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4.0 out of 5 stars Broad and In-Depth Scholarship are the Key Here, 11 April 2010
It took me over a year to read this book. So dry was it and so heavily larded with details I kept putting it down and going on to other things. Indeed, there were times when I doubted I would finish it. And yet the value of the research won out. This one is packed to the gills with information about the people and times of Jean Laffite and, as the book points out, there were actually two pirates Laffite, not just the notorious Jean.

In fact, Jean was the younger brother and junior partner in the smuggling enterprise his older brother, Pierre, began in New Orleans before Jean even arrived in North America. Once here though, the lad quickly fell in with brother Pierre in what was to become a family business, demonstrating a talent for organizing and leading the rough bunch of cutthroats and thieves who had established themselves in the bayous and swamps south of New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi, on the island redoubt of Barataria. There the brothers organized a smuggling enterprise, fed by the privateering activities of a variety of freebooting ship captains and their crews who operated under the dubious legal authority of a number of rebel groups in the Spanish colonies. Privateering (piracy on the high seas sanctioned by the legal authority of a sovereign power via special commissions) had long been a key modus operandi on the world's seas and, as the old Caribbean pirates had been displaced by larger colonial populations and their increased extension of power, this method of piracy became the accepted one.

Spain by this time was significantly weaker than it had been in the past but still struggled to hang onto its vast and increasingly rebellious colonies, thus presenting a tempting target to the pirates and one that the rebel groups were more than prepared to commission attacks on. New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi and the gateway to the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, was something of an open and unruly city where smuggling was a way of life and privateering a local industry. Still, it wasn't legal or acceptable to the newly installed American rulers because the smuggling sapped needed revenue the American government sought to raise by taxing incoming goods while irritating America's relations with other sovereign powers in the region. Yet the New Orleans population was not as averse to the pirates' trade as its new government.

The Laffite brothers made good use of the open and somewhat rough and ready New Orleans environment and, while clashing repeatedly with the new American authorities, they also managed to get by without annoying their new rulers overly much. In time the brothers' hold on Barataria and the smuggling trade grew to such an extent that they were to become the main movers among the New Orleans corsair society, Jean demonstrating his leadership and organizing skills on Barataria while Pierre acted as respectable front man and "merchant" in New Orleans. The brothers dealt in all manner of goods but, especially, in slaves, smuggling them into the United States (which had outlawed slave importation at its founding) from Cuba and other West Indian islands for almost their entire careers.

Most remembered for their role in the War of 1812 when, under their leadership, the pirates of Barataria threw in their lot with the United States rather than flip to England on British promises of amnesty and land grants, they assisted Andrew Jackson to win the Battle of New Orleans in 1814 (the only American military victory in that war -- though it came two weeks after the war had officially ended!). The brothers actually played a much smaller part in the conflict, as this book shows, than legend remembers. In fact, there is no record of Jean's presence at the Battle at all and Pierre, who was present, mostly served as an aide and "go-fer" for Jackson though he did prove his worth by providing helpful intelligence concerning the swampy back waters for Jackson's army. The brothers also provided Jackson with powder and shot for his guns and one of their colleagues, a pirate captain called Dominique, did provide useful service as a cannoneer.

Though history remembers Jean Laffite as throwing his personal interests aside to join the Americans as a patriot, the evidence provided by the book suggests otherwise for the Laffites are portrayed as having practiced double dealing with all parties routinely and never having much loyalty except to their own interests. Jean was apparently something of gallant with the ladies and given to gestures demonstrating his honor and magnanimity -- and both brothers showed an aversion to excessive bloodshed throughout most of their careers. But they found their natural milieu among thieves and murderers and were largely at home in their midst.

After the Battle of New Orleans the brothers attempted to rebuild their lost smuggling empire (Barataria having lost its security for them), throwing in with groups of "filibusters" aiming to foment rebellion against Spanish rule in Mexico and, later, in Texas. But the brothers could see that these groups of adventurers were unlikely to succeed so they secretly agreed to spy against their colleagues for Spain and invested large sums of their own capital in various enterprises to undermine their filibuster allies. Though they provided Spain with extensive information, much of it proved to be old and of limtied value and the filibusters were so incompetent that they never managed to pose a serious threat to Spain's holdings -- though they did routinely prey on Spanish ships. In the end, the Spanish dropped the Laffites without reimbursing them for their outlays or paying them for their services and the brothers, who had betrayed their friends and colleagues as they plied their double game, became known among the corsairs as double dealers.

The brothers never quite found their footing after the Battle of New Orleans though they did manage to briefly create a second pirate base at what would become Galveston, Texas (then still part of Spain's colony of Mexico). Galveston, however, didn't last long and, as the Spanish cut them loose, they were eventually forced to abandon the new Barataria as they had been forced to vacate the old. Pierre and Jean tried again to rebuild their pirate empire but times were changing and, as the filibusters collapsed into impotency and the Mexican and South American rebels began to see that these men and the pirates with whom they associated were not to be trusted and withdrew their privateering commissions, piracy in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Caribbean became increasingly difficult to pursue. The resolution of ongoing territorial disputes between the Americans and Spanish which ceded Florida to the Americans and severed Texas from the Louisiana purchase in favor of Spanish claims, prompted the Americans to step up their efforts to clear the Gulf of pirates.

The Laffites fled from point to point, trying to reprise their past piratical successes but could find fewer and fewer safe or friendly ports from which to operate (having become personae non grata in New Orleans and Texas) and fewer and fewer vessels they could safely attack. In the end, Pierre fell ill to fever on an island off Yucatan and died there while Jean, a year or so later, met his end in a sea battle off the coast of Cuba. Their lives seem to have been an exercise in futility for they lived for the moment, spent more than they won, gave up a place in the new nation they came to be credited with helping save and left little behind but their mixed race paramours whom they abandoned in New Orleans when they fled that city in the 1820s. Pierre's descendants would remember little about him while it's not clear that any of Jean's children lived long enough to have descendants of their own. It's a sorry end to what America came to remember in legend as the swashbuckling hero pirate Jean Laffite who cast his lot with a desperate republic still struggling to be born.

The book is full of rich and extensive detail about the era, the activities and the colleagues of the two brothers and is invaluable for that. Yet the prose is dry and often hard to follow, the various people mentioned hard to keep track of. In sum, this is a tough book to read but the depth of information and scholarship achieved more than compensates for that. If these times and events interest you, this is a good book to have.

Stuart W. Mirsky
author of The King of Vinland's Saga
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