By Thomas Parker (regular contributor)
Everybody loves stories of buccaneers, but few know about the original boucaniers, their relationship with pigs, and their role in seventeenth-century Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti) where, as it turns out, pork was sweeter than sugar.
Today, the word “buccaneer” is a synonym for “pirate,” but there was a distinction to be made in the early colonial days of the French Atlantic. Unlike the flibustiers, their sea-faring brothers, the boucaniers were originally land-going. Instead of the swag of passing ships, the boucaniers hunted the wild boars left behind by earlier generations of explorers that had thrived in the overgrown reaches of Saint-Domingue.
Though the boucaniers pursued pigs, and feral cattle, instead of people, their reputation was tarnished from the outset by their name, which derived from the grilling and smoking technique (boucaner) they inherited from the supposedly cannibalistic Caribbean Indian tribes who were said to use the boucan apparatus for smoking human meats.
The motley origins of the boucaniers further stoked the image. They included ex-slaves, engagés (men who paid their transport to the islands by working without pay for three years), shipwrecked sailors, and misfits who abandoned society for a life as errant as the wild animals they pursued.
Indeed, the boucaniers partially became the pig to capture it, smearing their bodies with pork fat to survive the island’s mosquito population, and sometimes only bettering their dangerous query by climbing trees and shooting from above to escape the charging boars. Men lost in the underbrush, as stories went, quickly turned wild themselves, taking wild pigs and dogs for companions and stomaching nothing other than raw meat as they crashed through the forest.
In Exquemelin’s seventeenth-century account of pirate life, the author painted the boucaniers as dark-skinned with knotted, bristling hair, and sparse clothes dripping with animal blood. He described the men as mulattos of mixed black and white descent, or mestizos, combining white and Indian descent.
Yet, in counterpoint to the redoubtable image of mixed-raced origins and troubling animal-like savagery, the boucaniers were known for the egalitarianism and generosity they maintained amongst themselves, sharing their resources and working together to overcome the challenges of the hunting life, and the Spanish colonizers who attempted to eradicate their population.
Indeed, the real danger to the boucaniers came from the Spanish, who viewed them as interlopers in their colonized space. Through decades of skirmishes, the Spanish did their best to annihilate the boucaniers, chasing them off the trading positions where they sold meat and skins. The boucaniers and their sea-faring coastal brothers, the flibustiers, exacted acts of bloody vengeance, supplementing their lost incomes by attacking villages and pirating Spanish ships.
By the 1660s and 1670s, however, the landscape in Saint-Domingue was changing. The Spanish systematically annihilated the wild animals to cut off the boucanier food supply until the latter were left with two choices: permanently join the flibustiers or become agriculturalists (habitants). The first option was workable for many. As flibustiers, they could continue living a life of adventure, and their years of pig shooting had honed the boucaniers to be unparalleled marksmen, allowing them to decimate the target at sea from afar with their long-barreled guns (fusils à boucanier).
The less dangerous option was to quit life as a boucanier, clear land, and adopt an agrarian way of life by growing indigo, tobacco, and later, sugar. The life of the habitant was billed as more civilized. Indeed, one could hardly dispute that the men transforming from a wild communion with thick overgrowth, ambulatory lifestyles, and feral animals to the sedentary life of cleared spaces and domestic stock seemed more civilized.
And yet, as agricultural industry quickly made Saint-Domingue the most lucrative colony in the world in the century to follow, its labor-thirsty practices brought about a brand of slavery that spilled the blood of hundreds of thousands of African lives. It quickly became exponentially crueler than anything former pig hunters had practiced by a long shot.