not so good as the East Indian variety; it is very white and soft, and is eaten by the wild pigs.
As well as timber, much sought after for building ships and houses, aloes and many other medicinal herbs and shrubs grow here. All sorts of fruits and plants are found, similar to those on the Caribbean Islands. They include manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, melons and water-melons, guavas, bananas and plantains, pineapples, cashew-nuts, and many others which I will not weary the reader by listing. There is also an abundance of palm trees, from which wine is made, and the leaves are used for covering the houses.
There are many wild boar, but hunting them with dogs is forbidden lest they be exterminated, as the island is so small. Should enemies attack, the people could then retire to the woods and live by hunting. Nevertheless, hunting is very dangerous: the crags are often covered with scrub and a man could fall down a concealed precipice unawares. Various people have been lost in this manner. Numerous skeletons have been found, but one could not judge whether the men had died recently or not.
At a certain time of the year, wild pigeons flock here in such multitudes the inhabitants could live on them alone, without using other meat. But when this season is past, they are no longer good to eat. They become thin and bitter to taste, because of a certain seed they eat, which is bitter in the extreme.
Many sea-crabs and land-crabs are found on the shore. They are very large, and are edible. The slaves and indentured servants often eat them: their taste is good, but they are most harmful to the eyes. Frequent eating of them brings on a fit of giddiness, so that for perhaps a quarter of an hour one is unable to see.
Having settled colonies on the island of St Kitts and being reasonably strong there, the French equipped a number of vessels and steered westward to discover what they could, and so reached the coast of Hispaniola. On landing, they found it to be very fertile, abounding with all kinds of animals, such as wild bulls and cows, swine and horses. As they could make no profit out of them without having a refuge of some sort (since Hispaniola is well populated by the Spaniards) they decided to take Tortuga. This they did, chasing out some ten or twelve Spaniards who were living there. The French stayed there about half a year without anyone disturbing them. They made journeys in their canoes to and from the big island, and began making plantations on Tortuga, and sent for still more settlers.
Meanwhile, the Spaniards, unable to view this activity favourably, fitted out some ships and came to recapture Tortuga. This they succeeded in doing, for as soon as the French saw them coming, they fled with their goods to the forest, and crossed over to Hispaniola in their canoes at night. They had the advantage of not being encumbered with women and children, so everyone could take to the woods to hunt for food, and also give warning to the rest of their mates, so as to leave the Spaniards no time for building fortifications on Tortuga.
The Spaniards crossed back, intending to drive them out or make them die of hunger, as they had done with the Indians, but they had little success, for the French were well provided with powder, bullets and good fire-arms. Taking advantage of a time when most of the Spaniards had sailed back to the big island with their guns and many men to harry the French, these men returned once more to Tortuga. They drove out all the Spaniards who were still there, prevented the others from coming back again, and remained masters of the island.
Having won the island, the French sent for assistance, requesting the governor or general of St Kitts to send them a governor to establish better order among the people, and to found a colony there. The general, well pleased with the idea, immediately ordered a ship lying in the roads to make ready, and sent M. le Vasseur to be governor of Tortuga, together with many men and all kinds of necessaries.
On arrival, this governor had a fortress built on a rock, where it could protect the port from enemy ships. This fort is most difficult of access ; it can be approached from one side only, by a way so narrow that no more than two people can enter at the same time. In the middle of the rock is a cave which serves as a storehouse for ammunition, and on top is a suitable site for raising a battery. The governor had a house built at the fort, and mounted two guns there, reached by climbing a ladder, which could be pulled up behind. Inside the fort is a spring of sweet water, fit to supply a thousand people daily – a supply which cannot be cut off, for it gushes out of the rocks. All around the fort are plantations, which are very rich in tobacco and other crops.
When the French had established their colony and made it reasonably strong, each man set about seeking his own fortune. Some crossed over to the big island to hunt and get hides. Others, who did not fancy such activity, took to marauding, privateering along the Spanish coast as they still do today. The rest, who had wives, stayed on the island, some making plantations and growing tobacco, others setting up taverns, so that everyone found the means of making his living.
The Spaniards could not look on this work with favourable eyes, judging the French would become so powerful that in the end they would turn them out of the big island. They seized the chance, when many of the French were at sea and others off hunting, to equip their canoes and land for the second time on Tortuga, with the assistance of some French prisoners they had with them. The Spaniards were 800 strong.
The French could not prevent their landing, and therefore withdrew to the fort. The governor had all the trees around the fort cut down in order to get a clearer view of the enemy. As there was no chance of forcing the stronghold without artillery, the Spaniards considered how best to set about it. They saw that only the tall trees sheltering the fort had been cut down, and that the place could be brought under fire from the mountain, so they made a road by which they could bring up ordnance to the top.
This mountain is quite high, and from the summit one can see the whole island all around. It is level on top, and surrounded with crags, making it inaccessible save by the track the Spaniards made, as I shall now relate.
The Spaniards had many slaves and labourers with them – matates or half-breeds and Indians. These they set to work making a road through the rocks and dragging artillery up the mountain, in order to mount a battery, fire on the fort where the French were, and force them to surrender. But while the Spaniards were busy with this undertaking, the French managed to warn their comrades to come to their aid, which they did. The hunters united with the men engaged in privateering, and, having landed on Tortuga by night, they succeeded in climbing the mountain from the north side, because they were familiar with the place.
The Spaniards had, with great difficulty, managed to get two cannon up the mountain ready to bombard the fort next day, and knew nothing of the arrival of the French. But next morning, just as the Spaniards were busy setting their cannon in order, the French attacked from the rear. Most of the Spaniards sprang headlong over the precipice, where they broke neck and legs, not one of them landing safely. The Frenchmen killed the rest, allowing no quarter. Hearing the shrieks, the other Spaniards down below judged that matters were going badly on the mountain-top. They went to the shore and at once put to sea, despairing of ever conquering Tortuga.
The governors of Tortuga always acted as proprietors of the island, until 1664, when the French West India Company took possession and installed M. d'Ogeron as governor. They settled a colony there, with their delegate and indentured servants, intending to carry on trade with the Spaniards, as the Dutch in Curaçao do. But this plan was not successful. They wanted to trade with a foreign nation, yet could not manage commerce with their own people. When the Company started up, everyone – privateers, hunters, planters and all – bought from them, for the Company supplied everything on credit. But when it came to paying, nobody was to be found. So the Company was obliged to send for its factors, ordering them to sell up everything which could be sold, and close down the enterprise.
Excerpted from THE BUCCANEERS OF AMERICA by Alexander O. Exquemelin, Alexis Brown. Copyright © 2013 Alexander O. Exquemelin and Alexis Brown. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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