“Pirates and blue water took hold of me in childhood, and show no sign of letting go fifty years later. It started with tuppenny bloods and boys’ annuals, and continued through those splendid Hollywood epics of the 30s and 40s and the works of the great historical novelists (Sabatini was my hero then, and still is) to the original sources, among them the memoirs of buccaneers themselves.” — George Macdonald Fraser, afterword to his novel “The Pyrates”, which lists Exquemelin among his influences
“He [Exquemelin] writeth not by hearsay, but was an eye-witness, as he somewhere telleth you, unto all and every one of the bold and hazardous attempts which he relateth. And these he delivereth with such candour of stile, such ingenuity of mind, such plainness of words, such conciseness of periods, so much devested of Rhetorical Hyperboles, or the least flourishes of Eloquence, so hugely void of Passions or national Reflections, as that he strongly perswadeth all-along to the credit of what he saith; yea, raiseth the mind of the Reader to believe these things far greater than what he hath said; and having read him, leaveth onely this scruple or concern behind, that you can read him no longer.” — From “The Translator to the Reader,” preface to this edition
FIRST EDITION IN ENGLISH OF ALEXANDER EXQUEMELIN’S “BUCANIERS OF AMERICA” (1684), AN IMPORTANT SOURCE FOR HISTORIANS OF PIRACY AND A MAJOR INFLUENCE ON OVER THREE CENTURIES OF PIRATE FICTION.
From Long John Silver, Captain Hook, and Captain Blood to the Dread Pirate Roberts and Jack Sparrow, pirates and piracy have had an outsized influence on the public imagination. And the plot, characters, settings, themes, costumes, and stage dressing used in the novels, plays, and movies that have created and fed that imagination are in large part derived, directly or indirectly, from the work offered here — a work that is also regarded by historians, although not uncritically, as an important sourcebook for the field now known as Atlantic history. Rafael Sabatini — the author of Captain Blood and The Black Swan — acknowledged his debt to Exquemelin; and George Macdonald Fraser (quoted above) listed Exquemelin as one of the influences for his great comic novel “The Pyrates.” Although less scholarly or less diligent authors — as well as screenwriters and costume artists and set designers — may have received their doses of Exquemelin at second- or third-hand, it is indisputable that his influence strongly permeates the genre even today.
“The most vivid account of the activities of the buccaneers is contained in a remarkable book by Alexander Exquemelin entitled The Bucaniers of America... Exquemelin’s book is so packed with detail about the lives and customs of the buccaneers that it is not surprising that it proved popular” (David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates). The frequent reprints of this work in the late seventeenth century attest to its influence and popularity. “The original 1678 publication in Dutch was entitled De americaensche Zed Roovers. It was followed by a German translation in 1679 entitled Der Americanische See-Raüber, a Spanish translation in 1682, Piratas de la America, two English translations in 1684 entitled Bucaniers of America and The History of the Bucaniers [the first of which is offered here], and a French translation in 1686 entitled Histoire des Aventuriers” (Jason M. Payton, “Alexander Oliver Exquemelin’s ‘The Buccaneers of America’ and the Disenchantment of Imperial History”).
It is, of course, the English-language editions, starting from the one offered here, that have left their mark on the Anglo-American literature, drama, and cinema of piracy. Interestingly, the first two English editions were the subject of a libel trial brought by Henry Morgan, “a Welshman whose exploits on the Spanish Main became legendary. Whether Morgan was a pirate, a corsair, or a privateer is a matter of debate.” “When the English edition of Exquemelin’s book was printed in London by two publishers, Morgan was sent copies and decided to sue both publishers for libel... The matter was settled out of court. Subsequent editions were amended and Morgan received £200 in damages in the King’s Bench Court against each of the publishers” (Cordingly).
On Alexander Oliver Exquemelin:
“While our knowledge of Exquemelin’s life is almost entirely limited to what he tells us in the narrative itself, the autobiographical narrative contained therein is gripping for its commentary on life at the edge of empire. Exquemelin left Europe for the Caribbean in 1666 as an indentured servant of the French West India Company, likely hoping to establish himself as a colonial planter or trader upon the expiration of his term. The collapse of the company ended those hopes and sent Exquemelin into the hands of a number of abusive pirate masters before his was able to purchase his freedom in 1670. Once he had gained his freedom, Exquemelin joined the buccaneer settlement at Tortuga, where he enlisted as a barber-surgeon and accompanied the buccaneers on numerous raids from 1670-1674” (Payton). It is this first-hand knowledge that lends authority and color to Exquemelin’s narrative. As stated by the (unnamed) translator of the 1684 edition, “[h]e writeth not by hearsay, but was an eye-witness … unto all and every one of the bold and hazardous attempts which he relateth.” Well, perhaps not “all and every one,” as the verdict in the Morgan libel trial suggests; and some historians point to his occasional mistakes of date and place, and, perhaps, “his penchant for telling ‘tall stories’ about the buccaneers’ feats of daring in battle” (Payton).
On the work’s influence:
It is not surprising that Exquemelin’s tales provided romance novelists with such a rich source of character, incident, setting, and theme; and that those novels garnered such a huge and enthusiastic audience. “At least in the beginning, the life of piracy was liberating: like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Exquemelin [in taking on the buccaneer’s life] was stripped bare of all encumbrances and so, in having nothing, had everything. Exquemelin offers numerous examples of the ways in which buccaneer culture rebelled against the oppressive politics of the state... Captains were chosen by the community and were forced to share the material circumstances of their crew: the captain shared the crew’s fare, was paid according to the scale they prescribed, and was bound to cruise where, and only where, the crew had agreed to go... The form of buccaneer society was a radical departure from the practices of the state. So too was the character of its operations. Exquemelin notes that the buccaneers frequently traveled in bands far smaller than the number of their enemies, a practice that provided them ample opportunity for demonstrate their martial-heroic spirit... The buccaneers stood as modern incarnations of the medieval knight-errant, rebelling against the political and economic form of the modern state and, for their constituency, harkening back to a utopian golden age populated by heroes, not bureaucrats, by free individuals, not bound subjects” (Payton). Exhibited in a setting of tropical isles or on ships at sea, enlivened by the extravagant idiosyncrasies of many pirate captains, what better themes can there be for romance literature — particularly when set against the death and cruelty that Exquemelin also describes.
Provenance: With beautiful engraved armorial bookplate of William Arthur (William Cavendish-Bentinck), Sixth Duke of Portland (1857-1943), showing his coat-of-arms and motto “Craignez Honte” (Fear Dishonor) on front pastedown. Also, with bookplate of the prestigious library of Viscount Mersey, Bignor Park.
Three parts in one volume. Complete with nine engraved plates (three folding, including folding map of Panama); one allegorical half-page text engraving and two small text woodcuts in Part III.
Note: A “Part IV”, a different work consisting of the journal of Basil Ringrose, was issued separately (and later).
London: William Crooke at the Green Dragon, 1684. Quarto (7.0x9.25 in; 178x235mm), contemporary full calf rebacked with most of original spine laid down. Shelving numbers in white at base of spine. Corners bumped, calf with general light wear; dampstaining in the gutter of "To the Reader" (not affecting text); otherwise text extremely clean. A very handsome copy in contemporary calf, with strong provenance.
Price: $9,000 .