Friday, February 5, 2010

History: The Question Is Belief

(from left: Renato Beluche, Jean Laffite, Pierre Laffite, Dominique Youx)

Go ahead and say it and we'll just get it out of the way, Brethren. History? On Friday? The hell, Pauline? I know. I like it when Friday is Booty day too. Less work for me, frankly. But today is an unfortunately sad anniversary here at Triple P and I want to share some thoughts on it with you, the other folks who care about buccaneers, pirates, privateers and freebooters.

According to the April 20, 1823 addition of the Gaceta de Columbia, Jean Laffite died and was buried at sea on February 5th of that year. He was mortally injured in a firefight against another ship or ships while captaining the Bolivarian sanctioned Cartagenan privateer General Santandar. The nationality of the hostile ships is impossible to tack down with certainty. The Gaceta states they were a Spanish frigate and her tender, a schooner. Laffite probably lingered through the night and into the morning and died sometime after dawn on the 5th.

It is most probable that this small piece on the death of a patriot fighting for Grand Columbia was simply a retweet of an article in the Gaceta de Cartagena, no copy of which appears to exist. The news would not have been earth-shattering to the people of what would one day be Columbia. They had bigger fish to fry what with all the shifting of power from one junta to another as Bolivar's vast dream of a united, free South America slipped through his weakening fingers. Within seven years the Great Liberator himself would be dead of tuberculosis.

It all seems pretty straight forward from the outside looking in, but Laffite scholars - like so many others who have a true passion for a particular point or person in history - are debating the truth of the little article to this day. Did Laffite die out there in the treacherous waters of the Bay of Honduras, his life perhaps somewhat vindicated by his willingness to take on a legal Cartagenan commission and return to the hard work of seaman? Or did something else happen?

Here are the three prominent theories of Jean Laffite's death in brief:
1) He died of fever in Sisal, Mexico, after his third and last smuggling empire on Isla de la Mujeres (just north of Cancun) failed. In this theory, Pierre Laffite simply disappears around the same time - 1821 - never to be heard of again.
2) Pierre was the Laffite brother who succumbed to fever in 1821 while Jean, already having returned to sea roving, did a brief if miserable stint in a Cuban prison. Jean then died in 1823 as per the Colombian newspaper article.
3) Jean either never returned to sea or ingloriously ditched his mates aboard Santandar, took up a new identity, returned to the U.S. and died in his bed in 1850 as an Iowa corn farmer.

There is documentation - however toilet paper thin some of it may actually be - to "prove" each theory. Up until the early 20th century, people in the little village of Sisal could lead you to a grave which is now underwater and swear that this was where the notorious "Juan Lafitte" was buried. Of course, we do have the article from the Gaceta and the testimony of the men who served under Laffite and limped General Santandar into port at Portobelo, Panama. And then we have the diary of Jean Lafitte.

The diary and the controversy that surrounds it is another post in itself and I won't go into detail here (you all have lives, after all). Suffice it to say that the diary appeared out of the blue in the hands of a man named Mathew Laflin. It was published as The Journal of Jean Lafitte in 1958 and Laflin maintained to his death that his father, John Laflin, wrote the memoir and was indeed the famous Laffite. Interestingly, John Laflin asked on his deathbed that his journal not be brought to light publicly until 105 years after his death.

The journal continues to be debated with huge amounts of effort being put forth by exemplary researchers and historians, especially for the Laffite Society based in Galveston, TX. My friend, Pam Keyes, who is one of those remarkable researchers, wrote a compelling article for the society Chronicles (Sept 2008) detailing Lieutenant Levy, USN's hunt for Laffite in 1823. Her conclusion is that Laffite could not have died aboard Santandar and hundreds of such articles exist (most of them probably not as knowledgeable as hers, but you get my point).

The bottom line is that no one knows for sure, but history - unlike science where cause and effect can be proven - often has to rely on one of the most undependable factors on Earth: human nature. And that is why I am an advocate of the second possible scenario of Jean Laffite's death. A man like Laffite, hungry from power, adventure and wealth but dependant on his only living relative - his brother - for stabilization and support, could never have retired to a life of obscurity in Midwest-ville. When he returned from the hellhole of that Cuban prison and found Pierre dead and buried, I have no doubt that something snapped. Life as Jean knew it was over. He may very well have gone seeking his own bloody end. He would have quickly expired on an Iowa farm just as surely as he did in General Santandar's cabin.

In the end, it's a question of belief. The Gaceta de Columbia and the word of a few raggedy privateers at Portobelo or the as yet unproven Journal of Jean Lafitte. Finally, it is important to note that there are living descendants of Pierre Laffite in the U.S. today, but no one seems to be in any hurry to match their DNA to that of the descendants of John Laflin.

Repos bien, bos. Donnez mon amour à Pierre.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Great post! And here's to Jean Laffite... salute, bos! As I think I said to you yesterday, why anyone still believes in the ersatz "Diary of Jean Lafitte" (the most famous man who could write his autobiography, but couldn't spell his own name?) is still beyond me... wishful thinking is my guess. I think the last sentence in your post is the most damning evidence of all... Happy Friday, fair winds and a following sea to you and to all of your followers, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and thankee. Not trying to ruffle feathers by any means but I've made up my mind. All the same, I understand the urge to believe that the bos lived a long and happy life somewhere - anywhere - and didn't end up fish food. But it's all part of the romance, isn't it?