We’ve had our differences with Christopher Hitchens.  --  But say what you will, he writes more interesting book reviews than those other ex-Trotskyists turned neoconservatives.  --  This review, on three recent books about American attitudes toward pirates, is particularly good, despite Hitchens's unpleasant need to snipe at his former comrades on the left.  --  In shifting from the left to the right Hitchens thinks he has grasped something deep, but his insight is the same one intuited in 1832 by another remarkably self-centered figure moving in the opposite political direction than Hitchens but for the same reason (to be close to power), Alphonse de Lamartine:  “Raison, vérité et liberté, tout est là, après toutefois pouvoir, plus nécessaire encore" ('Reason, truth, and liberty are everything, but only after power, which is even more necessary').  --  That about sums about Hitchens's politics.  --  Lamartine had much more literary talent and verbal dexterity than Hitchens, but that didn't keep him from becoming a literary hack, either....

By Christopher Hitchens

New York Times Book Review
August 21, 2005


Review of The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf by William C. Davis. Illustrated. 706 pp. Harcourt. $28.  --  The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World by Frank Lambert. Illustrated. 228 pp. Hill & Wang. $24.  --  White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves by Giles Milton. Illustrated. 316 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

Viewed from our hyperpower perspective, the decades between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 were so precarious they seem to belong almost to the history of another country. And in many ways they do. The "United States" at that time was to the east coast of North America what Chile now is to the west coast of the southern cone: a long and ribbonlike territory with indistinct or disputed frontiers, caught between mountains and the ocean. Three large European empires -- British, French and Spanish -- exerted immense influence on the rest of the continent, and on the Atlantic and Caribbean approaches to it. The new Republic had a tenuous and fluctuating relationship with France, a hostile one with Britain and a competitive one with Spain. It had no army or navy to speak of, and a Constitution that was skeptical about, if not antagonistic to, the maintenance of permanent armed forces. The two human symbols of this vulnerability were the American sailor seized from his ship and “impressed” into the British or French Navy, and the sailor or passenger taken at sea by marauding Muslim pirates and delivered into slavery.

Each of three new books treats a different aspect of that vertiginous period. The word “corsair,” which can mean either pirate ship or pirate, became inextricably and incorrectly linked with the Romantic as a result of Byron's 1814 poem of that name. But corsairs ruthlessly kidnapped and plundered, whether in Africa (the Barbary Coast) or the Gulf of Mexico. We may still harbor a slight sympathy for the smuggler and the bootlegger, but there was little romance in living at a time when such people had state power.

Finally resolving the question of how the Laffite/Lafitte/Laffitte family actually spelled its name (it evidently never quite made up its mind and wasn't much of a nursery of literacy), William C. Davis in The Pirates Laffite takes us to New Orleans in the period immediately following Thomas Jefferson's acquisition of the Louisiana territories. Nobody quite knew where the new frontiers were; it was not clear whether Spain had accepted Napoleon's right to dispose of such a vast area; the status of Florida was undecided by the sale; and in the meantime the city was ruled by a few American officials and judges presiding over rather than governing a mass of slaves, free blacks, Creoles, Spaniards and Frenchmen. On islands in the neighboring bay of Barataria (quixotically named after the “isle” acquired by Sancho Panza in Don Quixote) a more or less self-governing pirate republic had established itself.

Here the Laffite half brothers, Pierre and Jean, who had standardized the signatures they used, disposed of substantial numbers of slaves and vast quantities of contraband, confident that many respectable citizens of New Orleans would not scruple to avoid the 1808 prohibition on importing the first, and the tiresome duties payable on the second. Rebecca West once described a Serbian peasant who was stopped by the king and asked how he was doing. The honest fellow's response -- that the pigs thrived and the smuggling trade flourished also, thank you -- would summarize the relationship between authority and organized crime in Lousiana then.

The piratical idyll was, however, threatened by two variables: ever-changing alliances among Madrid, Paris, and London meant that pirates never quite knew which empire had the upper hand; and, at the same time, Washington was determined to establish its own monopoly of force and trade at the mouth of the Mississippi. The Laffites are wrapped in myth -- Davis continually resorts to formulations like “they may have” -- but in the War of 1812 they emerged into real history. The British had sent a ship to Barataria, to see if the corsairs might join their attack on the United States, and the Laffites brilliantly parlayed this offer into an approach to the American authorities: in exchange for immunity from innumerable potential prosecutions, might they enlist their ruffians under the Stars and Stripes?

This daring early instance of plea-bargaining brought, among other things, 7,500 much-needed flints for muskets to General Andrew Jackson's armory for the defense of New Orleans. Small though their forces were, the Baratarians performed relatively well under fire during the Battle of New Orleans and were soon after granted a pardon by President James Madison. This freed the Laffites to resume slaving and pirating in the disputed territories around Mexico, Texas, and Cuba, and to meet their deaths (Pierre by fever and Jean by enemy action) by 1823. Davis fills out this squalid footnote to our past with great skill, though as a historian of the Confederacy he should have been more fastidious than to write that when Jean Laffite caught a runaway slave, “he arrested the black for return to its owner.”

Slavery of another type was part of the subtext of the Laffite affair. The American officer most determined to close down Barataria was a 25-year-old naval lieutenant, Daniel Tod Patterson, who had spent unpleasant time as a captive in Tripoli (today's Libya). His experience was not uncommon. The evidence of the best modern historians -- Linda Colley's Captives being the most salient work -- is that upward of a million Americans and Europeans were kidnapped or enslaved by the Barbary States, the North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Command of the Strait of Gibraltar gave the Barbary monarchs a huge strategic advantage. They kidnapped human property not only on the high seas but also from towns as far north as Iceland as well as from Ireland and the western peninsula of Britain.

More recent angst between the United States and the Arab and Muslim world has revived interest in the half-forgotten Barbary wars, during which Jefferson and Madison dispatched successful naval expeditions to punish the piratical regimes in Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis, and Morocco. (The words “to the shores of Tripoli” in the first line of the Marine Corps hymn enshrine the memory of the first conflict in which American troops were deployed overseas.) In The Barbary Wars, Frank Lambert deals with the macro element of this campaign: the economic imperative underlying it. In White Gold, Giles Milton takes a more micro approach, generalizing the story of the many victims through the horrific experience of one English captive.

The whole enterprise of American independence, as Lambert shows, was predicated on free trade versus mercantilism, and the related idea that American vessels should be able to trade with whomever they pleased. This aspiration was hampered during the first decades of independence by conflicts and compromises rising from Anglo-French rivalry in the Atlantic. But it was flat-out negated by the Barbary policy of extortion, ransom, blackmail, and slave-taking.

When London's protection was withdrawn from the ships of the upstart former American colonies, their crews and cargoes were at the mercy of Muslim raiders who, often incited by the British, captured them with relative ease. (Anyone wanting to protest Jefferson's naval expedition against these slave states would have had to employ the slogan “No blood for free trade” or else “No blood for manumission.”) Lambert is uneasy about comparisons to more recent combats, and wants to insist on the struggle for free navigation, but this leads him into the error of denial. He says religion had little or nothing to do with the matter. That may have been true as far as the United States was concerned but was emphatically not the case with the Ottoman enemy. Barbary leaders, while they were interested in gain, still explicitly claimed that the Koran gave them the right to enslave infidels, and on one occasion they told Jefferson and John Adams this to their faces.

Under American naval pressure, including bombardment, most of the Barbary States finally agreed to abandon slavery and piracy during the Jefferson administration. But a new despot in Algiers was induced by British perfidy to revive the business during the War of 1812. Intended to weaken and divert American resistance to the British Navy on the other side of the ocean at New Orleans, this cynical tactic had the opposite effect. A battle-hardened American fleet under Stephen Decatur secured a complete capitulation in Algiers, and also the release of many wretched slaves. The reign of Barbary terror was finally over. This triumph in late 1815 was somewhat eclipsed by other world-shaking events at Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna, but a shrewd European or North African would still have noticed that a whole new maritime and political and economic power had stepped firmly onto history's stage.

Giles Milton's title, White Gold, is clearly intended as an answering echo to the vile term “black gold” that was used by the slave traders operating farther down Africa's western coast. There is nothing essentially illegitimate in this equivalence, except that the Barbary traders would often redeem slaves for hard cash, and there was no “Middle Passage” in which a third of those captured were considered expendable. To the captives themselves, however, such distinctions would have seemed irrelevant. The Cornishman John Pellow, seized and placed on the auction block in Morocco in 1716, along with his 11-year-old nephew, felt all the pangs of forced labor and sadistic treatment. The fact that he and others were able to read and write, and sometimes to get letters home, is a boon more to historians than it was to themselves. James Thomson's famous ditty, “Rule Britannia,” with its refrain about “Britons never will be slaves,” derives from the vast public agitation that developed against the Barbary atrocities. It was to take a little time before the outraged English (or the outraged Americans, for that matter) decided to look in the mirror and to abolish their own slave systems. But this only proves again that history is ironic and that our barbarous species evolves in uneven ways.

--Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fairand a visiting professor at the New School. His most recent book is Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.