Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans


"In the days of d'Arraguette,
He Ho He Ho!
It was the good old times.
You ruled the world with a switch
He Ho He Ho!"

Old French Creole song Anonymous

Jean Lafitte was, by degree, a pirate. Under his thumb were a fleet of fifty sailing vessels and an army of buccaneers based in Barataria Bay who sailed the southern waters for plunder, bringing back riches and spoils of every kind to sell for a price. The ships they raped at sea, mostly Spanish ships, harvested boundless booty furniture, clothing, the latest silks, crinolines and finest embroideries, dinnerware, objects d'arte, wines and cheeses, even medicines destined for other places before being detoured. And slaves. The bay, where the Mississippi spills out to the azure Gulf of Mexico, was a scene of constant incoming and outgoing schooners, sloops, corsairs and brigantines homebound with or seaward for the merchandise they sought. In the silver of dawn and the purple of twilight, one could see the silhouettes of full masts squared and triangular against the tropical horizon.

Barataria, with its three islands Grande Terre, Grande Isle and Cheniere Caminada all occupied by Lafitte's brigands, was literally a fortress; no ship could pass into or out of the Mississippi without having to squeeze past this trio of islands. Out toward the awesome Gulf of Mexico Lafitte's siege guns aimed oiled, packed and ready to literally sink any interference from the waters.

Lafitte's operations were centered on Grande Terre, an island almost level with the sea, where around 1808 he constructed a great brick two-story house facing the open sea. When not in New Orleans, he could be found here among its luxurious decor gathered for himself from the vast quantities of stolen treasures. In his comfortable office, whose wide arched doors invited the scent of chamomile, he and his lieutenants planned upcoming forays into the shipping lanes, choosing which waterways might proffer this season's best takes. Or he might be seen relaxed in his red-cloth hammock, strumming his mandolin, singing a favorite Creole ballad:

"Z'aurtes qu'a do moin, ca yon bonheur;
Et moin va di, ca yon peine:
D'amour quand porte a chaine,
Adieu, courri tout bonheur!
Pauvre piti' Mamzelle Zizi!"

Lafitte's home on Grande Terre by E.H. Suydam
Lafitte's home on Grande Terre by
E.H. Suydam

Often, Lafitte entertained on his verandah, shaded by palms. His guests were either a large-eyed mistress from town or a local planter, but they were usually a group of businessmen come down from New Orleans to plan deliveries of goods or slaves. After a sumptuous supper prepared by a league of servants, Lafitte would take his guests on a tour of his warehouse, which stood behind his estate; if they were planters in need of labor, he conducted them on a tour of the barracoons, the quarters for the slaves awaiting sale.

It is important that we pause here to consider the practice of slavery, as pertaining to those times. While the idea of slavery abhors those of us in the 20th Century, it was in the early 1800s a very accepted custom. Men who plied in the transferring of slaves and who dealt in their exchange at auctions thought of themselves, in the mores of the day, as providers of a necessary way of life.Some of Lafitte's clients were, in fact, clergy who bought slaves to work the monastery grounds in Louisiana and the vegetable gardens adjacent to the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans. (Lafitte purchased his slaves from traders in Cuba for $300 each, then sold them at $1,200 in New Orleans, still below the government price.) Of his personal treatment to this human chattel, Lafitte was known for treating his slaves kindly.

Barataria Bay or simply Barataria, as Lafitte called his colony, named after the mythical land sought by Cervantes' Don Quixote was a Garden of Eden. The principle island, Grande Terre, was a combination of sandy beach and palm trees, of lush oaks and oleander, of lagoons and marshes, of shifting tides and foaming waves. Its deep-blue waters were loaded with speckled trout, popano, blackdrum and flounder, shrimp and crab. Brown pelicans strutted its beaches and flapped their wings in tune to the to the drumbeat of roaring surf. In some areas shoreside, thick oaks protected inhabitant from the gales of winds that tended to blow in before a storm. Dangers of hurricane were prevalent during the months from June through October, and often certain parts of the island found itself under several feet of sea after a fierce tropical downpour.

Inaccessible from the Louisiana coast except by sea craft, Grande Terre and its outlying islands had always provided a refuge for criminals; Blackbeard the Pirate hid there from the British Navy in 1718. It is believed that Lafitte conceived the idea for establishing his base of operations on Grande Terre around 1808. Up until that time, the Lafitte brothers' business was less complex: Jean managed the merchandising in New Orleans, setting up contacts to establish outlets for their goods, while Pierre, a more experienced seaman, oversaw the pirating efforts asea. But, the excessive customs taxes charged to move their trade down the Mississippi were depleting their income. As well, governmental tariffs on slaves had skyrocketed and the plantation owners they served were bemoaning the high costs. It soon dawned on Lafitte that if he could contract his seamen to land their ships outside the coast, what could prevent him from smuggling their goods as well as the "black ivory" across the bay in barges and skiffs then inland through the swamps and bayous he knew so well?

Realizing that if he and Pierre attempted such a move they couldn't remain completely invisible; an army would be needed to discourage governmental counteraction. In a bold move, Jean invited all members of his contracted ships those seamen he had hired to bring in the wares to make their home on the island with him. It would be, he told them, their essential quarters. Some of them, he knew, had already settled there with their women and were praising the freedom of isolation it offered.

The kingdom of Barataria was born, 1,000 men strong privateers and pirates and ship's carpenters and ship's cooks and sail makers and sail riggers and gunners and navigators.

Overnight, Grande Terre animated with the hordes who found a "dry dock" for their revels. They were wandering spirits from across the globe who had shunned their native France, Italy, Portugal, Carribea, Germany, Russia and other countries. With their wives or island mistresses, they set up cottages under palmetto-thatched roofs and reveled between excursions to sea. For their pleasure, Lafitte appointed a cafe with European cuisine and a gambling den on the island, and imported whores from the city to staff a brothel. However, so that the festivities would not run amok so that the piratical Adams with their Eves would not bite too deeply into the core of the forbidden apples Lafitte and his lieutenants (those long-term comrades he knew best) created a code of "civil laws" for this Eden: Any man molesting an innocent woman would be sent adrift. Thieves would be lashed. Those found guilty of murdering a fellow Baratarian would be hanged. On the same taken, any sailor losing an arm or a limb in active service would be reimbursed in gold; the families of any man killed at sea would be well provided for.

Like any businessman operating a quality enterprise, he demanded order and respect. He ordained himself captain and insisted that his leagues treat him as bos, French for the American word it sounds exactly like. The Rights of Citizenship he offered his Baratarians were a blend of moral ethics and pirate code. As long as they performed their duties as plunderers, smugglers, gunners and as long as they served him and the Baratarian oath of loyalty to him and each other the inhabitants could live there as long as they wanted.

Its was tropical magnificence and inspired the unconventionality in the senses. At dusk it was at it most beautiful: the blush of the reddish sun wrapping it in its glow, the calming metronome of the waves, the carraw of the gulls on the beach, the bleat of the hornpipes on ships' decks announcing low tide.

Lafitte's lieutenants were a colorful and leathery lot of stalwarts who managed their own crew and were seasoned veterans of warfare in the sea lanes of the world. These included two former members of Napoleon's navy, Renato Beluche and Dominique Youx. The latter, who it was said adored his bos, was a squarely built, eagle-faced pirate from Santo Domingo known among his peers for his artillery expertise. He had a blistering sense of humor and, it was said, was the only man from whom Lafitte would take sarcasm. There was also Louis Chighizola, whose nose was half gone, slashed from an earlier duel, and the chronically pouting Vincent Gambi. Because the Baratarians lived under a strict "one-for-all, all-for-one" structure of gain, each of these lieutenants upon their return from plundering would equally share with his peers all monies obtained, monies that each lieutenant would then divvy up further among his respective crew or invest in maintenance of his vessel.

The siege guns Lafitte set up around Grande Terre were there for show. He could laugh at the suggestion of any threats to dismantle his operations. Louisiana, being a new territory of the United States, did not have an army of sufficient size to protect its coast, muchtheless have the audacity to attack him. Besides, they were technically not pirates. Being men of the open sea, open to allegiance to whomever patronized them, Lafitte's buccaneers contracted out under "letters of marque" issued by Cartagena, a Spanish republic of Columbia fighting for its independence from the mother country. :Because these letters of marque were, by definition, licenses issued by any country or recognized domain to freelance soldiers of fortune allowing them to destroy its enemies' ships by proxy in times of conflict, Lafitte and his crew were, in all actuality, privateers. (Letters of writ, considered legal and binding in the 18th and early 19th centuries, were respected as valid. In fact, the 13 colonies practiced this industry during the American Revolution when they had virtually no navy in which to combat England.)

Baratarians flew the banner of Cartagena on their island and above the crow's net on their ships, giving them what New Orleans' late commentator and historian Mel Leavitt called "the legal pretext for plundering Spanish shipping."

Lafitte's men never attacked an American ship; it was their captain's orders. It was Bible. "Attack an American ship and die," he proclaimed. One reason is obvious: to sink a vessel belonging to the United States would bring its wrath upon Barataria. But, another reason was less selfish. Lafitte enjoyed the freedom of speech and open opportunities offered here, opportunities that didn't exist in other countries.

It is known that one of his men, hungry for the gold bullion he heard was on board, defied Lafitte, ransacked an outgoing American ship and died. His punishment of hanging discouraged other such attempts. However, being bos meant accepting the penalties for crimes his men sometimes made. The mistake committed by this particular insurgent would eventually come back to haunt Lafitte evermore.