Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans

England Proposes

"I call on you with your brave following to enter into the service of Great Britain."

Lt. Col. Edward Nicholls

Early morning, September 2, 1814, a lookout on Lafitte's colony rang the warning ball. He hopped and hallooed and pointed anxiously out towards the Gulf. Members of the community spilled from their huts, the sun squinting their eyes, some with their women, and ran en masse toward the beach. Their bos, who had been relaxing in his hammock stringing his mandolin before breakfast, rolled to his feet to peer seaward. Yes, the sail of a ship edged the horizon. Lafitte wondered if it was British. The sentry confirmed it. "Aye aye , Captain, she's flying the Union Jack!" As the brig drew closer and its hull became apparent, it fired a signal gun, the echo of which reverberated within the ring of islands. The lookout, watching through his telescope announced, "Her name's Sophia!"

Lafitte watched the Sophia lower a dinghy overboard carrying about four or five men; the craft, once in the water raised a white flag and headed towards Grande Terre. He chose to meet them halfway to inquire of their business. Ordering a pirogue, he motioned to Dominique Youx and a couple of his other lieutenants to accompany him. "Give us the word and we'll blow 'em to kingdom come, bos!" he heard Louis Chighizola mumble behind him.

The British emissaries were five in number and represented both the Royal Navy and Army. The ranking officers of the group were an elderly gentleman, who introduced himself as Captain Lockyer of His Majesty's Fleet, and a young officer in the familiar red tail-coat of the army, a Captain McWilliams. They wanted to speak, said Lockyer, to "the commandant of Barataria." Nodding, Lafitte invited them to his residence for breakfast.

On the beach, Lafitte led his guests through the assembly of scowling Baratarians who made no pretense of their feelings. English ships had given privateer vessels a hard time lately; aside from that, many Baratarian were French and France and England, although currently at peace, were long-time rivals.

"Breakfast lasted for hours," Robert Tallant tells us. "(The) stiff and formal Englishmen found it hard to believe that this was the Lafitte they had heard so much about. He was an educated man, they discovered...His table was set with fine linens and silver and china..."

Tallant goes on. "Lafitte would talk no business until after breakfast. That was not done in Louisiana...Soon it was midday. Lafitte passed around cigars. Now he asked quietly the purpose of the gentlemen's visit."

Presenting a parcel of letters to him, Lafitte read them slowly. They were addressed to him personally by various members of the Royal Command, including the senior officer in the Gulf, Captain William Henry Percy. The first communiqué urged all Louisianans to either join England's fight against the Americans or remain neutral.. Those who did not would suffer penalties and maybe death. The next series of letters offered Lafitte himself a commission in the Royal Navy plus lands and money untold if he and his colony of buccaneers would lead the English forces through the swamps and assist in their attack on New Orleans. A final letter, the most directly written, promised to destroy his colony at Barataria if he declined their offer.

The deputation of officers watched his expression as he read (especially the final letter), then seemed much relieved when he faced them with a smile. "I will consider this," he said. "But I demand a little time. You shall have an answer in two weeks." When Lockyer tried to explain that that was too long of a time to wait, Lafitte simply smiled again, and repeated, firmer this time, "Two weeks." Lockyer agreed.

"Please help yourself to more wine while I excuse myself," Lafitte replied. Stunned, the others watched as he walked out of the room. While they waited for an explanation for this abrupt departure, several assigned Baratarians came into the room. In their best piratical mood, they led the emissaries back to their dinghy, loathing and cussing and threatening the entire distance.

From his verandah, Jean Lafitte watched his company leave. He turned to Dominique Youx beside him. "They think we are pirates, friend Dominique, who will do anything for a reward. They are so wrong."

Then he went inside and sat at his escritoire to write a letter to Governor Claiborne.