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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: The Pirates
        Laffite
The Pirates Laffite: the Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf
by William C. Davis
Harcourt, 2005, $28
ISBN 0-15-100403-X

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If their first loyalty was to themselves, still as smugglers and privateers they proved more principled than the rest, solicitous of life, loyal to friends and operating according to ethical values that often seemed out of place amid a thicket of thieves.  ~ William C. Davis

Cloaked in mystery and intrigue, Jean and Pierre Laffite came to prominence in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. William C. Davis surmises that these two brothers were born in Pauillac, France, as only one family living there spelled “Laffite” as Jean and Pierre did, and both claimed to have come from the Bordeaux region of the country. At some point they emigrated to San Domingue, a city on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, then uprisings there led them to New Orleans.

Pierre Laffite, the older and lesser known of the two brothers, stood about five feet, ten inches tall and had a robust and powerfully-built figure. Of light complexion, he had piercing dark eyes that seemed slightly crossed. He wore his sandy-colored hair low over his brow, and spoke English with a French accent. Jean Laffite, the more charismatic but not necessarily the more intelligent of the pair, was several inches taller than his brother. He wore side whiskers along his jaw line, and like Pierre, had brilliant white teeth. In spite of his time at sea, he had pale skin, perhaps accentuated by his dark hair. He had large dark hazel eyes and had a habit of closing one while he spoke. He dressed with elegance and style, was often gracious, and enjoyed talking with others.

Pierre’s business acumen combined with Jean’s charisma helped them organize the smugglers and pirates operating out of Barataria into one of the most profitable operations of the time. Aside from the luxury goods they sold while evading customs and import duties, they also supplied slaves at a time when the importation of slaves into the United States was illegal but New Orleans was in desperate need of manpower to work the plantations. A few months before the Battle of New Orleans, American forces destroyed Barataria, but still the Laffites and the Baratarians helped Andrew Jackson defeat the British army. In the ensuing years the brothers spied for Spain, left New Orleans, and operated for a time in Galveston either as privateers or pirates. Then they faded from history.

For those who know the history, and legends, of the Laffites, not all will agree with Davis’ conclusions, particularly concerning the role they played in the Battle of New Orleans and in how each met his demise. I agree the Americans probably would have won against the British, but perhaps not as decisively as they did had they not had the help and expertise of the Baratarians. Pierre probably died as Davis claims, but the stories of Jean’s death are based on newspaper reports rather than documented eyewitness accounts and incontrovertible proof.

The Pirates Laffite is the most comprehensive examination of the Laffites ever written. Davis’ extensive research is evidenced in the detailed endnotes and bibliography of primary and secondary source material. Until this book, Jean Laffite has always taken center stage, but Davis methodically shows that Pierre played an equal or greater role in their success. This book dispels many myths associated with the Laffites and perhaps tarnishes their romantic swashbuckling images. Even so, they remain enigmas almost two centuries later. This volume is essential reading for anyone interested in Jean and Pierre Laffite. Only then will you be able to decide whether you agree or disagree with the author’s conclusions.

Read an Excerpt from The Pirates Laffite

Book Review Copyright © 2005 Cindy Vallar


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