At large during the most colorful period in New Orleans' history, from just after the Louisiana Purchase through the War of 1812, privateers Jean and Pierre Laffite made life hell for Spanish merchants on the Gulf. Pirates to the U.S. Navy officers who chased them, heroes to the private citizens who shopped for contraband at their well-publicized auctions, the brothers became important members of a filibustering syndicate that included lawyers, bankers, merchants, and corrupt U.S. officials. But this allegiance didn't stop the Laffites from becoming paid Spanish spies, disappearing into the fog of history after selling out their own associates.
William C. Davis uncovers the truth about two men who made their names synonymous with piracy and intrigue on the Gulf.
O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our soul's as free
Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire, and behold our home!
PERHAPS IT IS FITTING for men whose lives so lent themselves to adventure and melodrama that their name traced its origins to a word meaning something like "the song." For centuries men named Lafitte inhabited the fertile reaches between the river Garonne and the Pyrenees Mountains that separated France from Spain. Proximity to the often lawless Pyrenees, and life in the part of France most remote from the center of politics and culture in Paris, encouraged a spirit of independence in the region's inhabitants, and a tendency to look as much to the world as to their country for opportunity. Among those named for "the song," that independence appeared in their stubborn refusal of a uniform spelling of their name. Lafitte, Lafit, Laffitt, Laffite, and more, all emerged between the river and the mountains, and for many the song in their name was a Siren's call to the broader world. Immediate access to the sea on the Bay of Biscay tied many of them to trade and seafaring. The lush vineyards on either side of the Garonne, and the Gironde estuary formed at its confluence with the Dordogne River, turned more of them into vintners.
The ancient village of Pauillac perched on the west bank of the Gironde estuary exactly midway between Bordeaux and the Bay of Biscay at Pointe de Grave some thirty miles distant.1 It was about as far up the estuary as the limited maneuverability of sail could bring oceangoing ships, making it a natural port for the merchants of Bordeaux and the surrounding region. Though small, it was already the informal capital of the Medoc, and just now starting to blossom thanks to the produce of its vineyards. One Laffite family, and apparently only one of that spelling, lived in the village.2 Jean Laffite and his wife, Anne Denis, saw their son Pierre marry Marie Lagrange in 1769, but the young woman died, perhaps giving birth to a son Pierre around 1770.3 In 1775 the father Pierre remarried, this time to Marguerite Desteil, who bore six children at their home in the little village of Bages just south of Pauillac. Three daughters lived to maturity, as did a son Jean, born around 1782 or later but not baptized until 1786.4
Most of the Laffites living in the Bordeaux were solidly middle-class merchants and traders, and the elder Pierre Laffite appears to have been in trade himself.5 Certainly he was able to give his two sons at least rudimentary schooling, though their written grammar, spelling, and syntax would never be better than mediocre.6 Whoever taught them to write- parent, priest, or schoolmaster- could not keep a natural independence out of their developing handwriting, for neither boy learned very good penmanship, but their teacher left some artifacts of his rote with them. All their lives, the half brothers signed their surname in identical fashion, lifting the pen from the paper midway and leaving a barely perceptible space before finishing, to produce
What they might have made of themselves in France would never be known, for they were born into a changing and uncertain world. The Bourbon kings of France, living in increasing isolation among an in-bred and calcified aristocracy, had long since lost touch with the people and the times. The emergent middle class, especially merchants like the Laffites of the Bordeaux, felt crushed under the weight of taxation and church levies imposed to provide for the outrageous extravagance of the aristocracy and clergy. The Gironde became a seedbed of antipathy, and the Laffites would not have been men of their class if they did not share the general outrage.
It all came to an explosion in the summer of 1789, and by the fall of 1795 the people of the Bordeaux, like all Frenchmen, felt nervous exhaustion after six years of constant turmoil. By the time elections were held in October for delegates to a new Convention to rule in Paris until a regular government should take over under a new constitution, Pierre Laffite may well have been financially ruined as were so many other merchants. Even as an ardent young captain named Napoleon Bonaparte saved both the Convention and the new constitution by turning away an uprising that sought to disrupt the elections, Laffite's sons Pierre and Jean could only look on what must have seemed a blighted future landscape.7
The son Pierre, his schooling long over, lived and probably worked with his father at Number 49 Rue de la Deliverance in Bordeaux, trying to keep their business alive. Jean, perhaps aged about fourteen, likely saw his education disrupted by the turmoil that he had lived with for fully half his life. Just what each of them felt about it all he never said, but like many others of their class they imbibed a general- if not passionate- belief in local autonomy as preferable to central rule from afar, and from the turmoil and dissolution in their immediate region they learned the lesson that in troublous times, on the frontiers of civil authority, the wise man took care of himself first.
They may even have seen object lessons in how a man could profit during times of political and social upheaval if he was smart, daring, and none too scrupulous. A later acquaintance of the Laffites' recalled being told that the brothers had been contraband smugglers on the Spanish border during the times of scarcity, which would have been one way to combat severe price controls.8 And they were anyhow close enough to the Pyrenees to fall under the age-old lure of smuggling as a remedy from the greedy excise man.
Whatever the Laffites learned of making their way in the world, by the end of the decade it was evident to them that they would not make it in their native country. Economic recovery would take years, and even with a new constitution and with the Terror at an end, civil affairs remained shaky or dependent on a military that was now embroiled in contests of arms all across Europe, and with England as well. Then in December 1796 their father Pierre died. Thousands of Frenchmen from their region had emigrated, reestablishing themselves in the colonies in the New World far from the reach of the Jacobins and the guillotine. Many a royalist had gone to Spanish Louisiana, and other colonies thrived on the islands of San Domingue, Martinique, and Guadaloupe in the Caribbean. It was a natural direction to turn their eyes.
And so sometime in the last of that decade they began disappearing, and completely. For years barely a trace of them survives. A third brother, name unknown, may have left France first, or Jean may have gone about the turn of the century. Then on May 24, 1802, Pierre obtained a passport, saying he was "going to Louisiana to join one of his brothers."9 Perhaps he was the same Pierre Laffite from Pauillac, and his 1802 departure from Bourdeaux was only the return from a visit home from the colony. Two-thirds of French commercial trade was with the island which was half French and half Spanish until 1795 when France got it all. French merchant ships called first at Cap Français, and some then went on to New Orleans despite an official edict from Madrid prohibiting trade with the colonies of other powers as well as restrictions imposed by Paris. If Pierre Laffite was involved in trade at Port-au-Prince, then he might have had cause to know of and perhaps even to visit New Orleans. Nevertheless, he found that he could not escape the Revolution. Once again, inept and corrupt rule from a great distance created unrest, here compounded by a large and resentful black population. San Domingue had only 20,000 white inhabitants, while more than 100,000 free blacks and mulattoes owned one-third of the land and a fourth of the half millio...
PRAISE FOR THE PIRATES LAFFITE
"This massive, tenaciously researched book . . . should prove the last word on Laffite. Or should I say the Laffites? . . . Davis has restored Pierre to his rightful place in the story and gives us a full account of 'les deux freres.'"--The Washington Post
"Separating folklore from fact, Davis debunks hoary myths . . . For those who want to understand how the Laffites' privateering operations worked, Davis's account is the best yet produced."--The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
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