Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans

Pirate and Patriot

"He left a corsair's name to other times,
Linked one virtue to a thousand crimes."

Lord Byron

He has been called "The Corsair," "The Buccaneer," "The King of Barataria," "The Terror of the Gulf," "The Hero of New Orleans". At three separate times, U.S. presidents have condemned, exonerated and again condemned his actions. He is known for his piracy in the Gulf of Mexico, and lauded for his heroism in the Battle of New Orleans. Each personae seems to balance the other. He hated being called "pirate," for, as he saw it, he was a "privateer" serving an economic purpose in an economically frugal time in a new country that needed to economize. When he at last sailed away from American shores, he felt betrayed by a country that didn't understand the difference.

He was Jean Lafitte.

From the Gulf of Mexico through a vast uncharted maze of waterways to New Orleans, his name was legend even in his day. Entrepreneur and astute diplomat, he took an island-full of bloodied seafarers, rovers and fishermen and turned them into an organization of buccaneers, smugglers and wholesalers. From the ships they plundered off the Caribbean Coast and in the Atlantic he and his "crew of a thousand men" kept a constant cargo of black-marketed and very necessary provisions (including Negro slaves, a very important "commodity" to the early South) moving through the Mississippi Delta to help feed and clothe a part of the nation that the government overlooked. As a result, he won the praise of the local rich and poor alike.

He never attacked an American ship. A man without a country, he nevertheless respected the constitution of American ideals and hoped that what he called his "kingdom by the sea" might someday meld into like ideals.

His self-made kingdom, from the Gulf of Mexico through the villages and plantations to and including New Orleans, was a part of an untamed wilderness that came as part of the package called the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. This delta was a new and lusty territory, overgrown with willows and wildlife. Within its miles and miles of marshlands a man could get lost and wander until he maddened and died of starvation. Unlike anything the government knew; the topography, coupled by its habitation of misunderstood Cajuns and Creoles, confused and perplexed Washington decision makers. Much more, overcome with other, deepening international problems, the nation more or less abandoned this wetland with its foreign cultures to fend for itself. Lafitte's commerce of merchandise of cloths and linens, spices and trinkets, furniture and utensils sold at discount prices, avoiding high tariffs, to the grateful citizens of New Orleans. In short, Lafitte's piratical methods, despite their negative connotation, proved to be a survival factor for what was to become a major American city.

And then came a new territorial governor who decided that it was not conventional to let an outsider let alone a notorious pirate become a part of the blossoming American texture. Harassment and imprisonment followed, even destruction of Lafitte's Valhalla. But, the governor and the rest of burgeoning America were to learn that Lafitte's importance to this new territory meant much more to him than his own personal prosperity. When men were needed to keep New Orleans and the entire Mississippi River from enemy hands, Lafitte despite the chastisement and near ruination he faced from American mediators stepped forward to defend them.

Book cover: Jean Lafitte
Book cover: Jean Lafitte "The Corsair"
by E.H. Suydam

Many stories have been told of Lafitte. To quote author Jack C. Ramsay, Jr. from his excellent and concise Jean Laffite, Prince of Pirates, "Some considered him a rapacious rogue, a man of unmitigated violence. Others, many of whom were young women, regarded him as a charming person. He was seductive, perhaps deceptive, but always elegantly gracious."

He writes that contemporaries described "(Lafitte) as 'graceful and elegant in manners...accomplished in conversation.' And yet this was the man who was often described in very different terms as the 'Prince of Pirates' or the 'ferocious' head of 'desperadoes.'"

Lord Byron sketched a poem about him even in his day. Countless books have been written about his adventures. He has inspired many moves, the finest being Cecil B. DeMille's classic, The Buccaneer. There is a national park named after him, and along the Mississippi below New Orleans sits the City of Jean Lafitte. To some, however, he is still a pirate.

But pirate, thief, swordsman, businessman or savior, Lafitte's legend grows. Complex in nature, shrouded in mystery, and often painted in splashes of color, he lives on in the role of auspicious hero.


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