Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Panache Is So Hard to Come By These Days

Jean Lafitte is the ultimate villain. He’s the one I’m always trying to write, the guy who is on the wrong side of the law but remains likable in spite of everything. Hell, maybe he’s the perfect hero. Like somehow, when I watch movies like The Assassination of Jesse James (by the Coward Robert Ford) or Public Enemies, I wind up rooting for the ‘bad guy.’ The thing is when a story is told from the rogue’s point of view, he becomes the hero of the story. At least in those instances. Great films, by the way, especially the first one.

Back to Jean Lafitte. Known as the gentleman pirate of New Orleans, Jean might have been born in France, but referred to himself as a ‘man without a country.’ He had no patience for the French and was drawn to the simplistic idealism of the American Constitution. Some accounts give the reason for his apathy as the beheading of his parents during the French Revolution. At any rate, he and his brother Pierre set up smuggling and pirating operations on an island in Barataria Bay, near New Orleans. Make no mistake, Jean was a pirate. He stole, he killed, he smuggled slaves after their import to the United States was made illegal. For the majority of his career he didn’t actually perform any of these actions, because he had an entire fleet under his command, but I doubt this distinction had any real meaning to law enforcement.

I’m going to share my favorite two Jean Lafitte stories, and from them I believe you’ll garner an accurate picture of the man and the legend. A quick one, in way introducing him. Lafitte’s face was plastered on posters all over New Orleans, all promising a reward of $500 for his capture. Shortly after, posters displaying the Governor’s face went up all over town, pledging $1500 if the man were hogtied and brought to Lafitte’s island. I’d have paid money to see the Governor’s face the first time he laid eyes on one of those puppies.

The first may be legend, but it’s a good one. Supposedly, Jean Lafitte and Napoleon Bonaparte were related, perhaps distant cousins. When the latter learned of his impending exile, he hired Lafitte to smuggle him out of France and to America. Napoleon loaded his belongings up on Lafitte’s ship, and then went out to enjoy his last night in France. He either didn’t make it back by the appointed hour or Lafitte outright took off with his things, but either way he never took that boat to America. Good thing for us too, I’d say. It makes me giggle to think how shocked Napoleon must have been, wandering up and down those docks thinking “how could he?” It reminds me of a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, when the still-green William Turner is fencing with Jack Sparrow, who disarms him. Will looks at Jack with a wounded, indignant face and says: “You cheated.” Sparrow’s response, with a quick motion to himself: “Pirate.” Duh, Will. All I’m saying is that if I’ve left all of my worldly possessions on the ship of a known pirate there’s no way in hell I’m going anywhere. In fact, I’d probably tie myself down.

Second, Jean Lafitte and several of his pirates lent their services to Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. By all accounts, this battle would have been lost without their help. Ignoring the elephant in the room, which is that the war was over before this particular skirmish took place, Lafitte did the American government a solid. He did it for two reasons, both of which were selfish. He was a pirate, remember? First, he was French. His genes were coded with English-hating DNA. Second, he and his men were promised a presidential pardon. After the end of the war, Lafitte traveled all the way to Washington DC to request goods and materials that were confiscated from his stronghold by the government. After all, he had supplied men, funds, weapons, and his knowledge of the land to help the US win an important victory. What Madison told him? You can buy it back at auction. Needless to say, Lafitte was miffed over the encounter and never regained his previous admiration of America. Lafitte wanted, badly by some accounts, to be viewed as a businessman and gentleman, as opposed to a criminal. That he felt he had the right to demand his things from the President bolsters this image in my mind.

So what we have here is a man without a country, without a family besides his brother, who does what he has to survive but longs to be part of gentle society. Charming, isn’t he? Identifiable? His plight, when put that way, makes you root for him. In the end, Lafitte and his men were run out of New Orleans and settled in Galveston for a time before sailing south, never to be seen again. I encourage you to read more about Lafitte, there are many amusing stories that I have not the time or knowledge to relay. I dare you not to adore him, at least in some small way, before you are finished.

Next Up - Anne Bonny. Let's here it for the girls!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pirates - The Ultimate Bad Boys?

            Pirates. Why do we love them so? What makes them so dashing, so romantic, so worthy of admiration? Because historically, our predecessors didn’t see any of the above characteristics in the rogues. They were terrorists, thieves, murderers…criminals to be feared and avoided at all costs. We can blame Johnny Depp, or Disney. I think it’s something more, something engrained in our souls that makes us love them.

            One of my favorite pirate story dates to 75 B.C.E. and involves a man who would one day change the face of the Roman Republic. When Julius Caesar was a young man, still in his early twenties, the pirates of Cilicia captured him and held him for ransom. The Cilician pirates achieved infamy during their heyday, causing trouble for Rome and all of her commercial partners around the Mediterranean. The Romans used the same pirates as mercenaries during maritime warfare, a tradition that did not end with them. The pirates ransomed young Caesar for twenty talents, a paltry amount that made him laugh when he found out. See, Julius informed the pirates they had netted a prize and he believed himself worth much more. As a result, they asked for fifty talents in exchange for the aristocrat’s release. While in their custody, for a length of a month or so, Julius Caesar acted more as their leader as opposed to a captive. He often practiced fighting with them, learned their weaponry and tactics, and sent messengers to ask them to keep their voices down when he wanted to sleep. He talked every day of how they had better not let him go, because if they did he would come back with an army and kill every last one of them. The pirates, believing it to be a friendly joke, laughed along. When they released him, Julius went to the nearest town, raised his army, and returned to slaughter the band of pirates who’d held him. He granted the ones he liked a death by beheading as opposed to crucifixion, Caesar’s brand of mercy. The moral of this particular story is two-fold, in my opinion. First, it provides an intimate picture of piracy; the camaraderie, society, and inner workings of their groupings. Second, it reiterates what history teaches us about the Romans – don’t mess with them. They were like, the Texas of their day.
            As long as people have shipped goods across the seas, men have made their living stealing from them. All the powerful, successful countries (including America) have used the pirates when it’s convenient and punished them harshly when they lose their usefulness. The life of a pirate was hard, the men who chose it rarely living past their twenties. They signed on knowing their time on this earth would be short, so they lived it to the fullest extent. Kind of like college, only at the end you die. Their indulgences contributed to their early demise just as often as the sword, cannon, or rope. The weeks at sea without proper nutrition caused health issues such as scurvy and other vitamin deficiencies. The time spent at port, drinking and whoring, led to every sort of venereal disease, driving many a pirate to an early grave. Without the inclination or opportunity to bathe regularly, scabies and other skin disease took their toll.
            I just made it sound awfully glamorous, didn’t I? Still want to be a pirate? For some reason, I sort of do. And you know what I think it is? The freedom. The chance to travel the world, to give the finger to society and its rules, to live or die on your own terms. The killing people would be hard for me, I’m not very confrontational by nature, but if I looked down the barrel of a naval officer, I might be able to summon some fight. Two of my novels feature pirates and their histories as integral characters, and I plan on sharing their stories in the days to come. If the lives of these scalawags, thieves, and entrepreneurs fascinate you as they do me, drop back by. I promise to keep it interesting.

NEXT TIME: Jean Lafitte, Gentleman pirate of New Orleans