Outlaws by Choice
A brief history of coastal smuggling
by JEREMY J. ALFORD
The hurricane-charged winds and rain stopped almost as suddenly as they attacked. All that could be heard now were cypress planks creaking under the strain of the surviving sails and waves crashing against the La Souer Che’rie’s bow. Standing hunchbacked and peering over the sea with a devilish set of crossed eyes, Pierre Lafitte cursed his younger brother under his breath. Not only had his ship and the Barataria crew weathered a storm of considerable consequence, but the Spanish vessel they had been chasing for weeks was still foolishly running.
If he had his druthers, Pierre would burn her, sink her and take her prize. Yet that was not the way of his brother Jean, who was likely swaying with the breeze in his red hammock in Grand Terre, reviewing orders for the booty to come. The Lafitte brothers had distinguished themselves from other privateers by allowing their captured to live. It was good public relations for the band of corsairs and sent a strong message that they always got what they desired.
The chase went on for a few more days. Life at sea was always preferable to the restrictions of land, but to the joy of the bandits from Barataria, the gap was closing. As they finally got into range, Pierre cried out the order and a bar shot was sent roaring across the water into the rigging of their foe. They were close enough to hear the horror in Spanish tongue: All hands down! All hands down! Another blast followed, trailed by one more. Pierre laughed as splinters of wood dimpled the waters and sails blanketed the deck of the Spanish ship. With no power to drive them, the Spaniards had little choice but to capitulate to the privateers from south Louisiana.
La Souer Che’rie came upon its catch carefully, thrusting grappling hooks over her side and pulling her close. Four planks were bridged between the ships, and Pierre strolled over one of them with a confident air, waving his letters of marque and proclaiming the Spanish ship was a potential prize to be taken. (Letters of marque allow pirates to break the law, loot and plunder, under the protection of the nation that issues them. In this case, the Republic of Columbia offered protection to Lafitte, as long as he only attacked ships from countries that were at odds with Cartagena.) The booty was magnificent. Only a few men were killed or maimed, but it was the cost of doing business – just another day at work. It was now time to go home.
Weather-beaten and full of commerce, Pierre’s La Souer Che’rie was heralded up the mouth of the Mississippi River by Fort St. Philip, and after a month of chartering the renowned waterway, eventually docked on the far reaches of Place D’Armes, which is in the modern-day French Quarter.
It was a grand spectacle to observe, writes Stanley Clisby Arthur of the 1804 encounter in Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover. Pierre walked down from his ship and immediately began selling off cargo by the pound, the booty being “black ivory,” a widely used term at the time for slaves. Within his first few hours back on land, still standing in front of his ship, Pierre also managed to make orders for major repairs and began recruiting hands for his next voyage. Historical records indicate the ship’s manifest listed the slaves as crew members, a tale likely repeated for any authorities who actually cared.
From his stateroom on the upper floor of the Cabildo, William C.C. Claiborne, the newly sworn U.S. governor of the territory, did a slack-jawed double take. He immediately issued letters to local officials stating he was suspicious of the Lafitte operation. It is one of the first historical accounts of the Louisiana government taking interest in a Gulf of Mexico pirate.
As the antics of the Lafittes and their Barataria brigade grew bolder, so did Claiborne. On Nov. 24, 1813, the governor posted notices throughout New Orleans offering $500 for the capture of Jean Lafitte. In Lafitte the Pirate, Lyle Saxon writes that Jean visited the city the following day but was harassed by no one: “The Creoles could not but admire his indifference to danger; and when he was seen perusing the proclamation and smiling, they were amused by his nonchalance.” They were probably even brought to laughter two days later when Jean posted his own proclamations offering $1,500 to anyone who would deliver Gov. Claiborne to Grand Terre.
For many years, it seemed very little could be done to hinder the Lafitte brothers and their gang of pirates. While the economic restrictions of the day demanded smuggling be an integral part of the city’s commerce, the Louisiana pirates of the 19th century had yet another ace in the hole: the Gulf of Mexico. Its endless supply of sea cargo supplied privateers with a perpetual means of conducting business. And the bays and bayous connected to the gulf provided them with safe harbor to traffic goods and set up shop. In fact, to this day, modern smugglers are still depending on the same protections from the Mexican Gulf that the Lafittes and others used over the past 200 years.
THE GOLDEN AGE
An odd mix of heavy traffic, confusing waterways and minimal maritime enforcement made the 1800s a golden age for pirates and privateers. Documentation from the time, however, is disputable. Important papers have gone missing and many documents once heavily relied upon were found to be fraudulent. Even original records from the district court in New Orleans during that era are now, mysteriously, parts of private collections.
Certain terminology is also in question. The widely accepted spelling of the surname Lafitte is seen recorded in some documents as “Laffite,” while the terms pirate and privateer are likewise harshly debated. The Lafittes, for one, preferred the latter, arguing that privateers served an economic purpose during the rough times of an infant country. The Lafittes’ letters of marque came from Cartagena in Columbia, and they acted as a legal license for the Baratarians to plunder from the republic’s enemies, which at the time was Spain. In exchange for destroying the ships of opposing nations, privateers were permitted to keep whatever loot they found.
While the precise history of smuggling and pirating in the gulf is questionable, historians are confident in their assertions that the waters were bountiful with booty and that coastal communities had an economic need for the goods. Dr. Stephen Curley, a regents professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston and the regional chair of sea literature for the Popular Culture Association of America, says Louisiana’s 19th-century pirates could not have found a better location for their exploits than the Gulf of Mexico.
Louisiana became American territory in 1803, and the federal government immediately levied heavy taxes on imported goods. Despite the outrage of the citizens, a never ending parade of French and Spanish ships kept coming, and they were ripe for plundering in the Atlantic, off the Caribbean Coast and the surrounding waters, Curley says. The prizes seized were obviously discounted when finally moved. If saving a few dollars meant conducting retail business with pirates, the Creoles and Cajuns of southeastern Louisiana were more than willing to oblige. In certain respects, it’s a Robin Hood story – robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
“This was a really good time for smuggling, especially in the way the Lafittes and others of the time did it,” Curley says. “When you raise excise taxes, when you impose restrictions, people exercise stealthily. That’s the kind of stuff that was going on. You didn’t have to pay taxes on it, and it was usually delivered wherever you wanted it. Plantation owners loved it.”
No matter what “it” was, the gulf could be plundered to find it. In 1803, the tonnage of imports into the Louisiana coast around Barataria and New Orleans had reached a value at the time of $2.5 million annually – 34,000 bales of cotton, 4,500 hogsheads of sugar, 50,000 barrels of flour, 3,000 barrels of pork, as well as $500,000 worth of lumber, indigo and rice. The list goes on, incorporating items such as corn, butter, hides and cordage.
The prize of the era, though, was slaves. Excessive customs taxes were charged for slaves coming into the region, and the prices set by government-appointed “flesh traders” were often inflated. An 1809 federal embargo on slaves likewise created a shortage. In keeping with the custom of the day, people of all walks of life used slave labor, and a discounted price was welcomed. Historical records contend that pirates of the time could buy slaves from Cuban traders for $300 each, then move the slaves through Louisiana at $1,200 per head – a price well below what the government was offering.
Yet the marketplace of the Mexican gulf was in no way confined to the so-called black ivory. This is best depicted by an 1812 district court filing by the state’s attorney regarding one of the only known smuggling arrests carried out against the Lafitte brothers. It displays what a flea market plundering in the gulf can be. Among the seized cargo were 26 bales of cinnamon, 54 linen shirts, three pieces of Russian sheeting, seven pieces of canvas, one bundle of twine and a set of handkerchiefs. Relatively speaking, it was a small booty for the Barataria outfit. In response to the arrest, the Lafittes posted a $12,000 bond, which was a trifling amount to the now infamous brothers.
Inventory was stacking up and demand was high as the Lafittes grew in notoriety. The brothers publicly advertised auctions for “prizes from the seven seas” on posters and billboards in New Orleans. Low and high society alike came to gaze upon foreign furniture, clothing, dishes, wines, cheeses and the like. The buccaneers even set up one-stop retail stores – an innovation for the time – around the city and operated booths in what is now known as “Pirate’s Alley,” an open walkway running beside the St. Louis Cathedral. Warehouses throughout south Louisiana were established to store and move contraband, and back rooms of businesses across the Crescent City were “borrowed.”
Rene Laizer, a New Orleans historian and a founding member of the Louisiana Lafitte Society, says this racket created a “cat-and-mouse game” between the American government and the privateers, with the latter almost always victorious. It is this side of the Barataria business, Lazier says, that makes Louisiana pirates appear more like organized-crime figures than swashbuckling bandits. They were also nationalistic, never attacking American ships.
“Jean Lafitte was called boss long before any godfather came into this area,” Laizer says. “There was wide speculation that if you wanted something” – anything – “just go down to the blacksmith shop. In some ways, he did behave like a pirate. Jean would shoot and kill someone in a heartbeat if he was usurped. I believe the Lafitte brothers also did some of the sailing out at sea and got involved. They were very organized.”
But finding the booty and selling it was only half the battle. There was also a need to channel it in relative secrecy, away from the peering eyes of government authorities and out of the hands of other corsairs. It is in this that all generations of pirates found the real beauty of smuggling in the Gulf of Mexico.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The buccaneers and sea rovers of 19th-century Louisiana set up in an area known as the “kingdom by the sea.” Leading into the Mexican Gulf is an entire coastline that was and still is an untamed wilderness. There are endless miles of marshlands that can easily lead vessels astray. Tales are still told of people who got lost in Barataria and became so disoriented they either went mad or died of starvation. Before the terms land loss and erosion entered into the general consciousness of Cajuns, the lower Mississippi Delta was a jigsaw puzzle of cypress and moss and multifarious channels of brackish water.
Barataria’s three islands – Grand Terre, Grand Isle and Cheniere Caminada – served as a geographic welcoming center for incoming ships. No schooner or sloops could pass in or out of the Mississippi River without encountering these islands. This is the reason why the Lafittes set up operations here. On clear mornings, the bandits could see silhouettes of sails playing against tropical orange sunrises, which was a breathtaking way to prospect. It’s also the reason why Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard the Pirate, used the barrier islands and wide palms of the area for cover in 1718 as he hid from the British navy.
The pirate community of Barataria was said to be about 1,000 men strong in the early 1800s. Most of them knew well the 40 miles of swampland leading to New Orleans, as they rightfully should have. Many were already locals – converted fishermen, trappers, carpenters, cooks and gunners. They had no problems navigating barges and skiffs through the jungles of south Louisiana. They gave little thought to cottonmouths, alligators and oversize rodents, nor did the unpredictability of floods, tornadoes and hurricanes frazzle them. Centuries of smugglers found this labyrinth to their liking, including the bootleggers and whiskey-runners of the early 1900s.
Capt. Sammy Martin heads regional enforcement for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries along the coast from Grand Isle to St. Mary Parish, where the Barataria pirates once enjoyed a stronghold. As a trained expert in maritime law enforcement with more than two decades of coastal experience, Martin has learned to think like a criminal. For committing unobserved crimes under a thick veil of secrecy, there’s no better place than the Gulf of Mexico, he says.
“There are so many ways to get in and out of the gulf with its numerous inlets and outlets,” Martin adds. “Especially in the lower part of Barataria. It’s a vast maze of islands and bays and bayous and channels that smugglers can use to hide out and store things and set up shop. There’s no defined shoreline. And then there are also ample beaches and trees along the coast that provide cover.”
Martin laughs when pondering whether the Lafittes could operate within the confines of the coast today. “Not a chance,” he says, describing how coastal erosion has played havoc on barrier islands and inland areas. However, the gulf is still a wide-open bounty for smugglers with guts. And enforcement remains a major challenge for Wildlife and Fisheries – there are only two enforcement agents in each coastal parish and the department houses but one major offshore vessel, docked in Venice.
Granted, the department works alongside the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal agencies, but the gulf is an almost cosmic locale to cover for law enforcement. Martin readily admits that most modern smuggling busts happen through informants, not enforcement. So, in retrospect, it’s no wonder the Lafittes enjoyed the success they did. “They had the whole place to themselves,” Martin says.
Today, it isn’t so easy. Smugglers have been forced into a rushed operation. The 1900s saw two major changes to the trade: First, maritime smugglers found success in working with air traffickers. Additionally, the booming oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico gave way to thousands of drilling platforms that are often used as rendezvous or drop-off points.
Although seizure data does not confirm widespread air and maritime drug smuggling into Louisiana’s Gulf Coast region, many federal and state agencies are overly confident it is occurring on a grand scale. Lower Lafourche was a haven for drug smugglers in the late 1970s, but most of that activity has been squelched. According to a drug threat assessment of Louisiana conducted by the National Drug Intelligence Center, a majority of gulf smuggling today is carried out initially by air, then picked up by boat using a predetermined rig location or a global positioning systems point.
Many times, the air drop-offs can be misinterpreted as something else, the report states. The natural gas industry is the impetus for up to 9,000 helicopter flights a day shuttling employees and equipment between platforms and the mainland, providing a degree of anonymity to smugglers operating in the gulf. When the authorities do come in on the back end of such a deal, runners will often ditch their cargo overboard to the depths of the ocean floor. As recently as November of last year, shrimpers out of Cocodrie were pulling in hordes of waterproofed cocaine packages with their nets.
There’s even a major transportation hub and distribution center for most illicit commodities coming from the gulf today, the report states: the Port of New Orleans, where booty is smuggled in through passengers and cargo. Drug traffickers use skilled welders in poor nations such as Haiti to modify cargo vessels so drugs can be stored within the structure of the ship. Smugglers will also use the guise of cruise ships to send over human drug carriers. Martin adds that another often-overlooked modern smuggling operation is seafood. Fringe groups of fishermen go out into the gulf and harvest contraband fish with intentions to distribute it commercially, he says.
While smuggling activities in the Mexican gulf are ever-changing, it has long been a place of refuge for pirates, privateers, bootleggers and drug dealers to ply their trade. Their motives remain debatable – those involved with illegal activities were not eager to talk publicly – and, of course, dead men tell no tales. Modern smuggling in the gulf is also likewise a mystery. Few incidents involving bootlegging have been recorded, and drug dealers continue to battle law enforcement by operating on the fringes with a tight grasp on technology. As to who these individuals are, possibly author Lyle Saxon said it best – although overly simplified – when describing the Barataria gang of the 1800s. More than likely, the phrase still applies to those who choose saltwater crimes over land-based mayhem: “They were outlaws by choice and had cast their lots upon the sea.” In doing so, they found a back door to south Louisiana and discovered a Garden of Eden for their misdeeds. •