Monday, August 3, 2009

Books: She Could Have Sucked the Excitement Out of a Rollercoaster

About six years ago, I started researching my family's background. Like most people who undertake the sometimes overwhelming task of trying to find

their ancestors, I went down a lot of rabbit holes and found a lot of dead ends. One thing did come across completely unexpectedly and it essentially put your humble hostess in the place she is now - trying to get a series of novels about privateers in Louisiana Territory in the early 1800s published and sharing my passion with all you all. That something was that my father's family was from New Orleans and my great-grandmother six times removed was the little sister of one of the most successful privateers to ever sail the Gulf. So let's talk about him, shall we, and about the only biography of him that I can find.

Jane Lucas de Grummond's clunkily titled and clunkily written Renato Beluche: Smuggler, Privateer and Patriot unfortunately reveals a lot more about its author than it does about my Uncle Renato.

De Grummond is clearly enamoured with Beluche but she spends one entire chapter telling us about her trips to Venezuela and Panama in search of the man, then spends her final chapter making sure we know that she was there when they dug up the poor guy's bones and put them in the Pantheon National in Caracas. I'm related to the man and I wouldn't have wanted to see that. Sandwiched in between these personal anticdotes - which tell us nothing about Beluche the man - are photos of De Grummond meeting Beluche's descendants in Venezuela and Panama in the '50s. Two pictures of the man himself - one the painting on the cover above and the other an undated (because that's how Jane rolls) photo - are included almost grudging. Why would I want to see pictures of the man and his family when I can look at Jane at a dinner party or in a ruined house in Panama? Exactly. But there are lots of maps, so you always know where you are!

De Grummond spends her first actual chapter about her subject exhaustively listing relations Bible-style in the desperate attempt to make Renato Beluche into Jean and Pierre Laffite's cousin. Jane buys the entire "Diary of Jean Lafitte", a bogus journal written by a crazy Iowa corn farmer who I do believe honestly thought he was Laffite, hook, line and sinker. She trots out the Jewish connection to Spain - a story the Laffite brothers made up purely to justify their predation on Spanish shipping to American listeners - and has Beluche's mother somehow related to that Spanish Jewess Laffite grandmother who allegedly escaped the Inquisition. For a fairytale, this book sure has bogus illustrations.

Here's how it went down, Jane's bizarre history not withstanding. Renato Beluche was born in 1780 in NOLA to Rene Beluche and his wife Dominique Rose or Rosalie. Both were Creole and Rene was in the smuggling business while running a hat shop on Rue Domaine. It looks like Renato was the oldest of nine children, with my Grandma Selina as the youngest. When Renato was eight, "Big Rene" Beluche died, leaving Rosalie and the kids in debt up to their eyeballs. Renato took the bull by the horns and signed aboard a merchant ship, eventually graduating to officer status aboard a series of French privateers and owning his own ship by the age of seventeen. He fed his family doing something he loved and that is the definition of success. I'm gonna say Rosalie was proud.

By 1807 the Laffite brothers had taken charge of Barataria Bay and turned a loosly knit configuration of privateers into a well run business. Men like Beluche brought in the prizes and the Laffites sold the goods and everybody got rich. Win, win, win. In 1810 the independent state of Cartagena was established and the junta run by Bolivar began to issue letters of marque. Beluche became the go-between for the Laffite brothers and procured letters of marque from Cartagena for the Baratarian privateers. How, you ask? Beats me. There's nothing specific in the book or in my research as to exactly when Beluche signed up for service with the Liberator. We do know, though, that by 1812 Beluche was a Lieutenant in the Cartagenan navy. By 1821 he held the rank of Commodore in the Venezuelan navy.

Meanwhile, the War of 1812 hit the homeland. The Laffites were kicked out of Barataria and the privateers were criminalized by the U.S. When Jackson showed up for the Battle of New Orleans, it took some convincing to get him to forget about what those "hellish banditi" had been up to in Barataria and allow himself to use their expertise with ships and cannon. Who convinced him? There's no clear answer to that question. The "Diary of Jean Lafitte" says Jean did... and then he challenged the General to a duel. Honestly. If you're buying that, I've got a piece of the moon you might like to purchase as well. Jackson finally relented and put Beluche and his fellow privateer and friend Dominique Youx to work on his line. Battery number 3 was where each of them captained a crew working a 24 pound cannon. This Battery devistated the British and had a huge impact on the outcome of the Battle of New Orleans. Beluche was now an American hero but he wasn't one to rest on his laurels.

Beluche continued to work with the Laffites' when they moved their operation to Galveston after the war but more and more of his time was spent helping the new state of Venezuela by sea. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Maracaibo, took his ships around the horn to Peru, Quito and Panama and was called by Bolivar "superior to all the others (naval officers) because of his rank, knowledge and ability, enthusiasms, etc."

Beluche, who married twice, took his second wife Marie Mezelle Beaudri and their two daughters Reneta and Columbia to Puerto Cabello on the coast of Venezuela where they became citizens of the new country. A son named Diego would be born there in 1828. Beluche was at sea a good deal and at one point Mezelle advertised their house for sale stating she planned to move back to the U.S. I imagine she thought Uncle Renato was dead.

In fact, he was hanky-pankying with a younger woman on the island of Taboga in the Bay of Panama. How old the young lady was I can't say (De Grummond just refers to her as "young and beautiful" because that's history for you!) but Candelaria Esquivel and Beluche set up housekeeping on the island for a while. At some point he left, probably with that "duty calls" excuse sailors are fond of. A while later she gave birth to a son she named Blas Beluche Esquivel. Interestingly, De Grummond has Blas' descendants on Taboga going by the name of Beluche as if Renato came back and made an honest woman of Candelaria at some point, which he didn't.

After Bolivar's death, Beluche became a little more caught up in politics than he should have. He was a sailor first and formost and eventually hanging his hat on the wrong political party got him exhiled from Venezuela for nine years. While he waited it out in NOLA, Mezelle passed away in Puerto Cabello. When he returned to Venezuela, Beluche retired. He died in 1860 with his kids at his side. He was buried next to Mezelle in Rancho Grande Cemetery in Puerto Cabello under the monument he erected to her. It read: Who will dare disturb, friend, your repose? The tomb of the virtuous is not a tomb but an altar. R.B. How romantic is that?

Finally, the book is flawed most of all because it is so dry. The life between the pages was full of excitement, daring, heroism, love and fun. A simple smuggler's son becomes a hero in two nations and gets to do what most of us only dream of - sail in your own ship for a living. Too bad Jane could suck the excitement out of a rollercoaster because Uncle Renato, your life sure was one!


Timmy! said...

Comments? We don't need no stinking comments! Just kidding. her's to your uncle Renato, Pauline... May he rest in peace.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Rest in peace is right. So much for Mezelle's sainted repose. As I understand it, Puerto Cabello paved part of the cemetery for a highway in the 70s. Nice.

Anonymous said...


I agree with your review of De Grummond's book, though I am glad she wrote it. My father had contacted her, before she published the book to try and get family information (being a descendant of Candelaria), but she wasn't very helpful.

-Al Johnson

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Al and thanks for stopping by. I hope you will make it a habit. I'm sorry to hear that Dr. De Grummond's book wasn't of more help to you, and I agree that it was, in the end, a worthwhile effort regardless.

Are you related to Blas Beluche Esquevil as well as Dona Candelaria?

Anonymous said...

Yes; Blas is my great, great grandfather and I am the same Al Johnson on FB.


Pauline said...

Ahoy, Al! Got it. Thanks for clarifying. I'll look forward to hearing from you again.