Zoltan Tasi, Unsplash

Pirates of New Orleans

17:49 July 22, 2015
By: Dionne Charlet

On January 8, 1815, local pirate Jean Lafitte made a bargain with Andrew Stonewall Jackson that won the Battle of New Orleans and propelled this “gentleman pirate” to historical stardom. Known for his kind treatment of captives and returning slightly-used ships to those from whom he’d “borrowed” them, Lafitte shines as an example for pirate enthusiasts and re-enactors today.

The annual Battle of New Orleans Celebration includes a re-enactment of the 1812 battle located near what is now Chalmette National Park. Volunteers camp at the site and recreate the historical events for public education and enjoyment. Rene Lazier, founder of the Louisiana Lafitte Society remarked, “Without Jean Lafitte’s contribution we would have lost the battle of New Orleans.”

Outside the re-enactment scene, there has been an explosion of pirate events and people walking around in pirate costumes during nontraditional costume days since the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise began.

“It had been so long since a worthwhile pirate movie had been out,” commented Jack Sparrow impersonator Arik Christopher. “The world was due for it, I think. Kids are still mesmerized by pirates, and not just Captain Jack. My favorite ride at Disney when I was a little kid was Pirates of the Caribbean, and that was long before Captain Jack Sparrow was dreamed up. The movie just added to what was already there.”

Johnny Depp would likely be impressed by his likeness looking back at him if he met Arik. Mr. Christopher began portraying Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp some years ago. Arik is the Official Captain Jack Sparrow of the USS KIDD Veteran’s Memorial in Baton Rouge and performs professionally for the Gulf Coast Renaissance Festival, Pensacola Renaissance Festival, the Ocean Springs Festival, and more.

Annual events have provided adult playgrounds for pirate enthusiasts across the state and nationwide for decades. From the 6-week-long Louisiana Renaissance Festival in Hammond to Contraband Day in Lake Charles, you could run into your neighbor, your banker, or your boss sporting a captain’s coat and breeches, knee boots, and a pistol.

“NOLA Pyrate Week,” per Seika Groves, “was originally conceived and developed in the heart of New Orleans by a small group of like-minded ‘Pyrates of the New World.’ We’ve taken all the fun and also made it meaningful. Throughout the 10 days, Pyrates give back to the city they love, volunteering with rebuilding projects like lowernine.org and raising funds for many others.”

I found footage of the Pyrates hard at work rebuilding, and I asked about the charity work the group performs. “When we first sat down to discuss the concept of NOLA Pyrate Week,” Seika began, “we wanted to work with a grassroots organization that would grow with us and our event. We researched a number of rebuilding organizations and decided that lowernine.org was the one to which we could offer the most assistance and be of benefit to.”

Krewe of Pirates, created in 2002 by founder Charles Duffy III, parades annually on Mardi Gras Day, complete with a ship on wheels armed with bead cannons. The Krewe first stops at Buffa’s, then promenades down Esplanade and makes their way to the R. (Arrrr!) Bar. KoP then breaches the Quarter and loots Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, Pirates Alley, and the Napoleon House. Final destination: the now traditional Battle of Jackson Square. “You can always know us by our toast and rallying cry,” exclaimed Duffy. “For everybody else, it’s just Tuesday!”

Blending of the pirate groups is commonplace. NOLA Krewe of Wenches’ Cher Groves (no relation to Seika) elaborated, “Although we might all be a part of different pirate krewes, we all share events and support each other in any way possible. After all we are one New Orleans and proud of it!”

Hold on—where do these pirates and wenches get these great costume pieces? Pirate costuming can be so much more than one-time-use costume shop finds. It is very feasible to create a pirate look from thrift store bargains in a single shopping trip. All you really need is a bandana, flowing shirt, vest, breeches or skirts and spats (cloth to cover your pants legs worn over your shoes to create the illusion of boots.) Voila! Instant pirate.

Historical garb is a way of life for some.  It is common to pick up your leather from a specialty merchant such as Second Skin. Captain’s coats are sold locally at Wicked New Orleans. 

Swashbuckling swordfights have enhanced the lore of the pirate. Randal Scott of The Duelists detailed two types of sword fighting that are relevant: stage combat and historical swordsmanship. “Stage combat” per Scott, “is creating sword fighting for performances that look real and look dangerous but are safe and choreographed. Historical swordsmanship is how swords are actually used as deadly weapons. What works in one context doesn’t work in the other. So if your interest is to perform a good show, then stage combat is what you want to learn. If what you really want is to learn how to use a sword, that is called martial arts and there are places you can go for that as well.”

Replica weapons to match the actual 18th century antique that Johnny Depp brandished as Captain Jack Sparrow are readily available online. Blacksmith Larry House of Dragon’s Watch Forge can create a one-of-a-kind pirate’s cutlass or saber to suit your tastes. “A cutlass was the favorite,” explained Larry, “as it is a short weapon and is good for close quarters. Sabers, commonly worn by naval officers, often came into the hands of pirates, who would use whatever weapons they stole.”

Randal Scott has performed pirate and Renaissance-festival themed shows for 20 years. The man has the physical features to prove it, and as far as Randal is concerned, “It’s all about the hair. The hair is always the highlight; I make every excuse not to wear the hat and not to wear the bandana.”

For those interested in historical costuming, Randal suggested seeking out people with experience. “Learn as much as you can,” he advised. “Take it one step at a time. A lot can be learned about character, improve, etc. As far as costumes, there are a lot of people who have done a lot of research and there are books readily available, so read up on your area of interest. There are museums that have historical costumes on display. Online forums and websites are available. There is an amazing wealth of information on this topic. You just have to find it and go get it.”

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