Lafitte: Buccaneer or Businessman?
by Kevin Brown, Trinity Christian Community
The history of New Orleans is replete with stories of charming scalawags, those who endear themselves to their constituency and are deeply loved, while simultaneously enriching themselves personally in ways that are less than legal. None was better at this than the pirate Jean Lafitte. According to the United States government, he was a pirate, criminal and enemy of the state. To the people of Southeast Louisiana, however, he was an extraordinary businessman who provided quality goods at prices well below market value. So which was he, Criminal or Capitalist?
While his birthplace is open to much debate, Lafitte made his presence known in New Orleans when he and his brother Pierre opened a blacksmith shop on St. Phillip Street at the close of the 18th century. The forge actually served as a front for their real business, selling goods stolen from ships at sea. It is a fitting metaphor for a complicated man, a legitimate business hiding a more sinister secret.
Lafitte was well loved in New Orleans. He was widely read, spoke several languages, dressed nicely and fit well with the cultured aristocracy. His knowledge of local customs and politics endeared him to the Creoles of the city. He was able to sell quality products at prices well below those of his competitors.
Outside of the city, Jean and his brother Pierre, ran a vast, shady enterprise. From their base in the Barataria Bay they controlled all shipping traffic in and out of the city. Lafitte and his pirate partners lived on three islands, Grande Terre, Grande Isle and Cheniere Caminada, a tropical paradise that observed a code of conduct which punished crimes and rewarded conduct they valued. On the islands huge warehouses stockpiled pilfered goods until they could be sold at market in New Orleans and elsewhere.
The Lafitte brothers worked in tandem. Pierre operated on the seas, Jean on land. Pierre’s vessels would rob merchant ships and store the merchandise on the islands until they could be brought to New Orleans for sale. Jean was the salesman and would establish venues to sell the goods in New Orleans. They would transport goods through bayous and back bays into the city to avoid the high taxes levied on goods coming up the river. Thus, their products were less expensive than any competitor’s, making them the merchants of choice.
Jean did not think of himself as a pirate, however, rather he believed himself to be a privateer, complete with a letter of marque from Cartagena; this allowed him to engage enemy ships and destroy them. Flying the flag of Cartagena over his island paradise Jean believed himself to be a mercenary navy with complete legal privileges to plunder & pillage. As America was not at war with Cartagena, Lafitte vowed never to plunder an American vessel. Regardless of these facts, newly established Governor Claiborne issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of smuggling. After months of chasing, Claiborne’s men finally captured Lafitte. He posted bond immediately however, and refused to show for his court appearance, instead holding a huge sale of merchandise on the very day of the trial. Claiborne, eager to establish a reputation and please his superiors in Washington, was incensed and vowed to redouble his efforts to bring Lafitte to justice.
Soon, issues bigger than Lafitte began to plague Claiborne and his territory; the war of 1812 had pitted the young United States of America against the British once again. Lafitte offered his services to the undermanned American military, only to be rebuffed by the governor. Ultimately Lafitte appealed directly to General Andrew Jackson who ultimately accepted Lafitte into military service. Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte became friends throughout the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Lafitte’s knowledge of swamps and waterways was indispensable. Because of Lafitte, New Orleans was saved. Afterwards he was touted by many as a role model and hero to be emulated.
Meanwhile, he was still a wanted man. The pressure to capture him began to escalate and many of his assets were seized and sold. As the gossip and innuendo increased, his reputation began to sag. Because of this, the Lafitte brothers and their associates left their base in Barataria and established themselves on Galveston Island where they resumed their activities.
In Lafitte’s mind, he was a true gentleman, full of concern for the region he loved. He never fully understood the animosity of those who thought him a pirate and criminal. Many New Orleanians, French and Creole, saw their own struggle with the newly installed U.S. government reflected in Lafitte and considered him their champion. Truly Lafitte’s reputation defies any easy categorization and it is this reputation that lives on in the imagination of New Orleans’ history.
For more on Jean Lafitte, read:
Saxon, Lyle Lafitte the Pirate. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1989.
Geringer, Joseph Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans. http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/gangsters_outlaws/cops_others/lafitte/1.html