He was born sometime during the 1770s, maybe somewhere in France, maybe in Saint Domingue, maybe somewhere else. He died in 1823 or in 1827 or perhaps in 1857, in Honduras, Mexico or God knows where. He might have grown up in Barataria Bay; he might have spent his youth on his father’s boats. His grandparents allegedly fled Spain because they were Jewish. Indeed until 1804, we know little about the most famous pirate, Jean Lafitte, when we find him on his boat, La Soeur Chérie, with which he illegally imported slaves into Louisiana from the brand-new country of Haiti. He and his half-brother Pierre settled in Barataria, in a place called the Temple, where they commanded thousands of men and established an empire built on smuggling, piracy and the slave trade. Growing up just a few cable lengths away, I had always heard stories about treasure buried under a tree, protected by the ghost of a sacrificed pirate. Lafitte is as much the stuff of legend as history, if not more.
He is best known for the decisive helping hand he and his men gave Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812, despite the fact that only a few weeks before, considering them to be lawless bandits, the American commodores Patterson and Ross attacked and seized all their booty. To thank him once the victory guaranteeing the preservation of American independence from England was achieved, Jackson requested a pardon for Lafitte and his men, which President Madison gave. He then left Louisiana forever and in 1816 settled in another buccaneers’ lair further west along the shore, today’s Galveston. Two years later, a hurricane decimated the coast and Lafitte left shortly thereafter. Then we lose track of him and he disappears in the legend. Some say he was in England in the 1840s when he met two young Germans named Marx and Engels. They would have told him about their theories of capitalism and the working class. Interested in these ideas, Lafitte subsidized them while they were working on The Communist Manifesto. Nice story, but we do not know how the man who saved the fledgling U.S. republic finished his days.
Even though we have more to fear nowadays from pirates sailing the Internet rather than the Gulf of Mexico, we are not completely rid of these corsairs. If you are a little nostalgic for the romantic idea we have of Jean Lafitte and his followers, you can always go to the Louisiana Pirate Festival in Lake Charles in May. You will see “Jean Lafitte and his Buccaneers” trying to capture the city, to the delight of the spectators and charities this festival supports.