Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In Search of Pirate Graves!

Yul Brynner in The Buccaneer
Like most people, I’m caught up in the romance of piracy—not the illegal music downloading type, but piracy on the high seas. The Jolly Roger, shiver-me-timbers, and all that. Forget those ridiculous Somali pirates who hijack oil tankers, the real pirates were the eighteenth century swashbucklers, terrors of the Spanish Main! Given that the Victorian Era was the Golden Age of Piracy, these contemporary guys have no cachet—I mean seriously,  based solely on fashion sense, I think we can all agree who the best pirates were. Just compare the two!

Somali Pirate

So when I was in Tampa in 2010, and heard that a pirate was buried downtown in quaint little Oaklawn Cemetery, I made it a point to stop by. The photo below was not taken by me, as I spent an hour and a half looking for the grave marker, but never found it. But then, pirates, as a rule, are not easy to find. 
Photo care of Wikipedia

Initially disappointed, I was kind of surprised when I returned home to Philadelphia only to learn there was an honest-to-god pirate buried in a cemetery less than a mile from my house! And not only that, but his grave is about fifty feet away from the bench on which my future wife and I used to make out!

Lying amidst the American founding fathers and patriots in St. Peter’s Churchyard Cemetery (3rd and Pine streets, est. 1761), is the grave and monument of privateer Gustavus Conyngham. Privateers were essentially pirates who received a “letter of marquee” from a sovereign or government which allowed them to attack and loot ships of enemy nations. Conyngham had originally been an officer in the American Continental Army, but became a pirate as a way to make his fortune (a la ‘The Dread Pirate Roberts’ in The Princess Bride). He found the pirate life to be much more lucrative and as a result of his escapades on the high seas, became a hero and patriot in the American Revolutionary War. Above is a photo of his wolf table monument, with its odd inscription (sort of an acronym in reverse). Unusually efficient, the wolf table—typically made of marble, but often taken for granite (good one, eh?), there was a certain utility in their design. Used in areas of thin soil and/or rocky terrain, they prevented the digging up of graves (either by wolves, people, or, um bears, as you can see in the link at the end of this blog).

In his book Philadelphia Area Cemeteries, author Allan Heller states that “privateers had a severe impact on British shipping, capturing or destroying three times as many English ships as the Continental Navy.” In 1777, privateer Gustavus Conyngham “embarked on an eighteen-month voyage of pillage and plunder, capturing sixty British ships with his fourteen-gun cutter, the Revenge.” (The 'Revenge', by the way, is also the name of the Dread Pirate Roberts’ ship—hey, I don't make this stuff up!). The U.S. Navy named three destroyers after Captain Conyngham during three separate periods of the country’s naval history.

In times of need, it wasn’t above the commanding U.S. military officers to solicit help from the dark side. You never read about such things in whitewashed history books, but when I was shooting cemeteries in New Orleans in 2002, I learned about the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte. During the War of 1812 (America’s ‘second war of independence’ against Britain), Lafitte offered his services to General Andrew Jackson in what came to be known as the Battle of New Orleans, the final battle of the war. Heavily outnumbered by the British, Jackson accepted the assistance of Lafitte and his 1000-man pirate crew in exchange for a federal pardon (Lafitte and his men had been banished to the island of Barataria, off Louisiana’s coast-- essentially imprisoned by the U.S. Government for acts of piracy). In return for the pardon, Lafitte helped Jackson defend New Orleans against the British in 1815. If not for pirates, we might very well be taking tea at three!

Between 1803 and 1812, Lafitte the buccaneer owned and controlled a vast kingdom in the Gulf of Mexico, a pirate kingdom that dominated commerce in and around the mouth of the MississippiNew Orleans.

According to Joseph Geringer in Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate of New Orleans,“The British vowed to burn New Orleans and take back the United States. In December of 1814, fifty British warships and twelve thousand British troops were on the way.” Jackson had hastily recruited 3,800 men and boys armed with nothing but squirrel guns to defend the city. Lafitte had what General Jackson needed—knowledge of the bayou, storehouses full of munitions and armaments of all kinds hidden throughout the swamps. But he also wanted amnesty for himself and his crew in exchange for aiding the United States in its war against the British. Geringer writes:

“To the general he was frank, the way he knew the general wanted to hear it. "You want flints? I have 7,500 flints available at a snap of my fingers. You want powder? I have kegs-full. You want rifles, axes, men? They're yours. I have a thousand fighting men, eighty of which are now rotting in the Cabildo, Jackson," he raised that commanding finger, "I and my followers want to fight for America, but as free men, not as indentured servants. For a pardon for me and my Baratarians, we will help you send the enemy to hell. That is my promise."

And so it happened. Jackson discovered the Baratarians to be excellent fighters and afraid of nothing. The battle culminated in what became known as the Battle New Orleans, when the main body of British General Pakenham's army appeared on the Plains of Chalmette the evening of January 7, 1815. By morning, they were 7,000 strong. After an hour of hell, these Englishmen who had charged so gallantly against Napoleon's forces at Waterloo, surrendered. British casualties were enormous — 2,600 corpses lay on the narrow field. Jackson had lost only thirteen men.

For his heroism, Jackson fulfilled his promise to see that Lafitte and his brigands were exonerated of all criminal charges. Due to Jackson's support, President Madison soon issued a proclamation granting a full pardon to Lafitte and his Baratarians, restoring to them the full rights of citizenship. After some time, however, Lafitte grew bored with the honorable life, left Louisiana and was ultimately driven off by the U.S. Government, whose tolerance of pirates was greatly diminished when there was no obvious benefit to be had. Certainly different treatment than that bestowed upon Gustavus Conyngham. Oh, and Lafitte’s grave? Possibly a watery one, but unknown.

So as not to leave you with too much technical serious stuff, please click on the link below to go to Gideon Defoe’s “Pirates!” books—easily the funniest piratical humor novels in the known galaxy. British humor, i.e., in the style of Monty Python. I've also listed some factual references to fill in any knowledge gaps that historians may find within my narrative. As to my own writing, I'll just quote filmaker/author John Waters and suggest that "Technique is just failed style."

References and Links of Interest

*Wolf table - Device used in areas of thin soil and/or rocky terrain to prevent digging up graves (either by wolves, people, or, um bears, as you can see in this link: Russian bears treat graveyards as 'giant refrigerators').

St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia. PA
Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans
Gideon Defoe’s “Pirates!” books 

1958 movie The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner (see left) as Jean Lafitte