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Pirates in Pursuit

Any seaworthy pirate story is likely to include at least one or all of the following: Jolly Roger flags, peg-legged sailors, plank walking, treasure maps, and, of course, barrels and barrels of rum.

For their part, pirates weren’t terribly picky. They would drink just about anything they could get their hands on, but for long straits at sea they preferred rum.

In popular culture, pirates are often romanticized as fun-loving, hard-drinking ruffians intent on a good time, come hell or high water. It’s in that rowdy embrace of drinking that you likely find the myth and mystique in equal measure.

Follow the rum.

The rum story starts in the Caribbean where explorer Christopher Columbus first introduced sugar cane plants in 1493. Sugar cane was then after refined into sugar, and through this process a happy accident occurred. That’s when fermented molasses, the discarded byproduct of sugar cane, was converted into a sweet alcohol called rum.

Inexpensive to make and easy to transport, rum quickly became a bonafide boon to the Caribbean economy. As a staple export around the world, barrels of rum were a mainstay on ships sailing the pirate-infested waters of the Caribbean. The pirates paid no allegiance to any government, pillaging and plundering British, French, or Spanish vessels at will, keeping the rum for themselves, and selling everything else in ports like New Orleans.

A busy man, indeed

Call him a scoundrel, a smuggler, and a crook, but don’t call Jean Laffite a pirate. With a Letter of Marque from the government of Colombia, Laffite was a privateer. He was privately employed and bestowed the authority to attack enemy ships with the implicit arrangement that he could keep any booty for himself.

Laffite was ambitious and enterprising. He also owned a blacksmith shop that fronted an illicit smuggling business where he was the middle-man moving stolen goods for pirates. So, when the British government approached Laffite with £30,000 Sterling and a Letter of Marque to use his base as a staging area for the Royal Navy, they never imagined he would double-cross them, take the money, and inform the American forces posthaste!

Meet me in Pirates Alley.

An unlikely alliance was formed in Pirates Alley—a decorated General Andrew Jackson and reputed smuggler Jean Laffite coming together to plan an attack of the British. But that’s how it happened. And when it was all over – the city defended, the British defeated – legend has it that both men sealed the victory with a barrel of rum.

Today, Pirates Alley remains a must-see spot in the French Quarter. The one-block long passage between St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo is a magical place where fact still mingles with fiction, chasing legend and lore, all languidly over a rum drink or two, or more.


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