Prince of Pirates
To talk of scalawags and smugglers, of seadogs and rogues; to rush upon the blade of dagger, saber, and sword; to bind the wind that swells the seas, to withstand the hands of one thousand thieves, and to shanghai the spirit in a shipwrecked fleet…. These are the pirates of New Orleans!
Where once the rustling palms of Barataria Bay belonged to Jean Lafitte and his buccaneers in the turn of the 19th century, now the remains of an abandoned fort, an obliterated pirate village, and a godforsaken spit of land lingers in the wee isles among various bays and bayous at the mouth of the Mississippi. Yet somewhere deep in the murky marshes of Louisiana, a man without a past combed the riverbend and charted the winding realm of uninhabited swampland. This man, who has borne many titles through the years from pirate to privateer, from hero to heretic, is known in history best as Jean Lafitte, the Gentleman Pirate of New Orleans. His swagger, his stance, his eminent charm of sometimes deceptive yet always seductive graciousness masked his ravenous gluttony for violence and voracity.
As entrepreneur of a small blacksmith shop in the heart of the city, Jean and his brother Pierre centered themselves in a respectable part of town where both bourgeoisie and proletariats could feel comfortable doing business with the Lafittes. Behind the provincial-style briquette-entre-poteaux walls of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, negotiations with potential buyers of goods took place away from public view. Only blocks away at Maspero’s Exchange, a warehouse used to auction off plundered treasure, Lafitte conducted many operations such as soliciting orders of smuggled goods and slave trades among the city’s elite. Fresh off the slave ships, thousands awaited their fates in the entresol where they would be sold to the highest bidder.
Outside the city limits, a vast maze of uncharted wilderness provided a waterway where the river dumps into the Gulf of Mexico, cutting through two barrier islands called Grande Terre and Grand Isle, which was once the main thoroughfare for seafaring vessels delivering goods to and from the industrious port of New Orleans. Tobacco, sugar, cotton and cargo were transported through the diluted watercourse, creating a primary target zone where the fierce Baratarian pirates awaited their prey.
As the astute privateer recruited a few hundred seafarers and fishermen into an armada of hot-blooded buccaneers and plundering wholesalers, Lafitte’s “crew of a thousand men” settled along the legendary Baratarian Islands, a rendezvous for those driven from their homes by wars of various nations which ravaged their lives. With clandestine activity and lawless trade, Barataria and its neighboring city of New Orleans offered a secure retreat for the pirates, led by a brave Lafitte who knew its waters well.
It was a time of great cultural discrepancy in New Orleans, a city that been occupied by France, Spain, and America by the end of 1803. Of the three flags that flew over the Old Town, Lafitte and his Baratarians pledged loyalty to no country, commissioned by letters of marque to carry on naval warfare in the name of Cartagena. Moving through the Mississippi Delta, Lafitte’s crew plundered ships off the Caribbean Coast and in the Atlantic, keeping to a single code: never attack an American ship. Keeping America as an ally kept Lafitte’s business brimming, no questions asked.
After years of sailing as the Terror of the Gulf, Lafitte shifted attitudes and became the Hero of New Orleans after being insulted by the British and joining Andrew Jackson’s militia to win the War of 1812. In a final bloody battle, pirates turned to patriots with every Redcoat that they killed. The King of Barataria became more than a pirate, more than a privateer, more than a patriot. He became legend, corsair, swashbuckling savoir who squandered in spoils and salvaged a city that continues to honor his illustrious name.