Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Slave Smuggling by Foreign Privateers: The Illegal Slave Trade and the Geopolitics of the Early Republic

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Slave Smuggling by Foreign Privateers: The Illegal Slave Trade and the Geopolitics of the Early Republic

Article excerpt

In the winter between 1805 and 1806, Pierre Laffite traveled from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, located on the Spanish side of the Mississippi in West Florida, to buy slaves. Louisiana was not yet a state, and the federal government had outlawed the foreign slave trade into the territory. But it was legal just over the border. Laffite bought eleven slaves and turned them into $5, 000 back home. Laffite had arrived in New Orleans in 1803, most likely from the Caribbean after growing up in France. His first attempts to build a merchant business in the Crescent City failed, but in smuggling Pierre Laffite found the work that suited him best. In 1807, he was at it again, buying slaves in Pensacola, also located in Spanish West Florida. He discovered a brisk slave market-so brisk, in fact, that Laffite decided to sell a slave he had rented for the trip in hopes that the owner would smile on the rich price he had fetched. The owner did not approve of Laffite's initiative, however, and he later faced a lawsuit in New Orleans. Despite the setback, Laffite learned that international borders could be exploited for personal gain.1

In 1809, Pierre Laffite's half-brother, Jean, joined him in New Orleans, and together they began a privateering and smuggling ring from Baratarí a, a region along Louisiana's Gulf coast fifty miles below New Orleans. Amongst the swamps, marshes, and bayous, they fit out privateers, sold captured goods and slaves, and arranged for their transport into the city and onto plantations nearby. The Laffites first assisted French privateers and then moved on to equipping and unloading vessels commissioned by revolutionary Cartagena (in modern-day Colombia), then fighting for independence from Spain. The Laffites were hardly alone. Between 1810 and 1820, more than 100 foreign privateers sailed to or from U.S. waters bearing commissions from France, Cartagena, the United Provinces of the Rí o de la Plata (roughly Argentina), the Oriental Provinces of the Rí o de la Plata (Uruguay), Mexico, and Venezuela. But the Laffites seem to have been gifted with a knack for exploiting others, and they survived for years by manipulating international tensions to their advantage, most famously by assisting Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, for which they earned a pardon and lasting fame. In the midst of their exploits, the Laffites smuggled slaves as often as they could.2

Historians have long recognized the importance of the slave smuggling that occurred after the 1807 slave trade abolition act went into effect on January 1, 1808. From the time of W. ?. B. Du Bois's pioneering work on the slave trade until today, historians have emphasized that domestic pressures and interests prevented effective enforcement of the law. The domestic factors cited include the voracious demand for slaves, particularly in the burgeoning cotton belt; the political strength of southern legislators, who kept the antislave trade laws weak; and the indifference, incompetence, parsimony, and all-too-frequent corruption of the customs agents, naval officers, and prosecutors charged with interdicting the traffic in African men and women. On occasion, the difficulty of policing the Spanish borderlands is named as a possible external factor that encouraged slave smuggling, but nevertheless it is domestic issues that predominate.3

All of these explanations are important. Demand for slaves surged in the early nineteenth century. Federal slave trade laws contained so many deficiencies that Congress supplemented the 1807 act with new laws in 1818, 1819, and 1820. Far too many officials ignored their obligations (at the very least) and even upright officials found themselves without sufficient resources to discharge their duties. The regions of peak demand for slaves nestled up against poorly policed Spanish lands. Nevertheless, the emphasis given to domestic pressures and interests obscures the powerful-and perhaps decisive-influence that developments outside the United States exerted on the persistence of the foreign slave trade. …

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