Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tools of the Trade: The Smugglers Craft

OK, I've said it before and I'll say it again: without smugglers and merchants, you get no pirates and privateers. It's just that simple. Catching a prize full of gold bars was every freebooter's dream. That goes without saying. It didn't happen very often, though, and for the vast majority of pirates and privateers it never happened at all. That meant that when you brought in that merchant dogger full of coffee, oil, silk and indigo, somebody had to sell it for you. And before they could even do that they had to get it to market. Enter today's handy, weatherly and very American boat.

Known as a periauger in the Chesapeake, Carolinas and Georgia and a pirogue in Louisiana, Mississippi and eventually Texas, the little work horse shown above excelled at her designated job. Originally a Native American vessel, she was hollowed out of half a cedar or cypress tree trunk and used to carry provisions and people through the backwaters and bayous of her area. These kind of surreptitious waterways are, of course, the chosen routes of smugglers so they latched on to the handy boats fairly quickly.

During the Golden Age of piracy, the smugglers of Carolina and Georgia improved on - for their purposes anyway - the original Native design. They split the hollow tree trunk lengthwise and added a keel log in the center. This allowed for better maneuverability under sail, particularly near shore where oyster beds and other hazards could otherwise tear up the round bottom. When no wind was available, many periaugers had room for up to four oarsman per side. The boats ranged in displacement from 3 to 7 tons and they could carry a surprising amount of booty swiftly over otherwise hard to navigate river roads.

In Louisiana during the late 18th century, the pirogue became virtually the only vessel in the bayous and swamps surrounding New Orleans. The brothers Laffite, always sharp as tacks, put these boats to good use in their operations, first in Louisiana and then in Texas. They had warehouses not only in their base at Barataria south of the city but up and down the Mississippi as far north as Donaldsonville (and possibly even Point Coupee and Baton Rouge). Therefor they needed swift, reliable boats that could haul men and goods in both the open river and the most shallow of bayous. The pirogue served this purpose so admirably that there is now a variation specific to Louisiana known as a "Lafitte Skiff":

According to this website, which has some fascinating detail about her construction, the skiff is named not after the brothers (good thing too, since that would make it unfortunately misspelled) but after the fishing village of Lafitte. In this incarnation she is perfect for the fast sailing required by shrimp and crab fisherman along the Gulf coast.

Of course the U.S. Navy, once she was well established, wasn't going to take all this smuggling nonsense lying down. Being almost as clever as the Laffites themselves, the Navy modified an earlier version of the periauger and married it to the local pirogue. Adding a heftier, flatter bottom so that a twenty-four pound cannon could be mounted in her waist and fore-and-aft schooner rigging turned the smuggler's pirogue into a U.S. Navy gunboat.

By 1810 the early Commodores of the U.S. Naval Station in New Orleans - Porter, Shaw and Patterson - could meet the smugglers in their own waters. This was surprisingly effective until the Laffites moved their operation to Galveston and out of the U.S. entirely. The gunboats - or perry-augers as they were called in New England - remained a vital part of naval sailing. As an interesting aside, these gunboats were never given names but assigned numbers instead.

Next time you return from the pirate rounds, Brethren, remember to thank your local smuggler. You couldn't do it without him or her, and it may be that they couldn't do it without this delightful little vessel.

6 comments:

dwightjacobs said...

Another great posting Pauline/Paula! I wonder if these were the precursors to the gunboats that the British adopted to sail up rivers in Asia/around the world to fight pirates and impose Gunboat Diplomacy on lessor nations...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Dwight! Super question. I've read the British claim theirs were based on similar, raft-like craft used in Africa but I wonder. Reed rafts aren't exactly the best blueprint for gunboats and the British certainly saw more than one pirogue and US Navy gunboat during the War of 1812. I feel more research coming on!

Ozarklorian said...

Interesting post, Pauline. I didn't know some of the details about pirogues and gunboats.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Similar to Dwight, i was thinking that these navy gunboats were the precursors to the PT boats of modern navies... Regardless, support your local smuggler, folks and stick it to "the man"!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Ozarklorian! It is interesting.

The evolution of the 19th century US Navy gunboat (even into the Civil War) seems directly tied to the perceived problem of piracy and smuggling in and around the Gulf Coast. It makes sense, of course, to use the smugglers' own vessel against him. Especially when it is made to perform so well in local conditions.

As I said to Dwight, it might be time for a little more research and "Gunboats Part 2" in a future post!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I was totally thinking that, too! Like PT 109 is a direct descendant of Henry Reede's GB 8. Entirely possible...

Did I mention doing some further research on the subject?