May 18, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean - Jean LaFitte

Jean LaFitteJean LaFitte (pron. La-Feet) claimed to have been born in France and some biographers believe him. Others point out that French nationality helped greatly in avoiding the enforcement of American law at the time. And the Americans had a lot of reasons for wanting to enforce their law upon this notorious pirate.

If Jean LaFitte wasn't born in France, then it is likely that he started life in the French territory of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), in 1782, and moved to Louisana, USA, as an infant. He grew up exploring the wetlands and bayous south of New Orleans, until he'd memorized every inlet in the Gulf of Mexico. By 1805, LaFitte was running a warehouse in New Orleans, though which he trafficked the goods smuggled into the country by his brother, Pierre. Life was good until 1807, when the Embargo Act banned any American ship from docking at a foreign port. Lousiana had become part of the United States of America only three years before, but this meant that the brothers could not ply their trade as openly as before.

The brothers LaFitte decided to set up a private port on the island of Barataria. It was sparsely populated area and so small boats could slip beneath the watchful eyes of the custom officers. Business boomed again, as many privateers began to use this port, unloading their large cargos there, then ferrying the goods via barges into New Orleans. The brothers were soon bored though and so brought themselves a schooner, in October 1812. They were ready to become fully fledged pirates in the Gulf of Mexico.

The USA authorities tried, on several occasions, to arrest the brothers. However, this was difficult as the US navy was in its infancy, so was often overwhelmed and outrun at sea; while the people of New Orleans refused to testify against them, as they brought in goods and luxuries far more cheaply than the official sources could. Finally, in 1814, a high ranking citizen did give evidence at a trial against Pierre LaFitte. He was jailed for piracy, leaving Jean LaFitte to run amok alone on the high seas.

This was the time of the American War of Independence and the British were quick to see the strategic value of being able to use the port at Barataria. From there, they could launch naval attacks upon the American colonies. LaFitte was approached with both a carrot and a stick. If he agreed to let the British navy use his pirate port, then he would be given British landholdings, great wealth and the use of the British navy as personal protection. If he refused, then the same British navy would destroy the port. LaFitte asked for 15 days to consider it, then copied the letters and sent them to the American authorities in New Orleans. Within two days, Pierre LaFitte was allowed to escape from jail.

The Americans were taking no chances though. Gunships set out from New Orleans and found the Baratarian port. A battle took place, which the pirates lost. Many were arrested and taken back to New Orleans, but the LaFitte brothers both escaped. However, General Andrew Jackson had arrived in the city and he was horrified at how poorly defended it was. In particular, despite having a swollen fleet filled with captured pirate ships, they had no-one skilled enough to sail them. Forever opportunists, the LaFitte brothers struck a deal whereby any pirates fighting the British, on behalf of the Americans, would immediately be released with full pardon. Jackson accepted and the LaFittes, along with many pirates, received commendations for their 'courage and fidelity' in the Battle of New Orleans. They all received full pardons on February 6th 1815.

This, of course, did not stop the piracy. He took hundreds of ships and their cargo throughout the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, Jean LaFitte openly admitted to piracy in his later years, though he took care to keep his ports outside the USA. His most notable settlement was on Galvaston Island, in Texas, which was under Spanish, then Mexican control at the time. This was effectively a new and improved Barataria, until he was run off it in 1821. Then Jean LaFitte moved operations to Isla Mujeres, in the Yucatán, where he set about building his third and final base. However, it wasn't as large as his previous ports on Barataria and Galvaston, but is significant as he died there in 1826.

The manner of his death has passed into legend, with many different accounts. No-one knows for certain how it happened or where his body lies. Some say that he was killed by a Spanish warship out at sea, but his official biographer, Jack C Ramsey, wrote that Captain Jean LeFitte died of fever on Isla Mujeres. On the island, local oral history concurs and, furthermore, states that before he died, he buried treasure on their beaches. Tourists have been looking for it ever since.

* Posada del Capitan LaFitte, Playa del Carmen: A beachside resort overlooking an inlet which LaFitte used during his piracy.

* Hotel Petit LaFitte, Playa del Carmen: Another hotel in the same inlet used by LaFitte.

* Dzilam de Bravo, Progreso, Yucatán: Plaque commemorating him placed there by CEDAM. There is a tombstone in the cemetery there with the legend, 'Jean LaFitte ReExhumed'.

* Look out to sea. There have been numerous reports, from oil workers on platforms and fishermen in boats, that occasionally a ghostly fleet of pirate ships can been seen around the Gulf of Mexico. This has been credited as being Captain Jean LaFitte and his crew.

* Lord Byron's poem, 'The Corsair': Some scholars say that it's not about Greek pirates at all, but it is about Jean LaFitte.

O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,
Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire, and behold our home!
These are our realms, no limits to their sway—
Our flag the sceptre all who meet obey.
Ours the wild life in tumult still to range
From toil to rest, and joy in every change.

'The Corsair' by Lord Byron, 1814

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