If you grew up in South Louisiana or Southeast Texas you learned about the famous pirate Jean Lafitte in the same breath as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Only Jean Lafitte was way more interesting. I mean he was a pirate. And he saved the country. Come on!
When I read that there was a new and authoritative (?) book out about the famous pirate, The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf by William C. Davis, I bought it immediately. When I was growing up, the town next to mine was called Lafitte (it’s called Jean Lafitte on some maps, but I never heard anyone call it that). What used to be a big swamp a few miles from my childhood house is now Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (Barataria Preserve). We went on school field trips to see the puppet show version of the Battle of New Orleans, starring Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson. A much more boring field trip involved schlepping out to the Chalmette Battle Field where the Battle of New Orleans took place (this area was devastated by Katrina). Why they bring children to battle fields for field trips is beyond me. [more fascinating insights after the jump]
Later in life, I enjoyed cold ones in one of New Orleans’ coolest bars, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (note: the picture of the 1772-vintage building was taken before the hurricane), reputedly the location of the pirate’s “front” business. (Added bonus: our own FlavaWheel once slept there). I’d also go to the Napoleon House regularly for muffalettas and Pim’s cups. The Napoleon House was supposedly offered as a refuge to the then banished Emperor once the Lafitte Fréres were successful in rescuing him from Elba. Or something like that. Anyway, the Lafitte “myth” was history that I grew up with and was literally surrounded by. Like all history that you grow up with, I didn’t really know much “book learnin”-wise, most of what was retained was the oral tradition and grade school lessons. So the book was a no-brainer – is what I’m sayin’.
I wondered how this scholarly history would compare with what I learned as a kid. Advisedly, I decided not to rely solely on my memory to resolve the two. So I pulled out a copy of the book The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans by Robert Tallant. I had picked up a copy of The Pirate Lafitte at a used book sale years ago. It is a “young adult” popular history book, part of the Landmark Books series. My copy was printed in 1951, so it seemed like the appropriate outdated vintage for my elementary school and Parish library collections.
First, a quick update if you’re not familiar with the basic history. The local oral tradition is sort of a Robin Hood story – but with pirates. Jean Lafitte was a French pirate who moved to Louisiana from Bordeaux just before the Louisiana Purchase. He and his men were gentleman outlaws. During the war of 1812, the British were plotting to take the Louisiana territory by capturing New Orleans. The British had already burned down the original White House in DC, so they were pretty serious about this whole thing. General Andrew Jackson was dispatched to protect the city with very few troops. The pirates led by Jean Lafitte pitched in to help the US soldiers and fought bravely, thereby defeating the British, saving the City, and ultimately the US. That’s the general story.
Now for the books. The most obvious differences in the two books – other than levels of scholarship, intended age of audience, size, age of the books, etc. – is found in the titles. The Pirate Lafitte is singular. The Pirates Laffite plural. Hats off to the Pirates Laffite for giving some props to Jean’s brother, Pierre. The Pirate Lafitte mentions Pierre, but it downplays Pierre’s importance. Pierre was integral to the whole operation, being the “brains” behind the enterprise for want of a better description. 10 points for The Pirates Laffite.
Still dealing with the title, The Pirates Laffite uses one spelling of the last name while The Pirate Lafitte opts for another. There are various spellings of the last names in the historical record – including the brothers’ signatures. This is problematic for historians, but not unusual for the time – apparently. Everything in my neck of the woods uses The Pirate Lafitte spelling. The “Laffite” spelling seems to be a Galveston thing, based entirely on the basis of the Laffite Society being located there. We don’t care how they do it in Texas. 10 points for The Pirate Lafitte.
Both books refer to the Lafitte Fréres as “gentlemen pirates”. Yet both sort of gloss over the fact that much of the cargo that the pirates were smuggling into Louisiana were slaves. It was illegal to import slaves at this time. After several slave revolts in the Caribbean, the locals were afraid of importing “radicals”. It was still perfectly legal to sell slaves, however. So the trick was just getting them past customs. Both books treat slave trading as merely an “of the time” phenomenon. -10 points for both books. Another -5 points from the Pirate Lafitte which begins with the “amusing” anecdote of a young boy who goes to New Orleans with his dad to visit the slave market and has a brush with Jean Lafitte. Nice.
The Pirate Lafitte probably oversells the story of the pirates’ contribution to the Battle of New Orleans. Almost a Chamber of Commerce-style telling of the Battle. The Pirates Laffite seems to knowingly undersell their contribution. I’m not sure what was up with that. He has a beef with the Brothers Lafitte? I’m not sure who’s ahead in points, but deductions for both here.
The Pirate Lafitte deviated freely from fact, and it blended stories that were clearly fiction as though they were fact. Well, if you’re 12. Lots of page long stories will begin, “and legend has it…”. On the other hand, the Pirates Laffite was a never ending list of facts – “this ship came in this month with this and that on board, the next month another ship came in with the other”. There is lots of popular myth to explore, but The Pirates Laffite has no time for speculation. The author even seems to go out of his way to say that the brothers were almost certainly never blacksmiths, without ever mentioning the bar. The Pirate Lafitte seems to get it, suggesting that the fabled blacksmith shop was a front for piratical-type operations. Which may be pandering. Either way, a nod for The Pirate Lafitte for acknowledging local myth. Neither book mentions, even in passing, the Brothers’ supposed involvement with a plot to rescue Napoleon from Elba. So who knows if any of that story is true. The Pirate Lafitte talks about hidden pirate treasure and riches. The Pirates Laffite indicates that the pirate life, while lucrative at times, was largely a desperate, hard scrabble way of making a living. You know, in case anyone is thinking of becoming a pirate.
To maybe wrap this up sometime soon, The Pirate Lafitte was very much the sort of Jean Lafitte story telling experience that I remember as a kid. The Pirates Laffite filled me in on lots of local history that was incredibly interesting for someone who grew up in the Barataria area. The author also bored the pants of this reader for huge stretches at a time – while talking about pirates for crying out loud. Given the subject matter and the interest I brought to the table, I wanted Pirates to be better than it was. Maybe it was just a case of not meeting my ridiculously high expectations.
Note: OK, that may be the longest and most self-involved post ever. This post has been about a month in the making. Sadly, I don’t have more to show for it. Reading over it, I bore myself. Thanks for reading this far. Now I get to writing about other books in my “read” stack.