Tuesday, February 5, 2013

People: Goodnight Sweet Prince

February 5, 1823: Jean Laffite, known so well today and yet so little known, dies aboard his privateer General Santander after a firefight with either American or British pirate hunters. The "prince of pirates" is buried at sea, according to William C. Davis in The Pirates Laffite, somewhere in the Gulf of Honduras. Coincidentally, this Gulf is also the final resting place of the "prince of seadogs" Francis Drake.

The above, aside from that part about Drake, is still a controversial statement among Laffite scholars largely due to the so called "Journal of Jean Lafitte" which we have discussed here at Triple P on more than one occasion. Although the journal has yet to be authenticated, many scholars continue to cling to its assertion that Laffite somehow escaped the Santander - leaving his men, one assumes, rather spinelessly to face the navy ships - recovered from his wounds on land, made his way back to the U.S., took on a new identity and settled down to farm corn in Iowa. I'll say no more about the absurdity of that statement other than to point out that General Santander's confrontation with pirate hunters was documented in the press shortly after it occurred while the journal does not mention it - or even the ship for that matter - at all.

We may know a lot about Laffite's life - and much more now than we did prior to Davis' incredibly well researched book - but his appearance and mannerisms have not come down to us. No contemporary portrait of the man exists (save the above, which is highly questionable) and the Laffite legend has built up a hard crust on the actual personality of the man.

Returning to Davis, here then is a nice description of what people remembered of Jean Laffite when he was the Commandant of his operation on  modern Galveston island:

If Jean Laffite showed any difference in his dealings with people, it was that he treated his subordinates with a coolness approaching the aloof, while visitors got a warm welcome. He spoke good English, with an accent that left no doubt as to his Bordeaux nativity, and which [Warren] Hall found gave additional zest to his impressive conversational skill...

Hall found Laffite "always affable, but perfectly impenetrable." Gaines thought much the same, finding Laffite gentlemanly, sober, and thoughtful, but distant from his subordinates, rarely smiling. He had the manner and bearing of a leader, and relied on his personality and prestige to maintain control, though he occasionally wore a brace of pistols on his belt when he thought it lent weight to his authority. He did not brook disobedience, and could punish malefactors severely, but apparently with the sort of rude equitability that even the roughest men respected...

Clearly Laffite was a man in his element around the less than savory types that might be drawn to a distant outpost of misfits and miscreants. And from that capability to make the dregs of humanity fall in line and at the same time appear both elegant and eloquent to the ostensibly more refined, came a significant portion of the legend we now know.

Header: Alleged portrait of Jean Laffite drawn by a sailor named Lacassinier who claimed to have known both Jean and Pierre at Galveston circa 1819; originally published in the Galveston Daily News September, 1926

12 comments:

Timmy! said...

RIP, Jean Laffite... may your legend continue to grow and be remembered (or "misremembered" as the case may) for many years to come!

Capt. John Swallow said...

We raise a tankard to Capitaine Laffite - and know that wherever his body may lay, his spirit exists in the Bayous o' Louisiana, along the Mississippi, or anywhere those with a Pyratical bent may gather!

...and ye know he could never "settle" anywhere that was far from the water, let alone the sea!

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Pauline said...

Timmy!: Exactly!

Captain: I could not agree more. There was too much wanderlust in that man's nature to allow him to "settle down." He died as he lived; something to be thankful for.

Ms. Lucy: Hello! How delightful; I'll email you directly.

Pam Keyes said...

I spent the day appropriately, in the Williams Research Center online I just found a whole "new" cache of letters about the Laffites written by one of their New Orleans contemporaries. I also fixed up a large batch of brochures for the Laffite Society' to have at their upcoming seminar.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Great information (as always), Pauline! Thank you. Rest in Peace, Captain Laffite.

Pauline said...

Pam: Boy you sure did. How exciting to find those letters. I hope you'll share them once you've had a chance to sort through.

Wally: Thank you; and RIP indeed Monsieur.

Pam Keyes said...

Pauline, the letters are in French (naturally) which will take me some time to get translated, but the contents index online looks very intriguing. I'm going to send off for copies of the letters this week.

Irwin Bryan said...

This is not a comment about this post-I couldn't find an email address to comment about an older post.
You did a post about Peter Spectree's Mariner's Miscellany which included his author list. I do not think Carl lane is the Saltiest author. Novelist William Clark Russell uses nautical terms to describe everything-even female characters. Try his book "The Frozen Pirate" for an entertaining read.

Pauline said...

I agree, Irwin, that Spectre's list is certainly worth challenging. At the very least it's a nice way to start a conversation about nautical literature.

I'll look for Russell's book on your recommendation. I'm always on the hunt for books about the sea!

As an addendum for anyone interested, find the post on Spectre's list here:

http://paulinespiratesandprivateers.blogspot.com/2012/03/books-nautical-literature-good-bad-and.html

Teresa said...

Hi Pauline,
First let me say, I enjoy this blog so much!
I have two questions about your post. I had Davis' book home from the public library some months ago, so I can't consult it now, but I seem to remember that the General Santander's opponent in that running fight was unknown, not necessarily a pirate hunter. She could have been a naval vessel belonging to any of several nations or even an exceptionally large and well-armed pirate herself. Are there any contemporary accounts (besides the newspaper story published by Davis) that might relate to this incident?
My second question has to do with the notorious "Journal." I found a copy of that when I was an undergrad (doing a minor in history) and it struck me even at that time as too "Hollywood" to be true. Then I read a convincing expose in a collection of chapters about famous forgeries. The man behind the fraud had also produced some fake documents allegedly from the Alamo. You mean there are still people who believe in the "Journal's" authenticity? Amazing!

Pauline said...

Hello, Teresa, and thank you; excellent questions.

To speak to the first question, Davis notes that "Laffite had unwittingly taken on either Spanish privateers or warships, or perhaps elements of a British squadron patrolling for pirates. They might even have been pirates themselves, though, if so, they were unusually well armed."

Other historians, including H. Alden Fletcher, have linked the firefight with Santander to David Porter's pirate hunting Mosquito Fleet out of Key West. The dates are a little off, but the idea is not improbable.

Unfortunately, yes is the answer to your second question. As recently as 2006, excellent historian Winston Groom used the Journal as reference in his book about the Battle of New Orleans "Patriotic Fire". Groom claims, in his end notes, that he believed the Journal because it had "Laffite's voice." I'm not sure what that means given that no one alive today would have any inkling of "Laffite's voice" but there we are.

Frankly, I side with Jack Ramsay and William C. Davis on the authenticity of the Journal; that is to say, it is a hoax. This particularly in light of the fact that DNA tests have yet to be done on any of the Lafflin family. Given that there are descendants of Pierre Laffite alive today, there is a simple and painless test to determine relation.

Much like the Princes in the Tower/Richard III case, however, the Laffite/Lafflin debate looks like it will - unfortunately - continue.