Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


In the time of Cardinal Richelieu, when the Spaniards and French detested each other, because Ferdinand the Catholic laughed at Louis XII., and Francis I. was taken at the battle of Pavia by an army of Charles V. — while this hatred was so strong that the false author of the political romance, and political piece of tediousness, called the “Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu,” feared not to call the Spaniards “an insatiable nation, who rendered the Indies tributaries of hell”; when, in short, we were leagued in 1635 with Holland against Spain; when France had nothing in America, and the Spaniards covered the seas with their galleys — then buccaneers began to appear. They were at first French adventurers, whose quality was at most that of corsairs.

One of them, named Legrande, a native of Dieppe, associated himself with fifty determined men, and went to tempt fortune in a bark which had not even a cannon. Towards the Isle of Hispaniola (St. Domingo), he perceived a galley strayed from the great Spanish fleet; he approached it as a captain wishing to sell provisions; he mounted, attended by his people; he entered the chamber of the captain, who was playing at cards, threw him down, made him prisoner with his cargo, and returned to Dieppe with his vessel laden with immense riches. This adventure was the signal for forty years’ unheard-of exploits.

French, English, and Dutch buccaneers associated together in the caverns of St. Domingo, of the little islands of St. Christopher and Tortola. They chose a chief for each expedition, which was the first origin of kings. Agriculturists would never have wished for a king; they had no need of one to sow, thrash, and sell corn.

When the buccaneers took a great prize, they bought with it a little vessel and cannon. One happy chance produced twenty others. If they were a hundred in number they were believed to be a thousand; it was difficult to escape them, still more so to follow them. They were birds of prey who established themselves on all sides, and who retired into inaccessible places; sometimes they ravaged from four to five hundred leagues of coast; sometimes they advanced on foot, or horseback, two hundred leagues up the countries. They surprised and pillaged the rich towns of Chagra, Maracaybo, Vera Cruz, Panama, Porto Rico, Campeachy, the island of St. Catherine, and the suburbs of Cartagena.

One of these pirates, named Olonois, penetrated to the gates of Havana, followed by twenty men only. Having afterwards retired into his boat, the governor sent against him a ship of war with soldiers and an executioner. Olonois rendered himself master of the vessel, cut off the heads of the Spanish soldiers, whom he had taken himself, and sent back the executioner to the governor. Such astonishing actions were never performed by the Romans, or by other robbers. The warlike voyage of Admiral Anson round the world is only an agreeable promenade in comparison with the passage of the buccaneers in the South Sea, and with what they endured on terra firma.

Had their policy been equal to their invincible courage, they would have founded a great empire in America. They wanted females; but instead of ravishing and marrying Sabines, like the Romans, they procured them from the brothels of Paris, which sufficed not to produce a second generation.

They were more cruel towards the Spaniards than the Israelites ever were to the Canaanites. A Dutchman is spoken of, named Roc, who put several Spaniards on a spit and caused them to be eaten by his comrades. Their expeditions were tours of thieves, and never campaigns of conquerors; thus, in all the West Indies, they were never called anything but los ladrones. When they surprised and entered the house of a father of a family, they put him to the torture to discover his treasures. That sufficiently proves what we say in the article “Question,” that torture was invented by robbers.

What rendered their exploits useless was, that they lavished in debauches, as foolish as monstrous, all that they acquired by rapine and murder. Finally, there remains nothing more of them than their name, and scarcely that. Such were the buccaneers.

But what people in Europe have not been pirates? The Goths, Alans, Vandals, and Huns, were they anything else? What were Rollo, who established himself in Normandy, and William Fier-a-bras, but the most able pirates? Was not Clovis a pirate, who came from the borders of the Rhine into Gaul?

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01