Jean Laffite: Texas Pirate

Although he had a long and illustrious career as a pirate before coming to Texas, Jean Laffite holds a fascinating place in Texas history.  His is a tale that involves raiding, slave trading, espionage, and even rumors of a war with Native Americans in the Galveston area.

Pirate Jean Laffite

Before coming to Texas, Jean Laffite was known as the “Pirate of the Gulf.”  He had run into trouble from previous misadventures and needed a new base of operations to safely continue his illicit trading and raiding.  The answer came in the form of Galveston, as it was claimed by both Mexico and Spain and was not far from the Port of New Orleans.  This proved an ideal pirate hunting ground as it was close to major trade lanes and had a natural harbor that no single nation had clear claim to or could effectively police.

Initially, Jean came to Galveston with a letter of marque from Venezuela, which allowed him to legally attack trade ships of nations that were hostile to Venezuela.  He also came to Texas as a double agent of the Spanish to spy on Mexico.  However, it must be noted that whatever his professed loyalties, Laffite was a pirate, and indiscriminate raiding and illegal trading were his life’s work.

With Galveston as a base, Jean could effectively act as a broker for pirates in the Gulf of Mexico.  Essentially, there were three ways that he could make his money from Galveston.  The first was to simply sail a captured vessel into New Orleans and sell everything that was aboard at prices no one else could match.  For obvious reasons, this method was quite risky and required certain authorities to look the other way or be oblivious to what was happening on the docks.  The second way was to use a mule train to transport goods to the black market in New Orleans.  The third method involved human cargo or slaves.  In 1818, there was a poorly worded law that prohibited the import of slaves into U.S. ports.  The problem was that it gave Jean Laffite’s pirates all the incentive they would ever need to capture slave ships.  These pirates would raid ships and take all of the slaves to Galveston.  From there, the slaves would be sold to a variety of smugglers, one of which was Jim Bowie.  These smugglers would then sneak the slaves into Louisiana and turn them over to customs agents, where they were entitled to half the profits from the sale of the slaves.  The smugglers would then get a front man to purchase the slaves back for them.  The end result was a legally owned slave that was captured through piracy and then effectively bought with a 50% discount.

Stephen F. Austin
Portrait of Stephen F. Austin

Though illegal trading and raiding were his bread and butter, they were by no means Captain Laffite’s only activities of dubious morality.  A war between a local Native American tribe called the Karankawa has also been attributed to Captain Laffite’s time on the island.  The story goes that his men captured a Karankawa maid and in retaliation, a force of around 300 angry Karankawas attacked his colony.  The battle quickly turned into a siege and raged for three days.  Eventually, the tribesmen retired with a very negative view of settlers that would later play out when Stephen F. Austin brought his settlers to Texas.

The pirate’s life caught up with Captain Laffite as his activities eventually attracted the attention of United States authorities.  A ship was dispatched by the name of Enterprise and Captain Laffite burned his pirate haven and fled.  Beyond this, Captain Jean Laffite disappears into the midst of history and legend.  However, his impact on the history of the region lives on far beyond his years.

If you have an interest in stories like this one, check out my previous post, or come visit us at the Houston Maritime Museum and see a wide variety of ships, including those used by pirates, on display.

Also be sure to check out the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now open!

McComb, David G.  Galveston: A History.  Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1986.

Warren, Harris G. “Jean Laffite.”  1997-2002.  (Accessed October 6, 2010)

Williamson, William R.  “James Bowie.”  1997-2002.  (Accessed October 6, 2010)

How To Rule the Sea: A Guide for Privateers 1500 – 1800s [Real Pirates]

Imagine for a moment you are the king or queen of a country and war is on the horizon.  Both you and your enemies are dependent on the sea for trade, which keeps the economy going and taxes coming in.  If you want to win the war, you have to attack your opponent’s trading ships and keep them from pulling in money to continue fighting you.  For the sake of argument, we will say that both nations are roughly equal in the quality and quantity of ships in their navies and that you are desperately looking for a winning edge.

What would you do?

If your first thought was to buy and build more ships you would be wrong.  First, navies are expensive and require a lot of maintenance.  Second, the war might be over by the time your new ships are built.  So in the end, your nation might be bankrupt with a large navy it cannot even afford to maintain after the war.

On second thought, maybe you could hire some mercenaries.  Not really, because ships and crews are expensive and no one can afford to maintain a privately owned personal navy they can loan out to you in case of a war.

Here’s a hint:  how about getting the merchant ships you are protecting to do some of the fighting for you?  It sounds like a good idea, but how would you do it?

The answer is by legalizing piracy and creating what are called privateers or privately owned ships that are willing to fight for you.  The incentive for privateers to put themselves in harm’s way was that they would often be able to keep or sell off any cargo or ships that they captured.  Additionally, they sometimes could also receive a prize or bounty for capturing ships.  This is exactly what nations did from the 1500s through the 1800s, and it allowed them to use armed ships and sailors without spending tax dollars to build and maintain a navy.

Real Pirates at HMNS
Step aboard a recreation of the pirate ship Whydah in the Real Pirates exhibition – now open!
And, see a full set of photos from the exhibit on Flickr.

The first step in becoming a privateer or “legal pirate” was to receive a letter of marque.  Simply put, a letter of marque is an agreement between the owner of a ship and the government that allows the ship to attack a rival nation’s trading vessels.  One of the advantages of having a letter of marque over freelance piracy was that if you were captured by a rival nation’s navy, you would be treated as a military prisoner instead of being hung for piracy.

Privateers were so effective that the British government began to license privateers to attack and capture pirates that were plaguing the Atlantic during the 1700s.  These privateers were remarkably effective at curbing pirate raiding and helped bring to an end the golden age of piracy.

To see what life was like on a real pirate ship, visit the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now open! You can also see privateer models Tuesday through Saturday from 9 am – 4:30 pm at the Houston Maritime Museum. Want to know more about pirates? This post is based on information in Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly.