Today in French Quarter History, on September 3, 1814. Officers from HMS Sophie landed at Barataria Bay (40 miles below New Orleans) and offered Pirate Jean Laffite a captaincy in the Royal Navy and $30,000. The British expected Laffite to turn over his ships. They also wanted him to and provide guides to help the British capture New Orleans. The ensuing four months would change US history forever, and Jean Laffite and his pirates would become heroes of the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815.
HMS Sophie arrives at Barataria Bay
Around ten in the morning, Royal Navy Captain, Nicolas Lockyer, navigated HMS Sophie to Barataria Bay and Grand Terre Island. This was the headquarters of the pirates Laffite. Lockyer spotted a ship attempting to enter the bay through Barataria Pass. He ordered his crew to fire some warning shots. Those shots set into motion a fantastic sequence of events that would end with a very improbable American victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans.
The British meet Jean Laffite but don’t know it
After hearing the shots and seeing HMS Sophie drop anchor, Laffite had some men row him towards it in a pirogue. The British then lowered a small boat with a flag of truce and rowed to him. When the boats met, Lockyer introduced himself as the Captain of HMS Sophie and asked to be taken to Jean Laffite so he could deliver some papers. Laffite offered that he would bring them to the camp so they could meet him. A little later, Laffite dropped the ruse and admitted that he was the Jean Laffite they were looking for.
The British make their offer
Once on dry land, the British made their offer to Laffite. It is definite that they wanted to give him a captaincy in the Royal Navy and land to settle in America after the British victory. Some scholars believe that a verbal offer was also made for a cash payment of $30,000, though this has fallen into the realm of folklore. In return, Britain expected him to turn over his ships and men. They also wanted to land troops on Laffite’s island and use it as a base of operations for an attack on New Orleans. The attack would come about with the help of the Baratarians showing them the way through the bayous.
Not so fast!
Captain Lockyer had not chosen an opportune time to arrive at Barataria Bay. In the days before his arrival, Laffite found himself in the throes of a mutiny by a faction of his men. At the time, there were at least four hundred pirates on the island, and the presence of the Englishmen only made things worse. Many of the pirates wanted to hang Lockyer, and Dominque Youx reportedly wanted to take the Sophie as a prize. Though Laffite had no intention of accepting their offer, he pretended to go along with the British plan but asked for more time. He explained that he needed a fortnight to put his affairs in order. After that, he would be ready and at their service. The Sophie departed and though she was expected back two weeks later, she never returned.
Laffite warns the government and is betrayed
Jean Laffite sent all of the offer documents the British gave him to a friend, who was a member of the city legislature. His friend brought the papers to Governor Claiborne, but after a meeting with military leaders, he decided the papers were fake. Plans were already underway for an attack on the Barataria Bay stronghold under direct orders of the Secretary of the Navy. The attack went ahead as scheduled and the US Navy arrived at and destroyed the pirates’ nest on September 16th. Laffite had given orders not to fire on the American flag. Many of the pirates escaped, including the Laffites, but many pirate ships and a large amount of booty were captured. Some eighty pirates were taken prisoner and spent the next four months in jail at the Cabildo.
The pirates become heroes
During this time, the Laffites proclaimed their loyalty to the US, and Jean clandestinely contacted his attorney, Edward Livingston. Laffite wanted Livingston, who also happened to be the general’s aide de camp, to intervene on the pirates’ behalf. Livingston and Jackson had also served together in Congress and were good friends. At first, Jackson refused to consider letting the “hellish banditi” become part of his army. However, persevering, Livingston convinced Jackson to change his mind.
The Barataria Pirates entered into the service of the US military and fought with distinction at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. Most scholars believe that without the Baratarians, the Battle of New Orleans would have been lost. The accepted reason is that the Baratarians were instrumental as artillerists who decimated the British troops as they marched in formation towards Line Jackson. Folklore has it that the Laffites supplied much-needed flints and that is why the battle was won. In any case, General Jackson publicly lauded the pirates as the ablest of men. President James Madison issued a public proclamation of full pardon for all of the Baratarians.
Life and death after the Battle of New Orleans
Some of the Baratarian Pirates, like Dominque Youx and Renato Beluche, gave up piracy for good. For Jean and Pierre Laffite, however, the call of adventure on the high seas was too alluring. Scholars believe that both of the brothers died at separate times in different places as a result of their piracy.
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