On September 3rd in the year 1814 an unfamiliar ship appeared off the artillery lined coast of the island of Grande Terre. The ship fired a salvo from her guns and then cruised into Barataria Bay as if she called the port home. She dropped anchor and put a launch into the green water carrying both her Sergeant of the Marines and her Captain. The ship was the Royal Navy frigate Sophie fresh from the Jamaica station. The War of 1812 had come to Louisiana’s shores and the pirates, privateers and smugglers who called Barataria Bay home would shortly be in the thick of it.
When Jean Laffite stepped onto the deep porch of his Creole-style home and looked out at the stranger now floating in the middle of his country he had far larger concerns than a few British seamen. He had recently answered Governor Claiborne’s $500 reward for his capture by posting his own $1,000 reward for the head of the Louisiana Governor around the city of New Orleans. Meanwhile his brother Pierre, his only known living relative and a person Jean honestly loved, sat in chains in an 8 by 8 foot cell in the Calabozo awaiting trial and most probably death at the end of a rope. The bos must have sighed and rolled his eyes while tugging on his cutaway and donning his hat. “What now?” one can almost hear him muttering.
The what of it was an offer from the British government carried by Captain Lockyer of Sophie and meant to turn Jean Laffite and his men with him against the Americans in Louisiana. Britain wanted a staging area for their invasion of New Orleans and Barataria Bay was too good to ignore. Laffite was French, the British reasoned, and his men were a mixed bag of every color, creed and nation. Surely they would turn on the Americans without a second thought. A simple offer of a little money and potential position would turn this Laffite against his own mother. Everyone knows these Frenchies have no loyalties, no courage, no souls.
The far flung assumptions of the British were wrong. The men of Barataria, Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche at their head, protested bitterly and Laffite only just managed to keep them from killing Lockyer and his sailors. Laffite served up a feast to the British and looked over their offer but refused, even in the face of heavy pressure including threats of immediate destruction of Grande Terre, to give Lockyer an answer. Instead he imprisoned the Captain and his officers before sending the British oarsmen back to Sophie. The following day, through the almost miraculous machinations of a man who was smoother than silk, Sophie sailed away from Barataria without firing a shot and without an answer for Lockyer.
Within six days everything changed for Jean Laffite. Word that Commodore Patterson of the New Orleans Naval Station was mounting a flotilla to destroy his Baratarian strong hold reached him. Then his brother managed quite mysteriously to break out of prison and return to Grande Terre. Though ill, it is probable that Pierre helped Jean write what historian Jane Lucas deGrummond called “… the best letter [Jean Laffite] ever composed”. Jean laid it all on the line in this letter to the man he had recently offered anyone who could read a monetary reward for his death. Unfortunately, it would not save his kingdom of Barataria or bring his men into the bosom of the American military. At least not right away. But it is a brilliant piece of work that most people are completely unaware of. Here then is the letter in its entirety for your consideration. Enjoy.
Grande Terre, 10 September, 1814
To his Excellency Monsieur Wm. C.C. Claiborne, Governor of the State of Louisiana,
In the firm persuasion that the choice made of you to fill the office of first magistrate was dictated by the esteem of your fellow citizens and was conferred on merit, I confidently address you on an affair on which may depend the safety of this country.
I offer to you to restore to this state several citizens who, perhaps in your eyes, have lost that sacred title. I offer you them, however, such as you could wish to find them, ready to exert their utmost efforts in defense of the country. This point of Louisiana which I occupy, is of great importance in the present crisis. I tender my services to defend it and the only reward I ask is that a stop be put to the proscription against me and my adherents, by an act of oblivion for all that has been done hitherto.
I am the stray sheep wishing to return to the flock. If you were thoroughly acquainted with the nature of my offenses I should appear to you much less guilty and still worthy to discharge the duties of a good citizen. I have never sailed under any flag but that of the Republic of Cartagena, and my vessels are perfectly regular in that respect. If I could have brought my lawful prizes into the ports of this state, I should not have employed the illicit means that have caused me to be proscribed.
I decline saying more on the subject until I have the honor of your Excellency’s answer, which I am persuaded can be dictated only by wisdom.
In case, Monsieur le Governeur, your reply should not be favorable to my ardent wishes I declare to you that I will leave so as not to be held to have cooperated with an invasion on this point, which cannot fail to take place, and puts me entirely at the judgment of my conscience.
I have the Honor to be, Monsieur le Governeur, Laffite