Smuggling Spice in Louisiana

smuggle |ˈsməgəl|verb [ with obj. ]

move (goods) illegally into or out of a country: he’s been smuggling cigarettes from Gibraltar into Spain | (as noun smuggling) : cocaine smuggling has increased alarmingly.

In the 18th Century, in the Western Hemisphere, and specifically in the so-called “Atlantic World”, smuggling was a way of life, and the hypothesis brought forward here is that, for all intents and purposes, it was normal in the Atlantic marketplaces, and this includes the market at New Orleans.

New Orleans sits at the geographical apex of the colonial trade networks of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, it was the link between these networks and the North American continent. It served as the exchange depot between the continent and the Atlantic empires of Spain, France, and the Netherlands ( and to a limited extent, the British, as well). When combined with the history, legends and stories of the piratical activity of the Lafitte brothers at the turn of the nineteenth century, these facts would seem to indicate that the New Orleans market was a smuggling capital of the Gulf/Caribbean region throughout the 1700’s. This essay will attempt to build the case for smuggling in general and more specifically of foodstuffs into and out of the New Orleans market. The time frame is limited to the French colonial period, officially 1718 to 1763 in New Orleans itself, but extended to 1699 – 1770 and to the lower Louisiana colony. It seeks to determine, as completely as possible, both the verifiable and the probable contents of a typical Creole pantry in French New Orleans. As will be shown, there are numerous foodstuffs and ingredients that can be verified in the kitchens of the colonial capital. Available historical records are replete with reference to various protein sources (meats, fish, eggs, nuts, cheese), and grains (maize, rice, wheat flour, etc.), and fruit ( oranges, pineapple, grapes, plums). They are less helpful in referring to vegetables which they tend not to specify, referring to them as generic “vegetables”. And even less so to herbs and spices – which are perhaps the defining flavors of New Orleans’ cuisine. Items of specific interest in this study are Tomatoes, Pepper varieties, clarification of garden vegetables, and spices available through world trade.

Without question, the most famous smugglers/pirates in Louisiana history were the Lafitte brothers, Pierre and Jean. While certainly part of the history of French Louisiana, their activity in Barataria, Lafourche, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans post-dates the chronology of this work. Nevertheless, while the brothers Lafitte brought notoriety, a certain acceptance, economic and organizational refinement, and great profitability to Gulf Coast piracy and smuggling, they did not invent it. They inherited it.  What they inherited is the matter of this essay. A brief excerpt from Lyle Saxon’s “Lafitte, the Pirate” best sums up this legacy.

“For 50 years before Lafitte saw it {in 1810} men and women had been living on Grand Isle and there were a cluster of houses half buried in the rank undergrowth.

Smuggling was only a part of the Islanders lives, for they were also trappers and fisherman, their luggers made the long journey to the New Orleans market over and over again ,carrying loads of fish and shrimp and oysters. They knew these curving bayous as the average city dweller knows the streets between his home and his office. The reedy labyrinths of Barataria held no mysteries for them. They had learned 100 hiding places for themselves and their boats in the vicinity of the city and when their luggers were loaded with contraband goods rather than with fish, they felt safe from pursuit or attack

For nearly 50 years than they had pursued their dual interests {smuggling and fishing}

. . .  it was an accepted thing . . .  “                       pp. 40-41

“The Pirates vessels’ brought in shipload after shipload of captured slaves to the harbor at Barataria; and the terrified savages ladened with chains, with dragged into the barracoon.

Prior to 1810,  . . . the smugglers had bought their slaves from Cuban slave traders. But under Lafitte’s regime a simpler and more direct method of supply was arranged. Nowadays the ships from Barataria went well armed and well man ned. They lay in wait off the Cuban coasts, and intercepted the slave ships as they came from Africa. Instead of buying the cargoes they stole them, and frequently burnt or scuttled the ships. Or sometimes the vessel with its cargo, but oddly empty of crew, was brought back to Grande Terre. And all of this in the name of Spanish prizes

This kind of “purchase”- as the corsairs called it – had double advantage: the slaves cost nothing, and the long voyage to Africa was a eliminated.  Then to, with Lafitte’s powerful connections in New Orleans, the slaves were easily sold.

Other richly laden prize vessels were brought into port : merchantmen, their holds filled with silks and spices from India . . .  At one time Lafitte’s storehouse was filled with goods of English manufacture. All this of course from Spanish vessels . . .  or so it was said. “                page 46

Saxon, Lyle. Lafitte the Pirate.

Two items of note may be drawn from this description. First, the dating of “organized” smuggling in the New Orleans region back to 1760. Second, the mention of specific merchandise, other than slaves, which were the stock of the smugglers, namely “holds filled with silks and spices from India”.

The Lafitte brothers not only assumed control over most of SE Louisiana’s smuggling activities, more importantly they came into the acquired knowledge of decades of exploration and exploitation of the watery pathways and passes to and from New Orleans and the Gulf. Legitimate trade and travel passed up the Mississippi from the government post at the Balize to the city and beyond as well as the now established passage through Lake Pontchartrain and Bayou Ste. Jean to the city’s back doors. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Carondelet Canal allowed water passage for trade and travel up to the walls of the city. The Lafittes’ predecessors meanwhile, had during the eighteenth century, established tradeways beyond the ken of the French or Spanish authorities from the islands of Barataria Bay and the mouths of Bayou LaFourche. Traveling up LaFourche from the Gulf to its Mississippi source at Lafourche-des-Chitimachas (now Donaldsonville, LA) was relatively a straight shot. There had been a settlement there since before the arrival of the French in 1699. Europeans moved in in the 1750’s and ’60’s. The other passage, up through the swamps from Barataria Bay to the river bank opposite today’s Audubon Park was somewhat more tricky.

These maps show the route through Barataria Bay to Bay Dogris, then up Bayou Perot into Lake Salvador. At the northern end of this lake is the outlet to Bayou Segnette which takes one to the river and the modern town of Westwego. Bayou Segnette is amplified on the detail map below.Smuggling Route from Gulf to New Orleans

Bayou Segnette map
Bayou Segnette

Prior to the Lafitte’s activity in the early 1800’s, there is evidence that these routes had been well established by the 1750’s. While there are no prior records – smugglers rarely keep books – there is no reason not to suppose that as soon as New Orleans was able to receive travelers and trade, someone from the coast was willing to supply the markets. The following remarks by two later scholars would seem to settle this question of the existence of a thriving smuggling economy in French Colonial Louisiana.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, especially among the Spanish and French colonies (less so with the British and Dutch) “ . . . The American colonies were chronically short of hard currency. Existing for the benefit of the mother countries, they were . . . not supposed to develop their own commerce with each other. The colonists would have starved if they had followed the European’s rules. Almost everything they needed had to imported. But they were only allowed to buy their supplies from vendors (approved by the mother state) at a high price . . . “

“With the Caribbean “a Spanish lake”,  . . . The only ways for the other nations of Europe to participate in New World commerce were through contraband, which became a way of life for the colonists early on, and through piracy. The colonists developed methods of conducting local business by barter, and traded with forbidden ships that were floating bazaars.”

“Santo Domingo withered from inattention . . . as Havana rose in importance. Contrabandists of various flags came to La Española’s north coast (Hispanolia), firing their cannons to alert the locals to come and trade. Buying up salted meat and hides, they drove up the price of beef in Santo Domingo. Worse, a cargo was intercepted of three hundred Bibles. Lutheran Bibles. The archbishop was alarmed; no Protestants were permitted in the New World.”

“Madrid’s response to loss of control over La Española was a spectacularly ill-advised order in 1605 to depopulate much of it, withdrawing the population to an area around the {capital}. . . . The entire northern coast of the island, and all of the west, was left unoccupied.

The pirates moved in.”    From Sublette, pp. 26-27.

“In September, 1714, it seems, a vessel bearing a permit from the governor of St. Domingue came to Mobile for “repairs” after encountering a storm. There is no record of any trading transactions, but “disabled by a storm” was so common a pretext for illicit traffic that the statement at once makes one suspicious.”

The Crozat regime tried to prevent unauthorized trade with the colony but this only “increased the popular ill-will because of the great need at the time of foodstuffs. Early in 1716 a request for {food} was sent to St. Domingue.” Some supplies were sent including rice, brandy, and wine, but at exorbitant prices. The regime then tried to establish St. Domingue as a “general depot of food supplies for the province (of Louisiana). Nothing was done with the suggestion and smuggling seems to have become more common than ever.  . . . In September, 1716, {even} Bienville on his own account sold 800 deerskins at four reaux each and a considerable amount of lumber. . . . {the regime} refused to alter the conditions that had caused the development of an illicit traffic, therefore they were unable to suppress it.”

From Miller-Surrey, pp. 370-371

Having thus established that smuggling was indeed commonplace and and often an almost invisible part of everyday commerce in French, Spanish, and British America during the 18th Century; it now becomes our task to demonstrate what food, and especially spices and vegetables, were part of the Gulf/Caribbean trade networks in the 1700’s.

{To Be Continued . . . } Meanwhile check out


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