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Draining the Sunken Pirate City
By the mids, the city was known for its quadroon balls, opulent affairs where local dandies went stag to dance halls on St. Philip Street and watched through opera glasses as young women of mixed race, the offspring, usually, of a white father and a half-black mother, were marched across the floor in extravagant gowns. When the moment was right, a man selected a quadroon. Dolled her up. Established her in luxury in a house in a section of the city set aside for the purpose.
Loved her. Impregnated her. The practice continued till the Civil War, in the wake of which racial distinctions hardened. No more balls. No more secret families. Most of the quadroons who, after generations of intermarriage, were more white than most white people in the city went north, where they vanished into the fabric of America.
The city owed its importance to the river. The wealth of the farms and forests, the factories and mills, everything west of the Alleghenies—all of it floated down the river. New Orleans was the city at the end of the run, where the produce was counted, tagged, stacked, and shipped. The life of the city was the waterfront, the docks, the boats.
The first were pirogues or canoes, fashioned, Indian-style, from tree trunks. These were followed by keelboats, mackinaws, flatboats, scows, the grandest of them three hundred feet long and as tall as a house. There were barges known as arks; broadhorns, or Kentucky flats; and ferries, called sleds, with roofs and passenger cabins.
Before steam power, the challenge was getting back upriver—to Cairo, to Saint Louis. After the flatboats were unloaded in New Orleans, they were broken into pieces and sold as scrap wood. For years, the sidewalks of the French Quarter were made from the debris of the riverboats. The crews then walked home—a trip through wild country that took months. It was in the course of this journey that he first saw slaves, sold in the French Quarter markets.
The crews slept on the decks of the boats, months in the open, watching the shore—punishing in its sameness—drift by at two or three miles an hour. They were bare-chested all summer or donned brogans studded with spikes. In the winter, when the temperature dropped below freezing, they wore fur so fresh it had claws.
There was always a card game going, men hunched over a deck, betting by firelight: They subsisted on bread and meat set before them in communal pans twice a day. They were drunk all the time. These men were tall and short, fat and thin, fair skinned and swarthy, the same sorts who once filled the galleys of Roman ships.
Each boat had a champion, a man who bloodied all the others. At night, when the ships tied up at the landings, crews intermingled. When the holder of a red feather came across another red-feather holder, a circle formed and a battle commenced. The names of the great fighters live on: Mike Fink, the toughest man on the Ohio; Bill Sedley, who whipped everyone on the Mississippi then went mad in New Orleans, killing two people in a dive bar before fleeing into the Indian Territory.
In this passage you have, in nascent form, the best of the blues and hip-hop, as well as the trash talk of Muhammad Ali: Look at me! I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak!
Stand back and give me room according to my strength! Cast your eye on me, gentlemen! For men on the river, every trip ended in New Orleans. That is where they were paid and spent what they were paid. It was the goal, the place they would finally drive out the boredom of all those weeks on the water. It was the adventures accumulated in the course of all those sprees that turned New Orleans into a party town.
All those tchotchkes the nipple-shaped shot glass , T-shirts what drinking problem? Even in the s, rivermen referred to New Orleans as the City of Sin. The culture of the docks spilled into the streets and became one aspect of the town. Any river city whose wealth is concentrated and dispersed on ships is going to be lousy with pirates. New Orleans attracted them from its earliest days. The geography invites it.
A dozen miles outside of town, the land gives way to swamp, bayou, bay. Lake Pontchartrain, north of the French Quarter, dumps into Lake Borgne, which dumps into the Mississippi Sound, which is protected from the Gulf of Mexico by barrier islands.
If you designed a seascape for piracy, this would be it. There were big islands—Grand Terre, Grand Island—in the sound, but also lonely outcroppings where the sea grass waved and the earth vanished if you stepped on it.
There were islands covered with dwarf oaks and Spanish moss, a screen from outsiders. There were groves in the water, trunks rising from the waves. There were low-lying islands that disappeared in flood tide. There were inlets and swamps and landmarks that served as rendezvous points for pirates, the most notorious being the temple, a mountain of clam shells that had dominated a barrier outcrop as long as even the oldest Indian could remember.
If being chased by a British man-of-war, a pirogue-riding pirate could vanish into a narrow, weed-bedecked channel, then emerge into a lost bay. The entire area was a tangle: Old Spanish maps identify it as Barataria.
The origins of the name are mysterious. Some say it comes from part two of Don Quixote, in which Sancho Panza is appointed governor of an island called Barataria, a name that rings mock heroic in the original. Thieves hid stolen goods there, fugitives vanished into the weeds.
There was a permanent population of runaway slaves. It was a warehouse where the criminal inventory was stored. Blackbeard took refuge in Barataria in , drifted and dreamed as bounty hunters searched in vain.
It grew alongside the city. The bigger the warehouses on Tchoupitoulas, the better the business in the bay. By the s, Barataria was attracting buccaneers. The men who lived there were not pirates in the traditional sense—they were privateers.
In strong boxes they carried letters of marquesses, documents that deputized them into foreign navies, giving them the right to prey on ships flagged by enemy nations. In the age of Napoleon, everyone was at war with someone, making these letters easy to come by. Barataria boomed in when the American Congress banned the importation of African slaves.
From then on, all slaves would be bred terrible verb domestically. But there were many in the South who preferred African-raised slaves for reasons that strike us as obscene: Here was a group of criminals—gangsters in one case, buccaneers in the other—who were disorganized, small time, in it for a quick score. And here was a business, legitimate and thriving one minute, then, with the stroke of a pen, turned over to crooks.
Anyone who partook in the African slave trade was now an outlaw. Men who might have otherwise reformed or faded away—many of the gangsters of New York were on their way out, too, before Prohibition—now had a big-time industry to run. They attacked, then carried the human cargo back to Bargainland. The result was more pirates, more pirate ships, more pirate guns, more pirate violence.
It was a gang war like the gang war between Al Capone and Bugs Moran. Who will control the North Side? Who will control Barataria? It was hurting business. Planters and merchants were afraid to go to the bayous to make a purchase. This was a moment that demanded a leader, a strongman who could bring order to the pirate islands.
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