Dec/Jan 2008

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square

Tom Nawrocki


New Orleans has always been the most polyglot of American cities, with streets and landmarks named in a multitude of tongues (and even a little English); it is a place where stolid religiosity stands cheek by jowl with high lasciviousness. Ned Sublette’s latest book, The World That Made New Orleans, is a journey through the early days of the city—back to before it even was one—and an examination of the influence of each culture that successively dropped its wares on the Big Easy.

The first settlement at what is now New Orleans was a campsite established on the east bank of the Mississippi by Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville—a former fur trader up in Canada—in 1699, on, appropriately enough, Fat Tuesday. Though the transplanted trappers enslaved Native Ameri­can girls, that didn’t satisfy their needs, and five years after Iberville’s landing, a shipment of twenty-two French girls arrived in Lou­isiana. The city’s bawdy roots run deep.

Back in France, Philippe II, duc d’Orleans, took over as regent in 1715 and, as one contemporaneous observer put it, “wasted an infinity of time with his family, his diversions, and his debauchery”; his normal day was from two o’clock in the afternoon (when he woke up) until five in the morning. “The town of New Orleans was named for him,” Sublette comments, “and has tried to keep his customary hours ever since.” Still, the swamps of southeastern Louisiana proved none too enticing for French citizens, so the government made the city a penal colony, rounding up assorted Gallic ne’er-do-wells and shipping them to America. The deportees included “160 prostitutes and 96 teenaged débauchées”; last time I was in New Orleans, the teenaged débauchées were still there.

In 1762, after losing the French and Indian War, France turned over the Louisiana Territory to Spain, though the deal was kept secret, even from the New Orleans citizenry, who awoke one morning to find themselves ruled by Spaniards. During this period, which lasted until Napoleon reacquired Louisiana in 1800, Acadians began flooding down from the Atlantic coast of Canada to become, eventually, Cajuns (in an emigration known as “le grand dérangement”), and the slave trade increased, making New Orleans one of the most heavily African cities on the continent.

Americans, from the brand-new United States, were one of the final groups to arrive. Kentucky was a popular jumping-off point for traders bringing crops on flatboats; once they reached New Orleans, the flatboats could be broken up and used for housing stock, and many of the traders likewise stayed, since it was a thirty-five-day walk back to Kentucky. Then there were the rebellious slaves from places like Virginia, the “stubborn and the vicious” of whom were sent to Louisiana sugar plantations as punishment. New Orleans’s reputation as a haven for social outcasts is very long-lived.

The last group Sublette traces came from Saint-Domingue by way of Cuba, displaced first by the Haitian Revolution, then by France’s takeover of the Spanish throne in 1809, which caused Spanish-speaking Havana to expel its Francophone émigrés. They were composed almost equally of whites, slaves, and free people of color, and they nearly doubled the city’s population.

At each juncture, Sublette, whose previous book was Cuba and Its Music (2004), considers new ethnic contributions to the city’s musical and dance culture, particularly by the slaves and free people of color celebrating every Sunday in Congo Square. The book ends in the early nineteenth century, shortly after the last-ever slave ship deposited its human cargo on US shores. Amazingly, this most American of cities was already both the quintessential melting pot and hugely distinct from the rest of the nation, and had been even before there was a United States.

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