Saturday, March 27, 2010

Madison's Pirate Pardon: Celebrating New Orleans' Jean LaFitte

Jean LaFitte was the youngest of three boys who was born near France, in Haiti or in Spain, depending upon who you read. He and his cross eyed brother, Pierre, came to America some time between 1802 and 1804 and may have set up a blacksmith shop in New Orleans while taking up residence on Bourbon Street. By 1910, Jean was the leader of a privateering/smuggling operation that had forty warehouses, a fort, ships, cannons and three to five thousand employees.

The organization generally targeted slave ships, but was agreeable to plundering any vessel that might yield a profit. The booty was brought from Barataria Bay through bayous to New Orleans, where Pierre would take care of storage and inventory. Whether the Baratarians deserved the title “pirates” or mere “smugglers” seems to be an issue among historians. But, either way, there was no small irony in the fact that LaFitte rarely got on ships himself. The man who usually dressed in black and tipped his extravagant hats to admirers, tended to get seasickness.

The confusion of the War of 1812 brought considerable profit to the Baratarian Pirates, and also attracted the attention of the Treasury Department and the federal government. In November, Jean was taken prisoner after a raid. Formal charges were not filed until April of 1813 so LaFitte was released on bond. Inexplicably, there were complications locating the pirate afterward. In October, a federal agent was killed in an attack on a Baratarian cargo in Louisiana. The following month, Governor William C.C. Claiborne issued a five hundred dollar reward for Lafitte’s capture. Two days after the Claiborne’s offer was posted, his notices were replaced with an offer of five thousand dollars to anyone who could capture the Governor of Louisiana! The new notices were signed, JEAN LAFITTE.

In January of 1814, another federal agent was killed when trying to prevent a Baratarian slave auction. Two other federal agents were wounded. Pierre was arrested and the Carolina, a fourteen-gun schooner, was commissioned by the Navy Department to wipe out the annoyance at Barataria. Somewhere, a special rope had Jean Lafitte’s name written on it.

But, on September 3, 1814, the fortunes of the LaFittes and the fortunes of the United States changed dramatically. British Royal Navy captain Nicholas Lockyer sent a series of dispatches to LaFitte from the sloop Sophie. The essence of the communications was that the Baratarians should consider forging an alliance with the Britain. The British offered Lafitte everything a pirate of his stature could really want: money (about thirty thousand dollars), land, a pardon for past offenses and a commission in the royal navy. LaFitte’s response was that he needed time to reason with his fellow pirates. The next morning, LaFitte asked for a fortnight’s time to consider the offer.

The British waited quite patiently while LaFitte transmitted the information to the Governor of Louisiana who, in turn, informed General Andrew Jackson. Jackson at first recommended against dealing with LaFitte and his “hellish banditti” and “incendiaries.” But while Pierre was escaping from prison, one of Jean’s lawyers convinced Jackson that there would be a major battle at New Orleans. The American forces would need all of the help that they could get. LaFitte offered five hundred muskets and almost eight thousand flints along with other arms and ammunition. So, the Louisiana legislature passed a resolution which granted general amnesty to any Baratarian pirate that aided in the defense of New Orleans. Eighty prisoners were released. General Jackson then authorized the pirates to form their own artillery units and select their own commanders. LaFitte served as an advisor to Jackson and the Baratarian pirates saved the day.

In February of 1815, President James Madison pardoned the LaFitte brothers in tribute to the significant assistance that they had provided at the Battle of New Orleans. Madison also noted the “sincere penitence” of the Baratarians for the many errors of their past. It was a story of love, hope, bravery and redemption. But, there was one minor detail.: LaFitte and his brother were pirates. They were leaders of a band of pirates. They were all pirates. That is what they did.

So, Jean LaFitte set up shop on Galveston Island (Texas) and renamed the place Campeche. The brothers then went right back to the only thing they really knew, smuggling and slave trading. In 1819, several of LaFitte’s associates were hanged in New Orleans, the city they had defended with honor. In 1821, a brig-of-war approached Campeche, and LaFitte was directed to leave or die. LaFitte calmly asked for permission to pack, set the island on fire and vanished from history. He is said to have died in the Yucatan Peninsula, or Alton, Illinois. It simply depends on whom you read

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