Barataria

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Eighteen eleven brought a change to the Baratarian smugglers, for in that year Jean Lafitte moved down to Grand Terre to take command of operations that were threatening to degenerate into an unprofitable gang feud between privateers recently driven to the island from the West Indies and the resident smugglers who heretofore had enjoyed a monopoly. Tall, handsome, and decisive, Lafitte quickly proved equal to the crisis, and after coolly blowing out the brains of a mutinous privateer, made clear to natives and newcomers that their best interests lay in running a tight ship with Jean Lafitte at the helm.

At the easternmost tip of Grand Terre, Lafitte built a round brick fort stuccoed with oyster shells and beside it a substantial house lavishly furnished with plundered items. Behind, on the flat grasslands, the shacks of the crew members were slapped together, ill-made places of cypress and palmetto logs, miscellaneous plankings, and Spanish moss. In the midst of all this were warehouses and a stout barracoon, a temporary corral for the slaves Lafitte’s crews stole from Spanish ships tacking to Cuba. Their provisions came from Baratarian natives, especially those at Grand Isle, where they traded for fruits, vegetables, and beef.

This was, to be sure, an unruly and variegated group, swept together on a most advantageous spot by accidental winds. There were Frenchmen like the Lafittes and Dominique Youx, rumored to be the Lafittes’ brother; Italians like the vicious Gambi, murdered at last by his own men as he snored atop a pile of gold coin, and Nez Coupé (Cut Nose) Chighizola, whose signal disfigurement was the result of a saber duel; Orientals, Africans, and the Baratarian originals. But Lafitte seems to have run them well. His crews were politic in their plunderings, sailing under letters of marque from the Republic of Cartagena; Pierre Lafitte was an efficient middleman in New Orleans, and the lawless temper of the men was calmed by large gains regularly and equitably distributed. Grand Terre was an ideal location, Grand Isle a proximate storehouse, and the Barataria region a fathomless warren. In calmly proficient fashion the Lafittes advertised their sales of goods and slaves, some in New Orleans, some at Grand Terre, and some at the “Temple” in Barataria Bay, an ancient ceremonial site of the aborigines who had once held title to the region.

Empires do not last forever and still less so piratical ones dependent on public and tacit official favor. So it was here: a slave rebellion in a northerly parish was traced to slaves sold at Grand Terre, and many who had bought from the Lafittes now began to think differently of their bargains. Claiborne mounted several ineffectual expeditions against Grand Terre and in 1813 was able to name the Lafittes in a warrant, offering “a reward of five hundred Dollars which will be paid out of the Treasury, to any person delivering the said John Lafitte to the Sheriff of the Parish of New Orleans...so that he the said John Lafitte may be brought to Justice. ” But things were still running strong enough with Lafitte that he could excite great laughter when he posted an elaborately worded parody of the governor’s warrant with the names reversed. In his warrant for the governor’s arrest, Lafitte upped the ante a thousand dollars and specified that the prisoner be delivered to Grand Terre.

So matters stood on the morning of September 3, 1814, when a British brig appeared off Grand Terre and signaled for a parley. In the meeting that followed in Lafitte’s house, officers of the Royal Navy offered the pirate king a large bribe to assist their invasion of Louisiana. Lafitte asked for time to put his affairs in order, meanwhile sending this information to Governor Claiborne. Whatever else he may have been, Lafitte was a patriot, but in gubernatorial council it was decided to attack Grand Terre rather than risk an alliance with pirates. Ever since the beginning of hostilities with Britain in 1812 there had been great unease at having Lafitte and his men guarding the back door to New Orleans. Now was clearly the time to secure it.

On September 16 a federal force attacked Grand Terre, and Lafitte refused to fire on the American flag. His stronghold quickly disintegrated, the pirate fleet was captured or burned, the fort gutted, and a thousand men scrambled for hiding. Half a million dollars in goods, merchandise, and ships were seized by the invaders, and when the force stood for home, the days of the Baratarian smugglers were done. Lafitte himself escaped capture and with a still sizable force again offered his services to the government. This time Andrew Jackson accepted, and the Lafittes, Dominique Youx, Gambi, Nez Coupé, and the rest manned the batteries in the Battle of New Orleans. And there may be more than legend to the belief that Jean Lafitte’s donation of powder and shot was crucial to the American victory.