New Orleans and the world that made it

Yesterday I finished The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette, a history of the first hundred years of the Crescent City, from its founding in 1718 through 1818.  It was a topic I went seeking out, I freely admit, because I’d been playing Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, which is set in New Orleans in the 1760s and has as its hero a femme de couleur libre.

worldthatmadeneworleansSublette opens his book by telling us that it’s “not about music per se, but music will be a constant presence in it, the way it is in New Orleans.”  This if anything understates the presence of music in the book, which shouldn’t be surprising for a city that has for two hundred years been known for the vibrancy, uniqueness and Africanness of its musical traditions (just like its religious and cultural traditions), through which it birthed the art form that is modern American music.  The book definitely comes across as a work written by someone who was brought to the history through a love of the music, rather than someone who was brought to the music through a love of the history; but as such, it gives you a perspective on the history of New Orleans that’s absolutely necessary and couldn’t have been achieved the other way around.  Sublette occasionally assumes that his readers will find a certain specific commonality between the musical/dancing traditions of New Orleans and Trinidad, or Cuba and Guadeloupe, as prima facie fascinating as he does, but that’s a small price to pay for that.

(The other small price to pay is Sublette’s insistence on referring to foreign monarchs by their names translated into their own national languages, even for those monarchs who are known in English only by their English-language names.  So he refers to Felipe II of Spain, not Philip of Spain, and to Carlos III, not Charles III, making it tough to follow the fact that he’s talking about individuals who already have established names and identities in English-language historiography.  Maybe he worked for NBC during the 2006 Winter Games.)

(No, I’m never going to let that go, NBC.  We speak English, so we call the city Turin.)

The book’s title is an accurate one—this is a book about the world that made New Orleans, and as much time is spent on history elsewhere as is spent on the city itself.  This could well be because, for most of its first century, New Orleans was a small, distant outpost, and there wouldn’t be much more with which to fill four hundred pages than there would be for a history of the first century of Charleston, South Carolina, or Bridgetown, Barbados.  So what we get instead are introductions to all the distant places and events that poured themselves into New Orleans and forged the city’s unique character.

There’s a chapter on French court life during the regency of the duc d’Orleans (during the childhood of Louis XV, the only French king ever to rule over New Orleans), since it was the duke who first sent French settlers to the mouth of the Mississippi and for whom their settlement was named.  There’s a chapter on life in prerevolutionary Haiti and a chapter on the revolution itself, which led so many refugees, eventually, to resettle in New Orleans—white men and the black slaves and mixed-race concubines they brought with them.  (Those chapters made me look forward to playing Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, whose hero is an escaped slave washed up on the shores of prerevolutionary St-Domingue.)  And when we get to 1803, there’s a chapter on Thomas Jefferson, architect of the Louisiana Purchase, and another on the booming American slave trade of which the Big Easy suddenly found itself the fulcrum.

These last two were the chapters that blew my mind.

First, Jefferson.  Sublette spends a chapter voicing, eloquently and incisively, exactly the same reaction I have whenever the morality or virtue or greatness of Thomas Jefferson is discussed.  Yes, Jefferson was the primary author of the most famous affirmation of political self-determination ever written.  Yes, he forcefully and repeatedly articulated that the only way for Americans to practise the freedom of religion that we hold so dear is for us to maintain a government that is wholly free from religion and entirely secular.  Yes, throughout his life he wrote against slavery and wrote of it as an evil that does harm to everyone it touches.

He also owned other human beings, his entire adult life.  He lived a life of leisure and comfort, made possible only by the labour (and lives and good health and children) he stole from them every day, a life in which he generated huge debts that he knew quite well would be paid by the breakup and sale of the families he owned after his death.  He raped at least one of his slaves.  (And yes, it is rape to have sex with a human being you own, full stop, and it deserves to be called out as such.  And the fact that the woman he raped was his dear deceased wife’s half-sister only makes it creepier.)  And through the Louisiana Purchase, as Sublette points out, not only did he significantly increase the extent of American slavery’s territorial grasp, but he gave the slave industry a crucial shot in the arm that was a major factor in allowing it to boom right up until the Civil War.

Whenever the moral hypocrisy of the man is pointed out, the first half of all that always gets brought up as if it somehow alleviates him of the moral responsibility of the second half.  I’ve never understood why that would be, and apparently neither has Sublette.  Rather, the second half negates whatever praise he might have earnt from the first.  Sublette explains at length why that is, and my original idea for this post was simply to transcribe the entire Jefferson chapter verbatim, until I considered, you know, the law.  (Also all that typing.)  So I’ll content myself with just two paragraphs:

No, we don’t know absolutely for certain if Master Tom did impregnate Sally or not.  If the matter were tried in a court of law, with a presumption of innocence and an expensive law firm to defend Jefferson (which is how a number of mainstream American historians seem to have seen their role in this case), we might have to let him off the hook for lack of definitive proof.  On the other hand, if he were a poor man with substantial circumstantial evidence against him and a public defender, he’d accept a plea bargain, the way some 95 percent of criminal cases in the United States are resolved now, and get off with a guilty plea and a reduced sentence.

But then, no one has accused Jefferson of a crime.  After all, you can do with your property as you like.

And so we come to the chapter on the American system of chattel slavery.  I’ve done a bit of research on slavery in the past few years, though (like most Americans) I still don’t know nearly as much about it as I should.  I do have it on my reading list to read a book devoted to the institution, but I haven’t got there yet; so it’s entirely possible (hell, even likely) that the points Sublette makes, which have significantly shifted how I looked at American slavery, are points that are very commonly made in the literature about it.

I did already know a few things.  I knew that both abolitionists and slavery advocates believed strongly that slavery had to continually expand in order to survive.  This means, for instance, that when Abraham Lincoln reassured the South that he did not want to abolish slavery, merely contain it within its present extent, both Lincoln and the slaveowners were well aware that that “containing” slavery was code for “condemn it to a slow, gasping death without the need for legislation”.  And I knew that, generally speaking, the American slave population expanded from the northern and eastern states of the South into the southern and western states.  And I knew that Congress forbade the slave trade—the importation of slaves from locations outside the United States—in 1808, the very earliest date allowed by the Constitution.

But I hadn’t put those three things together and carried them out to their logical extreme.  We all know—or we all should know—that Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 revitalised the American slave trade.  It industrialised the processing of cotton for its use in manufacturing, and so it vastly increased the demand for unprocessed cotton; and unprocessed cotton, because of the intensity of labour, miserable conditions and lack of education required to harvest it, is something that lends itself readily to slave labour.  Then, following close on the heels of the cotton gin was the Louisiana Purchase, opening up vast new lands to plantation cultivation, and therefore to the slave trade.

It’s easy, therefore, to see slavery and its hold on the South as an unfortunate accident of history—tragic, monstrous, criminal, but still also accidental.  Slavery, such an argument would go, only took such economic hold because it was needed to prop up the cotton industry, and it was to cotton that the Southern economy was dedicated.

But that ignores the facts.  Slavery very quickly became an industry in and of itself, an industry that was perpetuated just for its own sake.  Those plantations in Virginia and North Carolina and parts of Kentucky had been under cultivation for a hundred years—in the case of Virginia, two hundred.  Their soil was spent.  They could be more profitable planted with cotton than with tobacco, sure, thanks to the cotton gin; but they still wouldn’t be nearly as profitable as the cotton plantations in the virgin soil of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Arkansas.

But those new plantations presented an opportunity to the planters—to turn their existing slave populations into a source of profit, by using them as seed stock from which to breed the slaves who would fill up the new lands.  (Does that sound horrible and dehumanising?  Good.)  It’s not just that slavery thrived because it supported the thriving cotton industry; the cotton industry thrived because it supported the thriving slave industry.  We can talk of cotton plantations in Virginia and Carolina and Kentucky that operated on slave labour; but we might also talk of slave plantations that happened to grow cotton.  The cotton there was grown not as an end in itself, but as something for the slaves to do during the ten or fifteen years it took to raise a baby up into a saleable field hand.

That’s why slavery “needed always to expand in order to survive”; because as plantation lands filled up with slaves, their owners needed new, virgin lands opened up in which to sell their children.  That’s why Congress outlawed the importation of foreign blacks on literally the very first day allowed by the Constitution: because, like a tariff on foreign manufactures (the existence of which the Confederacy would denounce as being the other reason they were seceding), it kept the cost of the domestic good artificially high.  And that is why slave migration followed a basic north and east to west and south pattern: because slaveowners in the more settled regions were actively breeding slave populations who were always intended to be sold on down to newer plantations.  (In countless cases, the slaveowners were of course actively fathering parts of the population that they always intended to sell.)  We know that slave trading frequently caused the separation of families and we think their owners were monstrous for allowing this (the scene between Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti in Twelve Years a Slave touches on this), but we are perhaps less cognizant of the idea that many families were created so that they could then be broken up—so that their children, when they reached an age where they’d be capable of a full day’s work, could be loaded onto flatbottom boats in Wheeling or Louisville and floated thousands of miles downriver, to be displayed in a showroom and sold on an auction block.

The World That Made New Orleans has twenty-two chapters, and those are only two of them.  The book had its weaknesses, but on the whole I’m glad I read it—and I’m really glad I read those two chapters, because they’re going to inform how I look at their topics for a long time.


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