Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina: France's fault

Whose fault is the catastrophe in the Mississippi Delta? Once again, Mark in Mexico leaps into the breach, as it were, with yet another definitive answer.

On January 8, 1815, Colonel Andrew Jackson, outnumbered and with his flanks unprotected, faced a British army of some 7500 - 10,000 troops, depending on which book you read, at New Orleans. The bulk of Jackson's forces were made up of militia and volunteers, including Kentucky and Tennessee riflemen, former Haitian slaves and local townspeople, all totaling somewhere between 1300 and 5000, again depending on which book you read. There had been some horse trading going on between Jackson and a notorious French pirate named Jean Lafitte for a time after Jackson's arrival in New Orleans. These negotiations included a fabled clandestine visit by Lafitte to Jackson one day. Lafitte, a wanted man and devilishly clever Frenchman, rather than sneak into the city under cover of darkness and surrounded by heavily armed French pirate bodyguards, calmly strode alone into a restaurant in broad daylight in New Orleans while Jackson was enjoying lunch, sat down uninvited at Jackson's table and said, "I theenk yoo veesh to speek to me." Or something like that.

Anyway, Jackson could not grant what Lafitte wanted, a full pardon and a blind eye to Lafitte's maurauding in the Gulf of Mexico. Lafitte had survived that long because most of his crimes had been committed against the Spanish, the British and other pirates. Also, he wisely brought his ill-gotten gains to his stronghold of Batavia on the outskirts of the city where he had set up a big market. No weekend was complete without a trip to Lafitte's market by New Orlean's finest. They could buy things from Lafitte that they could not buy in the city, like pilfered Aztec and Mayan gold - pilfered by the Spanish and then re-pilfered by Lafitte - a lot of pilfering went on in those days, too. Because of all this, the authorities had only half-heartedly tried to clap him in irons. They raided his market once, so Lafitte shut it down for a time to teach them some facts of life about free markets. The good folk of New Orleans were so upset they nearly rioted in the streets until Lafitte re-opened his market and the authorities wisely left it be. In fact, before Lafitte relented and re-opened his market, the local military commander could not walk the streets without an armed guard for a time. He eventually refused to go out at all because the people hissed and spit at him and occasionally threw rocks. They didn't have any helicopters to snipe at in those days, I guess.

Anyway, Jackson was greatly concerned that he did not have enough manpower, let alone trained manpower, to protect his flanks from the coming British assault. However, at the last moment before the British attack began, Lafitte arrived with his pirates and saved the day. And Lafitte had much more than just a pirate ship's crew. He had an entire fleet of pirate ships under his nefarious command and a small army of his own. To make matters even more interesting, Lafitte's men all wore red shirts, the same color as the British uniforms. This is an example of how the French have always been untrustworthy. During the battle, occasional British units held their fire because they thought the men in front of them were their own soldiers. A fatal misunderstanding. In addition, at times during the battle Lafitte's men were able to actually mingle with isolated British units and begin killing them before the Brits knew what was up. Fiendishly clever, those French.

The outcome of the battle was a shocking victory for the Americans and their French, er, allies. Jackson squeaked out a narrow win to the tune of 2000 British casualties, including the British commanding general, versus 50 some Americans. I don't know if any of Lafitte's dastardly French were killed at all. If Lafitte the Frenchman had not arrived, maybe Jackson would have lost the Battle of New Orleans and rabid CNN anchors and reporters would be slavering over the tattered reputation of Tony Blair today. "Where was the Royal Navy when we needed it?" "Get off your arses!" "No money for us po' blacks because you're spending it all in Basra." Etc.

Note: Eventually the United States had to crack down on Lafitte. If not, his forays against the British and Spanish would have forced us into another war or two. Lafitte, embittered by his treatment by the Americans after saving our butts at the Battle of New Orleans, climbed aboard his ship and he and his small fleet sailed away from America's shores with all their possessions and men, women and children - and disappeared forever. A great mystery that has never been solved. There is no evidence, only rumor, that he ever arrived anywhere. Most historians believe that this indicates that his group must have been caught in a big storm somewhere and all were lost at sea. Others argue against this citing as evidence his and his commanders' great seafaring and navigational skills as well as the many storms and hurricanes that they had survived in the past. These historians argue that Lafitte and his people were simply too highly skilled to have allowed themselves to be swallowed up, forever, by a storm at sea. Maybe, maybe not. But where did they go? No one knows.

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