French sea rovers are the first to singe the Spanish beard in the New World and have no intention of letting up. Their adventurers show up on Tortuga, an island off the north coast of Hispaniola, early in the seventeenth century. French hunters of cattle and swine soon come to be known as boucaniers. They are quickly allied with French sea rovers, who are soon to be known as flibustiers. These allies begin with small forays against the Spanish, first using dugout canoes and piraguas, then larger vessels a bit later. Like the English, the French in the Caribbean and on Saint-Domingue have come to rely on the flibustiers and boucaniers for defense. Although France at times agrees to reign in its Caribbean sea rovers, seldom does it stop supporting their plundering, whether by outright commission or a “wink of the eye.”
French Caribbean Militia
These troops range from well-equipped companies manned by former buccaneers, free blacks, or stout planters to poorly-equipped ones composed of indentured servants, poor workers, and — at times — slaves. French Caribbean militia defends against enemy attack in time of war and against Spanish raids in time of peace. Ideally, the militia is also composed of buccaneers themselves. But all too often they are absent, seeking Spanish plunder. The best militia companies are armed buccaneer-fashion, with long-barreled buccaneer guns, cartouche boxes, a cutlass or machete, a pistol or two, and, by the late seventeenth century, a plug bayonet. At the opposite end, some poor militia companies may have few firearms, with many of its barefoot militiamen armed only with half-pikes. Like most colonial militias, the French Caribbean militia has its victories and defeats. Companies of planters and former buccaneers counter-attack successfully against a Spanish raid on Petit Goave in 1687 but often perform poorly against Spanish and Anglo-Spanish expeditions during King William’s War. Many of their officers are former buccaneers and, occasionally, are active ones.
These adventurers are easily identified by their panache and silhouettes! They are unmistakable: the flibustiers with their plumes and sashes, their indigo-blue sackcloth coats, their monster-headed cutlasses, and fusils boucaniers; the boucaniers with their bloody clothes, rude pig hock shoes, and fusils boucaniers; and the marins with their sashes, neckcloths, and rolling gaits. Like their English counterparts, these Gallic buccaneers are men of many nations, races, and ethnicities — even if predominantly French. Many of them are Huguenots, not Catholics, but even the latter will rob a Spanish church, yet save a bit of its plunder to give to the poor and to the small churches of Saint-Domingue. A fair portion of their most famous captains are Dutch, many of whom are as fond of gasconades and fanfaronades as are the colorful French themselves. They are expert shots, most of them, and as comfortable boarding a ship in action as they are storming a Spanish castle ashore. Their favored tactic at sea is boarding, and it is much the same ashore: attack with musketry, run up under the enemy’s walls, lob grenades over the walls…then enter and let the close combat begin!
Chasseurs, or to use their true French Caribbean name, Boucaniers, are the famous French hunters of cattle and swine — cattle for hides and tallow, pigs for their flesh to be smoked into boucan — on Saint-Domingue and elsewhere in the French West Indies. These expert shots have long been associated with the French and English buccaneers, and in their early days often made their own short raids and ship attacks from canoes. Many buccaneers have served in their ranks, often as engages (indentured servants). Although there are at most a few hundred of these hunters, and seldom anywhere near this many serving with the buccaneers, their hunting and shooting ability is a significant addition to buccaneer fighting strength and capability. Whether by provisioning French buccaneer expeditions or adding accurate firepower to French crews, they are an integral part of Caribbean sea-roving. In fact, so famous are they that the English buccaneers adopted their name for their own. When hunting, the boucaniers usually live in small groups far afield with informal leadership; they are largely independent men. Facing Spanish attacks, especially by mounted lanceros known as the Cinquantaine (the “Fifty”), the boucaniers learned early on how to load and fire quickly—and more importantly, accurately. They know the value of keeping up a constant, accurate volume of shot in order to prevent Spanish attackers from breaking into their midst and engaging at close quarters.
French Royal Navy
The French Royal Navy, like its counterparts from neighboring European countries sailing about the Caribbean, is a significant presence during wartime, primarily as part of temporary fleet deployments to the region. French frigate captains will occasionally join with French buccaneers for raids against the Spanish or other enemy, but only in times of war. The Marquis de Maintenon, commanding the frigate La Sorcière, led seven to eight hundred flibustiers against Margarita and Trinidad in 1678, for example, but to little profit. French navy captains and crews are as capable and willing to fight as their English and Dutch counterparts. French frigates on station in the Caribbean are responsible for pirate hunting, occasional escort and convoy duty, and diplomacy. But real defense of the colonies lies with the French buccaneers and local militias. The French navy generally makes little impact in the Caribbean except as part of fleet actions in time of war. On occasion, French frigates are sent to various colonies on diplomatic missions, to ferry new governors, and to conduct surveys.
Canadian Militia (1627-1713) &
French Canadian Privateers (1686-1713)
These redoubtable fighting men range from conventional militia to Coureurs de Bois (woods runners or woodsmen) famous for their frontier skills. The former are armed, equipped, and trained the same as most colonial militia. Their ability in combat depends much on how well-armed they are, how often they train, and on the experience and courage of their commanders. Although flintlock fusils are the preferred weapon for warfare in the New World, some matchlock muskets remain in militia inventories as well. Arguably the most effective of Canadian militia are the Coureurs de Bois. Skilled at hunting, stealth, long-range travel afoot and by canoe, and irregular warfare, these woodsmen are often found allied with Native Americans. In fact, if there is a single characteristic that exemplifies Canadian militia Forces, it is the irregular combat conducted by the French and their Native American allies against the English to the south. The Coureurs de Bois is the Canadian equivalent of the Caribbean Boucaniers, and, if slightly less famous, are equally able at their trade and equally fierce in battle.
French Expeditionary Forces
In times of war, France often sends expeditionary Forces to the Caribbean. Invariably centered on a French fleet, the Forces may variously combine ships of the French navy, flibustier vessels, attached regular infantry, and local militia companies. The combination of French navy and French buccaneers is common: a large number of buccaneers accompanied the Comte d’Estrées and his fleet for an attack on Curaçao in 1678, for example. The fleet, due to its admiral’s relative lack of naval experience, ran aground near the Isle of Aves and the remaining buccaneers repaired their vessels to set sail with the Sieur de Grammont as their admiral and sacked Maracaibo. The most famous of French expeditionary Forces was commanded by the Baron de Pointis against Cartagena de Indias in 1697. Although powerful, the fleet was hardly a match made in sea-roving heaven. It was composed of French men-of-war, seamen, and soldiers on loan from the French crown as well as attached French buccaneers and militia. In particular, it showcased the difficulties of using combined Forces in the Caribbean. At the start, the buccaneers disagreed with the proposed shares and refused to sail. Promised a greater share, the rovers believed they were being cheated of their fair share after the sack of the rich city. When de Pointis and his fleet slipped away with most of the treasure by night, the buccaneers extorted even more plunder from the victims of the attack.