History books are tricky beasts. You want them to be well-researched, by someone with impressive scholarly credentials who knows what they’re talking about, but you also don’t want a droning lecture. The people who write popular history books are dismissed in the scholarly community because they are not “real” historians (like my favorite, Alison Weir, who apparently is not a historian, but merely a writer with an interest in history), and the real scholars who write history books often have no idea how to present their information in a way that is interesting and engaging to the general population. Obviously it’s better to read a history book written by someone like William C. Davis, who is a history professor and has clearly devoted years to researching the Laffites and is probably the most knowledgeable source on the infamous pirate brothers. Anyone wanting to learn about Jean and Pierre Laffite, who smuggled goods and raided ships on the Gulf coast in the waning days of piracy, would naturally turn to Davis’s book for the best information. It has almost 200 pages of notes alone, that must mean it’s the best source, right?
Yes, probably. Unfortunately, William C. Davis suffers the same affliction plaguing his contemporaries, the “real” historians: his writing is boring. Guys, this is why people like Alison Weir better.
There is no earthly reason a book about pirates should be as boring as Davis makes it. And the Laffites weren’t just pirates. Jean and Pierre Laffite were born in France (although maybe Spain? Davis has an extensive footnote about it, rest assured) but emigrated to New Orleans in the early 1800’s. They quickly started a shipping business that was actually mostly smuggling, and eventually they moved up to owning their own fleet of ships that would prey on primarily Spanish ships – the Laffite brothers would capture ships, take whatever goods were onboard, and re-sell them for a profit. They often did this with the permission of the US government, because in the early 1800’s America’s view towards international relations essentially boiled down to “fuck Spain, steal all their shit.” Both men had longtime mistresses with whom they raised large families – both women were mixed-race, and one of the most interesting parts of the book is when Davis discusses the diverse population of New Orleans at the time, and how Pierre Laffite’s descendents were able to pass for white after three generations, despite their mixed-race blood. Pierre and Jean founded two different pirate communities, first on the New Orleans island of Barataria, and then in Galveston, Texas. They worked as double agents, spying on Spanish activity while passing information on to the US government. Even when the government disavowed them and started cracking down on piracy, the brother continued smuggling, working with a vast web of allies to continue preying on foreign ships.
It’s a really interesting story, and the Laffites are great characters, but Davis absolutely refuses to have any fun with his subject. I suspect he wrote this book with the specific goal of destroying every romantic notion about pirates that has ever existed. This book is 600 pages of, “Oh, you think pirates are really interesting? Well actually…” and it’s dumb. I want my dramatic pirate stories, dammit! But even the most exciting sea battles are rendered dull and plodding thanks to Davis’s scholarly, no-nonsense tone. It might be accurate, well-researched, and extensive, but The Pirates Laffite is boring, which is something a book about pirates has no business being.
But despite Davis’s best efforts to suck all the fun out of their story, Jean and Pierre Laffite remain interesting and complex characters. Davis is clearly an expert, but the Laffites deserved a more passionate biographer. Still, a boring book about pirates is still better than no book about pirates.
“One thing is certain. The brothers were emblems of their time and place. Throughout the settlement of North America, there always appeared at the latest fringe of civilization a species of entrepreneur daring, resourceful, uninhibited by the restrictions of the scanty law available, and imaginative in devising means to get around even those. Once Americans established independence and pursued their inexorable spread westward, the numbers of such men exploded with the dramatically expanding opportunity. Wherever there was a population with a need not adequately supplied by conventional means of commerce, they flourished. And once the vacuum of laws and regulation was filled, they disappeared and moved on, unable and unwilling to adapt to existence in the new environment. …They could not have appeared at any other time or place in America’s story, and when the conjunctions of history that created them disappeared, so did they.”
Verdict: two out of five stars