Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE FRENCH ISLANDS, AND THE BUCCANEERS, OR FREEBOOTERS. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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THE FRENCH ISLANDS, AND THE BUCCANEERS, OR FREEBOOTERS. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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THE FRENCH ISLANDS, AND THE BUCCANEERS, OR FREEBOOTERS.
The most important possessions that the French have acquired at different times, are, one–half of the island of San Domingo, the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and some of the Lesser Antilles; which is not the two–hundredth part of what the Spaniards have got by their conquests; but these have, however, turned out to great advantage.
San Domingo is that very island Hispaniola—by the natives called Haiti—which was discovered by Columbus, and depopulated by the Spaniards; the French have not been able to find on that part of the island which they inhabit, the gold and silver formerly found there; this may happen either from metals requiring a long succession of ages to be formed, or, what seems more probable, that there is only a certain quantity contained in the bowels of the earth, and that a mine, when once exhausted, is never recruited; and indeed, when we consider that gold and silver are not mixed metals, it is difficult to say how they can be reproduced. There are still mines of these metals in that part of the country which is under the dominion of the Spaniards; but as the expense exceeds the profits, they have left off working them.
It was to the desperate boldness of a new people, formed by hazard out of English, Bretons, and Normans, that the French are indebted for sharing any part of this island with the Spaniards. These people, who were called buccaneers, or freebooters, had nearly the same origin and association as the ancient Romans; but their courage was more impetuous and terrible. Figure to yourself a company of tigers endowed with some portion of human reason, and you will then have a true idea of these buccaneers. Their history is as follows:
It happened, about 1625, that some adventurers from France and England landed at the same time on one of the Caribbeean islands, called St. Christopher by the Spaniards, who always gave the name of some saint to every place they invaded, and butchered the natives in the name of that saint. These newcomers found themselves obliged, notwithstanding the natural antipathy of the two nations, to unite against the Spaniards, who, being masters of all the neighboring islands, as well as of the continent, soon came upon them with a force greatly superior to theirs. The French chief made his escape, and returned to France. The English commander capitulated. The most resolute of both French and English got over to the island of San Domingo by the help of some barks, and fixed their residence in an inaccessible part of that island, surrounded by rocks. There they built some small canoes resembling those of the American Indians, and made themselves masters of the island of Tortuga; whither several Normans went over to join them, as they did in the twelfth century, to make the conquest of Apulia, and that of England in the tenth. These people met with all the vicissitudes of good and bad fortune that must naturally attend a set of lawless adventurers, assembled together from Normandy and England, on the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1655, Cromwell fitted out a fleet which took the Island of Jamaica from the Spaniards. This expedition would not have succeeded but for the assistance of these buccaneers. They cruised upon all nations indiscriminately, and being more taken up with the search after plunder than the care of defending themselves, they suffered the Spaniards to make themselves masters of the Island of Tortuga during one of their cruises. However, they soon recovered it again; and the French ministry were obliged to appoint the person whom they chose governor of the island. They infested all the Gulf of Mexico, and had lurking–places in several of the little islands thereabouts. They assumed the name of “Brothers of the coast.” Stowed in a heap in a pitiful canoe, that a single shot from a great gun, or the least gale of wind would have blown to atoms, they boldly boarded Spanish ships of the largest burden, and frequently made them their own. They knew no other law but that of equally distributing the share of the spoils; no other religion but that of nature; and even from that, they frequently deviated in an abominable manner.
They had it not in their power to steal wives for themselves, as history tells us the companions of Romulus did; but they procured a hundred young women from France: this number, however, was far from being sufficient to keep up a society, which was so numerous. Two buccaneers therefore cast dice for one woman; he that won married her; and the loser had no right to lie with her, unless the other was absent, or employed elsewhere.
These people seemed formed rather to destroy than to found a state. They performed unheard–of exploits, and were guilty of incredible cruelties. One man—named l’Olonois, from the island of Olonne, his birthplace—ventured into the port of Havana with a single canoe, and cut out an armed frigate. Upon examining one of the prisoners on board, the man confessed that this frigate was fitted out purposely to sail in search of him, and, if possible, to take and hang him; adding further, that he himself was to have been his executioner. On hearing this, l’Olonois, without further delay, ordered the fellow to be hanged up, cut off the heads of all the other prisoners with his own hand and drank their blood.
This l’Olonois, and one of his companions named le Basque, marched at the head of five hundred buccaneers, as far as Venezuela, in the bay of Honduras, where they destroyed two towns with fire and sword, and returned loaded with booty. This success enabled them to equip the vessels which had been taken by their canoes, with cannon and all other necessaries, so that they suddenly beheld themselves a maritime power, and on the point of being great conquerors.
Morgan, a native of England, who has left a famous name behind him, put himself at the head of a thousand buccaneers, partly of his own nation, and partly Normans, Bretons, and natives of Saintonge, and Basque, with whom he undertook to get possession of Porto Bello, the magazine of the riches of Spain, a city of great strength, and defended by a number of cannon, and a considerable garrison. Morgan arrived before it without any artillery, scaled the walls of the citadel in spite of the enemy’s fire, and, notwithstanding the most obstinate resistance, made himself master of it. By this successful temerity, he obliged the city to purchase its ransom of him for a million of piastres. Some time afterward, he had the boldness to land on the Isthmus of Panama, in the midst of the Spanish troops; forced his way to the ancient city of Panama, carried off all the treasures lodged there, burned the city to the ground, and returned to Jamaica victorious and enriched. This man, who was only the son of a poor peasant in England, might have erected a kingdom to himself in America; but after all his exploits, he ended his days in prison in London.
The French buccaneers, whose place of retreat was sometimes among the rocks of San Domingo, and at others in the island of Tortuga, fitted out six armed boats, and with about twelve hundred men, attacked Vera Cruz, an undertaking as great as if twelve hundred men from Biscay should come and lay siege to Bordeaux with ten boats. However, they took the place by storm, and brought away five millions in species, and about fifteen hundred slaves. At length, made bold by a multitude of successes of this kind, they determined, French and English, to enter the South Sea, and make themselves masters of Peru. No Frenchman had at that time ever seen the South Sea, and there was no way to get to it but by crossing the mountains of the Isthmus of Panama, or by sailing all along the coast of South America, and passing the Straits of Magellan, to which they were strangers. However, they divided themselves into two parties, and set out at the same time in the two different routes.
Those who crossed the isthmus plundered and destroyed all that came in their way, and at length arrived on the borders of the South Sea, made themselves masters of some barks they found in the harbors, and awaited the arrival of their companions, who were to pass the Straits of Magellan. These latter, who were almost all French, after having undergone adventures as romantic as their enterprise, were not able to get to Peru through the straits, being blown back by tempests, which drove them upon the coast of Africa, where they landed, and plundered all the inhabitants along shore.
In the meantime, those who had made the South Sea across the isthmus, having only open boats to sail in, were pursued by the Spanish flotilla from Peru. How were they to escape? One of their companions, who commanded a kind of canoe with about fifty men aboard, made the best of his way into the Vermillion Sea, and got on shore in California, where he remained four years; he afterward returned through the South Sea; in his passage he took a ship with five hundred thousand piastres on board, passed the Straits of Magellan, and arrived safe at Jamaica with his booty.
The others returned to the isthmus loaded with gold and precious stones. The Spanish troops assembled on all sides, and pursued them. This obliged them to cross the isthmus in its widest part, and to march round about for the space of three hundred leagues; whereas there are not over eighty in a right line, from the place where they were, to that whither they were going. In their journey they were frequently stopped by cataracts, which they were obliged to descend in machines made like a tub. They had to struggle with hunger and thirst, the elements, and their enemies the Spaniards. At length, however, they arrived at the North Sea, with what part of their treasure they had been able to save. Their number was, by this time, decreased to five hundred. The retreat of the ten thousand Greeks will be always more famous in history, but certainly is not to be compared with this.
If these adventurers could have been all united under one chief, they might have formed a formidable state in America; but their enterprises were chiefly confined to doing the Spaniards almost as much hurt as the Spaniards had formerly done to the American natives. Part of them returned to their own countries, to enjoy their riches in peace; others died of the excesses resulting from those riches; and a great many were soon reduced to their original indigence. The governments of France and England ceased to countenance or protect them, when they had no longer any occasion for their assistance; and at present nothing remains of these heroic robbers, but the remembrance of their valor and cruelty.
It is to them that France is indebted for one–half of the island of San Domingo; and it was by their arms that she was maintained in possession of it during the time of their cruises.
In 1757 they reckoned thirty thousand persons in that part of San Domingo belonging to the French, besides one hundred thousand slaves, blacks and mulattoes, who worked in the several plantations of sugar, cocoa, and indigo; and who sacrificed their lives and healths to please those newly–acquired wants and appetites, which were unknown to our forefathers. We send for these negroes to the coast of Guinea, and to the Gold and Ivory coasts. I do not know what the present price may be; but about thirty years ago a good negro could be bought for fifty livres, which is about five times less than what we pay for a fat ox. We tell them with one breath that they are men like us, and that they are redeemed by the blood of a God, who was crucified for them; and the next we set them to work like beasts of burden, and feed them worse. If they attempt to make their escape, we cut off one of their legs, and after having supplied its place with a wooden one, we make them turn a sugar–mill by hand; and yet shall we pretend, after all this, to talk of the law of nations?
The little islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe yield the same commodities as San Domingo. These islands, and the events that have happened in them, are mere points in the history of the universe; but, after all, these countries, though hardly perceptible in a map of the world, produced in France an annual circulation of nearly sixty millions in merchandise. This trade does not enrich a country; far from it, for it is the cause of many shipwrecks, and the loss of a number of lives. Therefore it certainly cannot be looked on as a real good; but as mankind have made new wants for themselves, it prevents the kingdom from purchasing at a dear rate from foreigners, a superfluity that has, by this means, become a necessity.