Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf by William C. Davis

From the preface of his book The Pirates Laffite, William C. Davis seems determined to diminish the role privateer/pirate jean Lafitte played in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 against the British.

In my research of pirates, I never found anything to suggest that his role was pivotal. What makes him noteworthy is that he demonstrated uncharacteristic politicism and cast his lot with the United States. He, his brother and some of their men joined General Andrew Jackson’s army in repelling the British front advancing on New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico. But as Davis points out, Jean and his brother Pierre had loyalty to no one but themselves. They were both opportunists and decided that an American victory would be most advantageous to them as opposed to a British one.

He does show the important the Brothers Lafitte were to General Jackson’s army as they battled the British forces in the fields between New Orleans and the Gulf. For several years, the Lafittes had been smuggling goods, mainly slaves, into the city by way of the numerous bayous to circumvent inspectors and customs. They knew the area very well due to their creative methods to bypass the rules.

Everyone knew about it but no one was complaining except Governor Claiborne. Smuggled goods could be bought at much cheaper prices than on the open market. Sometimes that meant making a trip to Barataria, the Lafittes’ pirate cove on the southern Louisiana coast.

After the war, the pirates who signed with the American forces received pardons but Jean and Pierre were ill-suited for the domestic life. It wasn’t long before they established a base of operations on Galveston Island from which they re-launched their privateering and smuggling activities.

For a time, Pierre and Jean were spies for Spain, keeping an eye on and reporting the movements of insurgents in Spanish settlements in the New World. Again, the Lafittes felt their role was much more important than it actually was. Spain realized their intelligence wasn’t worth the trouble and the brothers loyalty was rather fluid. They clearly demonstrated their own self-promotion, meaning they followed the money. Pierre was notoriously poor at handling money and was constantly in debt. Although, Jean’s debts weren’t as substantial, he liked to live the high life whenever possible in New Orleans.

Despite the little importance the Lafittes played in America’s pre-Civil War expansion, they are colorful characters and although legend has eclipsed fact over the past 200 years, they are interesting men to get to know. Davis’ book, exhaustively researched, gets tedious to read at times, based on the sheer volume of information he relays. Still it’s a fascinating work on two of New Orleans’ more (in)famous sons.

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