Pirate-Barber-Surgeon? Who was Alexandre Exquemelin?

pirate medicineWho were the three most important people onboard a 17th century pirate ship? The ship’s captain; the ship’s carpenter; and –the ship’s barber-surgeon! All three usually received equal shares of any pirate booty.

Much of what we know about both barber-surgeons and life aboard a 17th century pirate ship is based on the tales of Alexandre Exquemelin, barber-surgeon for the infamous Captain Henry Morgan –Admiral of the English Royal Navy, privateer,  notorious pirate, and eventual Lieutenant Governer of Jamaica. First published in 1678, Exquemelin’s interesting observations of buccaneers were originally written in Dutch and subsequently translated into French, Spanish, and English as The Buccaneers of America.


After the battle was over, the scene below decks was a bloody one.

How Exquemelin and other barbers became surgeons is primarily based on the theory that both trades relied on superior skill with a knife. The consensus argues that the evolution began in the middle-ages with barbers performing minor manicure procedures such as removing hangnails and ingrown toenails, and evolved into lancing wounds, removing boils, and sewing up wounds. From there the leap to extracting bullets, applying leeches, bleeding, and amputating legs was fairly short. In summary, one could argue that 16th-century surgeons needed superior knife skills and what better way to practice than cutting hair?

Typical surgeon's tools from a naval vessel circa 1750.

Typical surgeon’s tools from a naval vessel circa 1750.

Whether or not that is true is a subject for speculation. However, what is true is that in France where Exquemelin is said to have been born, until the 18th century, the profession of surgeon did not require a medical education. Surgeons had in fact formed themselves into a corporation unrelated to the Faculties of Medicine. Their status was that of artisans without degrees or official recognition. Aspiring surgeons underwent an apprenticeship with a master and passed a symbolic examination (thus without submitting a thesis, as is required for an MD degree in France). In addition, a royal decree of 1666 forbade Protestants to practice surgery in France. At the same time, Catholic surgeons were being driven out of England, and that is what drove Alexandre Exquemelin to the West Indies to become the barber surgeon on board Captain Henry Morgan’s pirate ship – as a Protestant he was not allowed to work as a surgeon aboard any French ship.

crocodile bite exquemeling

Exquemelin’s report of treatment for an infected crocodile bite wound is one of the earliest first-hand accounts of medical treatment aboard a pirate vessel.

According to Cindy Vallar’s research in Pyrate Surgeons, historians are uncertain as to Exquemelin’s origins, but he was probably Flemish or French -supported by the fact that the first edition of Buccaneers was in Dutch. We know little about his life other than he arrived in Saint Domingue aboard the Saint Jean in July 1666 as an engagé (indentured servant). His first master was “the wickedest rogue in the whole island,” and after three years, Exquemelin fell ill. (Marley, 144) Unfit to work, he was sold to a kind barber-surgeon, who taught Exquemelin to be a surgeon like himself. After one year, his master “offered to set me free for 150 pieces of eight, agreeing to wait for payment until I had earned the money.” (Marley, 144) Exquemelin may have sailed with Jean-David Nau (l’Olonnais), but he was with Henry Morgan when he sacked Panama in 1671, as he is listed on the ship’s roster. His accounts of Morgan are laced with derogatory comments, and the admiral sued Exquemelin’s publishers for slander and libel. The court awarded Morgan £200 and ordered the publisher to revise future editions of the book (source: Cindy Vallar Pyrate Surgeons)

This is the only known image of Exquemelin.

This is the only known image of Exquemelin.

To read more about the interesting life of Alexandre Exquemelin, the various Dutch, French, and Spanish translations of his famous narrative “Buccaneers of  America”, and to learn why his tale of pirates and buccaneers was featured in a medical journal, read C. Régnier’s article Alexander Exquemeling and the 17th- and 18th-century surgeons to pirates, corsairs, freebooters, and buccaneers.

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