Thursday, July 30, 2009

History: Wait, You Don't Look Like Your Picture at That Online Dating Service

The above, Brethren, is a painting of four simple sailors having a drink and a song in the glory days of privateering. Their names? Some of you may know, but keep it to yourselves until I'm done rambling, OK? Many thanks! And now:
I often think of historical research the way I imagine most people perceive online dating. You get a hankerin' and take that leap of faith onto the internets (the equivalent of that first niggle that says - for me anyway - "I'd like to write about this era/person/event in history"). Then, you're given options to chose from (this time that equates to the different views of various first person accounts and historian's interpretations). Next, you have to choose from what you've been offered (which historical account sounds the most plausible and will it work in the medium you've chosen). Finally, you have to commit. Sooner or later, date number one is going to lead to date number two or, in my case, I gotta put it down on paper and make it sound not only convincing but interesting - even gripping.

That perhaps too wordy exposition brings us to the red clad cavalier above. Looking like a constipated reject from an original Shakespeare audition at the Globe Theatre, the captions under the picture all over the web read "Jean Lafitte". I've done my research, I've chosen my story and I've read the first person accounts. I just don't think that's the same guy I'm talking about.

Jean Laffite (there is some debate about the spelling of the name, but we'll save that for another time), along with his older brother Pierre, ran the last great privateer/pirate base in North America. From their original port of Barataria Bay (proudly pictured on the Triple P banner) they oversaw a small fleet of privateers and then sold the corsair's booty to the citizen of Louisiana. Jean was the big dog in Barataria, working from his base on the Island of Grande Terre. Pierre was the numbers guy, keeping track of stock and sales from his home in New Orleans. It was a slick, profitable outfit that preceded the modern racketeer game by over 100 years. Heros? That debate is a post in itself. Savvy business men with a gift for leadership? No doubt what ever. And handsome? Ladies, let me tell you.

My arguments about the portrait above go beyond a special affection for the bos of Barataria. There are historical precedents that will easily refute the authenticity of that painting, nice though it may be. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.
In his delightfully written and exhaustively researched book "The Pirates Laffite", William C. Davis picks at every myth about the brothers from Barataria and turns up historical documentation for and against without batting an eye. Davis is a consummate historian and a wonderful writer to boot and I'll review his book here in the future. Specific to the appearance of Jean Laffite in his days as the "gentleman" of New Orleans, Davis makes reference to a letter written by Esau Glasscock from Concordia Parish, Louisiana. The letter describes eighteen-year-old Esau's meeting with Laffite in New Orleans and was originally quoted by Lyle Saxon in his historically flawed but cheerfully purple "Lafitte the Pirate". In the letter, Esau and his father have come to NOLA to buy slaves from the Laffite brothers, and the young man meets Jean at one of the Black and White balls where wealthy white men mingled with the most beautiful mixed race "free women of color" in the hope of finding a long term mistress.

Esau is very clear in his description. Jean is tall, over six feet by an inch or more, and "well proportioned". He is handsome by the standards of the day with remarkably pale skin, dark hair and dark hazel eyes. His hair is worn longer than "the fashion" according to Esau and his face is shaved clean except for a set of whiskers that follow his jawline toward his chin. His hands and feet are unusually small and his teeth are unusually white. He is dressed in the height of style and his manners are impeccable.

While I understand that the portrait is usually referred to as having originated from Jean's time at Galveston, some ten years after the above description was written, I can't see the man turning into Sir Francis Bacon just because he moved to Texas. A gentleman - and Jean was always referred to as a gentleman - who prides himself on his fashion sense in his twenties isn't going to quit doing so in his thirties or forties. Let's be honest.

Then too there's this: the painting up there is the only confirmed portrait, from life, of three of the four men pictured. It hangs in the Cabildo off Jackson Square in New Orleans and it is taken as a matter of course that the men pictured are as follows: In the murky shadows of the far left is Renato Beluche who we will discuss at length in the future. He's been painted more than once, so its kind of OK that he didn't come off so well here. Standing is Pierre Laffite, with an endearingly goofy smile that makes you want to squeeze his cheeks. To the far right is Dominique Youx. Youx and Beluche were the Laffites' most trusted privateers. He's another guy we'll talk more about. Finally, sitting there with his cup raised singing rather purposefully is Jean "the bos" Laffite.

Pass the bottle, Jean, and don't trouble yourself duelling with that poser in red.


Timmy! said...

Wow, your best post yet! I think you may have a real talent for this blogging thing... We all knew you could write, but I was kind of thinking that it was really somewhat beneath you. You are actually elevating the intelligence level of them there internets with each post, Pauline... So many of your historical heros... Plus a shout-out to Bill Davis (one of your historian heros) too. Excellent!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! And thank you indeed. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed not to find a "Glasscock" joke in there somewhere... Huh, huh; you said...