SHEDNOTES 124: A poet on pirates

The Shed congratulates the writer and poet James Fenton on the PEN Pinter Prize he has been awarded, in recognition of great work based on reportage over many years. In honour, The Shed calls up its file on him, which consists of the entry below in a pre-Shed blog, from 2007 …

Get one up on the average Johnny Depp fan by checking out a fascinating series of essays on Real Pirates by James Fenton. Go to

and find Inspirational Rogues and The Mores of Buccaneers and possibly more.

The Guardian in 2006 had Fenton quoting from an old Penguin Classics book called The Buccaneers of America, by a Dutchman called Alexandre Exquemelin, and other chroniclers of the 17th century: particularly George Shevlocke, William Dampier and Daniel Defoe. He also recommended A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson, first printed in 1724.

From Exquemelin, he discovered that pirates got the nickname buccaneers from boucaniers … a Caribbean word for hunters who lived on a kind of smoke-dried meat.

He adds …

* “Exquemelin tells us that the sweet and delicious green fat of the green turtle is so penetrating that ‘when you have eaten nothing but turtle flesh for three or four weeks, your shirt becomes so greasy from sweat you can squeeze the oil out and your limbs are weighed down with it’.”

* “The agreements drawn up by the buccaneers specified the following rates of compensation: for loss of a right arm, 600 pieces of eight or six slaves; for a left arm or a right leg, 500 pieces of eight or five slaves; for a left leg, 400 pieces of eight or four slaves; for an eye or a finger, 100 pieces of eight or one slave.”

* “A document reproduced by Captain Charles Johnson, in his life of Captain Roberts, sets out typical democratic terms under which the buccaneers were prepared to serve on a pirate ship. Every man had a vote and had equal title to fresh provisions and strong liquor. No boys or women were allowed on board ship, and there was to be no gambling at cards or dicing for money … ‘No striking one another on Board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at swords and pistol’.”

* “The penalty for defrauding the company to the value of a dollar, in plate, jewels or money, was marooning … ‘on some desolate or uninhabited cape or island, with a gun, a few shot, a bottle of water, and a bottle of powder, to subsist with, or starve’.”

“Surprising, perhaps, to find that lights and candles were to be put out at eight o’clock at night, and that ‘if any of the crew, after that hour, still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck’.”

Slaves and servants, both black and white, were routinely used and abused, says Fenton. He quotes from The Memoirs of a Buccaneer, by Louis le Golif, which was published in 1954, from a French manuscript discovered in the second world war.

Le Golif had a sex life as colourful as his career, and both started with his first job, as servant to a skin-hunter he described as … “the hairiest man I have ever been near … who stank worse than a dung-soiled ass. And when I say near him, I do not speak figuratively, since I had to submit to the habits and customs of these men, who have no women at all within their reach.”


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