Pirate Friday: Malays

Matteo Ricci’s map of the Far East

Welcome back to not-quite-Anthrpology Friday. Today we’re finishing The Pirate’s Own Book with a look at Malay pirates (as usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability):

“A glance at the map of the East India Islands will convince us that this region of the globe must, from its natural configuration and locality, be peculiarly liable to become the seat of piracy. … A large proportion of the population is at the same time confined to the coasts or the estuaries of rivers; they are fishermen and mariners; they are barbarous and poor, therefore rapacious, faithless and sanguinary. … It is not surprising, then, that the Malays should have been notorious for their depredations from our first acquaintance with them.

“Among the tribes of the Indian Islands, the most noted for their piracies are, of course, the most idle, and the least industrious, and particularly such as are unaccustomed to follow agriculture or trade as regular pursuits. The agricultural tribes of Java, and many of Sumatra, never commit piracy at all; and the most civilized inhabitants of Celebes are very little addicted to this vice.

source

“Among the most confirmed pirates are the true Malays, inhabiting the small islands about the eastern extremity of the straits of Malacca, and those lying between Sumatra and Borneo, down to Billitin and Cavimattir. Still more noted than these, are the inhabitants of certain islands situated between Borneo and the Phillipines, of whom the most desperate and enterprising are the Soolos and Illanoons, the former inhabiting a well known group of islands of the same name, and the latter being one of the most numerous nations of the great island of Magindando.”

EvX: I’ve yet to figure out who the Soolos and Illanoons are.

“The Soolo pirates chiefly confine their depredations to the Phillipine Islands, which they have continued to infest, with little interruption, for near three centuries, in open defiance of the Spanish authorities, and the numerous establishments maintained to check them. The piracies of the Illanoons, on the contrary, are widely extended, being carried on all the way from their native country to the Spice Islands, on one side, and to the Straits of Malacca on the other. … Besides those who are avowed pirates, it ought to be particularly noticed that a great number of the Malayan princes must be considered as accessories to their crimes, for they afford them protection, contribute to their outfit, and often share in their booty; so that a piratical proa is too commonly more welcome in their harbours than a fair trader. …

A Piratical Proa in Full Chase

“In Nov. 1827, a principal chief of pirates, named Sindana, made a descent upon Mamoodgoo with forty-five proas, burnt three-fourths of the campong, driving the rajah with his family among the mountains. Some scores of men were killed, and 300 made prisoners, besides women and children to half that amount. In December following, when I was there, the people were slowly returning from the hills, but had not yet attempted to rebuild the campong, which lay in ashes. During my stay here (ten weeks) the place was visited by two other piratical chiefs, one of which was from Kylie, the other from Mandhaar Point under Bem Bowan, who appeared to have charge of the whole; between them they had 134 proas of all sizes. …

“An European vessel was faintly descried about three o’clock one foggy morning; the rain fell in torrents; the time and weather were favorable circumstances for a surprise, and the commander determined to distinguish himself in the absence of the Rajah Raga, gave directions to close, fire the guns and board. He was the more confident of success, as the European vessel was observed to keep away out of the proper course on approaching her. On getting within about an hundred fathoms of the Elk they fired their broadside, gave a loud shout, and with their long oars pulled towards their prey.

“The sound of a drum beating to quarters no sooner struck the ear of the astonished Malays than they endeavored to get away: it was too late; the ports were opened, and a broadside, accompanied with three British cheers, gave sure indications of their fate. The captain hailed the Elk, and would fain persuade him it was a mistake. It was indeed a mistake, and one not to be rectified by the Malayan explanation.

“The proa was sunk by repeated broadsides, and the commanding officer refused to pick up any of the people, who, with the exception of five were drowned; these, after floating four days on some spars, were picked up by a Pergottan proa, and told the story to Raga, who swore anew destruction to every European he should henceforth take.

“This desperado has for upwards of seventeen years been the terror of the Straits of Macassar, during which period he has committed the most extensive and dreadful excesses sparing no one. … it is well known that he has cut off and murdered the crews of more than forty European vessels, which have either been wrecked on the coasts, or entrusted themselves in native ports. … The western coast of Celebes, for about 250 miles, is absolutely lined with proas belonging principally to three considerable rajahs, who act in conjunction with Raga and other pirates. Their proas may be seen in clusters of from 50, 80, and 100 (at Sediano I counted 147 laying on the sand at high water mark in parallel rows,) and kept in a horizontal position by poles, completely ready for the sea. Immediately behind them are the campongs, in which are the crews; here likewise are kept the sails, gunpowder, etc. necessary for their equipment. On the very summits of the mountains, which in many parts rise abruptly from the sea, may be distinguished innumerable huts; here reside people who are constantly on the lookout.

“A vessel within ten miles of the shore will not probably perceive a single proa, yet in less than two hours, if the tide be high, she may be surrounded by some hundreds. Should the water be low they will push off during the night. Signals are made from mountain to mountain along the coast with the utmost rapidity; during the day time by flags attached to long bamboos; at night, by fires. Each chief sends forth his proas, the crews of which, in hazardous cases, are infuriated with opium, when they will most assuredly take the vessel if she be not better provided than most merchantmen.

“Mr. Dalton, who went to the Pergottan river in 1830 says:

“… [The pirates] were anchored off the point of a small promontory, on which the rajah has an establishment and bazaar. The largest of these proas belonged to Raga, who received by the fleet of proas, in which I came, his regular supplies of arms and ammunition from Singapore. Here nestle the principal pirates, and Raga holds his head quarters; his grand depot was a few miles farther up.

“Rajah Agi Bota himself generally resides some distance up a small river which runs eastward of the point; near his habitation stands the principal bazaar, which would be a great curiosity for an European to visit if he could only manage to return, which very few have.

“The Raga gave me a pressing invitation to spend a couple of days at his country house, but all the Bugis’ nacodahs strongly dissuaded me from such an attempt. I soon discovered the cause of their apprehension; they were jealous of Agi Bota, well knowing he would plunder me, and considered every article taken by him was so much lost to the Sultan of Coti, who naturally would expect the people to reserve me for his own particular plucking.

“When the fact was known of an European having arrived in the Pergottan river, this amiable prince and friend of Europeans, impatient to seize his prey, came immediately to the point from his country house, and sending for the nacodah of the proa, ordered him to land me and all my goods instantly. An invitation now came for me to go on shore and amuse myself with shooting, and look at some rare birds of beautiful plumage which the rajah would give me if I would accept of them; but knowing what were his intentions, and being well aware that I should be supported by all the Bugis’ proas from Coti, I feigned sickness, and requested that the birds might be sent on board.

“Upon this Agi Bota, who could no longer restrain himself, sent off two boats of armed men, who robbed me of many articles, and would certainly have forced me on shore, or murdered me in the proa had not a signal been made to the Bugis’ nacodahs, who immediately came with their people, and with spears and krisses, drove the rajah’s people overboard. The nacodahs, nine in number, now went on shore, when a scene of contention took place showing clearly the character of this chief.

“The Bugis from Coti explained, that with regard to me it was necessary to be particularly circumspect, as I was not only well known at Singapore, but the authorities in that settlement knew that I was on board the Sultan’s proa, and they themselves were responsible for my safety. To this circumstance alone I owe my life on several occasions, as in the event of any thing happening to me, every nacodah was apprehensive of his proa being seized on his return to Singapore; I was therefore more peculiarly cared for by this class of men, and they are powerful.

“The rajah answered the nacodahs by saying, I might be disposed of as many others had been, and no further notice taken of the circumstance; he himself would write to Singapore that I had been taken by an alligator, or bitten by a snake whilst out shooting; and as for what property I might have in the proa he would divide it with the Sultan of Coti.

“The Bugis, however, refused to listen to any terms, knowing the Sultan of Coti would call him to an account for the property, and the authorities of Singapore for my life. Our proa, with others, therefore dropped about four miles down the river, where we took in fresh water. Here we remained six days, every argument being in vain to entice me on shore. At length the Bugis’ nacodahs came to the determination to sail without passes, which brought the rajah to terms. The proas returned to the point, and I was given to understand I might go on shore in safety.

“I did so, and was introduced to the rajah whom I found under a shed, with about 150 of his people; they were busy gambling, and had the appearance of what they really are, a ferocious set of banditti. Agi Bota is a good looking man, about forty years of age, of no education whatever; he divides his time between gaming, opium and cockfighting; that is in the interval of his more serious and profitable employment, piracy and rapine. He asked me to produce what money I had about me; on seeing only ten rupees, he remarked that it was not worth while to win so small a sum, but that if I would fight cocks with him he would lend me as much money as I wanted, and added it was beneath his dignity to fight under fifty reals a battle. On my saying it was contrary to an Englishman’s religion to bet wagers, he dismissed me; immediately after the two rajahs produced their cocks and commenced fighting for one rupee a side.

“I was now obliged to give the old Baudarre five rupees to take some care of me, as whilst walking about, the people not only thrust their hands into my pockets, but pulled the buttons from my clothes.

“Whilst sauntering behind the rajah’s campong I caught sight of an European woman, who on perceiving herself observed, instantly ran into one of the houses, no doubt dreading the consequences of being recognized. There are now in the house of Agi Bota two European women; up the country there are others, besides several men. The Bugis, inimical to the rajah, made no secret of the fact; I had heard of it on board the proa, and some person in the bazaar confirmed the statement.

“On my arrival, strict orders had been given to the inhabitants to put all European articles out of sight. … In one house were the following articles: four Bibles, one in English, one in Dutch, and two in the Portuguese languages; many articles of wearing apparel, such as jackets and trowsers, with the buttons altered to suit the natives; pieces of shirts tagged to other parts of dress; several broken instruments, such as quadrants, spy glasses (two,) binnacles, with pieces of ship’s sails, bolts and hoops; a considerable variety of gunner’s and carpenter’s tools, stores, etc. In another shop were two pelisses of faded lilac color; these were of modern cut and fashionably made. On enquiring how they became possessed of these articles, I was told they were some wrecks of European vessels on which no people were found, whilst others made no scruple of averring that they were formerly the property of people who had died in the country.

“All the goods in the bazaar belonged to the rajah, and were sold on his account; large quantities were said to be in his house up the river; but on all hands it was admitted Raga and his followers had by far the largest part of what was taken. …

“In consequence of the strict orders given on the subject I could see no more; indeed there were both difficulty and danger attending these inquiries. I particularly wanted to obtain [a] miniature picture, and offered the Mandoor fifty rupees if he could procure it; he laughed at me, and pointing significantly to his kris, drew one hand across my throat, and then across his own, giving me to understand such would be the result to us both on such an application to the rajah.

“It is the universal custom of the pirates, on this coast, to sell the people for slaves immediately on their arrival, the rajah taking for himself a few of the most useful, and receiving a percentage upon the purchase money of the remainder, with a moiety of the vessel and every article on board. European vessels are taken up the river, where they are immediately broken up. The situation of European prisoners is indeed dreadful in a climate like this, where even the labor of natives is intolerable; they are compelled to bear all the drudgery, and allowed a bare sufficiency of rice and salt to eat.””

EvX: After some pirating of the usual sort, the US government decided to do something about the mater:

“The government immediately adopted measures to punish so outrageous an act of piracy by despatching the frigate Potomac, Commodore Downs, Commander.”

EvX: Finally we have some events I can independently confirm. According to Wikipedia:

The First Sumatran expedition, which featured the Battle of Quallah Battoo (Aceh: Kuala Batèë, Malay: Kuala Batu) in 1832, was a punitive expedition by the United States Navy against the village of Kuala Batee (id), presently a subdistrict in Southwest Aceh Regency. The reprisal was in response to the massacre of the crew of the merchantmanFriendship a year earlier. The frigatePotomac and its crew defeated the local uleëbalang (ruler)’s forces and bombed the settlement. The expedition was successful in stopping Sumatran attacks on U.S. shipping for six years until another vessel was plundered under different circumstances, resulting in a second Sumatran expedition in 1838.

On Commodore Downs:

Downes served as acting midshipman from 9 September 1800 and was appointed midshipman 1 June 1802. He rendered distinguished service during the First Barbary War in 1804 in the frigate Congress, and distinguished himself again while a midshipman on the frigate New York in a boat attack upon Tripolitan feluccas.

In March 1807, he was made a lieutenant, and served as executive officer for Captain David Porter in Essex during her cruise in the Pacific in the War of 1812. In the Action off James Island, Downes was in command of the sloop Georgiana during the capture of three British privateers. He also participated in the Action off Charles Island before sailing to Nuku Hiva to assist in building America’s first military base in the Pacific. …

Wikipedia also makes some unsourced accusations:

Downes took command of USS Macedonian in 1818 and set forth on a three-year show of power for America to South America and beyond. On this trip, he decided to use the ship for his own enrichment and became a banking ship, giving protection, passage and banking service to privateers, pirates and others. He took large amounts for his own private use. He took at least 2.6 million in specie during his trip.

As for the Potomac:

On her first overseas cruise, Potomac departed New York 19 August 1831 for the Pacific Squadron via the Cape of Good Hope on the first Sumatran Expedition. On 6 February 1832, Potomac destroyed the town of Kuala Batee in retaliation for the capture there in February of the previous year of the American merchantman Friendship, which had been recaptured and returned to Salem to report the murder of many of her crew.[3] Of Potomacs 282 sailors and Marines who landed, two were killed while 150 natives died, including Mahomet, the chieftain.[4] After circumnavigating the world, Potomac returned to Boston 23 May 1834.

The frigate next made two cruises to the Brazil Station, protecting American interests in Latin America from 20 October 1834 to 5 March 1837, and from 12 May 1840 to 31 July 1842. From 8 December 1844 to 4 December 1845, she patrolled in the West Indies, and again from 14 March 1846 to 20 July 1847 in the Caribbean and the Gulf. During this latter period, she landed troops at Port Isabel, Texas, on 8 May 1846 in support of General Zachary Taylor’s army at the Battle of Palo Alto. She also participated in the siege of Vera Cruz, 9 to 28 March 1847.

But back to the Pirates:

USS Potomac in Valparaiso Harbor, 1834.

“The Potomac sailed from New York the 24th of August, 1831, after touching at Rio Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope. She anchored off Quallah Battoo in February 1832, disguised as a Danish ship, and came to in merchantman style, a few men being sent aloft, dressed in red and blue flannel shirts, and one sail being clewed up and furled at a time.

“A reconnoitering party were sent on shore disguised as pepper dealers, but they returned without being able to ascertain the situations of the forts. The ship now presented a busy scene; it was determined to commence an attack upon the town the next morning, and every necessary preparation was accordingly made, muskets were cleaned, cartridge-boxes buckled on, cutlasses examined and put in order, etc.

“At twelve o’clock at night, all hands were called, those assigned to take part in the expedition were mustered, when Lieut. Shubrick, the commander of the detachment, gave them special orders; when they entered the boats and proceeded to the shore, where they effected a landing near the dawn of day, amid a heavy surf, about a mile and a half to the north of the town, undiscovered by the enemy, and without any serious accident having befallen them, though several of the party were thoroughly drenched by the beating of the surf, and some of their ammunition was injured.

“The troops then formed and took up their line of march against the enemy, over a beach of deep and heavy sand. They had not proceeded far before they were discovered by a native at a distance, who ran at full speed to give the alarm. A rapid march soon brought them up with the first fort, when a division of men, under the command of Lieut. Hoff, was detached from the main body, and ordered to surround it.

“The first fort was found difficult of access, in consequence of a deep hedge of thorn-bushes and brambles with which it was environed. The assault was commenced by the pioneers, with their crows and axes, breaking down the gates and forcing a passage. This was attended with some difficulty, and gave the enemy time for preparation. They raised their warwhoop, and resisted most manfully, fighting with spears, sabres, and muskets. They had also a few brass pieces in the fort, but they managed them with so little skill as to produce no effect, for the balls uniformly whizzed over the heads of our men.

U.S. Infantry assaulting the Acehnese forts at Kuala Batu in 1832

“The resistance of the Malays was in vain, the fort was stormed, and soon carried; not, however, till almost every individual in it was slain. Po Mahomet, a chief of much distinction, and who was one of the principal persons concerned in the outrage on the Friendship [an American ship whose capture prompted the expedition] was here slain; the mother of Chadoolah, another rajah, was also slain here; another woman fell at this port, but her rank was not ascertained; she fought with the spirit of a desperado. …

“Lieutenants Edson and Ferret proceeded to the rear of the town, and made a bold attack upon that fort, which, after a spirited resistance on the part of the Malays, surrendered. Both officers and marines here narrowly escaped with their lives. One of the natives in the fort had trained his piece in such a manner as to rake their whole body, when he was shot down by a marine while in the very act of applying a match to it. The cannon was afterwards found to have been filled with bullets.

“This fort, like the former, was environed with thick jungle, and great difficulty had been experienced in entering it. The engagement had now become general, and the alarm universal. Men, women and children were seen flying in every direction, carrying the few articles they were able to seize in the moments of peril, and some of the men were cut down in the flight. Several of the enemy’s proas, filled with people, were severely raked by a brisk fire from the six pounder, as they were sailing up the river to the south of the town, and numbers of the natives were killed.

“The third and most formidable fort was now attacked, and it proved the most formidable, and the co-operation of the several divisions was required for its reduction; but so spirited was the fire poured into it that it was soon obliged to yield, and the next moment the American colors were seen triumphantly waving over its battlements.

“The greater part of the town was reduced to ashes. The bazaar, the principal place of merchandize, and most of the private dwellings were consumed by fire. The triumph had now been completed over the Malays; ample satisfaction had been taken for their outrages committed upon our own countrymen, and the bugle sounded the return of the ship’s forces; and the embarkation was soon after effected. The action had continued about two hours and a half, and was gallantly sustained both by officers and men, from its commencement to its close.

“The loss on the part of the Malays was near a hundred killed, while of the Americans only two lost their lives. Among the spoils were a Chinese gong, a Koran, taken at Mahomet’s fort, and several pieces of rich gold cloth. Many of the men came off richly laden with spoils which they had taken from the enemy, such as rajah’s scarfs, gold and silver chunam boxes, chains, ear rings and finger rings, anklets and bracelets, and a variety of shawls, krisses richly hilted and with gold scabbards, and a variety of other ornaments. Money to a considerable amount was brought off.

“That nothing should be left undone to have an indelible impression on the minds of these people, of the power of the United States to inflict punishment for aggressions committed on her commerce, in seas however distant, the ship was got underway the following morning, and brought to, with a spring on her cable, within less than a mile of the shore, when the larboard side was brought to bear nearly upon the site of the town.

“The object of the Commodore, in this movement, was not to open an indiscriminate or destructive fire upon the town and inhabitants of Quallah Battoo, but to show them the irresistible power of thirty-two pound shot, and to reduce the fort of Tuca de Lama, which could not be reached on account of the jungle and stream of water, on the morning before, and from which a fire had been opened and continued during the embarkation of the troops on their return to the ship.

“The fort was very soon deserted, while the shot was cutting it to pieces, and tearing up whole cocoa-trees by the roots. In the afternoon a boat came off from the shore, bearing a flag of truce to the Commodore, beseeching him, in all the practised forms of submission of the east, that he would grant them peace, and cease to fire his big guns.

“Hostilities now ceased, and the Commodore informed them that the objects of his government in sending him to their shores had now been consummated in the punishment of the guilty, who had committed their piracies on the Friendship.

“Thus ended the intercourse with Quallah Battoo. The Potomac proceeded from this place to China, and from thence to the Pacific Ocean; after looking to the interests of the American commerce in those parts she arrived at Boston in 1834, after a three years’ absence.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia, Downes was harshly criticized upon returning to the US for killing so many people. Piracy did die down for 6 years, when the Eclipse was attacked, provoking the Second (and more effective) Sumatran Expedition:

In August 1838, the American trading vessel Eclipse was visiting the village of Trobongan, on Sumatra, when 24 Malays approached. The ship’s second mate allowed the Malays to board after they relieved themselves of their weapons. A few moments later the Americans returned the Malays their weapons as a sign of friendship. The Malays, now rearmed with knives and other bladed weapons, attacked the crew. First they killed the second mate and then one by one the remaining men. … News of the massacre reached CommodoreGeorge C. Read in December 1838 while he was sailing off Ceylon in command of the East India Squadron. Immediately Commodore Read in the frigateColumbia set sail southeast for Sumatra, together with the frigate John Adams. … 

The two American vessels first headed for Quallah Battoo. Once they had arrived, the two U.S. Navy vessels formed a line of battle just in range of five earth and wooden forts that protected the village and opened fire. Over an hour later all of the forts were destroyed or in shambles. The chief of the village surrendered and agreed never again to attack American ships. … Columbia and John Adams arrived off Muckie the following day. The Americans landed a force of 360 officers, marines and sailors, all under the command of Commander T.W. Wyman of the navy. … Although most of the inhabitants fled their village upon the outbreak of fighting, some of the Malay men attempted to resist the attack but were overwhelmed. Within a short time, Muckie was in flames. The landing party then returned to their ships and sailed away. The punitive expedition ended after the Muckie engagement, and Commodore Read continued his cruise around the world. The second Sumatran expedition achieved what the first expedition had not. Never again did Malays plunder an American merchant ship.

This Wikipedia article is unusually low on footnotes.

That’s all for today. Tune in next week, when Anthropology Friday will take a look at Melanesia.

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Pirate Friday: The Legend of Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte

No knows exactly where Jean Lafitte was born–The Pirate’s Own Book claims St. Malo, a (formerly) notorious pirate’s haunt in Brittany, France. Wikipedia proposes the Basque region of France or the French colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti,) among others:

Lafitte claimed to have been born in Bordeaux, France, in 1780 from Sephardic Jewish parents whose Conversos grandmother and mother fled Spain for France in 1765, after his maternal grandfather was put to death by the Inquisition for “Judaizing”. He and his brother Pierre alternately claimed to have been born in Bayonne, while other documents of the time place his birthplace as St. Malo or Brest. … Other contemporary accounts claim that Lafitte was born in Orduna, Spain or in Westchester, New York.[2]

With few hard facts, Wikipedia skips Lafitte’s early life almost completely. TPOB, thankfully, provides a stirring (if possibly untrue) account:

…after a cruise during which [Lafitte] robbed the vessels of other nations, besides those of England, and thus committing piracy, he stopped at the Seychelles, and took in a load of slaves for the Mauritius; but being chased by an English frigate as far north as the equator, he found himself in a very awkward condition; not having provisions enough on board his ship to carry him back to the French Colony.

He therefore conceived the bold project of proceeding to the Bay of Bengal, in order to get provisions from on board some English ships. In his ship of two hundred tons, with only two guns and twenty-six men, he attacked and took an English armed schooner with a numerous crew. After putting nineteen of his own crew on board the schooner, he took the command of her and proceeded to cruise upon the coast of Bengal.

He there fell in with the Pagoda, a vessel belonging to the English East India Company, armed with twenty-six twelve pounders and manned with one hundred and fifty men. Expecting that the enemy would take him for a pilot of the Ganges, he manoeuvred accordingly. The Pagoda manifested no suspicions, whereupon he suddenly darted with his brave followers upon her decks, overturned all who opposed them, and speedily took the ship.

After a very successful cruise he arrived safe at the Mauritius, and took the command of La Confiance of twenty-six guns and two hundred and fifty men, and sailed for the coast of British India.

Off the Sand Heads in October, 1807, Lafitte fell in with the Queen East Indiaman, with a crew of near four hundred men, and carrying forty guns; he conceived the bold project of getting possession of her. Never was there beheld a more unequal conflict; even the height of the vessel compared to the feeble privateer augmented the chances against Lafitte; but the difficulty and danger far from discouraging this intrepid sailor, acted as an additional spur to his brilliant valor. After electrifying his crew with a few words of hope and ardor, he manoeuvred and ran on board of the enemy. In this position he received a broadside when close too; but he expected this, and made his men lay flat upon the deck. After the first fire they all rose, and from the yards and tops, threw bombs and grenades into the forecastle of the Indiaman. This sudden and unforeseen attack caused a great havoc. In an instant, death and terror made them abandon a part of the vessel near the mizen-mast.

Lafitte, who observed every thing, seized the decisive moment, beat to arms, and forty of his crew prepared to board, with pistols in their hands and daggers held between their teeth. As soon as they got on deck, they rushed upon the affrighted crowd, who retreated to the steerage, and endeavored to defend themselves there. Lafitte thereupon ordered a second division to board, which he headed himself; the captain of the Indiaman was killed, and all were swept away in a moment. Lafitte caused a gun to be loaded with grape, which he pointed towards the place where the crowd was assembled, threatening to exterminate them. The English deeming resistance fruitless, surrendered, and Lafitte hastened to put a stop to the slaughter. This exploit, hitherto unparalleled, resounded through India, and the name of Lafitte became the terror of English commerce in these latitudes.

Wikipedia speculates far humbler origins: he grew up aboard ships owned by his father, a trader. They were living in or near St. Domingue when the Haitian revolution broke out, and fled to Louisiana.

At this point TPOB and Wikipedia are in agreement: Lafitte moved to Barataria, Louisiana, around the time of the Louisiana purchase. Here he found a much safer way to earn a living than charging ships: smuggling.

In 1807, the US government passed an embargo against trade with Britain and France:

The embargo was imposed in response to violations of the United States neutrality, in which American merchantmen and their cargo were seized as contraband of war by the belligerent European navies. The British Royal Navy, in particular, resorted to impressment, forcing thousands of American seamen into service on their warships. Britain and France, engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, rationalized the plunder of U.S. shipping as incidental to war and necessary for their survival. Americans saw the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair as a particularly egregious example of a British violation of American neutrality.

A pirate is an outlaw who plunders ships on the high seas, but a privateer, like Sir Francis Drake, is a man who has been given permission by his sovereign to rape and despoil the ships of other nations.

The embargo was particularly problematic for Louisiana, which was accustomed to trading with the other French colonies of the Caribbean, so Lafitte and his brother, Piere, established a smuggling port in Barataria. By 1810, business was booming, and since almost everyone in Louisiana benefited from the trade Lafitte and his men enabled, the local government turned a mostly blind eye to his activities.

Barataria Preserve, Louisiana

In 1812, Lafitte returned to piracy with the purchase of a schooner, and soon after captured a Spanish hermaphrodite brig, which Wikipedia assures me is a kind of boat.

Sale of the brig’s cargo–including 77 slaves–netted $18,000 in profits plus a new ship, which Lafitte re-christianed the Dorada. With the Dorada, Lafitte captured a third ship laden with over $9,000 in goods, but decided the ship itself was not particularly useful for piracy, and so turned it back over it to its captain. His habit of not massacring everyone onboard the ships he captured and sometimes returning them to their rightful owners earned Lafitte some measure of local good will.

Lafitte soon captured two more ships, La Diligent and the Petit Milan, which they outfitted with guns from their original schooner. Biographer William Davis writes that this was likely one of the largest and most versatile privately owned corsair fleets operating on the coast.

The Lafittes made good use of their ships in the smuggling business. According to Wikipedia:

For several months, the Lafittes would send the ships directly to New Orleans with a legal cargo and would take on outgoing provisions in the city. The crew would create a manifest that listed not the provisions that had been purchased, but smuggled items stored at Barataria. Uninterested in exports from New Orleans, customs agents rarely checked the accuracy of the manifests. The ship would sail to the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, load the contraband goods, and sail “legally” back to New Orleans, with goods listed on a certified manifest.[22]

With the outbreak of war in 1812, the US government issued Letters of Marque–official documents authorizing private citizens to become privateers–to several of Lafitte’s men.

Article 1, Section 8, line 11 of the US Constitution states that Congress shall have the power to “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” (Letters of Marque are interesting in and of themselves, but would require too long a diversion to discuss fully right now.)

Lafitte’s men soon had Letters of Marque from several different countries–including ones Lafitte made up. Goods from captured British ships they turned in to the authorities in New Orleans, but goods from other ships they captured went through Barataria, depriving the government of tax revenue.

Since the stationary bandits weren’t strong enough to stop the mobile ones, the government resorted to suing Lafitte for tax evasion. There followed several skirmishes between Lafitte and the revenuers:

On November 10, 1812, the United States District Attorney John R. Grymes charged Lafitte with “violation of the revenue law”.[27] Three days later, 40 soldiers were sent to ambush the Baratarians; they captured Lafitte, his brother Pierre, and 25 unarmed smugglers on November 16, and confiscated several thousand dollars of contraband. Officials released the smugglers after they posted bond, and they disappeared, refusing to return for a trial.[27]

In October, a revenue officer prepared an ambush of a band of Lafitte’s smugglers. The smugglers wounded one of the officers and safely escaped with the contraband.[31] The following month, the governor offered a $500 reward for Lafitte’s capture. Within two days of his offer, handbills were posted all over New Orleans offering a similar award for the arrest of the governor. …

Given the success of his auctions at the Temple, in January 1814 Lafitte set up a similar auction at a site just outside New Orleans. Officials tried to break up this auction by force, and in the ensuing gunfight, one of the revenue officers was killed and two others were wounded.[33]

The government’s ability to apprehend Lafitte was hampered by the fact that Louisianans appreciated the lower prices they could get buying smuggled goods directly from Barataria rather than official import channels. They did, however, catch, convict, and imprison his brother, Pierre.

In 1814, a British warship arrived in Barataria, bearing an intriguing offer:

The British raised a white flag and launched a small dinghy with several officers. Lafitte and several of his men rowed to meet them halfway.[37]

Captain Nicholas Lockyer, the commander of the Sophie, had been ordered to contact the “Commandant at Barataria”. He was accompanied by a Royal Marine infantry Captain, John McWilliam,[38][39] who had been given a package to deliver to Lafitte. The Baratarians invited the British officers to row to their island. When they had disembarked and were surrounded by his men, Lafitte identified himself to them. Many of the smugglers wanted to lynch the British men, but Lafitte intervened and placed guards outside his home to ensure their protection.[37] McWilliam brought two letters in his packet for Lafitte: one, under the seal of King George III, offered Lafitte and his forces British citizenship and land grants in the British colonies in the Americas if they promised to assist in the naval fight against the United States and to return any recent property that had been taken from Spanish ships. (The British were allied with Spain against the French and the US.) If they refused the offer, the British Navy would destroy Barataria. The second item was a personal note to Lafitte from McWilliam’s superior, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls, urging him to accept the offer.[40]

TPOB claims that Lafitte turned down the offer due to patriotic sentiments, while Wikipedia gives a more self-interested motivation: he thought the Americans would win and did not wish to be on the side of the losers. Moreover, an American victory left him only the revenuers to contend with, while a British victory could bring his operations into conflict with the British navy–and he considered the revenuers easier opponents.

Lafitte therefore offered his services to the Americans in exchange for a pardon. His brother–perhaps coincidentally–mysteriously “escaped” from prison soon after.

Within days, however, the US navy attacked Barataria, capturing 8 ships, 20 canon, $500,000 worth of goods, and 80 men–but not Lafitte. Louisiana’s Governor Claiborne wrote to the Attorney General and General Andrew Jackson to request a pardon for Lafitte and his men, arguing that for generations, smugglers were “esteemed honest … [and] sympathy for these offenders is certainly more or less felt by many of the Louisianans,” and that Patterson’s capture of Lafitte’s ships, “had destroyed a potential first line of defense for Louisiana.”

Jackson responded testily, “I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?” But when Jackson arrived in New Orleans, he found the city woefully unprepared to defend against the invading British. It had only two ships, plus the eight captured from Lafitte–and not enough sailors to man them all. General Jackson had no choice: he pardoned the pirates. TPOB quotes Lafitte’s official pardon from President Madison:

It has therefore been seen, with great satisfaction, that the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana earnestly recommend those offenders to the benefit of a full pardon; And in compliance with that recommendation, as well as in consideration of all the other extraordinary circumstances in the case, I, James Madison, President of the United States of America, do issue this proclamation, hereby granting, publishing and declaring, a free and full pardon of all offences committed in violation of any act or acts of the Congress of the said United States, touching the revenue, trade and navigation thereof, or touching the intercourse and commerce of the United States with foreign nations, at any time before the eighth day of January, in the present year one thousand eight hundred and fifteen, by any person or persons whatsoever, being inhabitants of New Orleans and the adjacent country, or being inhabitants of the said island of Barrataria, and the places adjacent; Provided, that every person, claiming the benefit of this full pardon, in order to entitle himself thereto, shall produce a certificate in writing from the governor of the State of Louisiana, stating that such person has aided in the defence of New Orleans and the adjacent country, during the invasion thereof as aforesaid.

TPOB also provides a stirring description of the Battle of New Orleans:

The morning of the eighth of January, was ushered in with the discharge of rockets, the sound of cannon, and the cheers of the British soldiers advancing to the attack. … A storm of rockets preceded them, and an incessant fire opened from the battery, which commanded the advanced column. The musketry and rifles from the Kentuckians and Tennesseans, joined the fire of the artillery, and in a few moments was heard along the line a ceaseless, rolling fire, whose tremendous noise resembled the continued reverberation of thunder. One of these guns, a twenty-four pounder, placed upon the breastwork in the third embrasure from the river, drew, from the fatal skill and activity with which it was managed, even in the heat of battle, the admiration of both Americans and British; and became one of the points most dreaded by the advancing foe.

Here was stationed Lafitte and his lieutenant Dominique and a large band of his men, who during the continuance of the battle, fought with unparalleled bravery. The British already had been twice driven back in the utmost confusion, with the loss of their commander-in-chief, and two general officers.

Two other batteries were manned by the Barratarians, who served their pieces with the steadiness and precision of veteran gunners. In the first attack of the enemy, a column pushed forward between the levee and river; and so precipitate was their charge that the outposts were forced to retire, closely pressed by the enemy. Before the batteries could meet the charge, clearing the ditch, they gained the redoubt through the embrasures, leaping over the parapet, and overwhelming by their superior force the small party stationed there.

Lafitte, who was commanding in conjunction with his officers, at one of the guns, no sooner saw the bold movement of the enemy, than calling a few of his best men by his side, he sprung forward to the point of danger, and clearing the breastwork of the entrenchments, leaped, cutlass in hand, into the midst of the enemy, followed by a score of his men, who in many a hard fought battle upon his own deck, had been well tried.

Astonished at the intrepidity which could lead men to leave their entrenchments and meet them hand to hand, and pressed by the suddenness of the charge, which was made with the recklessness, skill and rapidity of practised boarders bounding upon the deck of an enemy’s vessel, they began to give way, while one after another, two British officers fell before the cutlass of the pirate, as they were bravely encouraging their men. All the energies of the British were now concentrated to scale the breastwork, which one daring officer had already mounted. While Lafitte and his followers, seconding a gallant band of volunteer riflemen, formed a phalanx which they in vain assayed to penetrate.

The British finding it impossible to take the city and the havoc in their ranks being dreadful, made a precipitate retreat, leaving the field covered with their dead and wounded.

General Jackson, in his correspondence with the secretary of war did not fail to notice the conduct of the “Corsairs of Barrataria,” who were, as we have already seen, employed in the artillery service.

With the war’s conclusion, Lafitte seems to have felt like he had garnered too much attention from official government officials and left Louisiana for Galveston, Texas, then part of the Spanish Empire. Spain at the time was embroiled in the Mexican Revolution, and Lafitte offered Spain his services as a spy, particularly against Louis-Michel Aury, a French privateer on the Mexican side. He ousted Aury and took over the island, establishing a second smuggling base. (Today, Galveston is close to the port of Houston, the fourth largest city in the country.)

Lafitte’s “pirate colony” grew quickly, to 100-200 people and a few women; during this time he married and had his only known legal child, who died around the age of 12. (Wikipedia also mentions a child with a mistress, though not what became of it.)

In 1818, the US government passed a new law restricting the import of slaves, but this law had a poorly-thought-out loophole: pirates could capture slave ships, turn the cargo over to customs officials, and the receive 50% of the profits from sale of the cargo. Smugglers, pirates, and the operators of slave ships soon worked out a way around the law: smugglers bought the slaves from the ships, brought them to Louisiana, and turned them in to the government, receiving half their sale value. A second smuggler then bought the slaves at auction and could legally re-sell them throughout the South.

In other words, banning importation without banning sales just encouraged people to work around the importation law. Interestingly, slavery and piracy became so closely connected that in 1820, the Act to Protect the Commerce of the United States and Punish the Crime of Piracy was amended to also include the slave trade as a form of piracy.

Unfortunately for Lafitte, the tide was turning against him. A hurricane hit Galveston in 1818, destroying most of the colony’s houses. After the American Navy drove him from Galveston, he relocated to Cuba, but eventually angered the Cubans, too. They outlawed all forms of privateering, and Lafitte moved to Columbia. Here the government commissioned him as an official privateer, authorized to capture Spanish ships.

With increased official naval presences in the Gulf and Caribbean, Lafitte’s business became more dangerous and less profitable. His ships were captured and men arrested and executed. TPOB provides a description of the end of Barataria, after Lafitte’s departure:

About this time one Mitchell, who had formerly belonged to Lafitte’s gang, collected upwards of one hundred and fifty desperadoes and fortified himself on an island near Barrataria, with several pieces of cannon; and swore that he and all his comrades would perish within their trenches before they would surrender to any man. …

The United States cutter, Alabama, on her way to the station off the mouth of the Mississippi, captured a piratical schooner belonging to Lafitte … An expedition was now sent to dislodge Mitchell and his comrades from the island he had taken possession of; after coming to anchor, a summons was sent for him to surrender, which was answered by a brisk cannonade from his breastwork. The vessels were warped close in shore; and the boats manned and sent on shore whilst the vessels opened upon the pirates; the boat’s crews landed under a galling fire of grape shot and formed in the most undaunted manner; and although a severe loss was sustained they entered the breastwork at the point of the bayonet; after a desperate fight the pirates gave way, many were taken prisoners but Mitchell and the greatest part escaped to the cypress swamps where it was impossible to arrest them.

A large quantity of dry goods and specie together with other booty was taken. Twenty of the pirates were taken and brought to New Orleans, and tried before Judge Hall, of the Circuit Court of the United States, sixteen were brought in guilty; and after the Judge had finished pronouncing sentence of death upon the hardened wretches, several of them cried out in open court, Murder–by God.

Accounts of these transactions having reached Lafitte, he plainly perceived there was a determination to sweep all his cruisers from the sea; and a war of extermination appeared to be waged against him.

No one is sure exactly when or how Lafitte died. Wikipedia claims he was cruising for Spanish silver off the coast of Honduras when a Spanish ship counterattacked. Injured in the ensuing battle, Laftitte died on February 5th, 1823.

TPOB credits his death to the British:

In a fit of desperation [Lafitte] procured a large and fast sailing brigantine mounting sixteen guns and having selected a crew of one hundred and sixty men he started without any commission as a regular pirate determined to rob all nations and neither to give or receive quarter.

A British sloop of war which was cruising in the Gulf of Mexico, having heard that Lafitte himself was at sea, kept a sharp look out from the mast head; when one morning as an officer was sweeping the horizon with his glass he discovered a long dark looking vessel, low in the water, but having very tall masts, with sails white as the driven snow. As the sloop of war had the weather gage of the pirate and could outsail her before the wind, she set her studding sails and crowded every inch of canvass in chase; as soon as Lafitte ascertained the character of his opponent, he ordered the awnings to be furled and set his big square-sail and shot rapidly through the water; but as the breeze freshened the sloop of war came up rapidly with the pirate, who, finding no chance of escaping, determined to sell his life as dearly as possible; the guns were cast loose and the shot handed up; and a fire opened upon the ship which killed a number of men and carried away her foretopmast, but she reserved her fire until within cable’s distance of the pirate; when she fired a general discharge from her broadside, and a volley of small arms; the broadside was too much elevated to hit the low hull of the brigantine, but was not without effect; the foretopmast fell, the jaws of the main gaff were severed and a large proportion of the rigging came rattling down on deck; ten of the pirates were killed, but Lafitte remained unhurt.

The sloop of war entered her men over the starboard bow and a terrific contest with pistols and cutlasses ensued; Lafitte received two wounds at this time which disabled him, a grape shot broke the bone of his right leg and he received a cut in the abdomen, but his crew fought like tigers and the deck was ankle deep with blood and gore; the captain of the boarders received such a tremendous blow on the head from the butt end of a musket, as stretched him senseless on the deck near Lafitte, who raised his dagger to stab him to the heart. But the tide of his existence was ebbing like a torrent, his brain was giddy, his aim faltered and the point descended in the Captain’s right thigh; dragging away the blade with the last convulsive energy of a death struggle, he lacerated the wound. Again the reeking steel was upheld, and Lafitte placed his left hand near the Captain’s heart, to make his aim more sure; again the dizziness of dissolution spread over his sight, down came the dagger into the captain’s left thigh and Lafitte was a corpse.

The upper deck was cleared, and the boarders rushed below on the main deck to complete their conquest. Here the slaughter was dreadful, till the pirates called out for quarter, and the carnage ceased; all the pirates that surrendered were taken to Jamaica and tried before the Admiralty court where sixteen were condemned to die, six were subsequently pardoned and ten executed.

It was many years before news of Lafitte’s death at sea was widely accepted. Like Elvis, a great many rumors sprang up averring that he was still alive, including a persistent claim that he had rescued Napoleon from exile and the two were living in secrecy in Louisiana. Eventually it became clear, though, from the lack of real news of Lafitte, that however he had died, he was surely and truly dead.

Piracy, Bandits, and Civilization

While reading The Pirates Own Book, I was struck by how much of history has been warfare and banditry:

Piracy has been known from the remotest antiquity; for in the early ages every small maritime state was addicted to piracy, and navigation was perilous. This habit was so general, that it was regarded with indifference, and, whether merchant, traveller, or pirate, the stranger was received with the rights of hospitality. Thus Nestor, having given Mentor and Telemachus a plenteous repast, remarks, that the banquet being finished, it was time to ask his guests to their business. “Are you,” demands the aged prince, “merchants destined to any port, or are you merely adventurers and pirates, who roam the seas without any place of destination, and live by rapine and ruin.”

Where men can make a living through violence and predation, they do. The only thing that stops them is other men strong enough to kill them:

The Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, from their superior knowledge of navigation, gave into it most; and on whatever coast the winds carried them, they made free with all that came in their way. Canute the Fourth endeavored in vain to repress these lawless disorders among his subjects; but they felt so galled by his restrictions, that they assassinated him. On the king of Sweden being taken by the Danes, permission was given to such of his subjects as chose, to arm themselves against the enemy, pillage his possessions, and sell their prizes at Ribnitz and Golnitz. This proved a fertile nursery of pirates, who became so formidable under the name of “Victalien Broders,” that several princes were obliged to arm against them, and hang some of their chiefs. …

Charles the Bald, not having the power to expel him, engaged the freebooter, for 500 pounds of silver, to dislodge his countrymen, who were harassing the vicinity of Paris. In consequence of this subsidy, Wailand, with a fleet of 260 sail, went up the Seine, and attacked the Normans in the isle of Oiselle: after a long and obstinate resistance, they were obliged to capitulate; and having paid 6000 pounds of gold and silver, by way of ransom, had leave to join their victors. The riches thus acquired rendered a predatory life so popular, that the pirates were continually increasing in number, so that under a “sea-king” called Eric, they made a descent in the Elbe and the Weser, pillaged Hamburg, penetrated far into Germany, and after gaining two battles, retreated with immense booty. The pirates, thus reinforced on all sides, long continued to devastate Germany, France, and England; some penetrated into Andalusia and Hetruria, where they destroyed the flourishing town of Luni; whilst others, descending the Dnieper, penetrated even into Russia.

The text goes on in this manner, and it is just striking how, for so many centuries after the fall of Rome, Europeans lived in constant fear of bandits, with no force strong enough to secure the sea lanes and borders. And even the rulers themselves are, in many cases, ex-bandits themselves: barbarian conquerors .

Genghis Khan

Once a group of bandits becomes strong enough to kill all the other bandits in the area, it settles in and starts taxing instead of stealing.

Even Genghis Khan, once finished conquering, began executing bandits, encouraging trade, and securing the safety of his tax-payers. It is said that a woman carrying a bag of gold could walk, alone, from one end to the other of the Mongol Empire without fear or molestation–an exaggeration, I’m sure, but I know I wouldn’t want to incur the Great Khan’s wrath by robbing one of his subjects.

(In Power and Prosperity, economist Mancur Olson argues that, “under anarchy, a “roving bandit” only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a “stationary bandit”—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. In the move from roving to stationary bandits, Olson sees the seeds of civilization, paving the way, eventually for democracy, which by giving power to those who align with the wishes of the population, improves incentives for good government.[5]” )

We can even see this process occurring with ISIS (h/t Will @Evolving_Moloch):

From Brookings: Experts Weigh in: Is ISIS good at Governing?

Humans once hunted goats; today we feed them, give them shelter, and kill their other predators. As a result, there are far more goats than there would be otherwise. We still eat them, of course.

A government of sedentary bandits is still bandits, but at least they’re bandits who want the community to thrive. (Yes, taxation IS theft, but you should see the alternative.)
As a result, we take for granted a level of peace and safety that most of the world has never experienced.

Chimps fight wars. Neanderthals were cannibals. Homicide in primitive tribes was sky-high. You have twice as many female as male ancestors because the majority of men never reproduced.

Western society didn’t become peaceful by singing kumbaya, but by 1. top-down banning cousin marriage, which ended tribalism,

and 2. Becoming powerful enough to catch and execute the bandits.

We forget this at our own peril.