Monday, August 1, 2011


Piracy was the scourge of colonial Yucatán, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
From the beginning of Spanish occupation of America pirates ravaged their shipping. Gold looted from the Indigenous Americans being shipped back to Spain proved an irresistible treasure.
French and English kings encouraged and sanctioned these privateers, making contracts with them specifying the proportions of the spoils.
Buccaneers John Hawkins, Frances Drake, Henry Morgan, William Parker, Laurens de Graff, Henri de Gramond and Jean Lafitte made their names legendary.
Dzidzantún, Campeche, Tihosuco, Valladolid, and Bacalar were some of the towns that the pirates brazenly conquered and occupied.  Many of the pirates took up residency with families on Yucatán’s desolate northern coast and along the Caribbean Sea. A story is told that Jean Lafitte is buried at the Gulf of Mexico coastal town of Dzilám de Bravo, Yucatán.
Speculation interspersed with myth and rumor spiced with unsubstantiated historical facts have made Jean Lafitte legendary. Here is a glimpse at some of those buccaneer stories that are floating around. 

The pirates: Jean Lafitte (1776–1823) and his brother, Pierre.

On June 18, 1812, the United States, with little naval power declared war on Britain.
  • 1812–Lafitte brothers purchased a schooner with plans to sail it as a privateer. Older brother, Pierre established himself in New Orleans, looking after their interests in the city. Jean Lafitte spent his time in nearby Barataria Island managing the business of outfitting privateers and smuggling.
  • 1813–They received their first prize, a Spanish brig, which generated $18,000 in profits. The Lafitte’s gained a reputation for treating captive crew members well, and often gave the ships back.
They now sailed three ships, the largest privately owned buccaneer fleet on the coast.
Lafitte at Barataria Island held letters authorizing them to capture booty from various foreign countries.
The citizens of New Orleans were grateful to the Lafitte’s for providing them with luxuries.
The United States Navy did not have enough ships to attack Lafitte at Barataria Island. The government then charged Lafitte with "violation of the revenue law.
Pierre Lafitte, brother of Jean was arrested and jailed on charges of "having knowingly and wittingly aided and assisted, procured, commanded, counseled, and advised" persons to commit acts of piracy".
While Pierre was incarcerated, Jean continued to operate the smuggling business.
  • 1814–Battle of New Orleans; U.S. General Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans December 1814. He discovered that the city had not taken protective actions, with only 1,000 unseasoned troops and two ships.
Great Britain dispatched an armada and 8,000 men to take Louisiana.
A British ship fired on a smuggling ship that was returning to Barataria Island owned by the Lafitte brothers.
The commander had been ordered to contact the "Commandant at Barataria Island". King George had offered the Baratarians British citizenship and land in the new British colonies of America if they promised to assist in the fight against the United States. If they refused the British Navy would destroy the Barataria Island base.
Lafitte was convinced that the United States would prevail in this war.
Andrew Jackson a Commander in New Orleans, had almost no men or ships. The governor was forced to free the imprisoned pirates (the "Hellish Banditi" as Jackson called them), because they were needed.
Privateer Jean and his brother Pierre guided the American forces through the marshland with 4,000 Tennesseans, Choctaw Indians, freed blacks, Creoles along with their pirates.
The British fleet reached the Mississippi River and Lafitte realized that the American line of defense was too small. The British began firing at the American lines, but were repulsed. Jackson singled out Jean and Pierre Lafitte for "exhibited courage and fidelity. Jackson requested clemency for the Lafitte brothers plus the men who had served under them.
  • After the Battle of New Orleans, where the British were defeated, President James Madison gave a pardon to Jean and Pierre Lafitte plus their pirates.
  • Lafitte’s returned to piracy. Pierre and Jean sailed to Texas and established a colony of privateers near Galveston, which he named Campeche. His ships operated from Galveston and flew the Mexican flag. Lafitte worried about a Spanish invasion, this was the time when Mexico won their independence from Spain. Lafitte created letters of privateer on behalf of his nonexistent new nation for all of the ships sailing from Galveston. These letters gave the ships permission to attack ships from all nations.  
  • 1818–The United States passed a law prohibiting the import of slaves into United States. That law had loopholes and gave permission to any ship to capture a slave ship. Newly imported slaves turned over to customs could be sold in the United States. Half the profits from the sale would go to persons turning them in. Lafitte worked with several smugglers, including Jim Bowie, to profit from the new law. Lafitte's men would hunt slave ships; smugglers would purchase these slaves for a low price, and send them to customs officials in Louisiana. The smuggler would purchase the slaves at auction and the smuggler would be given half of the purchase price. The smuggler was then the lawful owner of the slaves.
  • 1821–Lafitte and the remainder of his men sailed from Galveston aboard three ships accompanied by his mulatto mistress and an infant son. Lafitte and his men took Spanish ships in the Gulf of Mexico, often returning to Galveston or the barrier islands near New Orleans to unload cargo or take on supplies. Louisiana demanded that the federal government halt smuggling and the number of active pirates began to decline.
  • 1821–Lafitte's ship was ambushed as he attempted to ransom back a recent prize. In late April, Lafitte was captured after taking his first American ship. The American warship which captured Lafitte turned him over to the local authorities, who promptly released him.
Lafitte and other pirates operating in the area began targeting ships carrying legal goods to Cuba, angering Cuban officials. By the end of 1822, Cuba had banned all forms of piracy. Lafitte continued to patrol the shipping lanes around Cuba. In November 1822, he made news in the American press after escorting an American schooner through the pirate-strewn area and providing them with extra cannon balls and food.
  • June 1822–Lafitte approached officials in Colombia, that government was commissioning privateers into their new navy. Lafitte was granted a commission and a new ship, the 43-ton schooner, General Santander. Lafitte was now legally authorized to take Spanish ships.
  • 1823–Lafitte was sailing off the town of Omoa near Puerto Cortéz in the Gulf of Honduras on his 43 ton armed Colombian schooner named General Santander. Omoa was the site of the largest Spanish fort in Central America. It protected the silver shipments from mines of Tegucigalpa to Spain.
  • Lafitte attempted to take two Spanish merchant ships. It was overcast and visibility was low that night and his misjudgment would prove fatal. The Spanish ships were actually heavily armed Spanish warships and they opened fire. Lafitte was wounded in the battle. He died by dawn and was buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras. Two obituaries have been found for Lafitte: the Gaceta de Cartagena and the Gaceta de Colombia wrote that "the loss of this brave naval officer is moving". No American newspaper ever carried an obituary for him.
By 1825 piracy had been essentially eradicated in the Gulf of Mexico, and "the new world.
Ultimately the Spanish navy actively and vigorously hounded these privateers, destroyed their sanctuaries, shooting and hanging the freebooters.  Deprived of their plunder many former pirates turned their efforts to smuggling and trading in exotic clandestine tropical woods.
For whatever it is worth, many of the costal towns of the Yucatán peninsula are said to be peopled with descendants of these pirates to this very day.
Speculation about how Jean Lafitte died;
He changed his name and disappeared.
He was killed by his own men after leaving Galveston.
He rescued Napoleon and they died in Louisiana.
Jean Lafitte was killed on his privateer ship General Santander, serving Columbia, in 1823, age 41, in the Gulf of Honduras. Lafitte encountered two disguised Spanish warships, was wounded, died and buried at sea.

Pierre died in 1821 in Mexico and was buried in the town of Dzilám de Bravo, Yucatán; a monument to Jean Lafitte is there today.
About 13 kilometers west of Dzilám de Bravo in a small cemetery a wooden grave marker was found with the inscription; Jean Lafitte. (Historians question the validity.)  Pierre Lafitte, Jean’s brother, is known to be buried in that cemetery.
Jean’s marker, authentic or not was moved to the museum at Puerto Aventuras on the Caribbean coast at Akumal, Quintana, Roo, Mexico.

Excerpt from the “Diario de Yucatán newspaper, 9, July, 1960; “LA TUMBA DE JEAN LAFITTE”; Translated caption; Mister Luis H. González, representative of the club of Explorers and Sports Archeologists of México, (CEDAM) informed us that they will present a plaque on the 20th of this month and dedicate it at the tomb of the pirate Jean Lafitte in the town of Dzilám de Bravo. The plaque will be dedicated by club founder and president Pablo Bush Romero, a prestigious hunter and sportsmen,  in cooperation with The Caribbean Archeological and Exploring Society, The Middle American Archeological Society and the Yucatán Exploring Society, important archeological societies of the United States.
July 20, 1960, photo of dedication of plaque. From left: unknown, Mr. Gowen, Clara Gowen, Pablo Bush Romero, Luis González, Alma Reed and unknown.  The above photo is courtesy of Luis H. González.
Luis González contributed the monument stone, which had been a González family grave marker. He engraved the back side with the Lafitte information that is now exposed. 

© 2011 John M. Grimsrud

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