The true story book/The Return of the French Freebooters

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illustrator: H. J. Ford; translator: May Kendall


THE RETURN OF THE FRENCH FREEBOOTERS[1]


IN January, 1688, the daring band of French pirates who, sometimes alone, sometimes in company with English captains, had been cruising in the South Seas, resolved to return to St. Domingo with all the treasure they had won from the Spaniards. But it was manifest that this return would be a matter of great difficulty. They had not one seaworthy vessel left in which to set out for a long voyage, and, with forces exhausted by the frightful hardships they had gone through in the past years, they had to pass through a country peopled by Spaniards cowardly, indeed, but innumerable, and only longing for revenge on the reckless crew that had plundered so many of their rich ships and towns. Moreover, provisions were scarce among the Spaniards themselves, and it seemed likely that the freebooters, in their passage, would find scant entertainment. But they were determined to risk everything, and having prayed, and sunk their canoes that the Spaniards might make no use of them, they set out on their journey. What followed is thus recounted by one of their party, Raveneau de Lussan:—

The Spaniards, having been warned of our approach, employed every means they could think of for our destruction, burning all the provisions before us, setting fire to the prairies we entered, so that we and our horses were almost stifled, and continually blocking our way with great barricades of trees. About three hundred of them formed themselves into a kind of escort, and morning and evening diverted us with the sound of trumpets, but never dared to show their faces.

A detachment of our men were always set to fire into woods and thickets, to find out if a Spanish ambush were concealed there. On January 9 we reached an opening in the forest where we could see a good way before us, and therefore did not fire. But we had been looking in front for what was really on both sides of us, for in the bushes right and left the Spaniards were crouching, and presently they let fly on us so suddenly that only half the guard had time to fire back, and two of our men were killed on the spot.

On the 10th we found another ambush, where we surprised our


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enemies, who took to flight, abandoning their horses, which became our property.

On the 11th, as we drew near Segovia, we found yet another ambuscade, which we forced to retire, and passed into the town, ready to fight our best—for we thought that here the Spaniards might make a great effort to expel us. But they only discharged their muskets at us now and then from the shelter of the pine-wood above the town, into which they had fled. But we found nothing to eat, for they had burned all the provisions.

On the 13th, having left Segovia, we climbed a hill which looked like a good place to camp, and we saw opposite us, on a mountain slope from which only a narrow valley divided us, twelve to fifteen hundred horses, which for some time we took for cattle pasturing there. Rejoicing in the prospect of good cheer, we sent forty men to make sure, and when they came back they told us that what we had taken for cattle were horses, ready saddled, and that in the same place they had found three intrenchments a pistol shot from each other, which, rising by degrees to about the middle of the mountain slope, entirely barred the way which we meant to travel the next day. These intrenchments commanded the river which ran the length of the valley, into which it was absolutely necessary for us to descend, there being no other way. They saw a man who, having discovered them, threatened them with a bare cutlass.

This grievous news was a bitter disappointment to us, especially the loss of our supposed cows, for we were perishing with hunger. But we had to take courage and find out how to leave this place and without delay, for the Spaniards, who were assembling from all the country round, would fall upon our little troop, which must be overwhelmed, if we waited for them. The means were not easy to find, and perhaps escape would have seemed impossible, except to our reckless band, who had hitherto succeeded all nearly all our exploits. But ten thousand men could not have crossed that guarded valley without being cut off entirely, both by reason of the number of the Spaniards and the position they occupied.

Men alone could have gone round without crossing the valley, but we could find no way round for the horses and baggage. For the country on each side was nothing but a thick forest, without the trace of a path, all precipices and ravines, and choked with a multitude of fallen trees. And even had we found a way of escape through so many obstacles, it was indispensable to fight the Spaniards sooner or later, if, they were ever to let us alone!

There was only one thing to be done to cross these woods, rocks, and mountains, however inaccessible they seemed, and surprise our enemies, taking advantage of the place by coming upon them from above, where they certainly would not expect us. As to our prisoners, horses, and baggage, since through all our march a troop of three hundred Spaniards had been dogging our steps without daring to approach, we would leave eighty men to guard them enough to beat four times as many Spaniards.

At nightfall we set out, leaving our eighty men, with orders to the sentinels to fire and beat the retreat and the diane at the usual times, to make the three hundred Spaniards who lurked near us think that we had not left the camp. If we were successful we would send back messengers with the good news, but if, an hour after the firing ended, none of us returned, they were to escape how they could.

All being arranged, we prayed in a low voice, not to be heard by the Spaniards, and set out by the moonlight, two hundred men of us, through this country of rocks, woods, and frightful precipices, where we went leaping and climbing, our feet seeming to be much less use to us than our hands and knees.

On the 14th, at the break of day, when we had already gained a great height, and were climbing on in profound silence, with the Spanish intrenchments to our left, we saw a sentry party, which, thanks to the fog—always thick in. this country till ten o'clock in the morning—did not discover us. When it had passed we went straight to the place where we had seen it, and we found that there was really a road there. This, when we had halted half an hour to take breath, we followed, guided by the voices of the Spaniards, who were at matins. But we had only gone a few steps when we found two sentinels, very far advanced, all whom we were forced to fire, which warned the Spaniards, who dreamed of nothing less than our coming upon them from above, since they only expected us from below. So those who guarded the intrenchment—about five hundred men—being taken at a disadvantage when they thought they had all the advantage on their side, were so terribly frightened that, when we fell upon them all at once, they vanished from the place in an instant, and escaped into the thick fog.

This unexpected assault so utterly upset their plans that the men in the second intrenchinent all passed into the lowest one, where they prepared to defend themselves. We fought them a whole hour, under cover of the first intrenchment, which we had taken, and which commanded them, being higher up the mountain side. But as they would not yield we fancied our shots must have missed, since the fog hindered us from seeing our foes distinctly, so, resolved to waste no more powder, we went down, and fell right on the spot whence they had been firing. Then we assailed them furiously, and at sight of our weapons close upon them—which hitherto the fog had concealed they left everything, and fled into the road below the intrenchments. Here they fell into their own trap; for, thinking it was the only road we could possibly come by, they had cut down trees and blocked it up, and their way being stopped, we could fire upon them from their intrenchment without once missing aim.

At last, seeing the river in the ravine running down with blood, and tired of pursuing the fugitives, we spared the few remaining Spaniards. After we had chanted the 'Te Deum,' sixty of us went to tell those left in the camp of the victory which Heaven had vouchsafed to us. We found them on the point of giving battle to the three hundred Spaniards, who had already (on finding out their weakness) sent a message to them by an officer to tell them that it was hopeless for them to expect to cross the valley, and to offer terms of peace. To which our men replied that were there as many Spaniards as the blades of grass in the prairie they would not be afraid, but would pass through in spite of them, and go where they liked!

The officer, being just dismissed with this message when we arrived, shrugged his shoulders with astonishment when he saw us safe back again, and mounted on the horses of his comrades of the intrenchnients. He rode off with the news to his troop, whom we presently fired upon, to. rid them altogether from their desire to follow in our wake. Unfortunately for them they had not time to mount their horses, so after a brief conflict, in which a great number of them fell, we let the rest go, though we kept their horses. Then, with our baggage, we joined those of our men who had stayed to guard the intrenchments. In both these combats we had only two men slain and four wounded.

Continuing our journey, we passed one more Spanish intrenchment, where, since the news of our victory had gone before us, we found no resistance. At last, on the sixteenth day of our march, we reached the river which we had been seeking eagerly, by whose means we meant to gain the sea into which it flowed.

At once we entered the woods which are on its banks, and everyone set to work in good earnest to cut down trees, in order to construct piperies, with which to descend the river. The reader may perhaps imagine that these piperies were some kind of comfortable boat to carry us pleasantly along the stream, but they were anything but this. We joined together four or five trunks of a kind of tree with light floating wood, merely stripping off their bark, and binding them, instead of cord, with a climbing plant growing in those forests, and embracing the trees like ivy, and when these structures, each large enough to hold two men (and in appearance something like huge wicker baskets) were completed, vessels and crew were ready.

The safest plan was to stand upright in them, armed with long poles to push them off from the rocks, against which the fierce current every moment threatened to dash them. As it was, they


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sank two or three feet deep in the water, so that we were nearly always immersed up to our waists.

This river rises in the mountains of Segovia, and falls into the sea at Cape Gracia a Dios, after having flowed for a long distance, with frightful rapidity, among an infinite number of huge rocks, and between the most terrible precipices imaginable. We had to pass more than a hundred cataracts great and small, and there were three which the most daring of us could not look at without turning giddy with fear, when we saw and heard the water plunging from such a height into those horrible gulfs. Everything was so fearful that only those who have experienced it can imagine it; as for me, though I shall all my life have my memory full of pictures of the perils of that voyage, it would be impossible for me to give any idea of it which would not be far below the reality.

We let ourselves go with the current, so rapid that often, in spite of our resistance, it bore us into foaming whirlpools, where we were engulfed with our pieces of wood. But happily before the greatest cataracts, and also just beyond them, there was a basin of calm water, which made it possible for us to gain the bank, drawing our piperies after us. Then, taking out of them whatever valuables we had there, we descended with these, leaping from rock to rock till we had reached the foot of the cataract. Then one of us would return and throw the piperies, which we had left behind, down into the flood—and we below caught them as they descended. Sometimes, indeed, we failed to catch them, and had to make new ones.

When we first set out we voyaged all together, that in case of accident we might come to each other's aid. But in three days, being out of all danger of the Spaniards, we began to travel separately, since a piperie dashed against the rocks had often been prevented from freeing itself by other piperies which the current hurled against it. It was arranged for those who descended first, when they came to an especially dangerous rapid, to hoist a little flag at the end of a stick, not to warn those behind of the cataract, since they could hear it nearly a league away, but to mark the side on which they ought to land. This plan saved a number of lives, nevertheless many others were lost.

The bananas which we found on the river bank were almost our only nourishment, and saved us from dying of hunger; for, though there was plenty of game, our powder and weapons were all wet and spoiled, so that we could not hunt.

Some days after we had begun to descend the river, as we were travelling separate, several freebooters who had lost all their spoils in gambling were guilty of most cruel treachery. Having gone in advance, these villains concealed themselves behind some rocks commanding the river, in front of which we all had to pass, and as everyone was looking after himself, and we descended unsuspiciously, at some distance from each other—for the reasons already given—they had time to fix upon and to massacre five Englishmen, who possessed greater shares of booty than the rest of us. They were completely plundered by these assassins, and my companion and I found their dead bodies on the shore. At night, when we were encamped on the river bank, I reported what we had seen, and the story was confirmed both by the absence of the dead Englishmen and of their murderers, who dared not come back to us, and whom we never saw again.

On the 20th of February we found the river much wider, and there were no more cataracts. When we had descended some leagues further it was very fine, and the current was gentle, and seeing that the worst of our perils were over, we dispersed into bands of forty each to make canoes, in which we might safely complete our voyage down the river.

On the 1st of March, by dint of great diligence, having finished four canoes, a hundred and twenty of us embarked, leaving the others, whose canoes were still incomplete, to follow.

On the 9th we reached the mouth of the river in safety, and lived there among the mulattos and negroes who inhabit the coast, till an English boat, touching there, took on board fifty of us, of whom I was one. On the 6th of April, without any other accident, we arrived at our destination, St. Domingo.


Printed by The Darien Press, Edinburgh



  1. 'The return of the French Freebooters from the South Sea, by the mainland, in 1688.' Written by Sieur Raveneau de Lussan, one of the party, taken from his Journal du voyage fait a la Mer du Sud avec les flibustiers de l'Amérique en 1684 et années suivantes. Paris. 1689.