The Pirates Laffite

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Those glorious swashbucklers Jean and Pierre Laffite are often categorized as heroes for bringing their band of pirates and thieves to the aid of the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Whether they actually deserve such a reputation is the question William C. Davis attempts to answer in The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf, a stellar bit of historical sleuthing in which Davis sorts out fact from fiction to determine what the Laffites really did to help General Andrew Jackson defeat the British. What Davis concludes is that whatever services the Laffites provided, they acted from self-serving motives: to keep the United States government off their backs so they could continue to ply their trade as privateers.

The careers of the Laffite brothers are a microcosm of a phenomenon in American history that rose and fell within a period of half a century. Hundreds of men took advantage of the turmoil created by revolutionary movements in Central and South America to make their own fortunes. Armed with “commissions” from any government that would issue them, these seagoing bandits would prey on commercial shipping in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, ostensibly attacking “enemy” transports. At times the Laffites attacked French or English ships, at other times those flying the flag of Spain. They were also intimately involved in helping several groups launch revolutions against Spain's New World territories, especially Texas. Concurrently, they were on the payroll of the Spanish government, spying against those they were helping to mount armed insurrection. Legitimate governments, especially the United States, were constantly mounting campaigns to stamp out the privateers, so the Laffites lived in constant danger from enemies on all sides.

As Davis demonstrates admirably, the Laffites hardly deserve their reputation as gentlemen pirates. Nevertheless, they and the other privateers helped shape the events of the early decades of the nineteenth century in the region from Florida to Texas. Hence, they are worthy of the attention Davis gives them, and Davis does his work admirably, weaving together from diaries, manuscripts, and published accounts a tale of true adventure as remarkable as any of the legends he debunks.