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The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulfby William C. Davis
O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Vintage Bordeaux, 17701803
PERHAPS IT IS FITTING for men whose lives so lent themselves to adventure and melodrama that their name traced its origins to a word meaning something like "the song." For centuries men named Lafitte inhabited the fertile reaches between the river Garonne and the Pyrenees Mountains that separated France from Spain. Proximity to the often lawless Pyrenees, and life in the part of France most remote from the center of politics and culture in Paris, encouraged a spirit of independence in the region's inhabitants, and a tendency to look as much to the world as to their country for opportunity. Among those named for "the song," that independence appeared in their stubborn refusal of a uniform spelling of their name. Lafitte, Lafit, Laffitt, Laffite, and more, all emerged between the river and the mountains, and for many the song in their name was a Siren's call to the broader world. Immediate access to the sea on the Bay of Biscay tied many of them to trade and seafaring. The lush vineyards on either side of the Garonne, and the Gironde estuary formed at its confluence with the Dordogne River, turned more of them into vintners.
The ancient village of Pauillac perched on the west bank of the Gironde estuary exactly midway between Bordeaux and the Bay of Biscay at Pointe de Grave some thirty miles distant.1 It was about as far up the estuary as the limited maneuverability of sail could bring oceangoing ships, making it a natural port for the merchants of Bordeaux and the surrounding region. Though small, it was already the informal capital of the Medoc, and just now starting to blossom thanks to the produce of its vineyards. One Laffite family, and apparently only one of that spelling, lived in the village.2 Jean Laffite and his wife, Anne Denis, saw their son Pierre marry Marie Lagrange in 1769, but the young woman died, perhaps giving birth to a son Pierre around 1770.3 In 1775 the father Pierre remarried, this time to Marguerite Desteil, who bore six children at their home in the little village of Bages just south of Pauillac. Three daughters lived to maturity, as did a son Jean, born around 1782 or later but not baptized until 1786.4
Most of the Laffites living in the Bordeaux were solidly middle-class merchants and traders, and the elder Pierre Laffite appears to have been in trade himself.5 Certainly he was able to give his two sons at least rudimentary schooling, though their written grammar, spelling, and syntax would never be better than mediocre.6 Whoever taught them to write- parent, priest, or schoolmaster- could not keep a natural independence out of their developing handwriting, for neither boy learned very good penmanship, but their teacher left some artifacts of his rote with them. All their lives, the half brothers signed their surname in identical fashion, lifting the pen from the paper midway and leaving a barely perceptible space before finishing, to produce
What they might have made of themselves in France would never be known, for they were born into a changing and uncertain world. The Bourbon kings of France, living in increasing isolation among an in-bred and calcified aristocracy, had long since lost touch with the people and the times. The emergent middle class, especially merchants like the Laffites of the Bordeaux, felt crushed under the weight of taxation and church levies imposed to provide for the outrageous extravagance of the aristocracy and clergy. The Gironde became a seedbed of antipathy, and the Laffites would not have been men of their class if they did not share the general outrage.
It all came to an explosion in the summer of 1789, and by the fall of 1795 the people of the Bordeaux, like all Frenchmen, felt nervous exhaustion after six years of constant turmoil. By the time elections were held in October for delegates to a new Convention to rule in Paris until a regular government should take over under a new constitution, Pierre Laffite may well have been financially ruined as were so many other merchants. Even as an ardent young captain named Napoleon Bonaparte saved both the Convention and the new constitution by turning away an uprising that sought to disrupt the elections, Laffite's sons Pierre and Jean could only look on what must have seemed a blighted future landscape.7
The son Pierre, his schooling long over, lived and probably worked with his father at Number 49 Rue de la Deliverance in Bordeaux, trying to keep their business alive. Jean, perhaps aged about fourteen, likely saw his education disrupted by the turmoil that he had lived with for fully half his life. Just what each of them felt about it all he never said, but like many others of their class they imbibed a general- if not passionate- belief in local autonomy as preferable to central rule from afar, and from the turmoil and dissolution in their immediate region they learned the lesson that in troublous times, on the frontiers of civil authority, the wise man took care of himself first.
They may even have seen object lessons in how a man could profit during times of political and social upheaval if he was smart, daring, and none too scrupulous. A later acquaintance of the Laffites' recalled being told that the brothers had been contraband smugglers on the Spanish border during the times of scarcity, which would have been one way to combat severe price controls.8 And they were anyhow close enough to the Pyrenees to fall under the age-old lure of smuggling as a remedy from the greedy excise man.
Whatever the Laffites learned of making their way in the world, by the end of the decade it was evident to them that they would not make it in their native country. Economic recovery would take years, and even with a new constitution and with the Terror at an end, civil affairs remained shaky or dependent on a military that was now embroiled in contests of arms all across Europe, and with England as well. Then in December 1796 their father Pierre died. Thousands of Frenchmen from their region had emigrated, reestablishing themselves in the colonies in the New World far from the reach of the Jacobins and the guillotine. Many a royalist had gone to Spanish Louisiana, and other colonies thrived on the islands of San Domingue, Martinique, and Guadaloupe in the Cariibbean. It was a natural direction to turn their eyes.
And so sometime in the last of that decade they began disappearing, and completely. For years barely a trace of them survives. A third brother, name unknown, may have left France first, or Jean may have gone about the turn of the century. Then on May 24, 1802, Pierre obtained a passport, saying he was "going to Louisiana to join one of his brothers."9 Perhaps he was the same Pierre Laffite from Pauillac, and his 1802 departure from Bourdeaux was only the return from a visit home from the colony. Two-thirds of French commercial trade was with the island which was half French and half Spanish until 1795 when France got it all. French merchant ships called first at Cap Français, and some then went on to New Orleans despite an official edict from Madrid prohibiting trade with the colonies of other powers as well as restrictions imposed by Paris. If Pierre Laffite was involved in trade at Port-au-Prince, then he might have had cause to know of and perhaps even to visit New Orleans. Nevertheless, he found that he could not escape the Revolution. Once again, inept and corrupt rule from a great distance created unrest, here compounded by a large and resentful black population. San Domingue had only 20,000 white inhabitants, while more than 100,000 free blacks and mulattoes owned one-third of the land and a fourth of the half million slaves in the colony, creating a hierarchy in which whites looked down on free blacks and mulattoes, who in turn looked down on slaves.10
A series of slave rebellions beginning in 1790 sent waves of white planters fleeing the island. Whenever he first arrived in San Domingue, Pierre Laffite spent at least some time in Le Cap, as Cap Français was called. He may have been there to witness the fighting on June 20, 1793, when about two thousand mariners and political prisoners on ships in the harbor rose and landed under arms to attack the government buildings. French commander Leger Felicité Sonthonax won a temporary victory, but by the summer of 1794 the British, now at war with France, held Port-au-Prince, and the Pierre Laffite living there left for Savannah, Georgia, with the flood of émigrés.11 But then, lured by Sonthonax's declaration of emancipation, former slave Toussaint Louverture, now commanding most of the free black and slave forces, joined forces with the French to eject the British. By this time the Spanish were also involved, and in time both Britain and Spain would entrench themselves trying to keep what they could of San Domingue.
Meanwhile the Pierre Laffite who left Port-au-Prince in 1794 returned once the British were contained. He may have been back in Le Cap in May 1800 when black workers rebelled in the north and thousands marched on Le Cap to take it back from the Spanish. Or he may have been there later in October 1801 when farm workers rose up and killed three hundred white colonists.12 But most likely he was there in 1802 after sailing under his passport and making a stop on his way to Louisiana. In January 1802 Napoleon, now risen to emperor in France, sent an army under General Charles Leclerc to reestablish control. Instead the French met disaster. Leclerc was soon all but besieged in Cap Français, and that summer he burned most of the town. In November he died of yellow fever and his successor, General Donathien Rochambeau, resorted to wholesale extermination of blacks and mulattoes. Napoleon could not help him as he had gone to war with Britain again in May, and in March 1803 the black population of San Domingue rose again in revolt. Rochambeau holed up in Le Cap after losing control of the countryside, and was besieged, while British ships returned to establish a blockade of the harbor.
By that time Pierre Laffite was most certainly gone for good. What role he took, if any, in the upheavals on the island is unknown. On May 10, 1802, as Pierre prepared to leave Bordeaux, an Antoine Lafitte was waylaid at Port-Republicain and marched off with a number of other white citizens and was murdered.13 He may even have been the brother Pierre was going to visit. When Pierre arrived, he was himself caught in the street fighting in Cap Français. One day on the Place St. Pierre, Laffite and his friend Bernard Narieu and others found themselves in the middle of the deadly swirl. Laffite and Narieu escaped to safety, but not before they saw one of their acquaintances, a Mr. Gabauriau whom Pierre may have known back in France,14 fall victim to the mob. It was a good time for Laffite to be leaving, and where else to go but a place so many he knew had gone before him, a place with which he may well have had some acquaintance already, New Orleans.15
That spring and summer of 1803 French privateers began ferrying refugees to Cuba and New Orleans, getting out as many of the white French as possible before Rochambeau surrendered on November 29, 1803. Among the exiles was Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, a somewhat unstable visionary who went back to France, though his life would intertwine with the Laffites in years to come.16 Also fleeing San Domingue were a promising young architect named Arsené Latour, only recently arrived to take a position as engineer on Rochambeau's staff, and Barthelemey Lafon, a gifted surveyor who mixed privateering with mapmaking. Lafon escaped to Havana in 1802, and Latour got out sometime before November 1803, and perhaps escaped on a privateer, first to Cuba, then to New Orleans. Like Humbert and many another refugees from San Domingue, they would reappear in the Laffite story, though nothing suggests that Pierre was acquainted with them in Cap Français.17
Pierre Laffite left on one of those refugee ships no later than early March 1803, and if he went that late then he did not go alone.18 By the time he put San Domingue permanently behind him, Pierre Laffite had an infant son.19
Copyright © 2005 by William C. Davis
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