Raise The Black: Oliver Levasseur

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August 18, 2020
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September 2, 2020

Raise The Black: Oliver Levasseur

This is a preview for a character to be featured in the Blood & Plunder: Raise the Black kickstarter on October 6. you can check out Raise the Black here!

A pirate of numerous nicknames, pseudonyms, flags, mutinies, and myths, Olivier Levasseur was a native of Calais (although one of his prisoners reported that he was Canadian) from a bourgeois family. His career may have started as a French buccaneer (flibustier) as early as 1706, probably as a legitimate privateer. He is reliably reported to have turned pirate near the end of Queen Anne’s War while serving aboard the 50 ton, 4-gun French trader La Postillon near Fort Saint-Louis, Hispaniola. Under the pseudonym Capitaine Chabot, he led ten of the crew in a mutiny and set sail for Martinique where he landed at night and proceeded to recruit as many as thirty more men for his crew.

By the end of 1715 he was known as La Buse de Bordeaux and sailed under one of the many different black flags he came to be known for: four skulls, plus crossbones with white tears. Through 1716, Levasseur continued to cruise the region of the Caribbean and the coast of Brazil. In the late spring he began sailing in consort with infamous pirate captains Benjamin Hornigold and Samuel Bellamy under his new flag: black, with a corpse (probably but not necessarily a skeleton) holding a sandglass in one hand, a cutting sword in the other, on one side, and a man on his knees on his other. The pirates captured numerous small to medium prizes and continued to enlarge their crews. The flotilla failed to capture an English Guinea-man (a slave ship) after a five-hour fight, and soon afterward barely escaped likely capture by a 44-gun French man-of-war.

In 1717 Levasseur was found as far north as Newfoundland, and may later have set sail for Brazil, the Cape Verdes, and the African coast after parting from Bellamy and Hornigold. He now commanded a small 20- to 26-gun frigate, La Louise de la Rochelle, with a crew of 250, and possibly switched flags again, this time to white (the French ensign was white), one of them with a black death’s head (skull or skull and bones) at the center, another with a black skeleton.

Luck turned against Levasseur in 1718. Now sailing the 6-gun, 80-man Blanco, his ship was captured by the HMS Scarborough, but Levasseur and all but seventeen of his crew managed to escape on a turtle sloop they had just captured. His luck improved early the following year. While serving under William Moody in the pirate ship Rising Sun, he led a mutiny and set sail as captain of the captured brigantine Murrane. Sailing to the African coast, he consorted several other pirates, including Howell Davis and the King James; Richard Taylor; and Jeremiah Cocklyn of the Rising Sun. His and Howell’s crews captured the Royal African Fort on Bence Island, along with numerous other prizes. Levasseur shifted his colors four times: first to the Duke of Ormond prize, then to the Comrade, then to the 40-gun Royal Ranger (formerly La Heroine), and finally to the 28-gun, 250-ton Indian Queen.
He and his consorts next set sail for Madagascar and the East Indies, where Levasseur’s Indian Queen wrecked on Mayotte Island. He joined pirate John Taylor as his quartermaster aboard the Victory, but soon the crew voted to shift their roles, placing Levasseur in command and Taylor as quartermaster. In consort with Jasper Seager commanding the Cassandra, Levasseur sailed to India, taking various prizes en route. In early 1721 Levasseur sailed to Mauritius for repairs, then with Seagar to Île Bourbon (Réunion) where they found and captured the Dutch-built, richly laden, Portuguese frigate Nossa Senhor do Cabo which had been dismasted by a storm and left with only 21 guns for protection. After further small captures and adventures, the pirates shared their plunder at the Bay of San Augustin and refitted the Nossa Senhor do Cabo, renamed Defense, as a 60-gun pirate ship with Levasseur in command.

Now in consort with Taylor commanding the Cassandra, in mid-1722 Levasseur tried to desert his consort but was instead deposed from command by his own crew. Eyewitness Jacques du Bucquoy reported that Levasseur and his fellow mutineers were whipped, and their possessions, almost certainly including their valuable Nossa Senhor do Cabo plunder, confiscated for the benefit of the crew. In the fall, Levasseur was given back command of the Defense and, parting from Taylor who was ready to accept amnesty, sailed to Madagascar. In 1724 he was offered a pardon by the French government but refused it. Afterward he worked as a local pilot at Madagascar until he was captured by a French frigate in April, 1730. He was tried, convicted, and hanged for piracy three months later Île Bourbon.
Levasseur’s nom de guerre La Buse had many variants—La Buse, la Bouze, Labour, Laboar, Dubourg, La Bouche, and more—making it difficult to determine what it meant. The most common, La Buse, translates as buzzard, which in Europe was a species of bird of prey considered useless for falconry, from which came a second common meaning: a stupid person—one who cannot be trained, in other words. “You can’t make a hawk from a buzzard [buse], nor a clever man from a fool,” ran a French proverb. Another version of Levasseur’s nickname might mean mouth, another might even mean cow dung.

As is the case with many pirates of this era, much of what is reportedly known about Levasseur has no basis in fact. He is best known for the myth of his buried pirate treasure from the capture of the Nossa Senhor do Cabo, and the cipher, which he reportedly tossed to the crowd just before he was hanged, with instructions on where to find the treasure. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that the cipher is authentic—it is almost certainly a fake created during one of the several treasure hunting manias of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—much less that the treasure exists.

Its reported value in some accounts, nearly $1.25 billion US, is more than one hundred times larger than the estimated actual value of the plunder taken by the pirates. Further, the myth fails to account for the fact that a pirate captain typically received only two shares—not the entire plunder. It also ignores the reality that pirates did not bury their treasure, although it is remotely possible that Levasseur may have hidden part of his personal plunder for security—if he had any. If du Bucquoy is to be believed, Levasseur had all of his Nossa Senhor do Cabo plunder confiscated by his crew. Nonetheless, facts have not stopped treasure hunters from trying to find the mythical treasure, even to the present day.