Alexandre Exquemelin, Bucaniers of America: Or, a True Account of the Most Remarkable Assaults Committed of Late Years Upon the Coasts of the West-Indies, by the Bucaniers of Jamaica and Tortuga, Both English and French (1678). Reprint, London: William Crooke, 1684.

Even though Bucaniers of America wasn't published in America until the nineteenth century, it circulated around the Atlantic like its subjects, its author, and the images that portrayed the book's action. Alexandre Exquemelin had been a buccaneer himself before he temporarily retired and turned author in Amsterdam in 1678, so he wrote with authority about vivid characters like Bartholomew the Portuguese, Rock the Brazilian, and the exceptionally brutal Francois Lolonois—men who disrupted both Caribbean trade and orderly state and empire building. Translated into German, Spanish, French, and English editions in increasingly larger print runs, the book appeared in early American libraries within twenty years of its original publication.

Exquemelin's book figured America as a site of action and adventure—and the printers who kept new editions on the market made sure to underscore this aspect of the book's appeal. In what was at least the fifteenth edition (1704), a London printer explained in a preface, "Indeed, the wondrous actions, and daring adventures therein related, are such as could not but transport the most stupid minds into an Admiration of them," he stated frankly. Pirates surely failed to exhibit "Justness and Regularity" of Christian men, he acknowledged, or even the "tolerable morals" of ordinary men. Yet they inspired the "greatest Astonishment imaginable." The printer touted the book as fodder for the imagination, a means of transporting oneself to a world of wonders. To enhance the imaginative work of such texts, printers added numerous evocative cuts displaying dynamic scenes of torture, sea battles, and swordplay. These were far from the static illustrations of harbor scenes or portraits of other contemporary books: Bucaniers of America told tales of action in both text and image.

By the 1720s Bucaniers of America was one of several titles available on pirates; enterprising printers even took to compiling omnibus editions that combined Exquemelin's account with those of Charles Johnson, Woodes Rogers, and other writers. Each new volume contained illustrations and tales that built on Exquemelin's original themes and codified the textual and visual repertoire of pirate themes. As a result, stories about pirates appeared in dozens of editions throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, guaranteeing that pirates would be known for the "wondrous actions" and "daring adventures" that took place in the Americas—adventures to be enjoyed vicariously by readers everywhere.

Carolyn Eastman

Carolyn Eastman is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author of A Nation of Speechifiers: Print, Oratory, and the Making of a Gendered American Public, 1780-1830 (forthcoming).

Close window