François l'Olonnais

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François l'Olonnais
An illustration of François l'Olonnais from a 1684 edition of The History of the Bucaneers of America.
Nickname Flail of the Spanish
Type Buccaneer
Born c. 1635
Place of birth Les Sables-d'Olonne
Died c. 1668
Place of death Darién Province
Allegiance None
Years active c. 1660–c. 1668
Rank Captain
Base of operations Caribbean

Jean-David Nau (pronounced: [ʒɑ̃ david no]) (c. 1635 – c. 1668), better known as François l'Olonnais (pronounced: [fʁɑ̃swa lolɔnɛ]), was a French pirate, active in the Caribbean during the 1660s. In his 1684 account The History of the Buccaneers of America, Alexandre Exquemelin notes l'Olonnais' place of birth as les Sables-d'Olonne.

Early life[edit]

L'Olonnais first arrived in the Caribbean as an indentured servant during the 1650s. By 1660, his servitude was complete and he began to wander the various islands, before finally arriving in Saint-Domingue and becoming a buccaneer, preying on shipping from the Spanish West Indies and Spanish Main.

A year or two (dates regarding l'Olonnais are unclear) into his piratical career, l'Olonnais was shipwrecked near Campeche, in Mexico. A party of Spanish soldiers attacked l'Olonnais and his crew, killing almost the entire party. L'Olonnais himself survived by covering himself in the blood of others and hiding amongst the dead. After the Spanish departed, l'Olonnais, with the assistance of some slaves, escaped and made his way to Tortuga. A short time later, he and his crew held a town hostage, demanding a ransom from its Spanish rulers. The governor of Havana[who?] sent a ship to kill l'Olonnais' party, but l'Olonnais captured and beheaded the entire raiding crew save one, whom he spared so that a message could be delivered to Havana: "I shall never henceforward give quarter to any Spaniard whatsoever."

The sacking of Maracaibo[edit]

In 1667, l'Olonnais sailed from Tortuga with a fleet of eight ships and a crew of six hundred pirates to sack Maracaibo. En route, l'Olonnais crossed paths with a Spanish treasure ship, which he captured, along with its rich cargo of cocoa beans, gemstones and more than 260,000 Spanish dollars.

At the time, the entrance to Lake Maracaibo (and thus the city itself) was defended by the fort of San Carlos de la Barra with sixteen guns, which was thought to be impregnable. L'Olonnais approached it from its undefended landward side and took it in few hours. He then proceeded to pillage the city, but found that most of the residents had fled and that their gold had been hidden. L'Olonnais' men tracked down the residents and tortured them until they revealed the location of their possessions. They also seized the fort's cannon and demolished most of the town's defence walls to ensure that a hasty retreat was possible.

L'Olonnais himself was an expert torturer, and his techniques included slicing portions of flesh off the victim with a sword, burning them alive, or "woolding", which involved tying knotted rope around the victim's head until their eyes were forced out.

Over the following two months, l'Olonnais and his men raped, pillaged and eventually burned much of Maracaibo before moving to Gibraltar, on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo. Despite being outnumbered, the pirates slaughtered 500 soldiers of Gibraltar's garrison and held the city for ransom. Despite the payment of the ransom (20,000 pieces of eight and five hundred cattle), l'Olonnais continued to ransack the city, acquiring a total of 260,000 pieces of eight, gems, silverware, silks as well as a number of slaves. The damage l'Olonnais inflicted upon Gibraltar was so great that the city, formerly a major centre for the exportation of cacao, nearly ceased to exist by 1680.

Word of his attack on Maracaibo and Gibraltar reached Tortuga, and l'Olonnais earned a reputation for his ferocity and cruelty and he was given the nickname "Bane of the Spanish" (French: Fléau des Espagnols). Seven hundred pirates enlisted with him when he mounted his next expedition, this time to the Central American mainland, later that year. After pillaging Puerto Cabello, l'Olonnais was ambushed by a large force of Spanish soldiers en route to San Pedro. Only narrowly escaping with his life, l'Olonnais captured two Spaniards. Exquemelin wrote:

" He drew his cutlass, and with it cut open the breast of one of those poor Spanish, and pulling out his heart with his sacrilegious hands, began to bite and gnaw it with his teeth, like a ravenous wolf, saying to the rest: I will serve you all alike, if you show me not another way".

Horrified, the surviving Spaniard showed l'Olonnais a clear route. However, l'Olonnais and the few men still surviving were repelled, and retreated back to their ship. They ran aground on a shoal on the coast of Darien, the province of Panama. Unable to dislodge their craft, they headed inland to find food, but were captured by the Kuna tribe in Darién. He was eaten by the natives. Exquemelin wrote that the natives:

"...tore him in pieces alive, throwing his body limb by limb into the fire and his ashes into the air; to the intent no trace nor memory might remain of such an infamous, inhuman creature".



  • Exquemelin, Alexander. The History of the Bucaniers of America, 1684.
  • Talty, Stephan. Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign, 2007.

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