Was Jean Lafitte a Slave Trader?

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Key Takeaways:

  • Jean Lafitte was a notorious early 19th century pirate and smuggler who operated in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • There is strong evidence that Lafitte was heavily involved in the illegal slave trade, purchasing enslaved people from the West Indies and smuggling them into Louisiana.
  • Lafitte’s men captured slave ships, took the enslaved people, and sold them to smugglers who brought them to Louisiana.
  • The slave trade was Lafitte’s main source of income and the core of his illicit operations.
  • Despite his legend, Lafitte should not be seen as a hero or patriot given his profiting from the slave trade and exploitation of enslaved individuals.


Jean Lafitte was a famous Gulf Coast pirate and privateer who lived during the early 19th century. He built a thriving smuggling operation and gained notoriety for his role in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. But was Lafitte also engaged in the illegal slave trade? This murky aspect of his career has been the subject of much debate among historians.

This article will comprehensively evaluate the evidence regarding Jean Lafitte’s involvement in the slave trade. It will analyze primary sources and accounts from the time period, as well as modern historical analysis, to determine if Lafitte can accurately be characterized as a slave trader. The depth of his participation in the trafficking of enslaved people and the centrality of this activity to his operations will be explored. Readers will gain a clearer picture of this controversial figure and the full range of his activities in the Gulf Coast region during the early 1800s.

Understanding the extent to which piracy and slave trading overlapped in the Gulf of Mexico provides important historical context. Examining Lafitte’s career lends insight into the network of smugglers and privateers who intentionally violated laws banning the international slave trade to enrich themselves. This analysis holds relevance today in properly framing Lafitte’s place in history outside of romanticized legend.

Was Jean Lafitte a Slave Trader?

Lafitte’s Base of Operations in Barataria Bay

To comprehend Jean Lafitte’s involvement in the slave trade, it is important to understand the geography and environment in which he operated. Lafitte established his base of operations in Barataria Bay, a marshy inlet northwest of New Orleans along the Gulf Coast.

The bay’s swampy islands, obscured waterways, and secluded location afforded an ideal haven for smugglers. Goods could be offloaded from ships in the bay and transported into New Orleans along remote routes through the swamp, evading customs agents and law enforcement. Barataria Bay developed into a thriving black market port, handling massive quantities of smuggled items.

This prime smuggling locale allowed Lafitte to dominate illicit trade in the region. He leveraged Barataria’s advantages to deal in pirated treasure, stolen goods, and contraband items transported along maritime trade routes. Among the most lucrative of the illegal commodities was African slaves.

The Illegal Slave Trade in the 1800s

A key factor underlying Jean Lafitte’s involvement in the slave trade was the enormous profitability of importing enslaved people, especially after 1808. That year, the United States banned the importation of slaves from abroad. While domestic slavery remained legal, foreign slave imports became illegal.

The slave trade nonetheless continued along clandestine routes. Smugglers would deliver enslaved people to southern ports, circumventing the ban. Prices rose considerably, creating strong black market demand. An enslaved individual worth $300 in the West Indies could fetch $1,500 in the American South. Outsized profits drove extensive illegal slave trading.

Lafitte leveraged his strategic foothold in Barataria Bay to tap into this lucrative enterprise. He gained control of a thriving operation dealing in contraband, including the smuggling of slaves purchased abroad into Louisiana. Historical accounts indicate that by 1810, the slave trade accounted for 80% of Lafitte’s revenues.

Primary Source Accounts of Lafitte’s Involvement

Several period accounts point directly to Jean Lafitte’s extensive dealings in the purchase and sale of enslaved people. One of the most damning comes from a customs official who conducted an undercover investigation of Barataria Bay in 1817.

The customs agent reported that Lafitte’s men “make a business of smuggling slaves.” When slaves were cheap in the West Indies, Lafitte would send his ships to “purchase them at five or six dollars a head and bring them to the Mississippi where they will sell at from three to four hundred dollars.” He described Lafitte’s core racket as centered on slaves.

Other first-hand accounts corroborate these findings. In 1821, a ship captain testified that Lafitte traders approached him about smuggling slaves. A separate witness reported in 1819 that Lafitte could land 600 African slaves in a matter of weeks. These and other primary documents confirm that Lafitte trafficked extensively in enslaved human beings.

Smuggling Methods and Techniques

Jean Lafitte employed several clever techniques to expand his access to enslaved people for smuggling purposes. His men would identify slave ships traversing the Gulf of Mexico and capture them by force. After seizing the vessel and imprisoned people, they then sold the slaves to local smugglers at discounted rates.

Lafitte’s agents also ran clandestine auctions in New Orleans, selling smuggled slaves to local buyers. Some of the enslaved were held at Barataria Bay before being discretely brought into the city. These black market slave auctions proved highly lucrative at the time but brazenly violated the law.

The expansive web of smugglers in Louisiana collaborated to enable the illegal slave trade while evading detection. Lafitte occupied a central role in managing the procurement, transport, and delivery of enslaved human cargo along this secretive network.

Connection to Piracy in the Gulf

Jean Lafitte built his initial reputation as a daring privateer preying on Spanish ships in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1800s. While piracy and slave trading might seem disconnected, in reality they formed interlinked businesses for Lafitte and his associates.

The vessels used to plunder Spanish commerce were the same ones used to purchase slaves in the West Indies. Similarly, the ships Lafitte captured could be employed to expand his trafficking in enslaved people.

Whether raiding passing ships or acquiring slave cargo, the goal was illicit enrichment, often at the expense of human lives. Lafitte applied similar ruthlessness and criminality across both pursuits.

The Scale of Lafitte’s Slave Trading Enterprise

Although exact numbers are hard to confirm, historians estimate that at its peak Jean Lafitte’s crew smuggled between 1,000 to 1,500 slaves annually. Some posit the number was even higher. The enormous revenues generated, likely surpassing $1 million per year, underscore the magnitude of Lafitte’s trafficking operation.

The size and sophistication of the operation necessitated coordination of loading enslaved people in West Indies ports, clandestinely sailing ships through the Gulf, eluding customs patrols, offloading human cargo, and then selling slaves through pre-arranged channels. This system speaks to large-scale, well-organized illegal smuggling.

The revenue and details suggest Lafitte’s involvement in the slave trade was far more than minor or incidental. Although piracy was part of his activities, the preponderance of historical evidence indicates his fortune and notoriety stemmed primarily from slave trading.

Lafitte’s Legacy and Romanticization

Jean Lafitte’s reputation as a pirate and rabble-rouser has shrouded his deeper involvement in the 19th century slave trade. Some popular portrayals of Lafitte airbrush away his central role in exploiting enslaved people for profit.

But while Lafitte assisted Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans, his status as a slave trader means he does not deserve to be placed on a pedestal as an admirable figure. He was an opportunistic lawbreaker who grew rich off of human trafficking.

Lafitte profited enormously from the slave business, playing an outsized part in sustaining an illegal importation network that extended human suffering. A candid accounting requires acknowledging that in addition to piracy, slave trading forms an integral facet of his checkered legacy.


In weighing the extensive evidence, Jean Lafitte emerges as a major figure not only in Gulf Coast piracy but also the illegal slave trade of the early 19th century. While often romanticized in popular culture, Lafitte trafficked extensively in enslaved human beings for profit. Smuggling slaves represents a defining aspect of his career and the nucleus of his illicit business operations.

Lafitte’s base at Barataria Bay afforded ideal conditions to conduct brazen trafficking in people while evading law enforcement. Accounts from the time detail his purchasing enslaved individuals in the West Indies and selling them at inflated prices in Louisiana. His pirate ships had a dual purpose in procuring slave cargo. Lafitte’s activities represent a prime example of the criminal networks that disregarded laws banning slave imports.

Rather than a swashbuckling folk hero, Jean Lafitte was a cunning opportunist who got rich by preying on the vulnerable. A candid look at the facts indicates he was undeniably a major slave trader despite his legend.

Frequently Asked Questions about Jean Lafitte and the Slave Trade

Was the slave trade Jean Lafitte’s main activity?

Yes, the preponderance of evidence indicates that the illegal slave trade formed the bulk of Jean Lafitte’s operations by the 1810s. Smuggling slaves into Louisiana despite the import ban generated the majority of his revenues. Piracy supplemented but did not surpass his wealth derived from trafficking people.

How many slaves did Jean Lafitte traffic?

It is difficult to determine exact figures, but at the height of his operations in the 1810s Lafitte likely smuggled between 1,000 to 1,500 slaves annually. Some historians estimate the number was even higher. This volume of trafficking required sophisticated coordination and vessels capable of concealing high numbers of imprisoned people.

Where did Lafitte’s slaves come from originally?

Lafitte purchased many slaves cheaply in the West Indies, where there was an abundant supply. He would then ship them to Louisiana where demand and prices were sky-high due to the ban on importing slaves. This arbitrage opportunity was immensely lucrative in the 1810s.

How did Lafitte get his hands on so many slaves?

Lafitte’s men captured slave ships in the Gulf of Mexico through piracy. They also conducted slave auctions reserved for local smugglers, sold slaves directly to plantation owners, and leveraged an extensive network of collaborators to traffic captive individuals while avoiding authorities.

Was what Lafitte did illegal at the time?

Yes, Lafitte’s actions violated the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves banning the foreign slave trade as of 1808. But smuggling slaves remained hugely profitable, driving Lafitte and others to break the law and tap into the underground slave traffic into New Orleans.

Does evidence of slave trading damage Lafitte’s heroic reputation?

Lafitte’s involvement with slavers certainly undercuts notions of him as a noble pirate or patriot. While he opposed the British, he did so while engaging extensively in the exploitative slave trade. Lafitte profited off great suffering and intentionally violated laws aimed at restricting slavery.

Why hasn’t Lafitte’s slave trading not tarnished his image more?

Romanticized versions of Lafitte as a swashbuckling folk hero have dominated popular culture, minimizing his central role as a slave trader. But historians have worked to correct the record and present a more accurate, unvarnished view of Lafitte’s importantly as a major figure in illegal slaving operations.

Was Lafitte unique or did other pirates also deal in slaves?

While Lafitte excelled at it, he was not the sole pirate involved with slavers in the Caribbean and Gulf region. The enormous profits involved tempted many pirates and smugglers into the illegal slave trade throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Lafitte stands out for the scale and sophistication of his particular trafficking operations.

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