Tuesday, December 15, 2009

History: The King vs Rene Beluche

Look, I've always said I'm an 18th century girl and today proves it once again. I had a nicely scanned picture of my ancestor Renato Beluche all ready for the header of this post and then Blogger goes and tells me the jpg is corrupt and can't be downloaded. Fine. Born on this day in 1780 on the property at 628 Rue Dumaine that is now known in New Orleans as Madame John's Legacy (due to a George Washington Cable story), no word fits my great grandmother eight times removed's big brother less. If ever there was a incorruptible pirate, it was my Uncle Renato.

This statement is clearly illustrated by an incident that occurred over the course of the spring and summer of 1818 when Uncle Renato was in his prime and had risen to the rank of Commodore in Bolivar's Venezuelan navy. He and his old pal Dominique Youx were cruising their schooners - General Arismendi and Guerrier respectively - off the coast of Cuba. They came upon a man in a small boat and, because of reports they had heard about piratical depredations by just that sort of vessel in the area, stopped and detained both. Eventually, Beluche took the boat aboard General Arismendi and allowed the man aboard, James Scott, to leave for Jamaica in the sloop of Scott's acquaintance, a man named Samuel Phillips.

At the time of this interaction, Beluche and Youx held commissions in the Venezuelan navy and were therefore within their rights to challenge pirates in any waters frequented by ships from that country. The irony being, of course, that both men were notorious privateers who - though they only took Spanish ships as per their commissions - were still working with the infamous Laffite brothers who had set up shop in Galveston harbor only two years before. Technically both men were legitimate naval officers, but only if the country they were dealing with recognized Bolivar's supremacy over Spain's.

When Beluche arrived at Kingston, Jamaica in April, Scott appears to have been waiting for him. He ran off to the authorities, claimed to be a British citizen and further claimed that Beluche had stolen his little $50 dinghy in an act of heinous piracy. Since the British did not recognize Venezuela as a country at the time and since Scott had a bill of sail for the boat that was indeed found aboard General Arismendi, Beluche was remanded to the Kingston jail.

The case of The King vs Rene Beluche (as Renato is referred to throughout the documentation of the trial - it was his father's name) became a bit of a cause celebre in New Orleans. Beluche was a hero of the January, 1815 Battle of New Orleans that saved the city - and the country - from British invasion. Now, it seemed to this favorite son's brethren back home, the British were trying to get a bit of their own back by railroading Beluche straight to the gallows as a pirate. The NOLA papers, particularly the French language Gazette de la Louisiane, re-tweeted each article out of Kingston on the subject and people hung on every word. It was, in fact, one of the first big "celebrity trials" in US history.

I won't go through the entire case as it was printed in Kingston and New Orleans. Very simply, Scott claimed to be wronged by both Beluche and Youx (interestingly, no where to be found during the trial) in the issue of the "stolen" boat and Phillips went along with the story. When Beluche's counsel took the stage, however, a very different tale came to light. Impartial witnesses who were aboard Phillips' sloop testified that Scott's boat was in fact carrying only arms, flints, balls and black powder, not the "provisions" Scott claimed Youx had taken from him. Later, an American who had served with Scott on a Spanish vessel testified that Scott was also an American which blew the lid off the British Admiralty's case. Their indignation had been over crimes against a British subject by an American, and now here was Scott an American himself.

Defense continued with character witnesses, mostly merchants that made a ton of money working with the defendant, who repeatedly claimed Beluche "...bore a very excellent character" and was considered "...a very brave and humane man."

Phillips was called back to the stand to account for discrepancies in his testimony but, before the questioning could finish, the jury advised that they had reached a decision. The verdict was not guilty. After over a month in prison, Uncle Renato was exonerated and returned to the sea that he loved.

Beluche took General Arismendi to New Orleans, where his mistress and young daughter were waiting for him. He was welcomed home as a hero, just as he had been after the bloody battle on Rodriguez Canal. Pretty impressive for a guy who went to sea at age 8 just to keep his pregnant mother and younger siblings fed. Happy Birthday, Uncle Renato. Fair winds and fat prizes.

7 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Sorry about the picture. I think it wouldn't work because when I scanned it and sent it to you it was a pdf file, not a jpeg... Oops. Anyway, a belated happy birthday to your great Uncle Renato... And when I say "great", I mean it. If it weren't for him and the rest of the heros of the battle of New Orleans, we'd all be speaking Canadian now, eh? And no one wants that...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Well, it's not the most flattering picture general speaking but it's all I've got. At least he's got that kick ass uniform on!

santasha said...

What a great post! I too am a descendant of Renato Beluche, he was a great great great grandfather. I'd love to converse with you further on where you received some of your information. Thanks

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Santasha and welcome aboard! I am always happy to meet another Beluche relative, no matter how distant. Feel free to email me at ladypfb@gmail.com anytime. I'd love to to chat.

Luis said...

Hi! I just found this while looking for info on Rene Beluche.

I'm a direct descendant of Nicolas Joly, another French captain in the Venezuelan navy and a close friend of Beluche. Little is known about Joly's origins, but there is the possibility that he is related to Beluche (may have been cousins), since Beluche's maternal grandmother was called Dominique Joly.

Cheers.

Pauline said...

Hello Luis; good to meet a fellow member of the extended family of privateers!

I have had a lot of luck tracking down the Beluche side of the family but not so much with Renato's mother's family. According to Dr. Jane Lucas DeGrummond, Rose or Rosa LaPorte was from a family that may or may not have originally come from Haiti. This is also her connection to the Laffite family as far as the Beluches are concerned. Her assertion is that the Laffite bothers' mother was also a LaPorte and that the family was from Spain. Unfortunately, her documentation for this comes mostly from the highly questionable "Journal of Jean Laffite" apparently written by Matthew Laflin, who claimed to be Laffite, and published by his descendant, John Laflin, in 1958.

I'm not sold on this as, first and foremost, the journal is most probably bogus. Also, I can find no documents regarding baptisms, births, etc. that show the connection. I do surmise that Madame Beluche's given name was Rose Dominique LaPorte based on her certificate of marriage to Rene Beluche. This makes the idea that her mother's name may have been Dominique - popular for both women and men at the time - very plausible.

Thank you so much for adding to this post. Any more information you could leave as to the Joly/Beluche connection would be much appreciated! Or feel free to DM me on Twitter if you're there.

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