One of the things I do since I retired from Philadelphia's Temple University in 1991 is lecture on cruise ships. My signature talk is the 50-century-old history of piracy, whose practitioners I call the Seafaring Gangsters of the World.
A few weeks before my first gig, I sent a draft of the talk to my history-buff sister, Phyllis. She liked it, but she was very unhappy that I had not mentioned Jean Lafitte.
I told her I didn't include him because, except for two famous bisexual female pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny, I intended to deal with the economics, the sociology and the politics of piracy.
She said I simply had to talk about Lafitte because he was unique. He was a Sephardi Jew, as was his first wife, who was born in the Danish Virgin Islands.
In his prime, Lafitte ran not just one pirate sloop but a whole fleet of them simultaneously. He even bought a blacksmith shop in New Orleans, which he used as a front for fencing pirate loot. And he was one of the few buccaneers who didn't die in battle, in prison or on the gallows.
Though I didn't lecture about Lafitte at first, a circumstance of serendipity has made me do so ever since.
I was flying to Norfolk, Virginia. The man in the seat next to me wore a skullcap, and he began chatting with me in Gallic-accented English.Though born in France, the friendly passenger now lives in Switzerland.
We quickly established that we were both Jewish and that both of us had taught in Israel. Then we had the following conversation:
"What are you doing on this plane?" I asked.
"I'm a mathematician. I work for an American company and I'm flying to Norfolk today because it has the US Navy's largest naval base and my company is trying to get a Navy contract. Now, what are you doing on this plane?"
"My wife and I are picking up a cruise ship in Norfolk."
"Taking a vacation?"
"Not entirely. I'll be giving lectures on the ship, as many in fact as there are full days at sea."
"What do you lecture about?"
"Cruise lines frown on controversial topics. I have talked about Israel once or twice. But I usually talk about Latin America, which is my second specialty, or the Panama Canal, or Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, or Prince Henry the Navigator, or Portuguese explorations after Prince Henry, or Alfred Thayer Mahan's belief in the supremacy of sea power, or the political economy of the 21st century, or the voyages of Captain Cook to the South Pacific. But I always begin a cruise with a lecture on pirates. The kids love it, and the old folks like it, too."
"Are you are going talk about Jean Lafitte?"
"No," and I repeated what my sister had told me.
He pulled out his wallet and handed me a business card. It had "Melvyn J. Lafitte" written on it. Then he said, "I could tell you that as we were chatting I printed this card on a nano-sized printing press hidden in my pocket. And of course, you wouldn't believe me. But the truth is that I am a direct descendant of Jean Lafitte. Your sister, Phyllis, is absolutely right.
"Our family, originally named Lefitto, lived in the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. When Ferdinand and Isabella reconquered Spain and expelled the Muslims and the Jews in 1492, most of the Jews fled to North Africa. Others went to the Balkans or to Greece and Turkey. But some Sephardi Jews, my ancestors among them, crossed the Pyrenees and settled in France, where Jean was born in about 1780. He moved to French Santo Domingo during the Napoleonic period. However, a slave rebellion forced him to flee to New Orleans. Eventually, he became a pirate, but he always called himself a privateer because that label has a more legal ring to it.
"In 1814, the British sought his aid in their pending attack on New Orleans," he continued. "However, he passed their plans to the Americans and helped General Andrew Jackson beat them in 1815. A grateful Jackson, not yet president, saw to it that Lafitte and his family became American citizens. And by the way, did you know that there is a town of Jean Lafitte, as well as a Jean Lafitte National Historical Park in Southwestern Louisiana?"
I was flabbergasted, not so much by the saga of Jean Lafitte as retold by a proud descendant, but by the fact that the two of us had met so coincidentally in the skies over Georgia.
Melvyn Lafitte lives in Geneva and I live in Portland, Oregon. These cities are 5,377 miles apart. Unlike him, I am mathematically challenged, so I don't know what the statistical probability is that a descendant of the Franco-Jewish-American pirate Jean Lafitte would board an airplane and sit next to me, as I was agonizing over whether to mention his famous ancestor in a forthcoming talk.