Badasses in History: Jean Lafitte
Pirates rock. And no, I’m not talking about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, only the first of which was really any good. Yeah, Johnny Depp is a great actor, and Jack Sparrow is awesome and even got a song written about him by The Lonely Island. But in general, the movies sucked. At least we can all agree, real life pirates were awesome. Well actually, most of them fucking sucked.
Being a pirate in the 18th and 19th centuries was a lot like being a cook at some shitty “restaurant” like McDonald’s. People made fun of you and you had no job security. Also, you were dirty, smelled bad, and were more than likely illiterate. I’ll end the comparison here, but I could go on and on.
The point is, the life of a pirate was not glamorous. Pirates more often stole food and everyday goods than gold. And really, what kind of idiot would bury his treasure as opposed to simply fucking buying an island or something?
Widely renowned as “the douche of the seven seas”, scurvy killed more pirates (and sailors in general) than any high seas adventure ever did. If Pirates of the Caribbean depicted the life of a pirate accurately, 90% of the crew would have been dead of scurvy, disease, and starvation at the end of the first hour, and Jack would have either been caught or just said “fuck it all, I’m going back to land” in the fifteen minutes after that, thus ending the film before most of us could finish our two-foot long hoagies.
As you can see, being a pirate left a lot to be desired.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, he was French. But he was so badass it doesn’t matter.
He has more epithets than can conveniently fit on a business card: “The Corsair”, "The Buccaneer," "The King of Barataria," "The Terror of the Gulf," "The Hero of New Orleans"; all of them names for the same man, the same baller. The same Pirate King.
For have no doubt, that is what he was. Jean Lafitte was an honest-to-goodness King of the Pirates. Operating out of Louisiana, Lafitte claimed as his kingdom much of the Gulf of Mexico and large parts of the Louisiana bayous, including the city of New Orleans.
A maze of swamps, bogs, river deltas and marshes, Lafitte’s realm was nigh-inaccessible to outsiders, and left hundreds of government bounty-hunters shitting their pants in frustration, while the crocodiles sat nearby playing poker, commenting that these newcomers were really rather mannerless. Imagine! Entering a swamp without offering some meat. The nerve!
Frivolity aside, Lafitte was something else. While a pirate, Lafitte was also something of a philanthropist, providing much needed supplies and foodstuffs to the poverty-stricken people of early-1800s New Orleans at low prices, without expectation of real compensation. In fact, Lafitte would often give the goods away for free. Here, for example, is a posting regarding one such event:
COME ONE! COME ALL! TO JEAN LAFITTE'S BAZAAR & SLAVE AUCTION TOMORROW AT THE TEMPLE == FOR YOUR DELIGHT ==- CLOTHING GEMS & KNICK-KNACKS FROM THE SEVEN SEAS
And the people of New Orleans came. Men and women, parents and children, all loved Lafitte for the bounty he provided. What kind of a-hole wouldn’t like this sort of guy?
(Yes, slaves probably didn’t like him. Ignore that for the moment)
Funny you should ask. The answer is this fuck: William Charles Cole Claiborne (who you know is a douche because he has four names. Pretentious shit folks. Pretentious shit). Claiborne, naturally, was the Governor of New Orleans, a guy who really didn’t give a fuck about the welfare of his citizens.
Let’s be real here, if a Pirate King is more generous than you, you’re probably an asshole. Likely of some extremely smelly animal. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, an elephant’s asshole. Yeah, that big of an asshole.
Claiborne was such a fuckwad that he issued a posting offering $300 for Lafitte’s head. And no, the reward did not count if Lafitte’s head was still attached to his neck. In any case, three-hundred dollars back then was a lot of money. But Lafitte, being such a generous soul, responded as any badass would.
He simply put out an advertisement of his own, offering $1000 dollars for the head of the Governor, a giant middle-finger to authority if ever there was one.
This, along with Lafitte’s so-called “piracy” (lolz), led Claiborne to try to create a militia with the sole purpose of popping a cap in Lafitte’s French ass. This unfortunately made Lafitte angry. And like the Hulk, you would not like Lafitte when he was angry.
Before I continue, I need to take a moment to explain something about Lafitte. He was, by all accounts almost always a perfect gentleman. Let me quote Joseph Geringer, author of an article entitled Jean Lafitte: Gentle Pirate of New Orleans.
Many stories exist, most of them founded on fact, attesting to his chivalry. When a family named Martin found itself in danger caught in a rowboat during a violent storm in the Gulf of Mexico, a vessel manned by Lafitte took them aboard. Mrs. Martin's diary reads: "Lafitte the Pirate...treated us with all kindness possible (providing us with) a bountiful breakfast (and) even supplying a hat for my husband who had lost his own.
He gave the man a hat! How fucking cute is that!?
But seriously, Lafitte was a stand-up guy.
On another occasion—I shit you not; this sounds like it is straight out of a Disney movie:
A charming story relates the night that the pirates were playing cards in Lafitte's den. An argument had broken out between Lafitte's crew and Gambi's, the latter blaming the others for cheating. "We shall have a third party cut the cards," Lafitte announced and sent Thiac to summon one of the fishermen from the coast up to his house. When the fisherman arrived he looked nervous; he had brought with him his little daughter in hopes that these pirates wouldn't harm him in front of his child.
Lafitte smiled when he saw the girl and asked her to cut the deck, explaining to her in a gentle voice what that meant. She did, and Lafitte went on to win the play. Gambi stormed out. Before they left, the island chief called the little girl to his lap, thanked her for her help and dropped a $20 gold piece into her palm. She grew up never forgetting the dashing pirate who had been so kind to her.
It’s literally like Up if you replace the tiny old guy with a badass Frenchman (I’m still not used to having those words together like that) and the fat boy scout with a precious little creole girl.
Also, replace the dog with, let’s say, a crocodile with a monocle and top hat? Yeah, that works.
So clearly, Lafitte was not just a badass, he was a nice badass, which is arguably much much rarer.
Well, he was usually nice. Like I mentioned earlier, Lafitte had a bit of a temper. At one point during his reign as Pirate King of Barataria, a group of men assembled outside Lafitte’s home, threatening mutiny. Lafitte, badass that he was, came outside his home (presumably to the sound of thundering trumpets, as John Williams or Danny Elfman arranges the nearby orchestra) with a smile.
He was, in fact, still smiling when he strode up to the leader of the mutiny and casually shot the man in the face, then turned (continuing to smile I imagine) and returned to his evening dinner without a word.
Lafitte: 1, Mutiny: 0
Pure fucking ownage.
To add to his badassitude, Lafitte was also an accomplished duelist. And by “accomplished” I mean “Inigo Montoya, check what’s really up.” Reputedly, Lafitte never lost a duel, and was one of the most skilled rapier-duelists of the age.
In fact, legend has it that one night while eating dinner with his lady-companion at what would later become the Courtyard of Two Sisters Restaurant, Lafitte was challenged three separate times. Pausing momentarily to presumably offer the men the chance to leave with their lives and their dignity (or at least their lives), Lafitte apologized to the lady and drew his rapier.
Three dead douchebags later, Lafitte is said to have returned unharmed and unflustered to his filet mignon with cabernet sauce, which he proclaimed excellent.
But what really makes Lafitte so fascinating is this: he loved America, even though he was a French pirate.
Seriously, he ordered his men to never fire on or raid an American vessel. The one time someone did, Lafitte himself shot the troublemaker.
Despite this (as we’ve seen), American politicians (fuck you, Claiborne) and even Presidents continued calling for Lafitte’s capture and execution. They didn’t really care which one.
It wasn’t until the War of 1812 came along that Colonel Andrew Jackson—yes, that Andrew Jackson—decided it might be better to have Lafitte on their side. And because Lafitte loved America, he agreed to help.
He didn’t do very much useful though.
Oh wait, yes he fucking did. He was actually almost single-handedly responsible for the American victory at the Battle of New Orleans. You know, the one that later helped then-Colonel Andrew Jackson later win the White House and that helped the Americans repel the British. Yeah, that Battle of New Orleans.
Jackson was thankful (duh) and requested that the U.S. government grant Lafitte and his men pardons for their earlier crimes. The request was granted and Lafitte in many ways became a national hero. Jackson in fact wrote Lafitte a personal letter of gratitude as well, one Lafitte would always taken great pride in:
"I do an act of justice, and at the same time one very agreeable to my feelings to state the services you have rendered during the late invasion of your country...Sir, to one of those to whom the country is most indebted, I feel great pleasure in giving this testimony of your worth, and to add the sincere promise of my private friendship and high esteem."
Personal thanks for Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson himself and the title of “Hero of New Orleans”? NBD. Just a day in the life of Jean Lafitte.
But, since most people are fucking assholes, rumors began to circulate that Lafitte was once again committing crimes, this time adding a number of murders to the list. Things became so ugly that Lafitte and his men thought it wise to depart their much-loved New Orleans, choosing to settle anew on Galveston Island, off of Texas.
For a time, he became a freelance privateer, working for Mexico to sink and steal from Spanish ships. This obviously pissed Spain off.
Unfortunately, America was also trying to make an alliance with Spain at the time, so American politicians being what they are, they totally ignored how Lafitte had fucking saved their asses and instead sent soldiers to tell Lafitte to either abandon his new island or be destroyed.
Once again, it was unwise to make Lafitte angry, as he simply torched his entire island, probably mooning the navy as he did so.
Did he die?
No. When the flames died down, the navy went to inspect the island and found all of Lafitte’s ships missing. Where he went from there, no one knows. Lafitte never again appears in any known history.
Maybe he is still out there. King of the Pirates, Badass of the Seas.