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Description of the Island of Tortuga: of the fruits and plants there growing: how the French settled there, at two several times, and cast out the Spaniards, first masters thereof. The Author of this book was twice sold in the said Island.
THE Island of Tortuga is situated on the North side of the famous and great island called Hispaniola, near the Continent thereof and in the latitude of twenty degrees and thirty minutes. Its exact extent is threescore leagues about. The Spaniards, who gave name to this island, called it so from the shape of the land, which in some manner resembles a great sea tortoise, called by them tortuga de mar. The country is very mountainous and full of rocks, yet notwithstanding hugely thick of lofty trees that cease not to grow upon the hardest of those. rocks without partaking of a softer soil. Hence it comes that their roots, for the greatest part, are seen all over entangled among the rocks, not unlike the branching of ivy against our walls. That part of this island which stretches towards the North is totally uninhabited. The reason is, first, because it has proved to be very incommodious and unhealthy, and, secondly, for the ruggedness of the coast, that gives no access to the shore, unless among rocks almost inaccessible. For this cause it is populated only on the Southern part, which has only one port that may be esteemed indifferently good. Yet this harbour has two several entries, or channels, which afford passage to ships of seventy guns, the port itself being without danger and capable of receiving a great number of vessels. That part which is inhabited is divided into four other parts, of which the first is called the Low-land, or Low-country. This is the chief of them all, because it contains the aforesaid port. The town is called Cayona, and here live the chief and richest planters of the island. The second part is called the Middle Plantation. Its territory, or soil, is hitherto almost new, as being only known to be good for the culture of tobacco. The third is named Ringot. These places are situated towards the Western part of the island. The fourth, and last, is called The Mountain, in which place were made the first plantations that were cultivated upon this island.
As to the wood that grows on the island, we have already said that the trees are exceedingly tall and pleasing to the sight; whence no man will doubt but they may be applied to several uses with great benefit. Such is the Yellow Saunder, which tree by the inhabitants of this country is called Bois de Chandelle, or in English Candle-wood, because it burns, like a candle, and serves them with light while they use their fishery in the night. Here also grows Lignum Sanctum, by others called Guaiacum, the virtues of which are very well known. The trees likewise that afford Gummi Elemi grow here in great abundance, and in like manner Radix Chinæ, or China Root; yet this is not so good as that which comes from other parts of the Western world. It is very white and soft, and serves for pleasant food to the wild boars when they can find nothing else. This island also is not deficient in Aloes, nor an infinite number of other medicinal herbs, which may please the curiosity of such as are given to their contemplation. Moreover for the building of ships, or any other sort of architecture, here are found, in this spot of Neptune, several sorts of timber very convenient. The fruits, likewise, which here abundantly grow, are nothing inferior, as to their quantity or quality, to what the adjacent islands produce. I shall name only some of the most ordinary and common. Such are magniot,1 potatoes, Acajou apples, yannas,2 bacones, paquayes, carosoles, mamayns,3 ananas and diverse other sorts, which, not to be tedious, I omit to specify. Here grow likewise in huge number those trees called Palmetto, whence is drawn a certain juice which serves the inhabitants instead of wine, and whose leaves cover their houses instead of tiles.
In this island abounds also, with daily increase, the Wild Boar. The Governor has prohibited the hunting of them with dogs. fearing lest, the island being but small, the whole race of those animals in short time should be destroyed. The reason why he thought convenient to preserve those wild beasts was that in case of any invasion of an external enemy the inhabitants might sustain themselves with their food, especially if they were constrained to retire to the woods and mountains. By this means he judged they were enabled to maintain any sudden assault or long persecution. Yet this sort of game is almost impeded by itself, by reason of the many rocks and precipices, which for the greatest part are covered with little shrubs, very green and thick, whence the huntsmen have ofttimes precipitated themselves, and left us the sad experience and grief of many memorable disasters.
At a certain time of the year huge flocks of Wild Pigeons resort to this Island of Tortuga, at which season the inhabitants feed on them very plentifully, having more than they can consume, and leaving totally to their repose all other sorts of fowl, both wild and tame, to the intent that in absence of the pigeons these may supply their place. But as nothing in the universe, though never so pleasant, can be found but what has something of bitterness joined to it, the very symbol of this truth we see in the aforesaid pigeons. For these, the season being past wherein God has appointed them to afford delicious food to those people, can scarcely be touched with the tongue, they become so extremely lean and bitter even to admiration. The reason of this bitterness is attributed to a certain seed which they eat about that time, as bitter as gall. About the sea shores great multitudes of Crabs4 are everywhere found, belonging both to the land and sea, and both sorts very big. These are good to feed servants and slaves, who find them very pleasing to the palate, yet withal very hurtful to the sight. Besides which symptom, being eaten too often, they also cause great giddiness in the head, with much weakness of the brain, insomuch that very frequently they are deprived of sight for the space of one quarter of an hour.
The French, having in 1625 established themselves in the Isle of St. Christopher, planted there a sort of trees, of which at present there possibly may be greater quantities. With the timber of those trees they made Longboats and Hoys, which they sent thence westward, well manned and victualled, to discover other islands. These, setting sail from St. Christopher, came within sight of the Island of Hispaniola, where at length they arrived with abundance of joy. Having landed, they marched into the country, where they found huge quantities of cattle, such as cows, bulls, horses and wild boars. But finding no great profit in those animals unless they could enclose them, and knowing likewise the island to be pretty well peopled by the Spaniards, they thought it convenient to enterprize upon and seize the Island of Tortuga. This they performed without any difficulty, there being upon the island no more than ten or twelve Spaniards to guard it. These few men let the French come in peaceably and possess the island for the space of six months, without any trouble. In the meanwhile they passed and repassed with their canoes to Hispaniola, whence they transported many people, and at last began to plant the whole Isle of Tortuga. The few Spaniards remaining there, perceiving the French to increase their number daily, began at last to repine at their prosperity and grudge them the possession they had freely given. Hence they gave notice to others of their own nation, their neighbours, who sent several great boats, well armed and manned, to dispossess the French of that island. This expedition succeeded according to their desires. For the new possessors, seeing the great number of Spaniards that came against them, fled with all they had to the woods; and hence by night they wafted over with canoes to the Isle of Hispaniola. This they more easily performed having no women or children with them, nor any great substance to carry away. Here they also retired into the woods, both to seek themselves food, and thence with secrecy to give intelligence to others of their own faction; judging for certain that w:thin a little while they should be in a capacity to hinder the Spaniards from fortifying in Tortuga.
Meanwhile the Spaniards of the greater island ceased not to seek after their new guests, the French, with intent to root them out of the woods, if possible, or cause them to perish with hunger. But this their design soon failed, having found that the French were masters both of good guns, powder and bullets. Here, therefore, the fugitives waited for a certain opportunity, wherein they knew the Spaniards were to come from Tortuga, with arms and great number of men, to join with those of the greater Island for their destruction. When this occasion proffered, they, in the meanwhile deserting the woods where they were, returned to Tortuga, and dispossessed the small number of Spaniards that remained at home. Having so done, they fortified themselves as best they could, thereby to prevent the return of the Spaniards, in case they should attempt it. Moreover, they sent immediately to the Governor of St. Christopher, in 1630, craving his aid and relief, and demanding of him to send them a Governor, the better to be united among themselves and strengthened on all occasions. The Governor of St. Christopher received their petition with expressions of much satisfaction, and without any delay sent to them Monsieur le Passeur in quality of a Governor, together with a ship full of men and all other things necessary both for their establishment and defence. No sooner had they received this recruit than the Governor commanded a fortress to be built upon the top of a high rock, whence he could hinder the access of any ships or other vessels that should design to enter the port. To this fort no other access could be had than by almost climbing through a very narrow passage, that was capable only of receiving two persons at once, and those not without difficulty. In the middle of this rock was a great cavity, which now serves for a storehouse; and, besides, here was great convenience for raising a battery. The fort being finished, the Governor commanded two guns to be mounted, which could not be performed without huge toil and labour, as also a house to be built in the fort; and, afterwards, the narrow way that led to the said fort to be broken and demolished, leaving no other ascent thereto than by a ladder. Within the fort a plentiful fountain of fresh water gushes out, which perpetually runs with a pure and crystalline stream sufficient to refresh a garrison of a thousand men. Being possessed of these conveniences, and the security these things might promise, the French began to people the island, and each of them to seek his living, some by the exercise of hunting, others by planting tobacco, and others by cruising and robbing upon the coasts of the Spanish Islands — which trade is continued by them to this day.
The Spaniards, notwithstanding, could not behold but with jealous eyes the daily increase of the French in Tortuga, fearing lest in time they might by them be dispossessed also of Hispaniola. Thus taking an opportunity, when many of the French were abroad at sea, and others employed in hunting, with eight hundred men in several canoes, they landed again in Tortuga, almost without being perceived by the French. But finding that the Governor had cut down many trees, for the better discovery of an enemy in case of any assault, also that nothing of consequence could be done without great guns, they consulted about the fittest place for raising a battery. This place was soon concluded to be the top of a mountain which was in sight, seeing that thence alone they could level their guns at the fort, which now lay open to them, since the cutting down of the trees by the new possessors. Hence they resolved to open a way for carriage of some pieces of ordnance to the top. This mountain is somewhat high, and the upper part plain, whence the whole island may be viewed. The sides thereof are very rugged by reason of a huge number of inaccessible rocks surrounding it everywhere; so that the ascent was very difficult, and would always have been the same, had not the Spaniards undergone the immense labour and toil of making the way aforementioned, as I shall now relate.
The Spaniards had in their company many slaves, and Indians, labouring men, whom they call Matates, or, in English, half-yellow men. To these they gave orders to dig a way through the rocks with iron tools. This they performed with the greatest speed imaginable. And through this way, by the help of many ropes and pulleys, they at last made shift to get up two sole cannon pieces, wherewith they made a battery, and intended next day to batter the fort. Meanwhile the French were not ignorant of these designs, but rather prepared themselves for a defence (while the Spaniards were busied about the battery), sending notice everywhere to their companions requiring their help. Thus the hunters of the island all joined together, and with them all the pirates who were not already too far from home. These landed by night at Tortuga, lest they should be seen by the Spaniards. And under the same obscurity of the night, they all together by a back way climbed up the mountain where the Spaniards were posted; which they more easily could perform as being acquainted with those rocks. They came thither at the very instant that the Spaniards, who were above, were preparing to shoot at the fort, not knowing in the least of their coming. Here they set upon them, at their backs, with such fury as forced the greatest part to precipitate themselves from the top to the bottom, and clash their bodies in pieces. Few or none escaped this attack, for if any remained alive they were all put to the sword, without giving quarter to the meanest. Some Spaniards still kept the bottom of the mountain, but hearing the shrieks and cries of them that were killed, and believing some tragical revolution to be above, fled immediately towards the sea, despairing, through this accident, to ever regain the Isle of Tortuga.
The Governors of this island always behaved themselves as proprietors and absolute lords thereof until the year 1664; at which time the West India Company of France took possession of it, and sent thither for their Governor, Monsieur Ogeron. These planted the colony for themselves, by the means of their factors and servants, thinking to drive some considerable trade thence with the Spaniards, even as the Hollanders do from Curacoa. But this design did not answer their expectation. For with other nations they could drive no trade, by reason they could not establish any secure commerce from the beginning with their own. Forasmuch as at the first institution of this Company in France, they made an agreement with the pirates, hunters and planters, first possessors of Tortuga, that these should buy all their necessaries from the said Company, taking them upon trust. And although this agreement was put in execution, yet the factors of the Company soon after found that they could not recover either monies or returns from those people. Insomuch as they were constrained to bring some armed men into the island, in behalf of the Company, to get in some of their payments. But neither this endeavour nor any other could prevail towards settling a secure trade with those of the island. And hereupon the Company recalled their factors, giving them orders to sell all that was their own in the said plantation, both the servants belonging to the Company (which were sold, some for twenty, others for thirty, pieces of eight), as also all other merchandizes and properties which they had there. With this resolution all their designs fell to the ground.
In this occasion I was also sold, as being a servant under the said Company, in whose service I came out of France. But my fortune was very bad, for I fell into the hands of the most cruel tyrant and perfidious man that ever was born of woman, who was then Governor, or rather Lieutenant General, of that island. This man treated me with all the hard usages imaginable, even with that of hunger, with which I thought I should have perished inevitably. Withal he was willing to let me buy my freedom and liberty, but not under the rate of three hundred pieces of eight, I not being master of one, at that time, in the whole world. At last through the manifold miseries I endured, as also affliction of mind, I was thrown into a dangerous fit of sickness. This misfortune, being added to the rest of my calamities, was the cause of my happiness. For my wicked master, seeing my condition, began to fear lest he should lose his monies with my life. Hereupon he sold me the second time to a surgeon for the price of seventy pieces of eight. Being in the hands of this second master, I began soon after to recover my health through the good usage I received from him, as being much more humane and civil than that of my first patron. He gave me both clothes and very good food, and after I had served him but one year he offered me my liberty, with only this condition, that I should pay him one hundred pieces of eight when I was in a capacity of wealth to do so. Which kind proposal of his I could not choose but accept with infinite joy and gratitude of mind.
Being now at liberty, though like unto Adam when he was first created by the hands of his Maker — that is, naked and destitute of all human necessaries, nor knowing how to get my living — I determined to enter into the wicked order of the Pirates, or Robbers at Sea. Into this Society I was received with common consent both of the superior and vulgar sort, and among them I continued until the year 1672. Having assisted...them in all their designs and attempts, and served them in many notable exploits, of which hereafter I shall give the reader a true account, I returned to my own native country. But....before I begin to relate the things above-mentioned, I shall say something, for the satisfaction of such as are curious, of the Island Hispaniola, which lies towards the Western parts of America, as also give my reader a brief description thereof, according to my slender ability and experience.
1 Probably the mango. There is, however, a local term, "manihot," applied to cassava.
2 Probably the yam.
3 The mammee apple.
4 Land-crabs are abundant in the West Indies. The violet land-crab (Gccarcinus ruricola), living in communities, burrowing and travelling great distances, is the principal variety — it is a great delicacy.