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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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Though Jefferson viewed slavery as a "hideous evil" and believed its eventual extinguishment on American soil was desirable and inevitable, he was equally convinced that freed blacks could never live peaceably alongside whites; mass emancipation would have to be accompanied by mass repatriation to Africa or the West Indies. "We have the wolf by the ears," went his famous summation of the issue, "and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go." In declining to limit slavery in lower Louisiana, he privately argued that his treaty with France entailed respecting the "property rights" of existing residents, and also that "diffusing" the Chesapeake's dense concentration of Negroes into the new Southwest might lessen slavery's intensity, thereby hastening its demise. Less grandly, he hoped it might lessen the likelihood of Haiti-style conflagration in Virginia.

About the Author

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

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Sublette, for his part, argues that slavery's spread was "not an unintended consequence of territorial expansion but...devoutly desired by Jefferson's constituents." While this is certainly so, Sublette errs in placing slavery's spread near the core of Jefferson's aims in Louisiana, offering a caricatured portrait of Jefferson's venality and racism that does little to illuminate his actions in the context of his time. One of course empathizes with the aim to examine Jefferson "from the perspective of slavery"; in recent years, especially since the 1998 DNA study that all but proved Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, his hypocrisies have become well publicized. Yet depicting Jefferson as little more than a stooge for Southern interests is to simplify considerably. For one thing, his "diffusionist" stance had many Northern supporters. Moreover, his approach to Louisiana was governed, above all, by concerns of national security and expansion; his silence on slavery as president--however detestable--came from his reasoned belief that neither the Union nor his political career could survive federal intervention on the question of how and when the states should end the "peculiar institution" (all facts that, in any event, bolster rather than weaken arguments about slavery's intrinsic role in the political economy of the early Republic).

Flaws of historiography aside, Sublette's emphasis on what the Louisiana Purchase meant for the rise of a domestic slave trade is beyond debate. That trade, as detailed in crucial recent books by historians Walter Johnson (Soul by Soul, 1999) and Adam Rothman (Slave Country, 2005), enabled the spread of a Cotton Kingdom throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, accompanying the growth of America's slave population during the first half of the nineteenth century from 900,000 to nearly 4 million. The forced migration of hundreds of thousands of blacks, marched south from the Chesapeake in coffles or sailed south in boats around Florida to New Orleans, not only afforded the development of a society based on slave labor but made the value represented in slaves its essential form of capital. By the 1830s, Virginia field hands were fetching upward of $1,000 at market in New Orleans; light-skinned "fancy girls" as much as $7,000. Bought and borrowed against, mortgaged and sold, Negro slaves came to be seen as investments more secure even than land; their estimated cash value by 1860 (some $4 billion) would equal seven times the total US currency then in circulation.

It would be an overreach to suggest that such profits were foreseen by Jefferson's constituents and served as a key motive for the Purchase. That said, in 1804 Virginia's planters certainly knew that they stood to gain from sending surplus Negroes to market down south. And soon, a ban on importing new Africans guaranteed their share. On January 1, 1808, the trans-shipment of slaves from abroad to US ports was made a federal crime, thereby outlawing a traffic that, wrote Jefferson, "the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe." As so often before and after, Jefferson's moralizing belied its effect; ending the import trade spurred the homegrown one. This likely explains why the ban's 200th anniversary this year--as opposed to its widely commemorated British analogue in 2007--has been allowed to pass largely unnoticed. While the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 resulted from a popular movement of Quakers and others morally opposed to slavery, the American ban served to protect a domestic industry in buying and selling people--an industry of which New Orleans remained the vital center until the Civil War.

When New Orleans became a part of the United States, its acquisition made the inchoate Republic an imperial nation on the world stage. In the two centuries since--from the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, where the new Republic's old colonial master was defeated for a final time; to the Civil War; to Reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights and Katrina--the city has time and again been the site for some of our most dramatic reckonings with who we are as a nation. Once the largest city in the Confederacy, New Orleans has long depended on federal largesse: first a hundred miles upriver, where the immense works of the Army Corps of Engineers at Atchafalaya keep the Mississippi from changing course and not flowing past New Orleans at all; and second, at the edge of the city itself, where the Corps' levees are meant to keep this sinking metropolis from filling with water--a task, as the world knows, at which it tragically failed on August 29, 2005.

The traumas born of that day were in the first place personal, and counted in the thousands. For the larger community of New Orleans and its astonishing culture, however, the collective tragedy has been that so many of those scattered by the storm were the human carriers of that culture's stories, traditions and symbols. Not everyone, though, has left, and in a vivid coda to his narrative, Sublette offers a tableau of some who have stayed. On a cool Mardi Gras morning in February 2006, in St. Augustine's Church, the oldest black Catholic congregation in the country, he describes a krewe of Mardi Gras Indians--black men who, as has been the practice since the 1800s, don elaborately fashioned costumes whose beads and colors recall Africa but that are made to resemble the feathered headdresses of Sioux warrior fame (partly in homage, it is said, to the more proximate tribes with whom runaway slaves found refuge in Louisiana's swamps). "I'm the Big Chief of the Congo Nation!" bellows musician and krewe leader Donald Harrison Jr., just returned from months living in a Baton Rouge motel, as he leads his troupe, Congo Nation, from the church. "And on Mardi Gras Day I cause the sensation!" When Congo Nation encounters a rival krewe on the street, its refrain, like that of all the Indians, is, "We won't bow down"--an ethos in which Sublette hears New Orleans's refusal to cooperate in its own erasure, its people continuing still to "rock the city with their Congo dances."

And yet what is important about this city, and about such "only in New Orleans" traditions as the Mardi Gras Indians, is not merely what they recall from the past--be that past Kongo, French, Spanish, Houma or Haitian--but what makes them quintessentially American: as living stories about how people from those cultures and their descendants have reconciled themselves to this place, and to one another, to make something new. In the history of New Orleans--where in key ways the American empire was born and where, in the ongoing disaster since Katrina, many have seen a marker of its current fall--lies in microcosm a tale about the entire New World. It remains a test of our nation, and of a new administration in Washington, to make New Orleans anew once more.

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