Prolific historian Davis (Lone Star Rising, 2004, etc.), director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, serves up a highly engaging chronicle of the brothers Laffite, anarchist princes of the early republic.
Pierre moved from France to the Caribbean at the beginning of the French Revolution, perhaps motivated by sympathy to the royalist cause but also sure that there was no living to be made in the old country. He traded in whatever yielded a profit, and he acquired a sophisticated geographical knowledge of the Gulf Coast that would serve him well. A dozen years Pierre’s junior, brother Jean Laffite had apparently been out at sea while Pierre set up shop in French Louisiana, but when they reunited he easily turned to a new trade, transporting and selling slaves. Their headquarters of Barataria, near New Orleans, soon sprouted a village of huts and shacks, and, with a commission from the independent republic of Cartagena in what is now Colombia, the brothers kept a flotilla of privateers busy raiding Spanish shipping throughout the Gulf. Such acts didn’t bother the American administration overmuch until about the time the War of 1812 broke out, when Jean offered the governor the privateers’ services against the British if the government would stop harassing them. “This plan was brilliant in its way,” Davis writes, for “in effect the Laffites were offering nothing,” inasmuch as their small fleet couldn’t do much against the British. Andrew Jackson was receptive all the same, and the privateers fought valiantly at the Battle of New Orleans. The glory days were yet to come, for Jean soon went to work for the Spanish crown and laundered slaves in Texas for an ambitious Jim Bowie, while Pierre busied himself in similarly illicit enterprises. Pierre died in 1822, Jean the following year, “at precisely the right moments,” for an independent Mexico and republican South America yielded a Spanish Main at peace and “a world they would not have known.”
Davis considers the Laffites to have been more entrepreneurs than pirates, ambitious but hapless, “men of temporal success but lifetime failure.” A splendid telling of their endlessly interesting tale.