With the celebratory goings on over the bicentennial of the War of 1812 here in the U.S., I’m feeling the itch to get back to my roots and talk a little bit about the contributions made by a certain pirate ancestor. Since the war was initially about insults at sea and fought on wave to a large degree, it only makes sense that Renato Beluche would want to get in on the action, so to say.
Beluche, who was at the time of his birth the oldest son of “Big” Rene and Rose Laporte Beluche, took to the sea at an early age. His father died sometime after Renato’s eighth birthday leaving a pregnant wife and a mound of debts. The young man went where he could get work, down to the docks, and by the age of 16 owned and captained his own vessel. By the time the U.S. declared war on Great Britain in June of 1812, Beluche was a seasoned privateer and a lieutenant in Bolivar’s Cartagenan navy.
Probably close to half of the ships that cruised under an American flag during the war were privately owned and holding a letter of marque from the U.S. government. According to Dr. Jane Lucas de Grummond, who published the definitive biography on Renato Beluche in 1983, six of those commissions were issued out of New Orleans in August of 1812. One of these went to a schooner named Spy.
Spy was nominally owned by a New Orleans merchant named Stephen Debon, according to the commission. Debon turned command, and the letter of marque, over to Beluche. This is perhaps a less curious turn of events than it may appear. Throughout his career, Renato Beluche owned one or more privateers, sometimes captaining them himself and sometimes turning command over to others among the loose-knit band of pirates and privateers who called Barataria their home port. Ships were then and still are vulnerable things and, in a pinch, it was always better to sail for someone else than not to sail at all.
Beluche had recently lost his own brig, L’Intrepide, along with a prize to a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Doubtless Debon’s offer of a ship and a commission was too good to refuse. Therein, however, may lay the conundrum of the business relationship between Monsieur Debon and Captain Beluche.
In November of 1812, Stephen Debon brought suit against Renato Beluche in a New Orleans court. The complaint claimed that Debon, as owner of Spy, had been cheated out of his share of prize money by Beluche. This had occurred, said the complaint, because Beluche had taken more than one prize into Barataria rather than bringing them into New Orleans as specifically outlined in Spy’s U.S. letter of marque.
On the face of it, Debon appears to be in the right. In order to lawfully libel a prize, the captain of the privateer must bring said prize into the port from which he (or she if you will) received his commission. Unfortunately for Monsieur Debon, he was dealing with a man who had learned his craft well and whose close friends and associates, the Laffite brothers, had connections in court.
Beluche engaged one of those connections, former New Orleans District Attorney John Randolph Grymes, who went to work rebutting Debon’s complaint immediately. Grymes argued that of course Beluche had taken prizes into Barataria, no one was disputing that. Those prizes were Spanish merchants, however, taken under Beluche’s commission from Cartagena. Should Spy capture a British vessel under the auspices of the U.S. letter of marque, he would bring it to New Orleans for legal libel and Debon would promptly be paid his share.
Another Laffite sympathizer, Judge Dominique Hall, saw things the way Grymes outlined them. He dismissed Debon’s complaint and, probably in the same pen-stroke, authorized the libel of a British merchant, Jane, recently brought into New Orleans as prize by none other than Beluche aboard Spy. Perhaps his share of her cargo of mahogany and logwood, which the Louisiana Gazette estimated at “35 to 40$ per ton”, was enough to make Debon realize he needn’t trouble himself further.
The legal wrangling, which only went on until February 1, 1813 when Judge Hall announced his decision, is an excellent example of the crafty use of letters of marque by the men who sailed out of Barataria. As William C. Davis notes in The Pirates Laffite, international law forbade the holding of more than one country’s letter of marque at any given time. With this in mind, Debon’s argument was legally valid.
But, as my dear Uncle Renato clearly knew better than Monsieur Debon, nothing gets shit done like having powerful friends who have friends in high places.