Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Patriots or Pirates?
By Cindy Vallar
Whether someone was a pirate or not is a matter of interpretation. Sir Francis Drake was a prime example of this. To the English, he was a privateer and a hero. To the Spanish, anyone who attacked their ships was a pirate, and they treated him accordingly. The same was true of Kanhoji Angria and Jean Laffite. Were they pirates? Were they privateers? Were they patriots? It depends.
The daring exploits of Kanhoji Angria (sometimes spelled Conajee Angria or Kanhoji Angre) brought him to the attention of the Peshwa, who appointed Angria Admiral of the Maratha fleet in 1698. In this capacity he protected India from interlopers. Being an admiral wasn’t enough, though. He wanted to be a ruler in his own right. In 1704, after breaking away from the Peshwa, he attacked British ships belonging to the East India Company and was described as a “Rebel Independent of the Rajah Shivaji.” (R.N. Saletore, Indian Pirates from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 1978) His superiors sent an army against him to curb his desire for independence, but he defeated them. In the ensuing negotiations, he acknowledged Satara as his superior and he became the commander of Satara’s fleet.
In spite of negotiated treaties, which he sometimes initiated, he continually harassed English and Portuguese merchant ships over a period of twenty-five years. In time he came to control almost the entire west coast of India. His continued attacks led them to conclude he was a pirate.
The people of India see Kanhoji Angria as a national hero. In fact, one writer told me in January that Tukaji, Kanhoji’s father, was first appointed ‘Sarkhel,’ which means Admiral, by Shivaji, the Maratha King. This was passed down dynastically till Tulaji lost to the English. The point here is that they were first appointed and then they fought for their king and country and not for personal plunder. If that’s the case, then what of the ransom payment of 30,000 rupees he accepted in exchange for the release of British captives and to cease harassing British shipping in 1712?
One Englishwoman might agree with her countrymen’s assessment that Konhoji Angria was a pirate. In November 1712, his ships attacked the ketch she sailed aboard with her husband, the chief of the Carwar factory. He was killed and Mrs. Chown was taken captive. Upon her release in February 1713, Lieutenant Mackintosh wrote, he was obliged to wrap his clothes about her to cover her nakedness. In spite of all she had endured during her captivity, she put up a brave front. [S]he most courageously withstood all Angria’s base usage, and endured his insults beyond expectation. (Colonel John Biddulph, The Pirates of the Malibar and an Englishwoman in India Two Hundred Years Ago. London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1907).
In some respects, Angria was much like Sir Francis Drake. Both were national heroes. Both were also pirates. Drake served in the Royal Navy, was a Member of Parliament, and a successful merchant. He circumnavigated the globe, received a knighthood, and fought against the Spanish Armada. He was also one of Queen Elizabeth I’s Sea Dogs, privateers who sometimes blurred the lines between legal privateering and illegal piracy. Elizabeth often called Drake, her “pirate.” The Spanish had another name for him – El Draque, the English dragon who had ravaged ships and towns in the Caribbean. (Wade G. Dudley, Drake: For God, Queen, and Plunder, 2003)
Several times Drake allied himself with pirates to achieve his goals. In 1573 he joined with Tetu, a French pirate, to attack a mule train laden with gold and silver on the Isthmus of Panama. Although Tetu died, Drake and his men acquired significant treasure. As a result, the Spanish labeled him a vicious Protestant pirate and added his name to their list of most wanted. Aboard the Golden Hinde, Drake pillaged Spanish ships and settlements with Elizabeth’s backing, but her support was often secret. When he returned to England after circumnavigating the world and capturing Spain’s richest treasure galleon, he was knighted.
In September 1585, when he sailed from England with a fleet of twenty-nine vessels, he did so under orders from Queen Elizabeth. While negotiating for the release of a captured merchant ship, Drake preyed on Spanish ships and towns in order to demonstrate that he meant business. Two years later he delayed the sailing of the Spanish Armada, and in 1588 helped defeat the Armada, making him and the other Sea Dogs national heroes.
Jean Laffite was another privateer who became a national hero. He lived in Barataria and New Orleans during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Laffite was a smuggler and privateer, although he resolutely denied ever being a pirate. After all, he and his men sailed under letters of marque from Cartagena. His contemporary and acquaintance, Major Arsene Lacarrière Latour, firmly believed that Laffite never committed a crime, except those that infringed the revenue laws.
Throughout his life and even in death, Laffite cloaked himself in mystery. According to Jack C. Ramsay, Jr., Laffite was a man of mystery whose actions and motives were subject to a variety of interpretations…. He consistently denied he was a pirate, yet he relished the notoriety his reputation bestowed upon him. (Jack C. Ramsay, Jr., Jean Laffite, Prince of Pirates, 1996) Although Andrew Jackson referred to him and his cohorts as “Hellish Banditti” and the American Navy destroyed his base of operations, Laffite provided Jackson with needed men, arms, and ammunition during the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson later wrote of his “courage and fidelity.” President James Madison pardoned him for all previous crimes. He was a national hero, yet later he returned to privateering, and perhaps, piracy.
…Whether a sea raider was denounced as a pirate depended upon the interpretation a particular state chose to place upon his actions. Deeds that were considered justifiable under the laws of one nation might be declared piratical by another. (Jean Laffite, Prince of Pirates) Were these men patriots or pirates? You decide.
© 2004 Cindy Vallar
Published 1 February 2004
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