Many of the pirates of the Caribbean was Sephardim Jews who turned to piracy to get revenge on the Spanish Catholics who expelled them from Spain in 1492, murdered their families and stole their property. Six of Barbarossas chief officers were Jewish! This article sheds light on one of the most famous Jewish Pirates: Jean Lafitte the Jewish Pirate. One of the things I do since I retired from Philadelphia’s Temple University is lecture on cruise ships. My signature talk is
the 50-century old history of piracy whose practitioners I call the Seafaring Gangsters of the World. A few weeks before my first gig, I sent a draft of the talk to my history buff sister, Phyllis. She liked it, but was very unhappy that I had not mentioned Jean Lafitte. I told her I didn’t include him because I intended to deal with the economics, the sociology, and the politics of piracy. She said I simply had to talk about Lafitte because he was unique. He was a
In his prime, Lafitte ran not just one pirate sloop but a whole fleet of them simultaneously. He even bought a blacksmith shop in New Orleans, which he used as a front for fencing pirate loot. And he was one of the few buccaneers who didn’t die in battle, in prison, or on the gallows. Though I didn’t lecture about Lafitte at first, a circumstance of serendipity has made me do so ever since. I was flying to Norfolk, Virginia. The man in the seat next to me wore a skullcap and he began chatting with me in Gaelic-accented English. Though born in France, the friendly passenger now lives in Switzerland. We quickly established that we were both Jewish and that
both of us had taught in Israel.
Then we had the following conversation: What are you doing on this plane? I asked.
I’m a mathematician. I work for an American company and I’m flying to Norfolk today because it has the US Navy’s largest naval base and my company is trying to get a Navy contract. Now, what are you doing on this plane?
My wife and I are picking up a cruise ship in Norfolk Taking a vacation?
Not entirely. I’ll be giving lectures on the ship…as many, in fact, as there are full days at sea.
What do you lecture about?
Since cruise lines frown on controversial topics I have talked about Israel once or twice, but I usually talk about Latin America, which is my second specialty, or the Panama Canal or Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehantepec, or the voyages of Captain Cook to the South Pacific. But I always begin a cruise with a lecture on pirates. The kids love it and the old folks like it too.
Are you going to talk about Jean Lafitte?
No. And I repeated what my sister had told me.
He pulled out his wallet and handed me a business card. It had Melvyn J. Lafitte written on it.
Then he said, I am a direct descendent of Jean Lafitte. Your sister, Phyllis, is absolutely right. Our family, originally named Lefitto, lived in the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. When Ferdinand and Isabella re-conquered Spain and expelled the Jews in 1492, most of the Jews fled to North Africa. Others went to the Balkans or to Greece and Turkey. But some Sephardic Jews, my ancestors among them, crossed the Pyrenees and settled in France, where Jean was born in
about 1780. He moved to French Santo Domingo during the Napoleonic period. However, a slave rebellion forced him to flee to New Orleans. Eventually he became a pirate, but he always called himself a privateer because that label has a more legal ring to it.
In 1814, the British sought his aid in their pending attack on New Orleans. However, he passed their plans to the Americans and helped General Andrew Jackson beat them in 1815. A grateful Jackson, not yet President, saw to it that Lafitte and his family became American citizens. And, by the way, did you know that there is a town of Jean Lafitte, as well as a Jean Lafitte National Historical Park in Southwestern Louisiana?
I was flabbergasted, not so much by the saga of Jean Lafitte as retold by a proud descendant, but by the fact that the two of us had met so coincidentally in the skies over Georgia. Melvyn Lafitte lives in Geneva and I live in Portland, Oregon. These cities are 5,377 miles apart. Unlike him, I am mathematically challenged, so I don’t know what the statistical probability is that a descendant of the Franco-Jewish-American pirate Jean Lafitte would board an airplane and sit next to me as I was agonizing over whether to mention his famous ancestor in my forthcoming talk.