Monday, August 14, 2006

By William C. Davis

There have been many biographies of Jean Laffite, mostly they are romanticized evocations of an era when New Orleans dripped with Spanish Moss and scoundrels. Hot-blooded Creole gentlemen met with swords under the Dueling Oaks to determine who would win the favors of languid octaroon mistresses.

While octaroon mistresses do figure prominently in William Davis’ tale of the Big Easy’s best-known outlaws, Davis takes a flinty eye to the antics of the last great corsair.

First off, while Jean has had the spotlight pretty much to himself for 200 years, this is the story of the Laffite brothers. While Jean was the public face, older brother Pierre was a dedicated and skilled back-room schemer who complemented Jean’s drive and energy with meticulous planning and political chicanery.

Davis traces the pair to the south of France and finds some evidence that they relocated to the Caribbean in the early years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. As opportunities for wealth and plunder closed down with the fall of France’s West Indian empire, the Laffites moved on to New Orleans.

At the time huge profits could be made by smuggling. Smugglers brought in everything from slaves, to ordinary goods, to loot captured by corsairs operating in the name of Spain’s rebellious colonies.

Evading customs duties was a major occupation for many New Orleans residents. The city was the major port for legitimate trade, and pretty much the major one for smuggling as well. The Laffites were able to act as honest brokers for the smugglers. They made sure debts were paid and the right palms were greased. They had a number of bases, their best known was Barataria. It was an island in the Mississippi delta, accessible only by shallow draft vessels, and only by one who knew the maze-like waterways. It was also reasonably near the customers in New Orleans. The Laffites had many scams for bringing in goods, including a magnificent use of legal loopholes that allowed them to inform on their own contraband, collect a reward for turning it in, and then sell the goods legally. Davis documents the Laffites’ rise to power with liberal use of court documents, newspaper stories, and government reports. Federal authorities had quite a bit to say about the Laffites.

In a remarkable turn of fortune, just when the Laffites’ fortunes were at their lowest, they turned them around by heroic service at the Battle of New Orleans. Davis tells the story with a twist, he shows just how the Laffites were masters at promising little while asking for a lot. Both the Federal authorities and the British courted the Laffites. Davis suggests their choice to join General Jackson was based less on patriotism than the fact that the Brits saw through the Laffites!

As Spain’s empire crumbled, many in the United States looked on greedily. Davis shows how the Laffites installed themselves at the nexus of patriots, schemers, spies, and expansionists who hoped to profit from the destruction of the Spanish empire. Davis also accessed the correspondence of Spain’s spies in the region and details the Laffites’ most audacious coup of all. When it became clear that the half-baked plans for using secret armies of American mercs to overthrow the Spanish would never work, the Laffites quietly turned informer. In a double stroke they obtained a pass for their own activities in commerce raiding while ensuring a steady income from the Spanish secret service!

Davis follows the downward arc of the Laffites’ career too. Jean’s operations at Barataria came under heavy pressure so he moved to Galveston. There he often found himself in the position of rendering substantial material aid to the very plotters he was supposed to be squelching for Spain. Laffite’s motives seem to be a mixture of humanitarianism and a need to keep the stumblebums in the field so the Spanish would pay him.

Davis documents the grim end of the brothers. Pierre died in a small affray in the Yucatan, Jean in a sea-fight off Cuba. It was a dismal end for men who had once been the criminal masterminds of the Gulf Coast and subject of concern to kings and presidents.

There is a coda. Pierre’s descendents by his mixed race mistress sought to better themselves in segregated New Orleans by passing as white. Davis found the court documents that showed they were not “white” and, in a revealing twist, notes the disappearance of church records that would have proved them to be mixed race.

While The Pirates Laffite is not a fast paced book, it is one of great depth. Davis is meticulous in his study of the details of the Laffites and the milieu of corsairs, smugglers, and secret agents they moved in. Sometimes the barrage of facts is a bit overwhelming, but the clarity of the picture Davis builds is worth slogging through the details. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the Gulf Coast. It is also a monument in the literature of piracy and covert warfare.

New Orleans still drips with Spanish moss, criminals, and post-Katrina damp. The local outlaws are far more likely to ambush one another with bullets than to meet with swords. The era of Jean and Pierre Laffite seems quaint by contrast. Still, one wonders if they were here today, would they not quickly rise to the top?

-Dave Hardy

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