Protection of personal property rights has always posed a problem: How does the owner of property persuade a non-owner to honor his right to that property? The gentlemanly phrase, “Pardon me, but that’s mine,” ought to be enough, but not all men are gentle. In a society where few people understand the concept of private property, a system of justice, backed by
force, develops to protect one’s property from marauders. In the Old West, there were “vigilance committees,” but as Rose Wilder Lane observes wryly in “Discovery of Freedom,” “The vigilance committee always began as a group of men who used force to stop robbers and murderers. It always became a group of men who robbed and murdered.” Frederick Douglass observed a similar fact of human nature in his autobiography: “Slavery proved as injurious to [the slave owner] as it did to [the slave]. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to tiger-like fierceness.” This principle also led to the golden age of piracy, as governments deputized respectable maritime merchants and turned them into murderous thieves.
Seafaring pirates, like highway robbers and midnight burglars, have been around since the beginning of time. The golden age of piracy, when the Madagascar pirates terrorized the Indian Ocean, lasted from 1690-1720 and was actually encouraged by the governments of Europe. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, issued “letters of marque” to private sea captains, commissioning them to attack any ship traveling under the flag of Spain or, later, of France. These were not naval vessels, mind you, but private merchant ships with a license to plunder. Sir Francis Drake was one of many well-known privateers who were considered heroes at home but criminals at sea. Americans also engaged in this
form of military offense during the Revolutionary War, although Benjamin Franklin deplored the practice because it hurt his ability to negotiate alliances with the Crowns of Europe.
The chief role of the privateer was to raid the commerce of the enemy, interrupting the flow of supplies and drawing the enemy’s navy away from war to defend its mer~hant ships. The system was defended as a legitimate form of warfare, and it was practiced by both sides, sanctioned by governments as a kind of private, unpaid militia. Although it was unpaid, it was not unlucrative. In many respects privateering represented the working-class sailor’s only opportunity to rise out of poverty. Life at sea could be brutal, and a crewman’s pay was abysmal. As a privateer, however, the potential reward was worth the risk. Typically, 10% of all “prizes” went to the Crown, 50% went to any backers who outfitted the ship, and 40% was divided equally among the captain and the crew. Even slaves who happened to be part of the crew shared in the booty. It was rather like being a repo man: all the adventure and excitement of being a thief, with a “Get out of Jail Free” card tucked into one’s wallet.
Outright pirates sailed against all flags, but privateers were choosy, plundering only in the service of their sovereign – at least at first. But as usual, government had created a monster. The capriciousness of governments led to instability and frustration in this unorthodox marketplace. A country might be at war with Spain one year, then reconciled by treaty the next; open to foreign trade for a while, then effectively closed by heavy tariffs. The introduction of the Navigation Acts, requiring British colonies to trade exclusively with the British, led ordinary colonists to feel justified in their own form of privateering, by purchasing foreign goods on the black market from pirate smugglers. Technically they violated the king’s law, but they obeyed a higher law – that of supply and demand.
Out on the open seas, it was easy to ignore the technicalities. Add to these changing political loyalties the lack of basic human rights for ordinary sailors, the often tyrannical captains, and the lure of potential riches, and it’s easy to see why many crews chose to mutiny, commandeer the ship, and head for the Indian Ocean when a well-meaning captain said, “Not this ship – it’s one of ours.” By the beginning of the 18th century, Madagascar, an island off the eastern coast of Africa, had become home to a nation of pirates. For many, the real lure was not money but freedom. It was the most democratic nation in the world, noted for its high regard for individual rights and its burning hatred of tyranny. Every crewman had a voice and a vote. A captain could be deposed by a majority vote. Piracy offered ordinary sailors the opportunity to live as free men with liberty, self-respect, and the promise of enough wealth to make it worth the risk.
A loose form of government developed among the pirates of Madagascar. Everyone onboard a ship, from captain to apprentice, was subject to the same duties and entitled to specific rights. No one was above or beneath the law. To seamen whose station in their own country precluded any social progress, this was a profound improvement. There were no special uniforms, ranks, or class distinctions, and everyone received an equal share of the booty (with the captain receiving a double share, to compensate his double role). This was particularly appealing to former slaves, who discovered that buying or earning their freedom meant noth-
Kidd’s tarred body hung in the harbor for years. Of course, the government officials who commissioned him as a pirate killer got off scot-free.
ing in a system where it was illegal for a black person to testify against a white or assert his property rights in a court of law. When a person has no recourse in the law, he has no choice but to resort to a life outside the law.
Were pirates as brutal as legend portrays them? Yes and no. Like organized crime syndicates, pirates often used the threat of physical violence and torture as an example, to encourage other merchant ships to give up vithout a fight. Pirates preferred terrorizing to actual fighting, which was a lot more work and tended to destroy both booty and crew. But it would be difficult to know how much was deliberate rumor and how much was fact. Rumor had it, for example, that when a Captain Sawbridge argued with pirates who had boarded his ship, they sewed his lips together with sailing twine and marooned him on a deserted island. When word of this got around, it naturally made other merchant captains more docile toward pirates.
Pirates came from all walks of life. Captain Kidd became one of the most notorious pirates of his time, but he didn’t start out as a thug. In 1695 William Kidd was one of New York’s most successful merchant captains! known for his plain-speaking, courage, and simple integrity. Married at a
As narcotics agents and RICO enforcers demonstrate today, once theft becomes legitimized, it’s difficult to control.
young age to a beautiful, wealthy wife, he lived in a luxuriously furnished home overlooking New York harbor and was a pillar of church and community. That he was a privateer did not detract from his reputation; after all, it was legal. He had one unfulfilled desire: to become a captain in the Royal Navy.
During this time, piracy on the high seas was so prevalent that no British merchant ship was safe, yet the Royal Navy refused to help. The Earl of Bellomont, governor of New York and Massachusetts, hit upon a plan to rid the seas of pirates, enhance his own reputation, and line his pockets as well: commission a “pirate killer” to out pirate the pirates. Kidd was offered the commission, but he turned it down. He had always been an honest seaman, and wanted legitimate command of a Royal Man-of-War. Fellow New Yorker Robert Livingston convinced Kidd that commanding a pirate killer with a king’s commission would be tantamount to a commission in the Royal Navy, and the governor hinted at virtual immunity if he were ever caught. Kidd still hesitated. But when the threat was added that if Kidd refused, he would never become part of the navy, Kidd was trapped.
Captain Kidd may have comforted himself with the thought that state-commissioned privateering was different from pirating. He may even have bought into the idea of the vital importance of the “pirate killers” as the king’s most special envoy. But this was a distinction without a difference. As narcotics agents and RICO enforcers demonstrate today, once theft becomes legitimized, it’s difficult to control. Although Kidd was commissioned as a kind of cop to stop pirating, the terms of Kidd’s agreement virtually forced him to become a pirate himself. To outfit the ship, 80% of the cost was put up by backers (mostly Whig members of Parliament) and 1,500 pounds came from Kidd and Livingston. Ten percent of any prize money went to the Crown, 55% to the backers, 22.5% was divided among a crew of 150 men, and 12.5% was split between Kidd and Livingston. Moreover, if they acquired no booty, they would have to repay the backers from their own funds! Kidd would be under more pressure to bring in revenue than a traffic cop.
But Captain Kidd hadn’t yet realized this when he set sail from London. He was in the king’s service and felt self- important in his task. He also had a naive belief that his hand-picked crew would sense the nobility of their mission and behave as gentlemen. But they were plagued with failures from the start. The New York crew were a sorry, unskilled lot. Early on, the Royal Navy confiscated nearly half his crew and replaced them with rebels they had captured at sea. Many of his crew turned out to be privateers- turned-pirates. Moreover, no crewman wanted to serve for a mere 0.15% of the loot when, on other ships, they would be entitled to an equal share of the entire prize. Kidd had to agree to give them·more money, though it ate into his own meager share.
Fifteen months into the journey, no ships had been encountered except those sailing under the British flag. The crew began to mutter piracy. Captain Kidd began to panic, convincing himself that they should attack Moorish and neutral ships as well as those sailing under French or pirate
Eventually Lafitte was set free. His argument was priceless: “I was forced to break laws because the laws were bad. Now pardon me so I can fight for America. “
flags, as a matter of expediency. He believed his backers would exonerate him because of the circumstances. Yet he still considered himself to be a privateer, not a pirate, and allowed British ships to pass unharmed.
The crew thought otherwise, however. When gunner William Moore complained loudly about Kidd’s refusal to attack a British ship, Kidd snatched up an iron bucket and smashed it against Moore’s head. Moore died from the blow, and Kidd was now a murderer.
Captain Kidd eventually returned to port laden with booty, expecting a war hero’s welcome once he explained his circumstances. He still considered himself an honest man “forced” into “minor piracy.” However, news of the plundering of neutral ships and Moore’s violent death preceded him to England. He was thrown into prison, given a trial without the opportunity of cross-examination, and was hung as an example to other privateers who might be tempted to overstep the boundaries of their commission and become pirates as well. His tarred body hung in the harbor for years. Of course, the government officials who commissioned him as a pirate killer got off scot-free.
Meanwhile, the advantages of commissioning an unpaid navy to aid in waging war had not been lost on American observers. After Madagascar became a haven for pirates on the high seas, Jean Lafitte of New Orleans created his own pirate haven in Barataria Island off the coast of Texas. Lafitte was considered a Robin Hood character and had a popular following. He had no love for England, Spain, or even the U.S. government, although he ended up fighting with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. Although many of his followers were Americans, their loyalty· was to Louisiana first and France second.
When it comes to running a business, the problem of creating a product and finding a market is simple compared to dealing with the government. In 18th and 19th century New Orleans, merchants were dealing with as many as four governments, all warring with one another, making alliances and then breaking them again. It was a privateer’s dream come true. Two government edicts made New Orleans the center of pirating in the Gulf. First, the Spanish reimposed a customs tax, causing imported merchandise to rise significantly in price. A black market naturally developed as respectable merchants felt justified in purchasing smuggled goods. Men who had been honest fishermen and fur traders for 50 years turned to smuggling because it was so lucrative. In 1804, after the Louisiana Purchase, the Spanish tax was replaced by the U.S. tax, another distinction without a difference. Also in 1804, a new law banned the importation of slaves from Africa. But it did not ban slavery itself. Consequently, demand increased for domestic slaves, prices rose, and the slave trade became more profitable than ever. And easier! Instead of sailing all the way to Africa, merchants simply commandeered slave ships in the Caribbean.
Enter Jean Lafitte. Jean and his brother Pierre came to New Orleans from France by way of the West Indies. Jean was 14 during the Reign of Terror; Pierre had been a captain in the French Navy. Initially Jean became a merchant on the island of Santo Domingo, where he married a rich and beautiful wife. He decided to sell all his goods and return to Europe, but his ship was attacked by a Spanish man-of-war (probably with a letter of marque from the Spanish .king authorizing the plunder). Left on a sandbar to die, Lafitte and his family and crew were picked up by an American schooner and taken to New Orleans. Lafitte’s wife died from the ordeal, and Lafitte swore vengeance against Spain. He embraced the system, however, becoming a lifelong trafficker in plundered goods.
In New Orleans the Lafitte brothers owned and operated
a blacksmith forge together. They were respected, hard-working gentlemen. They were also the city sales reps for smugglers. When confiscatory tariffs made smuggling the primary method of trade, the Lafitte brothers becam~ middlemen. Pierre would deal with New Orleans merchants, taking orders and promising delivery. Jean dealt directly with the smugglers. Privateers bought letters of marque from the government giving them license to “burn, destroy, or sink any vessel belonging to Spain.” They found a ready market for their loot in New Orleans. Eventually Lafitte decided to eliminate the middleman (himself) and become a privateer. The Lafitte brothers set up headquarters on , Barataria Island. Fittingly, “barataria” means “breach of duty or fraud perpetrated toward the owner of a ship.” Like Madagascar, .Barataria developed into a community of over 1,000 smugglers, with markets throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The population of Barataria was cosmopolitan and democratic (or communistic, depending on your definition of equality). Sailors were Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italians, Africans, Indians, and American deserters. Each received an equal share of the loot. As “bos” Lafitte was entitled to a double share of the loot. (As Orwell would later observe, some are more equal than others.)
Incensed by the rising smuggling trade, Governor Claiborne offered a $500 reward for Lafitte’s capture. No one tried very hard to find him, however, perhaps because Lafitte countered with a $1,500 reward for Claiborne’s head! Even more galling, while Claiborne was working to have Lafitte beheaded, Lafitte was charming Claiborne’s wife over dinner at the home of a mutual friend, using the alias, “M. Clement.”
Smuggling activities continued uninterrupted, but Lafitte insisted he was a privateer, not a pirate. When one ship captain refused to leave American vessels alone, Lafitte drew his gun and shot him on the spot. The citizenry of New Orleans
Women cheered the tiny army, but carried daggers in their belts in case the Americans lost.
agreed with Lafitte’s self-assessment, through this odd form of logic: since appearances reflect the inner man, no gentleman could be a pirate. By definition then, the charming and handsome Jean Lafitte could be no worse than a commissioned privateer.
As tax evasion turned to total lawlessness, citizens who had previously turned their heads now turned to Governor Claiborne to suppress the pirates. Lafitte was captured, but remained nonplussed. While awaiting trial, he announced calmly that the public auction of smuggled goods would be held as usual. Scores of local merchants and planters came to bid and buy. Claiborne was furious. Eventually Lafitte was set free. His argument was priceless: “I was forced to break laws because the laws were bad. Now pardon me so I can fight for America.” America was then engaged in the War of 1812. Lafitte offered valuable information about the British, as well as his stash of guns and ammunition, in exchange for amnesty. It worked. Claiborne, furious, responded by having Barataria destroyed.
A Frenchman living on American soil in a former Spanish territory, Lafitte chose to fight with Andrew Jackson to defend America’s claim. (At one point the British offered Lafitte $30,000 to join forces with them. He must have laughed – he was sitting on over half a million dollars in loot!) Jackson’s army was a true melting pot, made up of German settlers from the coast of Mississippi, French Canadians, Creoles, Africans, and Indians. Half had never seen battle. He had only 2,000 of these rag-tag troops to face 12,000 British troops arriving by sea. Women cheered the tiny army, but carried daggers in their belts in case the Americans lost. The Americans won, largely because of their “unfair” sneak attacks. Jackson said of Lafitte’s battalion, “If I were ordered to storm the gates of hell, with these as my lieutenants, I would have no misgivings of the result!” Lafitte was a hero.
After the war, Lafitte returned to plundering Spanish ships. But now that Louisiana and Spain were friends, Lafitte was a pirate, not a privateer. He moved his operation to Galveston (then called Campeche) and began privateering for the Mexican revolutionaries. Eventually Lafitte encountered the same trouble controlling his men as Captain Kidd had. Plunder is plunder, legal or not, and it corrupts the person who does the plundering. Call it what you will – privateering, piracy, eminent domain, RICO statutes, taxation – taking the private property of others hardens a person, inevitably giving way to justification of looting, domestic robbery, and violence. The freewheeling lifestyle of Lafitte’s domain attracted lawless opportunists, many of them vile and violent fugitives, who didn’t recognize the fine line between privateering and piracy – if such a distinction even exists. Public opinion turned against Lafitte after the truce with Great Britain, possibly because they had commandeered silver and linen belonging to Creole women. Merchant ships began traveling in convoys of armed ships, making it harder for pirates to make a living, and the golden age of pirating dimmed. Some say Lafitte grew fat, gray, and ragged. The one-time New Orleans gentleman and American hero of the War of 1812 slipped away during a battle at Campeche and simply disappeared.jo