Art & Identity in New Orleans

HNRS 109 Spring '18

Jean Lafitte: The Smuggler, The Villain, The Hero

History has glorified the exploits of pirates around the world, romanticizing the thefts, murders, and kidnappings that define these buccaneers’ lives. Jean Lafitte has immortalized himself in the history of the United States; as well as the history of pirates. He became a folk hero akin to Daniel Boone, Annie Oakley, or Wyatt Earp, while in the same breath standing beside Blackbeard (or Edward Teach), Captain Kidd, and Ching Shih. This begs the question of why are pirates, and Jean Lafitte in particular, so exalted? Despite being painted a hedonistic rogue by the government, could Jean Lafitte be a scoundrel and hero simultaneously?

The origins of Jean Lafitte have become controversial as the years have progressed, with faulty records and accounts clouding his birth place. The only definitive data historians have is that Jean Lafitte is French, and had a brother – Pierre Lafitte – who smuggled with him. The possible areas Jean and Pierre were born are; Bordeaux, France; the French colony of Port-au-Prince, French San Domingo (which is now Haiti); or St. Malo. Jean and his brother trained and fought with the French Navy, later pursuing a career in blacksmithing. When the brothers settled in New Orleans, their smithing became the facade and base of operation for their smuggling business. It was under the role of blacksmiths that they were able to avoid the law, while concurrently selling their wares to the citizens of New Orleans. In this manner, their smuggling remained clandestine as authorities repeatedly attempted to arrest them.

To understand why Lafitte chose New Orleans of all port cities is seen in the history and geographical factors of the city and surrounding regions. New Orleans was a French colony founded in 1718 under Jean Baptiste le Moyen de Bienville. During the French control of the city, the port was unsuccessful to the point that France attempted to appease investors by sending Casquette Girls to the rambunctious inhabitants. These Casquette Girls – fille à cassette – or Pelican Girls (named for the ship they arrived on), were named so for the “casquets” or suitcases they carried with their wedding dresses to the New World. They were conspicuous for their virtue, as they were almost guaranteed to be virgins since they were collected from convents and orphanages. This bolstered the population to a point that New Orleans had finally become a habitable city. Eventually, with American acquisition through the Louisiana purchase, the trade city flourished with plantations taking root on the surrounding arable land, and New Orleans swiftly became the largest city in the South, third largest in the nation. With the plantations, imports and exports thrived, which also attracted smugglers and pirates who preyed upon the booming economy. Thus, Lafitte was attracted to this microcosm of riches that paralleled his cultural ancestry. As Lafitte ascertained the geography, he stumbled across the Island de Grande Terre, later named Barataria Bay. Overtime it has been colloquially named “The Pirate’s Home.” It was here that the cypress swamps, bays, bayous, and marshes made Lafitte and his crew untouchable. The dense region permitted them to build a fort protected by the topography that police and military could not enter. Anchoring boats and smaller vessels, they could launch rapid attacks without warning to exploit the entering and leaving merchant ships.

As Jean Lafitte slowly grew in repute amongst smugglers, he adopted the title “Privateer” and flew under the flag of the Republic of Carthagena. It was a crucial element to his character; he strived to encompass the enigmatic gentlemen that he associated with being a “privateer.” This led him to take great pride in his mannerisms, appearance, and the conducting of business. His need to be seen as convivial led him to resemble a Robin Hood-esque figure. One facet was his repute for being a master of fencing. This caused his popularity to swell in New Orleans, further highlighting Jean’s ability to intermingle with high society. This elucidates the impression that Lafitte was venerated amongst an eclectic social mix of citizens in New Orleans. Plantation owners, and other agents of Lafitte, or artisans, flourished with Lafitte’s smuggled commodities. However, an aspect of these “commodities” became illegal and defies all moral obligations Lafitte seemingly retained. He partook in the smuggling of slaves to the thriving plantations that had rooted themselves in the surrounding regions of New Orleans. Thus, Lafitte falls from a charismatic protagonist, to a scheming antagonist.

In addition to the statement made previously, we could further argue that Jean Lafitte and his crew were heinous raiders. Lafitte assembled his band of “Wild Men” – a diverse group that featured “men of all nations” – the desperate, poor, hispanics, freed slaves, and of course pirates. They became known as the Barataria, a term meaning “cheap” which is a term that originated from the creole word “Barateur”. A particularly famous crew member was nicknamed “Nez Coupe”,  which translates from French to English literally as “nose cut”. Nez Coupe was notorious for cutting off captives’ noses as a form of torture. Yet, the entire Barataria was known for the classic punishment of making prisoners “walk the plank”.  Many offending officials met their demise this way, and allegedly Aaron Burr’s daughter (Theodosia Burr) was kidnapped by the unruly crew and forced to walk the plank. No historical records confirm this, merely stating that she was last seen off the coast of Georgetown, South Carolina and declared missing at sea. Yet, Lafitte’s strong connections to historical figures suggests that he was the culprit of this incident.

Jean Lafitte proves to be an aberration as he acted as patriot to the United States during the War of 1812.  Despite the Treaty of Ghent having been signed, and peace ensuing, it would take months for the news to reach New Orleans. In the interim, a force of british troops had been tasked with the mission of invading New Orleans in an attempt to gain control of the Mississippi River and surrounding waterways. Colonel Nicholls of the British troops approached Lafitte, presenting him with letters of terms and conditions under which Lafitte could serve. With this bribery, they hoped to sway the Captain into giving them immediate access to the port as Lafitte controlled entrance to the bay. Lafitte in this moment had an opportunity to essentially give the British full control of New Orleans. However, he requested a week to reach a final decision, much to the irritation of the British. Lafitte proceeded to contact the mayor of New Orleans, and the Governor of Louisiana, both of whom had placed a bounty on his head. General Andrew Jackson was the presiding general of the region, attending the meeting was his opportunity to apprehend Lafitte once and for all. However, in a typical histrionic manner, Lafitte presented the three with the letters that dictated the terms of the British invasion and his reward. He offered his men and their supplies in return for their pardons and safety. Begrudgingly, the three accepted as they had no other option. The ragtag army that repelled the orderly British at the Battle of New Orleans consisted of a small local militia, freed blacks, Choctaw Warriors, and of course the Barataria.

This dichotomy of Lafitte’s character unveils an inner struggle, whereas others have proclaimed him as “the last free man,” staying true to his nature and having an euphoric lifestyle that many could not claim. He refused to fit himself to a societal mold, choosing to do as he pleased and hold true to what he deemed humane and sincere. Despite not abiding by the laws that governed the nations, Jean Lafitte acted almost as a vigilante. An idealist and victor to denizens and bane to authorities. If the righteous act is grand enough, does it outweigh the many evils? Lafitte’s persona would seem to suggest that yes, the egregious feats are still a part of someone, but do not define them. Humans, as a species, are too multifaceted to draw distinct lines between just and unjust; each person has dichotomies that give them their humanity. However, to condone this behavior is to permit others to engage in such contradictory deeds. This upsets the foundations of the institutions and governments that were put in place to protect the people, and keep order. By following a personal moral code, people encounter conflictions when their code breaches another, or their acts infringe upon another’s rights. In light of this, the good does not outweigh the bad, and we must condemn Jean Lafitte. Jean Lafitte will not be known as a privateer in history, but rather a Pirate.


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