Book Review, Guest Post, History

Book Review by Seawriter: An Historian’s Search for Truth

In which my friend Seawriter calls his own number.

My new book hits the bookstores today: The Vanished Texas Coast. (You can get it at Amazon or Arcadia Publishing if you cannot find it in your local bookstore.) It is a collection of short essays about incidents in Texas maritime history, linked by the theme that they are all largely forgotten.

But they are all linked in a different way. They all represent a historian’s search for truth.

They are all supposed to be entertaining stories. I write popular history. Popular history is supposed to entertain. The problem with some popular history is that the authors never let facts get in the way of a good story. I cannot write history that way. I have to follow the facts, and lay out the story so it follows the facts, not the legend. I do not print the legend.

That shaped several of the chapters in my book.

Take Jean Lafitte. You cannot really do a survey of Texas maritime history and leave him out. He may be the most romantic figure in Texas maritime history. There are Lafitte societies. Novels written about the man. Novels written about the treasure he left buried (especially in Galveston).  And yet . . .

The real Jean Lafitte was not a terribly attractive man. He was not really the swashbuckling pirate of legend. Rather he made his fortune as a fence, buying and reselling the goods stolen by other pirates. (He was good at that.) He only dipped into actual piracy when he had no other choice. Actual piracy was dangerous and usually less remunerative than being a businessman.

He also made much of his money in a particularly nasty way – through slave trading. And he had a particularly cynical method of slave trading. He bought slaves cheap from pirates arriving at his Galveston base (which was then outside the US). He would then smuggle them across the border into Louisiana. Then he or an associate would inform Federal authorities a bunch of slaves had been smuggled across the border and where they could be found.

The Feds would sweep in and confiscate the slaves. (It was illegal to smuggle slaves from outside the US into the US.) But then the Federal government would auction off the slaves, just like they would auction any contraband smuggled into the US if it had been seized. By the way, the informer who  provided the information leading to the seizure got half the sale price.

The mathematics was simple. Lafitte bought slaves worth $1000 in the US for $100 in Galveston. Once seized, they would be sold at auction at US prices and Lafitte, as the informer got $500 for each slave – a $400 profit on his investment.

Better still, there was no risk. Had he sold the slaves in the US for full price they were still contraband. They could be seized by the Federal government and the money he got for selling the slaves could be seized. (Asset forfeiture is not new.)  But since the $500 he got was reward money, The slaves and money had been laundered through seizure by the Federal government.

It may have been clever and legal (well, except the part about bringing them into the US), but it was hardly dashing.

 The Wreck of Jean Lafitte’s Galveston Colony

And what about Lafitte’s fabled treasure buried in Galveston? Like I said, Lafitte was primarily a businessman. Businessmen do not bury money – whether in the ground or under their mattress. They invest it, so it can make more money. Lafitte and his brother banked their money so it could earn more money. Further, Lafitte took nearly a year abandoning his colony on Galveston. He had plenty of time to take any of his working capital with him.

Not a particularly noble story is it? Nor terribly romantic. Yet I think it is still an interesting story. So I printed the facts, not the legend in that chapter.

 Galveston’s Concrete Ship

Much of the rest of the book is like that, whether we are dealing with Cabeza de Vacca’s unheroic, yet fascinating adventures wandering Texas, La Salle’s misbegotten Texas colony, some Texas naval battles with unexpected outcomes, Galveston’s forgotten hurricane, or the Federal Governments inept attempt to build wooden and concrete freighters in World War I. It is not the legend, but I think you will find the facts fascinating. Truth really is stranger than fiction – and to me a lot more interesting.

I hope you buy it. More important, I hope you like it, if you do buy it.

“The Vanished Texas Coast,” by Mark Lardas, The History Press, 2021, 144 pages, $21.99 (Paperback) $12.99 (Kindle)

*Mark Lardas is an engineer, freelance writer, historian and model-maker living in Texas.  Mark posts on Ricochet as “Seawriter,” and is well-known for his regular and much appreciated reviews of books on all subjects.  Of his reviews, he says “I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review.”  His website is marklardas.com.

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