Authors and After Words

From Errol Flynn in Captain Blood to Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Americans have been intrigued with extra-legal maritime swashbucklers. This year’s attacks on American ships, however, and the kidnappings of diverse naval personnel have brought about a less romantic view of this ancient enterprise. And it is ancient. In 1186 B.C.E., the pharaoh Ramses III’s victory over pirates is depicted in the first pictorial view of a sea battle – a bas relief that appears on a temple near the city of Thebes, now modern Luxor.

A spate of books about the daring-do of pirates has appeared in the past few years. Here I shall report on two of them. Later I will review The Buccaneer King by Dudley Pope, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean by Edward Kritzler, and Patriot Pirates by Robert H. Patton. Taken collectively, including the books noted in this article, these publications present information long overlooked, forgotten, or newly discovered in archives.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates by Gail Selinger (with W. Thomas Smith, Jr., The Penguin Group, 2006) offers an enormous amount of information from ancient to modern times. Pirate locations as early as 1200 years B.C.E. ranged from Egypt to the eastern Mediterranean. Apparently, Alexander the Great succeeded in driving pirates from the Aegean, but they returned after his death. When Julius Caesar became consul of Rome, he kept the pirates who plagued Italy under control until his death in 44 B.C.E., when they re-emerged.

On June 8, 793, Norsemen raided the monastery on Lindisfarne, an island off northern England, where they murdered the priests, looted the church treasures and sailed into the mist. So began the Age of the Vikings whose shallow ships were capable of sailing up rivers such as the Thames and the Seine and as far away as Constantinople. The first known women pirates are counted among their members. By the 13th century, Henry III of England, in order to replenish his depleted treasury, issued the first letters of marque which gave permission to seamen to attack any ships not flying the English flag. Thus began the concept of privateering or, in effect, legalized piracy.

Early in the eighth century, Arab Muslim pirates began their conquest of cities on the northern coast of Africa, known as the Barbary Coast and the “Barbary Pirates” gained control of Mediterranean sea lanes. In 1095 the Crusades began when Pope Urban II ordered Christians to reconquer Jerusalem from the Muslims. These Crusaders went head to head with the Muslim pirates along the Barbary Coast but the pirates successfully continued into the 15th century.

When Christopher Columbus sailed into the West in 1492, a whole new era of pirating began in the so-called Spanish Main. A large part of Selinger’s book is devoted to the happenings during the struggle for the Caribbean. Queen Elizabeth knighted Francis Drake and others, collectively known as the Sea Dogs, for their privateering services to the crown. In the 17th century, another English subject, Henry Morgan, was knighted by Charles II for his privateering successes.

Selinger reports on dozens of other pirates too numerous to mention here. She describes the origins of pirate flags. Not only did different captains design their own version of the skull and crossbones, but many flew a red flag, known as the bloody flag, which conveyed the message of “no quarter” or no mercy to those taken in combat. She further details the array of pirates’ weapons, the origins of pirate expressions that became part of common language such as “shiver me timbers” and the hierarchy of rank with a strict code of behavior on board pirate ships. Any disagreements resulted in death or abandonment on an island somewhere. One Alexander Selkirk was so treated after he criticized his captain’s failure to repair their ship. His case was of particular interest to me because of an article in World Archaeology Magazine (April/May 2009). The article reports archaeological findings on a small island in the south Pacific that suggest how Selkirk survived, marooned as he was from 1704 to 1709. According to this article, Daniel Defoe based his novel, Robinson Crusoe, on Selkirk’s experience. For much more, see Selinger!

The Pirates Laffite by William C. Davis (Harcourt, Inc., 2005) recounts the story of the famous privateer brothers who were born near Bordeaux, Pierre around 1770 and Jean in 1782. The French Revolution in 1789 brought turmoil throughout the country. Subsequently, with France embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars, the brothers realized their future lay elsewhere. Pierre Laffite was in New Orleans by December 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase included that city in U.S. territory. Pierre became a merchant, then entered the more lucrative slave trade. Embargoes on American shipping by the English and the French affected American trade and supplies dwindled. Privateers who stepped into the breach found safe haven in the bayous south of New Orleans. By 1809 Pierre, who had been living in Pensacola, decided to be one of them. As William Davis writes, “Surely it was no coincidence that at virtually the same time his brother Jean finally came to Louisiana.” The brothers’ partnership flourished with Pierre managing the business end in New Orleans and “Captain Laffite” (Jean had gone to sea at an early age) supplying slaves and contraband through the bayou. At 40, Pierre suffered a stroke which impaired his health and put Jean in charge. For the next three years their operation grew.

Then on June 18, 1812, war broke out between Britain and the U.S. At first the Laffites and the privateers associated with them continued to bypass local merchants by selling contraband supplies at lower prices to local residents. In so doing, they interfered with customs revenues. By 1814 the authorities had had enough. They imprisoned Pierre during one of his visits to his common law wife in New Orleans. Then Jean was offered a commission to join the British but he equivocated to buy time. Meanwhile Pierre was broken out of jail by unknown persons and rejoined Jean. A U.S. naval attack routed the privateers from Barataria, their base in the bayou, but the Laffites escaped. By now the British were in a direct position to attack New Orleans. After some hesitation, General Andrew Jackson, short of supplies and men, offered Jean and all other privateers reprieve in exchange for flints and their service in the defense of New Orleans.

It was Pierre who was engaged under Jackson’s command at the Battle of New Orleans, while Jean was on a reconnoitering mission off Grand Isle. When the war ended in January 1815, Jackson praised the Baratarian pirates and Pierre in particular – his knowledge of the countryside had been instrumental in defeating the British. Their new found freedom allowed the Laffite brothers to re-enter public life but it was not long before they returned to their former piratical ways throughout the Caribbean. Their participation in the War of 1812 has undoubtedly been exaggerated but they were the stuff of legends.