François l’Olonnais was born in Olonne, France under the name Jean-David Nau. As a child, he was sent overseas to Martinique to work as an indentured servant. When his servitude ended in 1660, he found his way to Tortuga, where he joined his fellow French buccaneers. In the following eight years, he proved his cunning and courage as he plundered Spanish targets. He also established himself as one of the most cruel and violent men of his era.
Early in his career, l’Olonnais was shipwrecked near Campeche. Most of his crew survived, but they were discovered and attacked by a group of Spanish soldiers, who killed all but l’Olonnais himself. The French captain managed to survive by hiding among the corpses of his comrades and smearing himself with their blood. He then snuck into Campeche, where slaves helped him escape and return to Tortuga. The next time he took a Spanish ship, he slaughtered the entire crew, sparing only one to carry his message to Havana: “I shall never henceforward give quarter to any Spaniard whatsoever.”
L’Olonnais was infamous for finding a variety of ways to torture his prisoners. The worst of these was “woolding,” in which a rope was tied around the victim’s head and tightened by twisting lengths of wood secured to the end, eventually forcing the prisoner’s eyes of their skull.
His greatest success came in 1667, when he sacked the town of Maracaibo. Positioned to defend the narrow entrance to Lake Maracaibo, the town’s defenses failed to protect it from an overland approach. The pirates landed outside the city and marched in, overcoming the garrison in a matter of hours. For the next few months they remained in the town, stealing whatever they could find, and raping, torturing, and murdering its frightened citizens. Afterward, they moved to the southern end of the lake and attacked the town of Gibraltar. Despite demanding and receiving a ransom for the city, l’Olonnais pillaged it anyway, ultimately amassing a fortune of 260,000 pieces of eight, along with plenty of jewels, silk, and silver.
L’Olonnais’ depravity knew no bounds. While ashore in Guatemala in 1668, his men were ambushed by a large contingent of Spanish soldiers. After escaping and capturing several of the Spaniards, he interrogated them to learn a safer route to shore. Using his knife, he cut open one’s chest, and tore out the man’s heart. He began to bite and gnaw on it with his teeth like wolf, telling the others, “I will serve you all alike, if you show me not another way.” The terrified prisoners complied, and l’Olonnais and his remaining men made it safely back to their ship.
The heart-eating incident caused many of his men to desert him out of disgust. Soon after, he was shipwrecked in Panama. When he and his remaining crew headed inland to find food, they were ambushed by natives and captured. They tore l’Olonnais’ body to pieces and burnt his remains, so as to leave no trace of what they considered an “infamous, inhumane creature.”
L’Olonnais appeared in the video game Sid Meier’s Pirates!, in which he is one of nine famous pirates that the player must compete against and defeat. Out of these nine pirates, he was one of the only few who was historically active in the time period of the game.