It is evidently not known if Commodore Francois Reibaud was yet an amputee when the crew of a ship he owned was tried for piracy in New Orleans in 1826.
Reibaud, who was only 23 years old, was merely a spectator in the courtroom. But the prosecutor said Reibaud masterminded the crime.
The imputation incensed Reibaud, according to a 1941 article in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly. He leapt to his feet, rushed his accuser, and cried out, “Beware! I will kill you like a dog, you degenerate Frenchman.”
No blood was spilled, and no charges were filed against Reibaud, though the article says as owner of the pirate ship, “he was undoubtedly responsible” for the crew’s alleged criminal conduct. Eventually, he and the prosecutor became friends, the article adds.
Reibaud was linked to piracy again in 1841. Even so, the secessionist Republic of Yucatan in Mexico thought enough of the New Orleans native to offer him command of its navy. Reibaud accepted and eventually ended up Mexico’s consul-general in New Orleans, where he died in 1861 at age 58.
A large, 1847-vintage portrait of Reibaud – his name is sometimes spelled “Reybaud“ – hangs in an honored spot in New Orleans’ famous Cabildo, which houses the Louisiana State Museum. His right sleeve empty, Reibaud is depicted in the uniform of a Yucatan commodore.
“Reibaud,” according to the painting’s description, “had a colorful, if controversial career.”
At some point, he lost his right arm. Evidence of how and when apparently has disappeared.
Reibaud was born in New Orleans in 1803, the year France sold the Crescent City to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. He lived in the city’s storied French Quarter.
In 1826, the government of Columbia named Reibaud commander of a group of privateers battling the Spanish. Already, he was “a respected resident of New Orleans,… who married into a well-known Creole family,” the historical quarterly article explains.
One of his ships, the privateer Simon Bolivar, captained by “a bold and unscrupulous seaman,” was captured near New Orleans and its crew hauled into a local courtroom, according to the article. They were accused of seizing one ship and firing on another while trying to capture it.
“Luckily for him, Reybaud did not go along… and therefore no attempt was made subsequently to hale him into court,” the article says.
Nonetheless, the prosecutor declared that Reibaud should be in the dock, too.
“At one point, [he]…pointed a condemnatory finger at [Reibaud]…and accused him of being the real author of the offense under consideration,” the article says. “Actually, he had no share in the expedition, although he was unquestionably its promoter.”
After threatening the prosecutor, Reibaud left the courtroom. But Reibaud purportedly did not abandon his buccaneering ways. In 1841, the Louisiana Advertiser, a New Orleans newspaper, connected him with “acts of piracy and massacre” near La Balize, a settlement close to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
A rumor circulated in New Orleans that pirates had sunk the Charles and slaughtered its helpless passengers and crew. The editor of the Advertiser claimed Reibaud was captain of a “suspicious schooner” seen lurking near La Balize. He opined that Reibaud was capable of such a heinous crime because he had been tried for piracy in New Orleans, a reference to the 1826 trial of his men. “This former incident had no doubt led to the belief that the one-armed ‘tar’ had resumed his predatory habits,” wrote Henry C. Castellanos in his 1905 book, New Orleans as it was: Episodes of Louisiana Life.
The Charles was not a victim of piracy, according to Castellanos. The ship was lost, but after springing a leak. Another ship rescued the passengers and crew, the author added.
Meanwhile, eight of Reibaud’s New Orleans friends rushed to his defense, dashing off a letter to the editor of Le Courrier de la Louisiane, another city paper.
“The character of Captain Riebaud [sic] and the esteem entertained for him by all who have the pleasure of his acquaintance are sufficient to stamp this calumny as it deserves,” they wrote.
They claimed Reibaud “was never tried or accused in New Orleans, on any charge of crime or offence whatever [and]…that he does not command the schooner which has been mentioned in connection with the unfortunate affair of the Charles.”
The eight also said Reibaud was nowhere near La Balize when the crime was committed. He was in Merida, capital of Yucatan, then in rebellion against Mexico.
A decorated hero
Reibaud, according to the letter-writers, was amidst “men who have been acquainted with him for 20 years, who know how to appreciate his noble and chivalric mind, and who for the first time in Mexico have confided in a foreigner the administration of so important a branch of the government.”
The Courrier praised Reibaud, too. “…From his known energy, we may presume he will not be slow in taking measures to cripple the trade of Mexico,” the paper editorialized.
Meanwhile, Reibaud’s friends kept pouring it on the editor of the Advertiser.
“It is thus, when Captain Riebaud [sic] is about to reap the fruits of his honorable career, that he has been loaded with so odious and false a charge,” they concluded, predicting “…public opinion will do him justice.”
Reibaud became a decorated hero in Yucatan. He helped stave off a Mexican attack, thereby winning concessions from the Mexican government that paved the way for the province’s return to Mexico in 1843.
Eventually, trouble with Mexico brewed anew, and Yucatan reasserted its independence in 1845-1846. After remaining neutral in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, Yucatan rejoined Mexico for good in 1848.
Reibaud returned home as Mexico’s consul general. But the story of Reibaud’s earlier days “…illustrates picturesquely not only the operations of the New Orleans privateers, but also the regrettable state of public opinion in the city, which tolerated an amazing state of affairs and had no criticism to offer even of the most outrageous offenders against the laws of the land and the ordinary decencies of commerce,” the Louisiana Historical Quarterly article said.