Book Review:

The Buccaneers of America

Author: Alexander O. Exquemelin
Length: 231 pages
Publisher: Dover Publications (February 26, 2000)
Language: English
ISBN: 048640966X
Rating: Three Stars! 3/5 Stars


Little is known of Exquemelin himself. He embarked from Le Havre in France in 1666 to the Americas where he was indentured to several different masters. Eventually, he gained his freedom and became a privateer (a government sanctioned pirate) for France. By 1672, he abandoned his life as a privateer and went on several merchant expeditions to the Americas with both the Dutch and Spanish fleets, and by 1678, he had returned to Amsterdam where his famous book The History of the Bucaniers. . . was first published by Jan Ter Hoorn. Exquemelin himself continued to sail on several different voyages, and eventually departed for the Americas with a French ship in 1699, the last existing record of his activities. His book, however, was enormously popular. It went through many editions in Dutch, French, German, Spanish, and eventually English in 1684. Differing editions of the book differ markedly. Presumably, it was based on the experiences of Exquemelin himself between about 1669 and 1672. Yet, publishers often added chapters and stories to make the book more exciting, so it becomes difficult for readers to separate out the fact of Exquemelin's book from the fiction. In fact, Sir Henry Morgan (privateer and eventually governor of Jamaica) prosecuted and eventually won a case against Crooke and Malthus (the publishers of the English edition) over this precise issue. Morgan disagreed with many of the accounts (mostly the ones in which he was involved), and demanded that Crooke and Malthus correct the errors.

More important than the truth of Exquemelin's account though, is the popularity of his tales. Between 1660 and 1720, pirates and privateers flourished in the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish, French, and the English all had colonies in the region and the Caribbean islands were part of a major trade route. Merchant vessels carrying agricultural goods and Spanish treasure galleons carrying gold from the mines of Mexico and Peru traveled through the region delivering the riches of the new world to the rulers of the old world. Since these countries were often at war, these merchant ships made a tempting target for financing wars in Europe. Therefore, European powers would often commission privateers to raid enemy vessels. Yet, when these wars were completed, the governments decommissioned the ships, and the sailors, who had been used to heavy profits from their expeditions, suddenly had no employment. Thus, many of these sailors continued to seek profits and turned to piracy. In many ways, Exquemelin's book reflects the reality of the life of the people of the Caribbean, an area of tremendous wealth, caught between three warring powers. Yet, Exquemelin went a step further and romanticized the life of these privateers and pirates and made them out to be swashbuckling heroes. His book was so popular that other authors soon followed with similar books about the idealized lifestyle of pirates, and their romantic image was born. This image has remained even to the current century spawning further books by Robert Louis Stevenson, movies starring Errol Flynn and rides at Disney amusement parks, all beginning with a book that produced an entire literary genre of heroic seafaring outlaws leading exciting lives in exotic places

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