Monday, March 23, 2015

Can Jean Laffite Ever Be Forgiven for his Part in the Slave Trade?

I was talking to a friend about what can be done to enshrine Jean Laffite as the American hero that he truly was. Some ideas that we bounced around is to get a scholarship or stipend endowed for graduate students in history, stipulating that their research topic be the accomplishments of Jean Laffite. Another much more modest idea was that an annual prize be awarded to high school students for the best essay about Jean Laffite.

My friend said that sadly it would be very hard to bring any of this about, because the very fact that Jean Laffite was involved in selling slaves precludes anyone from looking at him in a favorable light today.

George Washington had slaves. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. Even Jonathan Edwards, who did not own slaves, rented them by the hour when he needed his garden plowed. It was just the way things were.

Jean Laffite was not a slaver. He was a privateer. He looted enemy ships and sold the goods at auction. The fact that some of those goods happened to be human beings shipped as cargo is unfortunate, but not damning. He was a patriot, but not a saint.

The Laffites may not have been politically correct by today's standards, but I'll tell you what they were not: they were not racist. And the idea that racism was the only thing behind slavery in early  America is one of those misconceptions that needs to be put to rest.

There were not just black slaves. There were also white slaves. There were not only white slaveholders. There were also black slaveholders.

Pierre Laffite came as close to marrying Marie Villard as the law at the time allowed. She was a free black woman, and he bought her a house in her own name, a house where she was the mistress of all she surveyed. He also bought her a black cook to serve her.

These are the complicated realities of the time. I dealt with this issue directly in Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain. 

Slavery is a complicated issue in early American history. It deserves to be studied in a detailed and nuanced manner, without prejudice for or against any particular outlook. But right now it is being misrepresented to the public as only black and white, with no shades of grey.

In the process, everything good that Jean Laffite stood for is being ignored, just because he catered to all the market needs of the people of New Orleans and sold slaves at auction to both black and white buyers.


  1. Slavery in antebellum New Orleans is a complicated issue indeed. The slaves on the Spanish ships that the Laffites' men captured were destined for hard lives on plantations in Spanish South America (particularly Brazil) when the privateers intercepted the ships. Did those slaves live easier lives as a result of being diverted to New Orleans area plantations? Maybe yes, maybe no. The Laffites could have profiteered greatly by selling those slaves for market value or above, but they did not do that. They turned over those slaves to the market for a much lower price than slave dealers of the time received. They did not push profits on human misery. The misinformed would say, well, why couldn't they have just released the slaves as free men and women? That would have been crueler, I think, as for the most part the Spanish slaves were not used to fending for themselves. The other side of the coin is, well, why couldn't they have been sent back to Africa to resume their tribal life? That wasn't feasible, either, as for the largest part, tribal wars had resulted in blacks raising villages and selling other tribes into slavery from major seaside ports in Africa.

    1. Yes, I agree. They could not be sent home, and they also could not be set free in New Orleans, until they had been acclimated and assimilated enough to get a job and earn their own living. There was upward mobility for slaves in the system, but it took time. Jean Laffite did think that by selling the slaves below market value, he was reducing the future of the slave trade, because there would be less profit in it for the Spanish slavers, so they would have less incentive to continue.

  2. Correction on the last sentence: "tribal wars had resulted in blacks raiding villages"