The Problem With Contraband Days
Who doesn’t love pirates?
Well, all the people who actually had to deal with them, probably. You know, the people they murdered or stole from, or maybe all the human beings they stole and held and sold like property.
But other than that, they were pretty cool. I mean, there’s a whole ride at Disneyland about pirates that they even made into a bunch of movies everybody mostly liked.
How bad could they be?
When I first moved to Lake Charles and found out there was a Pirate Festival here, I was super excited. I, like most people in 2016, tend to think about pirates in the Disney sense. Fun, freedom-loving miscreants that like to have a good time, but nobody really gets hurt. So I was pretty excited about Contraband Days.
Until I wasn’t.
It didn’t take long before I started hearing rumblings about what was wrong with the festival. Apparently, a whole lot of people have a problem with it, because it isn’t just about those fun-loving Pirates of the Caribbean type of pirates. It’s about a certain pirate in particular, who wasn’t a very nice guy.
Because he wasn’t a pretend pirate. He was a real one.
Although he started out as a simple smuggler finding ways around the Embargo Act of 1807, the very first act of actual piracy Lafitte committed in his storied career of doing piratey things was capturing a Spanish ship loaded with slaves, who he then sold for enough of a profit to buy more ships and do more piratey things.
For most of his early career, Lafitte probably was kind of like the pirates we all like to think of. He had a reputation for treating captive crew members well, and mostly just looted their ships of treasure, then let their crews go. Sometimes the treasures were things like jewels, spices, silks, and gold. Other times, the treasure was slaves.
It’s impossible to know just how many slaves Lafitte trafficked in, in those days. He was a pirate, after all. It’s not like he provided an accurate account of his smuggling operations to the authorities or anything. Pirates weren't big on the whole bookkeeping thing.
I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the earlier part of his career. He did end up helping Andrew Jackson defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, which was a pretty big deal. Sure, the war was over at that point, but nobody had iPhones in those days, so news tended to travel slowly. The British attacked, and Lafitte and his men were crucial to Jackson’s victory.
If the British had taken New Orleans, they likely would’ve stayed and cut off western expansion from the United States, which would make America a very different place today. So that’s something.
But then Congress passed the Act of 1818, which forbade importing new slaves into the country, which is what ultimately led to Jean Lafitte becoming a full time slave trader.
The new law had a handy loophole for Lafitte that gave him permission to capture any slave ship on the open sea. The slaves were then to be turned over to the customs office and sold, with half the profits going to the people who turned them in.
So that’s what Lafitte did. He captured slave ships, then turned them in for a profit. But he didn’t stop there. After turning them in, he’d work with different smugglers - including Jim Bowie - who’d buy the slaves at a discounted price, which suddenly made the illegally imported slaves legal to be sold across the South, which is what Lafitte and his smugglers did. They captured slave ships, turned them in, then bought them cheap (giving themselves half the profit, because of the law), then they'd turn around and sell them again. Legally. It was a double-dipping scheme that was as lucrative as it was terrible.
And that’s pretty much the end of Jean Lafitte’s story.
He started as a smuggler, then became a pirate who occasionally trafficked in slaves, before eventually turning into a full time slaver until he was ousted from his base on Galveston Island in 1821. After that, he moved his operations to Cuba before he was eventually killed after trying to take a couple of Spanish ships off the coast of Honduras.
So, yeah. Jean Lafitte? Not such a good guy.
Then again, history is filled with people who were kind of awful, because it’s history. As a species, humanity has always been on a slow path away from being horrible to each other, so the past is always going to look worse than today. (In theory, anyway. Sometimes, people forget that we’re supposed to be moving forward.)
Can we judge Lafitte based primarily on his dealings with the slave trade? Yeah, I think we can. Kind of.
When someone commits murder, we don’t talk about all the good they did in their lives before they killed someone. We just call them a murderer, and lock them away. And the same goes for everyone else. We’re defined by our worst qualities, not our best.
Which is how is should be.
But it’s hard when you try to apply modern sensibilities to historical figures. All of our country’s Founding Fathers were slave owners. The United States itself was built on the backs of slaves, with the South being entirely dependent upon treating human beings like property.
It’s not something we can fix, but it’s also not something we should ignore.
Which is kind of the whole problem with Contraband Days.
It’s not that the festival celebrates Lafitte’s history with slavery. In fact, it seems to me like it’s trying really hard to make the festival all about those mythical fun-loving pirates we all like to pretend existed. And that’s fine. That’s what the festival should do.
But the problem with Contraband Days isn’t what it is doing. It’s what it isn't.
The festival organizers need to acknowledge Lafitte’s darker past. Own up to it, put it on display, and educate people who come to the festival. The past wasn’t all happy, happy fun times. It was bleak and hard and pretty miserable for everyone - especially those who were bought and sold into bondage.
I think, if they did that, then people would feel more comfortable with the festival. I know I would.
Then again, there’s a lot of confusion out there about who Lafitte was and what he did or didn’t do. I’ve been talking to people about it, and I’ve heard a lot of misinformation going around. I think it's important that people not be upset about the wrong things.
The biggest bit of confused history involves Lafitte and Juneteenth, which is the holiday celebrating the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. After the Civil War was over and slavery was abolished in every state, the news of their freedom took time to reach slaves in the Deep South.
Juneteenth celebrates when the news finally arrived in Texas, delivered by General Gordon Granger to the people of Galveston. The common misconception is that the slaves on the island belonged to Lafitte, and that he'd stashed them there at his base as part of his double-dipping slave trading scheme. This would be a really good reason to not want to celebrate Jean Lafitte, since stashing slaves on an island and purposefully not telling them they'd been freed would be a pretty unforgivable sin - even in the context of history.
The problem is, Lafitte had nothing to do with any of it. Any slaves he’d directly smuggled and housed at his base on the island were long since gone by the end of the Civil War. In fact, they were long gone before the war even stated. Lafitte died in 1823. Juneteenth happened over four decades later, on June 18, 1865.
The other major point of confusion is with the word Contraband itself. Yes, it did refer to the slaves Lafitte captured, smuggled, and sold. But it also referred to anything he captured as a pirate. Any goods illegally obtained were labeled contraband, not just slaves. It also included silk, spices, furniture, medicine, etc…
There are lots of fun legends about Lafitte's buried treasure, which is what I think Contraband Days is going for. And that's fine. Buried pirate treasure is perfectly harmless, and the idea that there could be all sorts of sea chests buried somewhere in the area is intriguing.
The idea that the word Contraband refers only to Lafitte’s slave trading just isn’t true.
But does it have to be?
If the word itself conjures up images of the country’s awful history with slavery, then why use it? If people hear the word and immediately see it as referring to people, then what's the point? After all, the swastika has a long history that predates Hitler's terrible use of the it, but no one sees an ancient religious symbol when they look at the thing. We see what it became, not what it once was.
The same goes for Contraband.
Wouldn’t everyone be better served by just calling it The Louisiana Pirate Festival?
Keep Jean Lafitte - he was an important person. He did bad things, but in the context of his time, they were normal things. It’s impossible to project our modern values onto people of the past. All we can do is learn from their mistakes, and grow to become a better society because of it.
We don’t have to celebrate his connections to slavery to celebrate the man as a historical figure who, quite literally, changed the fate of America by defeating the British in New Orleans. We wouldn’t even have a Lake Charles today, if not for him. We wouldn’t have anything west of the Mississippi, in fact. We owe him our respect for that much.
But we shouldn’t forget the other things he did, either.
I want to be excited about the Pirate Festival. I just don’t want to call it Contraband Days, nor do I want to pretend that the darker parts of history never happened.
I think a lot of other people probably feel the same way.
Dear Contraband Days,
Change the name.
Remember the past.
We’re all in this together.
UPDATE: I took the family out to Contraband Days to check it out for myself last year, and we discovered that it's basically a small carnival with sometimes pirates. My kid had a lot of fun catching beads and coins from the two floats that made up the "parade", but other than that, there was a conspicuous lack of piracy at the Pirate Festival, unless you count all the women walking around in revealing costumes and 8-inch heels of questionable historical accuracy.
The carnival and the rest of the festival (the stage, the Buccaneers, etc...) are separated by a corridor of food vendors selling typical fair food, which is nice because I like a little fried everything with my fried everything. It also serves as a sort of DMZ between kids riding rides at the carnival and adults getting wasted by the stage.
If you're going with kids, or if you just don't want to risk seeing terrible things your delicate human eyes will never be able to unsee, then go early (or wait until the carnival-only week). Because when the sun goes down, the party people come out. And by party people, I pretty much mean the cast of Trailer Park Boys and Joe Dirt get together to have a drunken dance off and see who can yell WOOOOOOOOOOO! the loudest until somebody throws the first punch. Basically, the whole thing sort of turns into that sleazy motel from Breaking Bad where Uncle Hank tries to scare Walter Jr. straight, except with pirates instead of meth-heads. Or maybe both.
All in all, it was a nice little carnival while the sun was up. We just called it the Pirate Festival though, because after I told my 9-year-old about Jean Lafitte and what the word "contraband" means to a lot of people, he flat-out refused to go unless we changed the name ourselves. So we did.
And so should they.
It seems like they might be listening, too. Admission is free for the 60th anniversary in 2017, and the "contraband" part of the festival has been condensed down to just four days this year, with all events and entertainment starting on May 4th and wrapping up on the 7th. After that, the Todd Armstrong carnival rides will stick around from May 8th through the 14th.
If you're going with kids or just want to enjoy the carnival without all of the baggage that comes with the festival itself, I recommend either going during the day or waiting until the second week (May 8-14), when it's just the carnival.
It's a good first step.