We all love stories and movies about pirates. From Peter Pan to Pirates of the Caribbean. Children and adults alike love stories of pirates sailing the high seas, burying treasure, seeking adventure wherever it might be hiding, and launching themselves into thrilling battles. Pirates are often depicted as these rogues of the sea who are impossibly good-looking, eccentric, brilliant, resourceful, bold not to say reckless; the kind of elixir that could make anyone kinda irresistible.
How did pirates, who often committed horrendous acts of savagery become such loveable and idealized characters in the public mind? While pretty much nobody wants to be hanged or marooned, many of us sympathize with the desire to break free of our everyday routines and go off on an adventure, acquiring riches beyond our wildest dream in the process.
There is no doubt that pirate tales capture our imagination- Pirates movies such as the Pirates of the Caribbean have struck a chord with audiences all over the world. It is not hard to see why because the movie blends incredible action with humor and genuine emotional moments by a cast of unforgettable (and morally questionable) characters. Chief among them, of course, is the eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow.
I invite you through this article to step outside the studios of Hollywood and head straight to the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean where we will be sailing through the high seas to meet up with some real-life pirates that became legends.
The 17th-18th Century the Golden Age of piracy
Christopher Columbus discovered America at the end of the 16th century and kickstarted an era of exploration; the discovery of the New World made him and his king famous but also very rich – the land was full of treasure gold, silver, and precious metals. The Spanish sailed West to look for treasures, whilst the Portuguese (not wanting to walk on the Spaniards’ turf) sailed East towards India, which was another one of those land full of spices and riches beyond imagination. Large Spanish and Portuguese ships called galleons began to sail back to Europe loaded with their precious cargo. The journey back home was fraught with danger. The high seas were the favorite playground of a sea of thieves.
What is the difference between a privateer, a corsair, and a buccaneer? Corsairs were pirates who operated in the Mediterranean Sea. Buccaneers lived in the Caribbean and the Pacific Coast of Central America. The name is derived from the French boucan a grill for smoking meat and was first applied to French wild game hunters living in West Hispaniola in the early 17th century. At first, they lived as hunters but later the governors of the Caribbean Islands paid them to attack Spanish treasure ships. Although raids started with official backing the buccaneers gradually became out of control attacking any ship, they thought carried valuable cargo whether it belongs to an enemy country or not. Eventually, the Buccaneers became pirates. Privateers were privately owned ships armed with guns operating in times of war. The Admiralty issued them with Letters of Marque that allowed them to capture merchant vessels without being charged with piracy. All goods and treasures were seized, and a cut was given to the government.
A Letter of Marque was a formal letter of authority allowing private owners of ships to capture enemy merchant ships on behalf of their government. If you were stealing in the name of your government your activities were viewed as heroic and noble but if you were stealing for your own personal account, you were labeled a pirate, a thief, and a vagabond and your punishment (if caught) would be death by hanging.
Corsairs, buccaneers, and privateers found themselves without a job in 1713 when a peace treaty was signed between several nations. The choice for them was (1) work as a sailor on a merchant ship, (2) work for your government or King on a navy ship, or (3) become a pirate. Many chose Option 3 – piracy. Life as a pirate was short, brutal, and spectacular.
Meet Olivier Levasseur, nicknamed, La Buse, the most prolific pirate of all time
Olivier Levasseur, nicknamed La Buse (The Buzzard) made a name for himself as one of the most prolific pirates of all time. He was born in Calais (France) in 1695 and was hanged for piracy in 1730 on Réunion Island (where I live) – A grave with his name on can be found in the Cimetière Marin de St Paul. La Buse is a historical figure and a legend. His life was just like a Hollywood movie, except that it was not pretend, it was the real deal. The mystery and intrigue he generated have not dissipated and he had been the focus of an astounding treasure hunt that began almost 300 years ago.
Levasseur was born into a wealthy family and practiced as an architect before becoming restless and hitting the ocean. He started off as a privateer or corsair for the French Crown in the Caribbean but soon he cut ties with his king and turned towards piracy. After the Peace Treaty, the colonial powers – not wanting to waste their military resources – decided that it was a good time to start a new war – The War on Pirates. The Caribbean was becoming too hot and too full of pirate hunters. La Buse thought that it was time to find a new playground and made his way to the Indian Ocean, where he met with a notorious English pirate named John Taylor. Levasseur met Taylor on Ile Sainte-Marie in Madagascar, an impregnable hideout for pirates. They decided to join forces.
Together they wreaked mayhem on their respective ships navigating the islands off the coast of Africa in search of adventure and loot to steal. On 16 April 1721, in one of the biggest pay-days of the history of piracy, La Buse and Taylor highjacked The Nossa Senhora Do Cabo or the Virgin of The Cape a Portuguese flagship that was mourned in Saint-Denis Harbour on Ile Bourbon (now Réunion). The ship was loaded with gold, jewelry, artworks, and other priceless artifacts.
On board was the Count of Ericeira ViceRoy of Portuguese India and in its hold was 10 years of accumulated treasures, gold, diamonds, jewelry, spices fine clothes, fine woods, and more. After heavy fighting, La Buse & Taylor seized the ship with its spectacular loot that was estimated at more than $1.5 billion maybe more! The Virgin of the Cape was renamed The Victorieux, Levasseur’s powerful new ship.
After taking over the treasure, the pirates quickly fled to their headquarters in Madagascar with the British navy in hot pursuit but to no avail. On that day, Levasseur and Taylor made history, they acquired the biggest loot of all time. The booty was divided between the crew. Each pirate got 42 diamonds and 5000 gold guineas. There were extra shares for the officers. Levasseur kept the rest.
Pirates become famous when they battle and loot, but they become legends when the time comes to bury their treasure. Levasseur buried his treasure in several temporary spots helped by a small crew before moving it to its final spot. The crew who helped bury the treasure in its final spot were the unlucky ones, they knew too much and were executed. No one except La Buse knew the location of the treasure. This treasure is said to be the holy grail of the whole history of piracy. It has never been found. The biggest treasure hunt of all time started 300 years ago and is still ongoing.
La Buse was a rich man. He decided to retire in Madagascar. The King of France offered him clemency if he returns the treasure. He refused. He laid low and enjoyed his retirement for 9 peaceful years until he run out of luck. On a fateful day in 1730, he was caught, sent to Ile Bourbon for a trial, and then sentenced to be hanged for his act of piracy. At his public hanging, he addressed the onlookers gathered around the gallows and said “Find my treasure the one who may understand it.” and threw a cryptogram into the crowd.
The Cryptogram is made of 17 lines of symbols. The British Museum tested the document and concluded that it was a genuine parchment from the 18th century. Levasseur was an intellectual, a Greek and Latin scholar who was versed in masonic symbology. Many scholars, historians, linguists, and treasure hunters tried to decode the cryptogram throwing everything they had at it Greek, Latin, Hebrew, astrology, astronomy and mythology. To no avail. To this day, no one has succeeded in decoding the secret message and it is assumed that the treasure is still buried somewhere on Réunion Island.
For any wannabe treasure hunters out there, be aware that there is no such thing in France as “Finders Keepers Law” that is in effect in England. Any treasure you find will have to be handed out to the authorities. So, chances are, La Buse’s Treasure may well stay buried another 300 years because who on earth will have the time, dedication, and resources to go on a treasure hunt to give it all back to your government if you get lucky?!
Why do we love pirates?
Pirates have been idealized and romanticized more than any other profession thanks to authors and movie makers. Popular literature has idealized and romanticized these figures hovering on the edge of the law. A pirate fits as easily into a hero’s shoes or as a villain, though they often shift from one to another over the course of their story; enemies can become allies; friends can become foes. They are unpredictable and loveable.
One of the authors who helped pirates slipped into popular legends is Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) who published in 1724 a General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates under the pseudonym Captain Charles Johnson. The book was an enormous success and this paved the way for pirates’ stories to become viral.
Another reason why we love pirates despite their ruthless and savage attitude is because they abide by a code of conduct that reads like a script from a utopian movie where everyone has equal say on all matters, a free society with no elected leaders, and where the distribution of labor and profits were made equally.
Life as a pirate was short, brutal, spectacular, and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Not the type of lifestyle that you would want to replicate, but entertaining nonetheless. We love pirates because Pirate Style never goes out of fashion (raise your hand anyone who likes dressing up as a pirate), and they know a thing or two about hiding valuables, whilst creating a 300-year-old mystery that has still not been solved. To be continued…
Anyone would like to have a go at this?!
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