Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The origin of pirate legends

Captain Henry Morgan is one of the most famous pirates in history, largely thanks to Alexander Exquemelin, one of his buccaneers, who wrote a diary. Originally published in the 1670s, this diary (or more strictly speaking a memoir) has rarely been out of print, but HarperCollins has just brought out a new, fancy edition - The Illustrated Pirate Diaries - complete with maps, paintings and even photographs! However, Exquemelin’s full text, with beautiful illustrations, can be downloaded freely from the web.

HarperCollins in the US has just published The Illustrated Pirate Diaries: A Remarkable Eyewitness Account of Captain Morgan and the Buccaneers; and, according to Amazon, it is being released in the UK shortly, in September. Of all the pirates to terrorise the Caribbean waters, says HarperCollins, none are as notorious as Sir Henry Morgan. But his fame comes largely from the diary of buccaneer Alexander Exquemelin, who sailed under Morgan and recorded his infamous and bloody adventures.

Exquemelin (also spelled Esquemeling and other variants) was probably born around 1645 in France, but aged 21 or so he went to work for the French West India Company in the Caribbean. There he enlisted with the buccaneers, and Henry Morgan’s band, possibly serving Morgan directly as a barber-surgeon. On returning to Europe, he settled in Holland, and his diary was first published in 1678, in Dutch, as De Americaensche Zee-Roovers. Since then, the book has had an interesting history.

The Lots of Essays website, which has a useful extract about the diary, explains that it was soon published in a Spanish translation in 1681, and then in English in 1684. However, while the author was originally listed as Alexander Olivier Exquemelin in the Dutch original, his name was transformed to John Esquemeling for the English translation. His book is considered to have been very influential in forming a stereotype image of a pirate, one that persists to this day; and it has been published in many editions. Indeed, Wikipedia’s article on Exquemelin says this: ‘It has rightly been said that perhaps no book of the seventeenth century in any language was ever the parent of so many imitations and the source of so much fiction.’

In 2006, Constable & Robinson published The Mammoth Book of Pirates which included Exquemelin’s ‘fly-on-the-wall account’ of the ‘wicked order of pirates, or robbers of the sea’. But this new book from HarperCollins is ‘a special illustrated edition filled with maps, paintings, photographs, and fascinating background on pirate culture’, and promises that the ‘unforgettable diary comes to new life, bringing the authentic world of the buccaneers to a modern audience far better than any movie could’. HarperCollins provides a quote: ‘Morgan hurled himself at the fuse, and saved all his comrades’ lives. His bravery was already the stuff of legend, and this exploit made his men even more determined to follow him anywhere.’

However, a lovely 1914 edition of the book - complete with swashbuckling pictures by George Alfred Williams - can be downloaded for free from the Internet Archive. The full title is The Pirates of Panama or Buccaneers of America a true account of the famous adventures and daring deeds of Sir Henry Morgan and other notorious freebooters of the Spanish Main; and the author is given as ‘John Esquemeling, one of the buccaneers who was present at those tragedies’.

Here is an extract from Exquemelin’s book. It concerns Captain Morgan’s expedition in 1670 to take the city of Panama (which I’ve chosen simply because it’s about the same day as today - 26 August).

‘Captain Morgan sent two hundred men before the body of his army, to discover the way to Panama, and any ambuscades therein: the path being so narrow, that only ten or twelve persons could march abreast, and often not so many. After ten hours’ march they came to a place called Quebrada Obscura: here, all on a sudden, three or four thousand arrows were shot at them, they not perceiving whence they came, or who shot them: though they presumed it was from a high rocky mountain, from one side to the other, whereon was a grot, capable of but one horse or other beast laded. This multitude of arrows much alarmed the pirates, especially because they could not discover whence they were discharged.

At last, seeing no more arrows, they marched a little farther, and entered a wood: here they perceived some Indians to fly as fast as they could, to take the advantage of another post, thence to observe their march; yet there remained one troop of Indians on the place, resolved to fight and defend themselves, which they did with great courage till their captain fell down wounded; who, though he despaired of life, yet his valour being greater than his strength, would ask no quarter, but, endeavouring to raise himself, with undaunted mind laid hold of his azagayo, or javelin, and struck at one of the pirates; but before he could second the blow, he was shot to death. This was also the fate of many of his companions, who, like good soldiers, lost their lives with their captain, for the defence of their country. The pirates endeavoured to take some of the Indians prisoners, but they being swifter than the pirates, every one escaped, leaving eight pirates dead, and ten wounded: yea, had the Indians been more dextrous in military affairs, they might have defended that passage, and not let one man pass. . .’

No comments: