Friday, March 5, 2010

Booty: Fortune Favors The Brave

An American milestone came and went on Tuesday and I didn't say word one about it so, in all humility, I'm playing a little bit of catch up today. On March 2, 1836 the then Mexican Territory of Texas declared her independence and went forward as the Republic of Texas. It was a bold move considering that Mexico's siege of the Alamo was going on at the same time. But Texans were undaunted and one of the first things they did was set up a navy of privateers (smart Texans).

As we discussed here, the Laffite brothers proved that a handy profit could be made running a privateering operation with their boom town in Galveston. In 1836 there were still people around who remembered that golden era and the new government of Texas went straight to work handing out letters of marque and reprisal including a nice chunk of profits for themselves. By November Texas had a register of ships and Captains who held their commissions and shown above is a page from that book (courtesy of the State of Texas Navy webpage).

The Captains names, their ships and the current known state of the vessel are listed on the document, dated November 3, 1836. The list of four ships indicates that John M. Allen is the Captain of the pilot schooner Terrible, W.S. Brown captains the schooner Benjamin R. Milam, Peter Grayson has the schooner Tom Toby and a man named Moore is in command of schooner Jim Bowie. Two of the ships are out of New Orleans which is no surprise since - just like the Laffites - the privateers and the Texas government would have been selling their plundered goods in that capital of decadence and excess. The document is signed by chief clerk John Buchanan.

So there's a well established privateering tradition in the great state of Texas and it all started with our cher amis Jean and Pierre Laffite. But there's another, more subtle connection to the Emperors of Barataria here. The name of the last ship is the key.

Here is the man after whom the schooner was named: Of course that's James Bowie, who died at the Battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836. He was an instant hero in the Republic of Texas and still is in the State. Plus he invented this grizzly bear:

Here's the thing most people don't know about Mr. Bowie, though. When he and his brother Rezin left the army in 1819, they returned to their home state of Louisiana and found a booming market in slaves. But slaves could not (legally) be brought into the U.S. via ship as was the habit of the Laffites in Barataria. Again, the Laffite brothers were way ahead of the curve, and the Bowie brothers wanted in on the lucrative action. Thanks to the U.S. Congress, their partnership worked beautifully.

The Laffites sold slaves literally by the pound at their slave market at Deweyville on the Texas side of the Sabine river. The Bowies would show up, buy a likely batch of healthy humans, and march them into Louisiana. There they would take the slaves straight to the U.S. authorities and claim that the unfortunates were cargo from a ship that Bowie associates had captured in the name of the U.S. Well done boys, the authorities would say. Now - again thanks to Congress - we'll sell this chattel and give you 50% of the profits. These sales were usually handled quickly and, since a good field hand could bring as much as $1,500 or more at auction, the Bowies made money hand over fist.

The Bowie brothers visited Galveston more than once and evidently Jim and Jean Laffite struck up something of a friendship. Old salts would later remark that the two men looked similar, to the point where some thought they might be related.

While there is not genealogical evidence of relation, in my mind they are kindred spirits. Two men prepared to look out for themselves and their brothers and step on or over anyone else. All the same managing, despite their questionable deeds, to come down to us as heroes.

"Fortune favors the brave", by the way, is the motto of the Texas Navy. Apparently it really does.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I didn't even know Texas had a Navy (until now), let alone what their motto was... I find it amusing that it's strangely similar to TMQ's football mantra, "fortune favors the bold"... While it seems that most folks don't like to think about their "heroes" doing things that we find objectionable by our 21st century mores, I think it's important to remember that they were just as flawed and as human as the rest of us are... Thankee, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Well, football is big in Texas so... I don't know where I'm going with that. Isn't TMQ from Maryland? Like Mike Rowe?

Anyway, I agree that everyone has their skeletons and that we cannot project 21st century morals on to our ancestors *however* slavery still exists in many forms (something most of us don't want to think about) and I believe it to be the worst stain on the human condition through out history. I also believe that we are right to judge harshly those who did and do profit from human trafficking.

There's no such thing as a spotless hero. Some are just a little more besmirched than others.

Undine said...

It's a curious theme that runs through history--men who become "heroes" in spite of themselves.

The Bowie brothers remind me a bit of a fellow named Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Founder of New Zealand, eminent colonial statesman, long and distinguished entry under his name in the "Dictionary of National Biography," quite the honored figure in the history of the British Empire. Kicked off his career by kidnapping an heiress and tricking her into marrying him, a stunt that got him three years in prison.

Believe me, it's a long story.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine! It sounds like not only a long story but a fascinating one.

History is so much better than fiction!

Dwight said...

Audaces fortuna iuvat - Fortune favors the bold. (Virgil's Aeneid).

During the same period as the Republic of Texas's Navy, they also had embassy's in Europe. One of them was strategically located in London in what is now a very nice wine shop. Around the corner from the wine shop is the Texas Embassy Cantina, a Tex Mex joint that is famous with U.S. ex-patriots all over Europe for serving a huge number of traditional turkey dinners at Thanksgiving. And not bad salsa.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Dwight and thankee for the "insider" Texas info.

Two more places to add to my list of visiting when in London. All things Nelson first though, of course.