I gave a talk before the Laffite Society this Tuesday. It was all about how the changing laws concerning privateering -- and also filibustering -- affected the career of Jean Laffite. I am not going to set forth the content of my talk here, as I plan to submit that by the end of the year to Laffite Society for publication. However, the talk was accompanied by a slide show, and I will share some of the slides to give you some idea of what the talk covered. I will also comment on the content of the slides from the perspective of how this information was acquired, and how it relates to my own life and my process as a writer.
The next slide actually shows something from one of my many notebooks that helps to document the trajectory of my interest in Jean Laffite. I had been planning to write a book entitled Theodosia and the Pirates for a very long time, ever since I read Gore Vidal's Burr when I was sixteen. But it was not the first thing on my list. I was thinking that it would be kind of a light book, after I had finished writing all the truly important books about justice and honor and freedom. So it was always planned to be something that I would write toward the end of my life, as a kind of reward to myself. I knew that Theodosia was going to be the heroine. But which pirate should she meet?
Here in this notebook, while I was still engaged in writing the first half of Our Lady of Kaifeng, I jotted some notes about what I wanted Theodosia and the Pirates to be about.
Theodosia Burr Alston
Find a famous real life pirate from that era and relate the events of his life to the story of Theodosia after she was lost at sea.
This is the story of what happens when none of our dreams come true and we have to give up World Conquest.
It is about the life of contentment and spontaneous happiness that is possible only after everything else goes wrong and we lose all hope.
That was written on May 12, 2007. At the time, my daughter was almost eight, and Bow, the chimpanzee, was five. We had not had the breakthrough yet that catapulted him to literacy. The scribbling on the top right hand page from the notebook was by Bow. He always wanted to write if I was writing, although one could not make out anything in what he scribbled.We had just moved into the pen system, and both Bow and I were feeling depressed.
That was in May of 2007. By July of that same year, Bow had an enormous breakthrough. Though my original online article about this has been de-indexed, you can still read it on the Reddit Mirror.
After Bow's breakthrough, I was busy documenting everything that happened with his language acquisition and submitting an article to Nature. I was also attending conferences with other primatologists and discussing my findings, and for a while there was great excitement in the air about Bow. And then all of that fizzled out. I could prove nothing, and it was all dismissed as Clever Hans.
In the meanwhile, I finished writing the first half of Our Lady of Kaifeng, and eventually I rediscovered my writing notebook with the entry on Theodosia and the Pirates. And somehow or other I went back to thinking about poor Theodosia, lost at sea, and how I needed a pirate to save her.
That is why on the right hand page, right under all that scribbling by Bow, I ended up writing this on April 6, 2009: "The real life pirate will be Jean LaFitte."
I still knew very little about him. I could not even spell his name correctly. But I knew it could be nobody else. And that's when my focus, which up till then had been on Bow's literacy and on the inmates of an internment camp in Shandong Province in World War II, began to shift. And all of the sudden I absolutely needed to know everything there was to know about Jean Laffite. I ordered The Journal of Jean Laffite in the original from the library in Liberty, Texas and I read and re-read William C. Davis's The Pirates Laffite, and everything else that I could get my hands on concerning Laffite. And gradually it dawned on me: he was not a pirate! And what's more, I had met him before somewhere. He was familiar. He felt like home.
I suddenly began to understand that a momentous change had happened in the interpretation of the constitutional provisions of how war was to be waged and financed and what powers belonged to the government and what powers belonged to the people. I began to see how it was that right at first, prior to the passage of the first Neutrality Act in 1794, Congress had to grant the right to declare war to the US government, but private citizens did not need permission from anybody to wage war, since all powers not granted to the Federal government were reserved to the states and to the people.
And then one day the Neutrality Act of 1794 was passed, to make it easier for the United States to please Britain in the Jay Treaty.
The American privateers who had private interests in conflict with the foreign policy of the president of the United States were not pirates. Or were they? And what exactly was the difference?
Jean Laffite, when he met Theodosia in my book, on New Year's Day 1813, had a privateering license from Cartagena. No, not the one in Spain. The one in Colombia. Only there was no Colombia then, and the Republic of Cartagena had only in 1811 become free of Spain.
Of course, before that, before he had a privateering license from Cartagena, Jean Laffite had been a smuggler under the Embargo Act of 1807, which was Thomas Jefferson's way of keeping the United States out of war.
The public hated the Embargo Act. It destroyed American commerce.
But with smugglers like the Laffites operating to fill the gap, it was still possible to shop for cheap goods at Barataria. It was because he was such an independent privateer and smuggler that Jean Laffite was able to provide the United States with the flint and the gunpowder and the artillery and men that won the Battle of New Orleans for the American side. But no recognition was given him, because the tide of history had already gone the other way. When James Monroe came to power, the Neutrality Act was amended to make it even more damaging to American privateers and filibusters, and Jean Laffite was forced to give up Galveston, just as he had earlier given up Barataria. Not only that, but when he sought to serve in Simon Bolivar's Colombia, he had to take on a commission as Colombian naval officer. The Americans had pressured Bolivar to outlaw privateering in return for recognition of his government. So he nationalized all the privateering vessels, and he allowed their captains to stay on as government employees. When Jean Laffite disappeared from the historical record, he was no longer a privateer. He was a "brave Colombian naval officer" serving as a government's hired hand.
There was a lot more to my talk and many more slides, but there in a nutshell is the story. Why does it appeal to me? Why was it such an epiphany for me to discover the real Jean Laffite, rather than the pirate with a heart of gold that he was portrayed as by the media and the childhood history books? Because it all ties in. Everything in life is interconnected. Not only do Laffite's grievances and Theodosia Burr's complaints against the government match, it also fits into my own life story.
Today, there are no more privateers, and the government has a monopoly on waging war. But in almost every other field, government encroachment into private affairs is likewise felt. I am the only private ape language researcher remaining. All the others have fallen under a network of laws that has all but nationalized chimpanzee research. Whether they work for the government, a university or a non-profit, they are not allowed to make decisions on their own which are at odds with national policy on chimpanzees.
Jean Laffite is a hero who appeals to me on so many levels. He is much more than a plot device to save Theodosia Burr. And the two novels that I wrote about him and Theodosia are not light romances, as I originally thought they would be. They are an in-depth look at what happened to an entire nation very soon upon its formation. What happened to Jean Laffite happened to all America -- to all of us. It is our loss.