The recent destruction of New Orleans brings back memories of how the city narrowly escaped being burnt to the ground in 5574/1814. The hero who saved the day was Jean Lafitte, a mysterious character who arrived out of nowhere and disappeared no less inexplicably.
Although theories of his origins abound, according to his personal journal discovered in an old trunk by his great great- grandson, John Andrechyne Lafitte, Jean Lafitte was descended from a Sephardic Jewess, Zora Nodrimal, who fled Spain to the Americas with her daughter, after her husband, Abhorad, was murdered during the Inquisition. In addition, on the flyleaf of a Bible, which purportedly belonged to Lafitte, is inscribed:
“I owe all my ingenuity to the great intuition of my grandmother, a Spanish Jewess, who was eyewitness to the Inquisition.” However, it must be admitted that historians cannot decide whether or not the journal is a clever forgery.
PRIVATEERS VERSUS PIRATES
Jean Lafitte made a profitable living as a privateer. Unlike pirates, who indiscriminately raided ships of every nation, privateers (who flourished until the mid- Nineteenth Century) were semi-legalized buccaneers, receiving sanction to raid enemy shipping by means of “Letters of Marque” (in old French, “marque” means “seizure”). It is with documents like these that sea-dogs, like Sir Francis Drake, terrorized Spanish ships on behalf of Queen Elizabeth.
An early English “Letter of Marque” from 4965/1205 reads:
“The king to all, to whom these presents shall come, Greetings. Know ye that we have granted to the crews of the galleys, which Thomas of Galway has sent to us, one half of the gains which they may make in captures from our enemies; and we will, besides, recompense them for their service.”
Even America was not above issuing permits to privateers. During America’s war against Britain in 5572/1812, similar licenses were issued:
“James Madison, President of the U.S.A. Be it known that I have commissioned the private armed schooner, called the Patapsco, owned by Andrew Clopper etc. of the City of Baltimore, mounting 6 carriage guns and navigated by 40 men, am hereby authorizing James M. Mortimer, Captain etc. to subdue, seize and take any armed or unarmed British vessel, public or private, which shall be found within the jurisdictional limits of the U.S. or elsewhere on the high seas, or within the waters of the British dominions, and such captured vessel, with her apparel, guns and appurtenances, and the goods and effects which shall be found on board, to bring within some port of the U.S.” (Abridged)
Jewish privateers of this sort included Yaakov Caravel, whose three ships raided Spanish shipping in the Caribbean until he left his sea-roving ways to study Torah in the Galil. He merited to be interred near the Arizal’s grave in Tzefas. Even more famous is Rav Shmuel Falagi, who founded a Jewish kehillah in Amsterdam at the end of the Sixteenth Century and wreaked extensive damage on Spanish shipping.
Lafitte’s “letters of Marque” came from Carthagena, a province of Columbia, which was fighting for independence from Spain, and he flew this country’s flag from all his ships. Like other Jewish privateers, Lafitte generally attacked ships of hated Spain, which were loaded to the gunwales with the riches of South America.
Lafitte eventually built a luxurious “kingdom on the sea” on three islands in Barrataria Bay, blockading the mouth of the Mississippi River. By 5571/1811, he had a private fleet of 32 ships, more than the entire U.S. Navy, and a force of about a thousand sailors, gunners and navigators.
The islands were a tropical paradise except during violent storms when parts of the islands became flooded. The strictest rule of Lafitte’s moral code was – to never attack an American ship, under pain of death.
The good citizens of upriver New Orleans were delighted to have a privateer at their footstep, providing them with all the appurtenances of luxury at substantially lower prices. Lafitte’s men smuggled their goods through the misty Louisiana swamps on hundred-foot barges and on canoes, known as pirogues, openly selling them in “Pirate’s Alley” in New Orleans. It is said that such was the commotion of Pirate’s Alley on market day that it sometimes drowned out the services in a neighboring cathedral. Alternatively, the honest people of New Orleans could row out to “Temple Island,” between Lafitte’s islands and New Orleans, where Lafitte ran a contraband supermarket. People looked out eagerly for his posters announcing:
“Come one! Come all! To Jean Lafitte’s bazaar & slave auction tomorrow at The Temple for your delight. Clothing, gems and knick-knacks from the seven seas.”
HIS ARCH ENEMY
Although Lafitte was a popular member of the New Orleans aristocracy, one newcomer did not like having a buccaneer on his doorstep. This was Governor William Charles Cole Claiborne, freshly arrived from law-abiding Virginia, to take over the new state of Louisiana, which had been recently acquired by the U.S. from Napoleon Bonaparte in the 5563/1803 Louisiana Purchase.
Claiborne’s greatest ambition was to clap Lafitte behind lock and bars. Opportunity arose during America’s forgotten war against Britain that lasted from 5572/1812 until 5574/1814, when the United States tried to seize Canada from the British. During this war, the British captured Washington and burned down the White House, and it was Britain’s failed attempt to take Fort McHenry at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became America’s national anthem – “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Part of the British strategy was to take over New Orleans in the South. Fearful that Lafitte might join up with the British, Claiborne printed up posters announcing: “$500 for the capture of Jean Lafitte.” In retaliation, Lafitte humorously put up posters of his own promising: “$1,500 reward for the capture of Governor Claiborne to be delivered to the island of Barrataria. Jean Lafitte.”
In September 5574/1814, Lafitte’s lookouts saw the sails of the British warship, the “Sophia” rising over the horizon. A rowboat pulled up on the beach and British officers stepped out. After being honored with breakfast until midday, the officers presented Lafitte with three letters, promising that if he and his men guided the British through the swamps and helped them take New Orleans,
Lafitte would be generously rewarded and given a commission in the British Navy. If not, he would be destroyed. In reply, Lafitte sent the British the following letter to delay things:
“To Captain Lockyer (of the British forces) “Barrataria, 4th Sept. 1814.
“The confusion which prevailed in our camp yesterday and this morning prevented me from answering in a precise manner to the object of your mission. However, if you could grant me a fortnight, I would be entirely at your disposal at the end of that time (to give you a decision). J. Lafitte.” (abridged)
Meanwhile, Lafitte immediately sent the British letters to Mr. Blanque, a state representative, and the following letter of warning to Governor Claiborne:
“This point off Louisiana, which I occupy, is of great importance in the present crisis. I tender my services to defend it; 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 fold. If you are 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 Carthagena. 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… Should your answer not be favorable to my ardent desires, I declare to you that I will instantly leave the country, to avoid the reputation of having cooperated towards an invasion.”
Claiborne’s reaction was short and to the point – he promptly sent a small fleet and burnt Lafitte’s colony to the ground. Lafitte and his men fled to an island in the midst of the Mississippi swamps, leaving behind about $50,000 of contraband. Unfazed by this treachery, Lafitte contacted General Andrew Jackson, who was on his way down to protect New Orleans, and offered his men and supplies.
“You want flints?” Lafitte asked the general. “I have 7,500 flints available at a snap of my fingers. You want powder? I have kegs-full. You want rifles, axes, men? They’re yours. I have a thousand fighting men, eighty of which are now rotting in the Cabildo [Jail]. Jackson, I and my followers want to fight for America but as free men, not as indentured servants. That is my promise.”
Reinforced by Lafitte’s men, Jackson met the British at a bottleneck between the river and the swamps, seven miles south of New Orleans, in the swamps on January 8, 5575/1815. The British lost 2,600 men to the American’s 13 casualties. Ironically, by this time, the war was over but, due to slow communications, the news had not yet reached America.
Although Lafitte received permission to live legally in America, all his goods and ships were confiscated. When news leaked out that one of his subordinates had attacked an American ship years earlier (Lafitte had executed the man for the crime), Lafitte fled and set up a new base on Galveston Island, off Texas, and went back to his old ways. This time, he received a “Letter of Marque” from Mexico, which was fighting to gain independence from Spain.
America was trying to build up a relationship with Spain at the time and, in 5578/1818, the USS Enterprise anchored off the island and ordered Lafitte to disappear. The order was backed up, a few months, later by a war fleet. Lafitte burnt down his colony and disappeared from the pages of history.
All that remains are memories, a possibly faked journal, and a flurry of places named after this dubious national hero, including a national park and a City of Jean Lafitte on the Mississippi, below New Orleans.
(One source: Jean Lafitte: “Gentleman Pirate of New Orleans,” by Josef Geringer.)