Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Home Ports: Large Ground

There are all kinds of legends of famous pirates hiding treasure in and around their home ports for later use. These always tickle me because the prevailing notion seems to be that pirates were like dogs: just burying the bone for later. In point of fact pirates spent the money they got and that was that. Even in one of the most sophisticated pirate ports ever - a place that was more akin to a small country than a simple stomping ground - there's no cache of buried treasure. The Laffite brothers had better things to do with their coin.

Barataria Bayou is located south of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico. Two large islands, Grand Isle (shown above looking out to the Gulf) to the west and Grande Terre to the east form a barrier between the sea and Barataria Bay. There is a narrow pass between the two and only sloops, schooners and brigs with shallow drafts could navigate into the safety of the bay. Barataria is perfectly situated to become a piratical kingdom.

Some time in the early 19th century, probably between 1805 and 1807, Jean Laffite moved to Grande Terre and became bos (which loosely translates as boss in a Sopranos sort of sense) of an already establish pirate haven. His elder brother, Pierre, lived with his growing family in New Orleans. Jean, himself a sailor, saw to the privateering end of the business. Pierre was in charge of sales. By 1809 Pierre and Jean ran one of the largest and most organized smuggling operations ever managed in the United States.

The area, it must be said, was ripe for just such an operation. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the territory and particularly the area around New Orleans went from a sophisticated if under governed Spanish holding to a potential State. The US was quick to impose her laws, and that included tariffs and sanctions against foreign merchandise which then led to an all out effort to curtail the smuggling that was literally ubiquitous to the area. The local Creoles, accustomed to European goods and considering themselves French anyway, turned to the Laffite brothers and their privateers to maintain the status quo with regard to all available goods, including slaves banned from import. The Laffites, of course, readily obliged.

From the base on the flat, breezy island of Grande Terre, Laffite held regular markets of goods plundered from Spanish shipping in the Gulf. Everything from foods, wines, cloth, jewelry, and spices to living purchases like exotic animals and slaves was available and all for a price that would be unimaginable from an American sanctioned merchant in the city. Laffite signed "passports" for those visiting Barataria. He called his kingdom "New France" and referred to Napoleon Bonaparte as his "Uncle", assuring people that Barataria was never intended to be part of the deal with Jefferson. Say what you will about his brand of crazy, Jean Laffite had balls.

For five years the operation on Grande Terre prospered as did the Laffites. Their lieutenants included Renato Beluche, possibly a distant cousin who supplied the Laffites with letters of marque from Cartagena, Dominique Youx, the mysterious privateer who is erroneously tagged as Pierre and Jean's brother, Vincente Gambi, a nasty little man who kept the Laffites in slaves and Louis Chighizola, a jovial if ugly local who appears to have kept things in order when Jean was away. It was good times for a while. The money flowed in and the privateers walked arm in arm down the streets of New Orleans, to the utter dismay of the American merchants.

By 1814 the climate had changed and the War of 1812 brought the hens home to roost. Concerned that the Spanish government would assist Britain due to the continued predations of the Baratarians, President Madison gave the order to raid Barataria. Commodore Daniel Tod Patterson led a flotilla of gunboats with Colonel George Ross at the head of Army troops into Barataria. They took ships as prizes, men as prisoners and torched the settlement on Grande Terre. Though some of the pirates returned after the Battle of New Orleans - won with the Laffite brothers' help despite the raid - Barataria never returned to her glory days as a pirate port.

But what about treasure? Did the Laffites secrete something in the bayous? In fact, they did. The family of Louis Chighizola still lives on Grand Isle as their ancestors did. They will show you his grave on the island, with his wife beside him, and then they will show you the treasure. A golden thimble, made from a Spanish coin specifically for Madame Chighizola on the orders of Jean Laffite. Legend has it that Laffite had the thimble made to keep Louis from spending money intended for his wife. If that isn't a treasure, I don't know what is.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! About time we got a proper post on the Laffites. Jean Laffite was not only the "bos", he was da Man! He and Pierre (and Dominique and your uncle Renato) are bona fide heros of the Battle of New Orleans, so thanks to them we don't all speak Canadian... thanks guys! And thanks to you, I know about this stuff... Thanks, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I know I'm kind of a "Laffite-centric" pirate lover so I try not to be too "Laffite-forward" here at Triple P. But you know what? Sometimes a girl can't help herself! Thankee, too, for the props for family. Always good to remember our ancestors; especially around this time of year!