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The Pirates of Barataria, Louisiana

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Jean Lafitte is sometimes described as a businessman, but that designation applies only in the most creative interpretation of the occupation. Smuggler and privateer are much more appropriate words to describe how he made a living; although again, “privateer” is used to tidy up the word pirate.

On the other hand, Jean Lafitte is often feted as a hero who helped defeat the British in the War of 1812.

The scowling man in this portrait is thought to be Jean Lafitte.

The scowling man in this portrait is thought to be Jean Lafitte.

Jean and Pierre Lafitte

Jean Lafitte was born in France or in what is now Haiti. The date of his arrival on the planet is also murky but thought to have been around 1780.

History first hears of him in 1805 when he turns up in New Orleans. This was a couple of years after the Louisiana Purchase in which America bought a huge amount of land from France. The record shows that he operated a warehouse in the city and his stock was supplied by Pierre Lafitte, his older brother.

Pierre operated a legitimate business in New Orleans, a blacksmith shop, but his money-maker was as a receiver of smuggled goods.

The Embargo Act

In 1807, the Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe and the United States became inadvertently involved. British and French navy vessels were seizing American merchant ships and their cargoes even though the U.S. was neutral in the European conflict.

President Thomas Jefferson persuaded Congress to place an embargo on goods from the belligerent nations, hoping the economic hardship would force them to stop attacking American merchantmen. The Embargo Act was an embarrassing failure as American businesses and citizens suffered because supplies of many goods ran low. But, the act was a boon to the Lafitte brothers and other like-minded characters that had no qualms about undermining their nation’s laws.

The snapping turtle “Ograbme” is Embargo spelled backwards.

The snapping turtle “Ograbme” is Embargo spelled backwards.

The Lafittes moved out of New Orleans where there might be scrutiny of their business and set up down the bayou at Barataria Bay. Jean organized the shipping and Pierre fenced the goods that included slaves.

There was no lack of manpower to get the operation moving; the Embargo Act had put hundreds of New Orleans-based sailors out of work. They toiled unloading cargo from ships and reloading it onto barges that transported the merchandise through bayous and channels to the mainland and the eager customers.

Some sailors signed as crew on privateers, ships that were commissioned by governments to attack the merchant ships of a rival country. It was simply a piece of paper called a letter of marque that turned a pirate into a privateer and Jean Lafitte was happy to work with these ocean bandits and to outfit his own ships to take part in the plunder.

An American privateer in action.

An American privateer in action.

The War of 1812

A British and American squabble over maritime rights escalated into open warfare in 1812. Several Lafitte captains were given letters of marque by the U.S. government on the understanding that any goods they took from British ships were to be handed over to the government. But, through the fog of war, it was impossible to keep track of each keg of rum or barrel of salt pork.

Washington concluded it was being cheated by the Lafittes so the U.S. Navy was sent in to raid Barataria. The November 1812 attack scooped up the Lafittes, a couple of dozen men, and all their goods. The brothers put up bail and skipped town. Pierre was captured in 1813 but Jean carried on with his piracy and smuggling business.

The Battle of New Orleans

The War of 1812 ended on December 24, 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent. A couple of weeks earlier Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s Royal Navy fleet landed on the east bank of the Mississippi River. The aim was to cut off supplies for American forces going up the river.

To help them achieve their goal, the British reached out to the pirates of Barataria with an offer of about $2 million in today’s money if they would join in the attack on New Orleans. That was the carrot; the stick was a threat to obliterate the Barataria redoubt if Lafitte refused the bribe.

Defending New Orleans was General, and future president, Andrew Jackson. But, the American forces were thin on the ground and in desperate need of reinforcements. Louisiana Governor William Claiborne negotiated with Jean Lafitte for help.

Twenty years after the event, an engraver imagines a meeting among (left to right) Jean Lafitte, Louisiana Governor William Claiborne, and General Andrew Jackson.

Twenty years after the event, an engraver imagines a meeting among (left to right) Jean Lafitte, Louisiana Governor William Claiborne, and General Andrew Jackson.

The crafty pirate got a promise of a pardon for his misdeeds in exchange for his help. In a letter to Claiborne he claimed “I am a stray sheep, wishing to come back into the fold.”

General Jackson was woefully short of guns and ammunition and Lafitte had an abundance of these items hidden in the swamps.

Lafitte’s cannonballs and highly skilled gunners cut swathes through the advancing British troops. And, although heavily outnumbered, General Jackson’s forces defeated the British.

The final assault was made on January 8, 1815, two weeks after the war officially ended. It would be several more weeks before news of the peace had crossed the Atlantic.

Jean Lafitte Moves On

After the battle, Jean Lafitte and his men got their pardons and returned to their old trade. They had letters of marque that gave them the right to attack Spanish ships. Jean Lafitte moved his operations, along with 500 of his followers, to Galveston Island.

The U.S. government learned of his return to piracy and expressed its displeasure. President James Monroe made it known that if Lafitte and his swarthy brigands didn’t move on voluntarily the U.S. Army would carry out an eviction. However, in September 1818, a hurricane blew through Galveston Island, drowned some of the pirates, and demolished most of the buildings and houses.

Jean Lafitte hung on for a couple of years before disappearing from the pages of history. There is a journal that purports to be his memoirs but historians question its authenticity. The date and place of his death is as unsure as that of his birth.

Bonus Factoids

  • There are a couple of versions of the origin of the word Barataria. Most likely it comes from the Spanish word baratear meaning “cheap.”
  • Making the most of its dubious past, the area has a Jean Lafitte Boulevard and a Privateer Boulevard, along with a village called Jean Lafitte and a Thrift Store, Nature Study Park, Museum, Library, Inn, Playground, Fishing Charters, and Boat Rentals named after the pirate. And, we must not forget The Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve.
  • Without spending billions of dollars in sea-wall protections, Barataria is destined to disappear under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as global heating leads to rising sea levels. The New York Times reports that currently in Louisiana “a football field’s worth of wetlands still vanishes every 100 minutes …”
The low-lying village of Jean Lafitte.

The low-lying village of Jean Lafitte.

Sources

  • “Jean Lafitte.” National Park Service, September 15, 2016.
  • “NOLA History: Jean Lafitte the Pirate.” Edward Branley, gonola.com, October 26, 2011.
  • “Saving New Orleans.” Winston Groom, Smithsonian Magazine, August 2006.
  • “Jean Lafitte.” American Battlefield Trust, undated.
  • “Jean Lafitte: Pirate Outlaw or National Hero?” Gulfquest.org, undated

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

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