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In Congo Square: Colonial New Orleans | The Nation

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In Congo Square: Colonial New Orleans

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Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane UniversityThe Bamboula, circa 1880, depicting a dance ritual in Place Congo

About the Author

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro teaches geography and literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

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In 1682, the French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle set out from the Great Lakes and canoed down to the mouth of the Mississippi River, claiming its great watershed for Louis XIV. La Salle, a fur trader in Quebec more concerned with his own enrichment than with the crown's glory, returned to France and presented Louis with a false map showing the river's mouth close to Spain's silver mines in New Mexico, thereby winning the king's support to establish a colony. La Salle died before he could successfully set it up. But the French crown, competing with Britain and Spain for control of North America, sponsored a series of attempts to build a foothold in the marshy swamps of the Mississippi's delta.

It wasn't until 1718 that a French settlement of any permanence was established in the region. In that year, La Nouvelle-Orléans was founded adjacent to a centuries- old portage site, where the area's Houma and Choctaw people dragged canoes between the river and a large inland bay, across whose shallow waters lay the nearby Gulf of Mexico. The centerpiece of a colonial venture by which France's ruler, the Duc d'Orleans, hoped to enrich his treasury through a newly chartered Company of the Indies, his namesake city was laid out on ambitious lines. Willing settlers were scarce, though, and no riches were forthcoming.

Effectively abandoned by the French crown in 1731, the colony was governed from that time by local elites, its levee becoming a bustling free-for-all of traders peddling everything from Mississippi furs to Martinique sugar and Mexican ceramics and maize. New Orleans's reputation as a low swamp of race-mixing and sin was present from the start and--as Shannon Lee Dawdy shows in Building the Devil's Empire, her penetrating study of the colony's founding--cited frequently as the explanation for its "failure."

In French New Orleans, "smuggling not only helped fill the gaps of collapsed mercantilism," Dawdy writes, "it was the basis of the local political economy." Dawdy belabors this point throughout her book, which is slowed at times by bumpy prose, but she shows clearly how Nouvelle-Orléans--with its intra-American trade and tenuous ties to the metropole--became, by the 1740s, a self-consciously Creole place. (Here, she defines Creole as a person of European or African descent born in the New World, hewing to "the eighteenth-century Louisiana meaning of 'native born'"--as opposed to the later widespread use of the word to connote cultural mixing or hybridity.) That Creole identity informed France's decision to let the estranged colony go, as Louis XV handed it off to his cousin Carlos III and Spain, who in 1768 encountered a Creole revolt--a sign that this "rogue colony" (Dawdy's phrase) would not be an easy rule.

What is unique about New Orleans, as Ned Sublette recounts in The World That Made New Orleans, an absorbing history of the city's rise, is how its identity was shaped by three colonial eras in rapid succession. As Sublette traces in his brisk longue durée account of New Orleans's first century, the Spanish--whose era began in earnest a few months after the Creoles' revolt--brought with them new laws, a new language and a new influx of African slaves. In the event, the Creoles didn't do badly; intra-Caribbean trade remained their lifeblood. The colony's permanent population, fed by an influx of German planters, Spanish merchants and French Acadians expelled from British Canada, rose from some 2,500 in 1760 to more than 8,000 in 1800, transforming a dissolute town into a bustling small city.

By the century's last decades, New Orleans's growth was also sustained by a burgeoning traffic of wooden flatboats from upriver, as Anglo-American settlers poured into the western reaches of Virginia and Carolina (out of whose territory were carved the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1790s). As these "Kaintucks" began developing the lands abutting the Mississippi, river-borne trade became increasingly crucial to the American economy. That New Orleans would become a part of the United States began to appear inevitable, as Sublette shows. The manner in which this occurred, however, was anything but predictable, and was occasioned by the United States' entry into the kind of Great Power politics from which it had, in its revolutionary youth, claimed exception.

The story of New Orleans isn't merely rich with the enduring tensions of American history--between Old World and New, nation and federation, slavery and freedom. It is also in many ways at the center of American history: the city's acquisition was the midwife of American empire, and prompted the spread of a system of racial slavery whose rise led directly to one of our history's defining events--the Civil War. New Orleans--the "inevitable city on an impossible site," as one geographer memorably called it--has figured since 1803 not only as a crucial pivot of the US economy but also as an essential wellspring of its culture.

In the 1790s Spain was in decline as an imperial power, its Armada defeated, its treasury empty. Shortly after Napoleon Bonaparte took power in France, by coup d'état, in November 1799, King Carlos IV entered into secret negotiations to cede Louisiana back to the French. The agreement was made formal on October 1, 1800, in the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso. In March 1801, reports of Napoleon's secret acquisition reached the United States' newly elected Republican president, Thomas Jefferson. For Jefferson, the ownership of New Orleans by a weak Spain--whose governors had allowed US merchants to use the city for trade--was tolerable; the prospect of its falling to France, which was becoming the world's pre-eminent military power, was of grave concern. Jefferson conveyed to Napoleon that though the United States fondly desired peace, he would reluctantly go to war over New Orleans if necessary. Federalists like Alexander Hamilton urged Jefferson simply to take the city by force.

In early 1803 Jefferson made a last attempt to avoid war, directing his ambassador in France to attempt to purchase New Orleans for the United States. Jefferson also dispatched his protégé James Monroe to Europe on a mission "upon whose event," he wrote Monroe at the time, "depends the future destinies of this republic." If the purchase attempt failed, the Anglophobe Jefferson instructed Monroe, he was to continue on to London to seek a military alliance with the British (who could be expected to welcome the chance to counter their rival). Monroe went no further than Paris. Napoleon's representative stunned the Americans by offering not merely New Orleans but the entire Louisiana Territory--an immense tract of more than 500 million acres extending upriver to Canada and westward clear to the Rockies. The bargain price was 60 million francs ($15 million). Jefferson had effectively bought a third of the continent for 3 cents an acre.

The reason the inscrutable Napoleon proffered this "noble bargain" had its roots in his shifting strategy. Just months before, Napoleon had appeared intent on building a new French empire in America. However, the first step in his New World plan--to quell a slave revolution in the French Indies and retake the lucrative sugar colony of Saint-Domingue--had met with ruin. The force of 25,000 he'd dispatched to the Caribbean under his brother-in-law Charles LeClerc had made landfall in Saint-Domingue, and after LeClerc tricked the slaves' leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture, into a meeting, he took Toussaint captive (Toussaint would die in a French dungeon). When the colony's 500,000 blacks realized LeClerc's true intentions, and yellow fever began to rip through his ranks, his force was routed. (Early the next year, Toussaint's successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, would announce the founding of the independent Republic of Haiti.) Napoleon, it seems, had elected to cut his New World losses and focus his imperial eyes on Europe instead. Selling Louisiana provided necessary monies; it also headed off a prospective alliance between Britain and the United States.

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