Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Jean Laffite - Virtuous Bad Boy

Jean Laffite (b. circa 1780 - d. circa 1823) was a French pirate, privateer, smuggler, spy, and, to many, a hero. He was described as handsome, clever, resourceful, gregarious and handy with gambling and women. Sounds like a fun guy to be around.

Not much is known of Laffite before he made his appearance in New Orleans with his older brother Pierre around 1805, just after Louisiana became a part of America. But the men, especially Jean, left their lasting marks.

Jean Laffite
The brothers began to make a name for themselves after the enactment of the Embargo Act of 1807. The embargo prohibited American merchant ships from trading in foreign ports, namely Britain and France, during the Napoleonic Wars. This greatly hurt New Orleans merchants who relied on trade. The enterprising Laffite brothers found a way to help the merchants while capitalizing nicely on the plight. Though a legitimate business, Pierre’s blacksmithing shop was also a front for a smuggling operation. Laffite established a surreptitious trading post on Barataria Island in Barataria Bay south of the city which was far from the U.S. naval squadron base patrolling the area. It wasn’t long before the port was booming.

But Jean decided being a broker wasn’t enough. The brothers purchased a schooner that was already operating without proper commissions and Jean used it to capture their first quarry in 1813—a ship carrying more than seventy slaves. Jean made quite a profit off the slaves and other cargo. He outfitted the ship and renamed it the Dorado. Dorado went on to capture several more ships, which Jean re-outfitted and renamed specifically to sail directly into New Orleans with legal cargo and illegal contraband.

In 1812 as the conflict ramped up between the U.S. and Britain, many letters of marque were being issued to private, armed ships authorizing them to attack and take cargo from other nations. For those issued in New Orleans, many captains generally worked for Laffite. Cargo captured from British ships were handed over to the American authorities while cargos from other countries were put up for sale through Laffite’s operations.

Maison Rouge, Galveston 2018
The government wasn’t keen on Laffite cutting into their income and determined to put an end to it. In the summer of 1812, Jean, Pierre, and more than two dozen of their men were arrested. They bonded out, but never showed for their trial. Jean turned his nose up at the revenue laws. Even under indictment, Laffite powered on with his smuggling operations, even holding auctions for his contraband. It has been documented that in November of 1813, the governor of Louisiana, William C.C. Claiborne, issued a bounty of $500 for Laffite. In response, Laffite issued a similar reward for Claiborne. Neither were cashed in.

Jean’s exploits were well known, even to the British who were increasing their presence in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1814, the British offered money, British citizenship, and land grants to Laffite if he aided them in fighting the Americans and General Andrew Jackson in New Orleans. The ultimatum: Help fell the city so the British could control the Mississippi and cripple the United States or risk being attacked and Barataria destroyed by the Royal Navy. Laffite was, like, nah. He, instead, turned over the information to the Americans. Crafty as he was, he extended his expertise of the swampy land surrounding New Orleans as well as the much-needed additional troops numbering around 3,000. This in exchange for a pardon for himself, his brother, and his men. General Jackson accepted his help and Laffite was credited with helping defeat the British and save New Orleans. Without Laffite and his followers, New Orleans may have fallen. The Laffite brothers and all who served under them were granted full pardons

Maison Rouge, Galveston 2018
Despite the pardons and recognition, the Laffites continued their smuggling, piratical business. And in they took on a new role—spies. In late 1815 Jean and Pierre pledged their service to Spain, agreeing to pass along Mexican revolutionary activities during the Mexican War for Independence. Jean would travel to Galveston where revolutionaries frequented and send word back to Pierre.

When the U.S. squadron ran Jean out of Barataria in 1817 he moved his operations to Galveston. Laffite took over the island and named the colony Campeche. He built his headquarters, painted red, to face the harbor and named the building Maison Rouge. Jean found much success in Galveston and the islanders benefited from the bounty. Laffite even married and had a son.

All good things come to an end. When one of his ships attacked an American merchant, the U.S. responded with orders to remove Laffite from the gulf. Laffite abandoned the island in 1821, but not before his men burned the settlement, including Maison Rouge, to the ground.

Lafitte continued pirating off the coast of Cuba, Venezuela, and Honduras until he died. His death is disputed. He either died by illness on Isla Mujeres off the Yucatan Peninsula or from a fatal battle wound and is buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras, depending on the source read. 

One additional note on Jean's piracy that perhaps highlights his character. It had been reported numerously that Jean treated the crew and passengers of captured ships politely and released them unharmed.

Jean Laffite’s exploits had made him a legend, has captured our imagination, and, to some, is a romantic figure.

About the Author      

Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.