The Jewish Privateer Who Helped Defeat the British in the War of 1812

August 3, 2021 | Robert Rockaway
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Born in 1780 to a Jewish family with its origins in Spain, Jean Lefitte, together with his brother Pierre, became involved in piracy sometime in the first decade of the 19th century. Robert Rockaway pieces together the facts about his life:

Surviving sources indicate that Lafitte was sharp and resourceful. . . . He was known to affect aristocratic mannerisms and to dress better than most of his fellow privateers. His native language was French, but he spoke English reasonably well and had a working knowledge of Spanish. During his life he acted as a soldier, sailor, diplomat, and merchant, displaying a gift for leadership in all roles.

In 1812, war broke out between England and the United States. . . . [I]n return for a legal pardon, Lafitte and his fleet helped Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans from the British. After Jackson secured victory, he paid tribute to the Lafitte brothers’ efforts and those of their fellow privateers. . . . [The brothers] displayed great courage and heroism. . . . After Jean Lafitte’s death, two fishing communities in Louisiana were named after him, as well as a town hall and a Jean Lafitte Boulevard. His name was also installed on a National Historic Park and Preserve located 25 minutes from downtown New Orleans.

In his own journal, Rockaway notes, Lafitte recalled that his Sephardi maternal grandmother:

told me repeatedly of the trials and tribulations her ancestors had endured at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Grandmother’s teachings inspired in me a hatred of the Spanish crown and all the persecutions for which it was responsible—not only against Jews.

Lafitte shared these sentiments with other Jewish pirates:

What is ultimately clear is that Jewish pirates did not hide their origins and had no problem expressing their Jewish identity. They were proud of what they did. They named the ships they captained after biblical characters such as the Queen Esther, the Prophet Samuel, and the Shield of Abraham. The fact that ships from Spain, a kingdom that had committed unspeakable crimes against their ancestors, were such bountiful targets clearly provided extra motivation for their deeds.

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