In the long history of piracy, there were probably not that many pirates who were more ruthless than Jean-David Nau, better known as Francois L’Olonnais (1630 – 1669). One of history’s most feared pirates, his reputation for brutality and macabre acts stood out even in an age and within a profession where brutality and the macabre were the norm. He had a particular bone to pick with the Spanish, and his relentless pursuit of that vendetta earned him the nickname “The Flail of the Spaniards”.
Born in dire poverty in France, L’Olonnais was sold by his family into indentured servitude as a child. It was in that capacity that arrived in the Caribbean at age fifteen, to toil away the next ten years of his life on Spanish plantations. The menial work he was put to perform was back-breaking, and the conditions were exceptionally harsh. He endured so much mistreatment and so many humiliations that, by the end of his term of indentured servitude, he had come to greatly hate Spain and all things Spanish.
The recently indentured Jean-David Nau changed his name to Francois L’Olonnais and moved to Tortuga, a French island north of modern Haiti. At the time, Tortuga was a nest of piracy and lawlessness, and it did not take long before he joined its buccaneers. He showed such zeal in his new profession that within a short time, Tortuga’s French governor gave L’Olonnais his own ship, a letter of marque that authorized him to prey on Spanish ships as a privateer, and turned him loose. He set himself apart with a reputation for viciousness and ferocious cruelty in the treatment – or more accurately, mistreatment – of prisoners, especially Spanish ones.
An expert torturer, L’Olonnais got up to some pretty macabre stuff. Among other things, he liked to slice off strips of his victims’ flesh, burn them, or tighten ropes around their skulls until their eyeballs popped out of their sockets. Early in his career, he was shipwrecked off Yucatan. A majority of the crew survived and made to shore, only for most of them to perish soon thereafter when Spanish soldiers found and fell upon them. To survive, L’Olonnais covered himself in blood and viscera, and hid among the corpses. Later, he snuck into a nearby town that was celebrating the deaths of the pirates, and arranged for an escape back to Tortuga.
Francois L’Olonnais resumed his depredations against Spain and the Spaniards, and in 1666 he assembled a fleet of eight ships and 440 pirates to attack Maracaibo in modern Venezuela. En route, he came across and looted a Spanish treasure ship, which yielded 260,000 Spanish dollars, in addition to gemstones and cocoa beans. When he arrived at Maracaibo, L’Olonnais discovered that the citizens had fled. So he tracked them down into the nearby jungles, and tortured them until they revealed where they had hidden their valuables.
He and his men then spent two months engaged in widespread assault, pillage, and murder. They finally put the town to the torch and tore down its fortifications before they left. A year later, L’Olonnais led an even bigger pirate expedition against Central America, only for his men to get ambushed and massacred in Honduras. He was one of the few survivors who managed to escape back to a ship, but it ran aground off the coast of Panama. L’Olonnais disembarked and led his men inland in search of food, only to get captured, killed, and eaten by an indigenous tribe.
King Edmund II, better known as Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016), ruled over England from April 23rd to November 30th, 1016. The son of one of England’s worst kings, the weak and hapless Ethelred the Unready, Edmund turned out to be a vast improvement over his father, and proved himself made of sterner stuff than his predecessor. He earned the nickname “Ironside” because of the staunch resistance that he put up against a massive invasion led by the Danish King Canute.
In 991, Edmund’s father, Ethelred the Unready tried to buy off the Danes who then occupied northern England, and stop their incessant raids into his kingdom. He figured that if he paid them tribute known as the Danegeld, or “Danish gold”, they would back off. Unsurprisingly, rather than get the Danes to back off, the tribute only emboldened them. They upped their demands for more and more gold, and secure in the knowledge that they had little to fear from Ethelred, they continued to raid his realm. Finally, after he bankrupted his kingdom and beggared its people with the high taxes necessary to pay the Danegeld, an exasperated Ethelred resorted to a macabre expedient: a massacre of all Danish settlers in 1002. It made things worse.
King Ethelred the Unready’s massacre of the Danes led to an invasion by the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard. He conquered England in 1013, and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy. However, Sweyn died a year later, at which point Ethelred returned. He and his son Edmund, who played a key role, chased Sweyn’s son, Canute, out of England in 1014. Canute returned with a large Danish army which pillaged much of England, but Edmund mounted a fierce resistance that stymied the Dane. When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund, by now known as “Ironside”, succeeded him on the English throne.
His reign lasted only seven months, and came to a macabre end on November 30th, 1016. That night, Edmund went to the privy to answer a call of nature. Unbeknownst to him, an assassin lay in wait in the cesspit for the royal posterior to show up. When Edmund sat down to do his business, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger, and left the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels as he made his escape. Unfortunately for Edmund Ironside, even if his sides had been made of iron, his bottom was not.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading