By Ned Sublette
Published by Lawrence Hill Books
Before reading Ned Sublette’s history of New Orleans, I only knew some of the outlines to the history of this unique city. As the title of this book states, in order to begin to understand the history of this city we need to look at a history of the world. In looking at this history we can see how the history of New Orleans has collided with the history of Haiti and Cuba.
We can begin this narrative with the silver the Spanish royalty ordered to be taken from the Americas. Gold and silver mined in Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia was shipped to Spain and then distributed throughout Europe.
The beginnings of New Orleans, Haiti, and Havana
On its way to Spain, Spanish vessels stopped in the port of Havana. Cuba also became a center for Spanish ship building. This meant that the Spanish cut down the native forests of Cuba to build and repair the ships used for this transport.
The Spanish colonies were so vast they were difficult to control. French buccaneers initially settled in the western part of the island of Hispaniola. These buccaneers along with pirates of other nations preyed on the Spanish ships loaded with precious metals.
After the Spanish took most of the gold and silver from their colonies, new commodities began to dominate international trade. The cultivation of sugar along with tobacco and coffee became the new sources of wealth in the world. The French colony of San Domingue became the most productive producer of sugar in the world. At that time, the revenue France received from her Caribbean colonies amounted to about 40% of her total income.
So, when the French established their colony in New Orleans in the early 1700s, both Havana and the French colony of San Domingue were thriving centers of commerce.
The initial idea for a settlement in New Orleans came from a French gambler by the name of John Law. Without any actual evidence, Law argued that there were vast quantities of precious metals in the area of New Orleans. After the French made substantial investments to fulfill Law’s pipedream, this initial enterprise went bankrupt.
During these first years of New Orleans, the French monarchy was having severe financial problems. This meant that the French didn’t see the development of New Orleans as a priority and the colonists needed to find ways of surviving on their own.
These colonists learned to grow rice from Africans they kidnapped and made into slaves. They also learned basic medical procedures from the Indians who lived in this area for thousands of years.
The French didn’t see much future in their colony in New Orleans and gave it to the Spanish who ruled the city for about 33 years. During this time New Orleans became a center for the trade of the United States because of its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River. One of the most lucrative aspects to this trade was the selling of human beings.
The history we didn’t learn in school
Ned Sublette mentions in his book that the history he learned in school wasn’t very good. He gives the following explanation as to one reason why the government of this country doesn’t want to teach children the real history of slavery in this part of the world.
“It’s embarrassing to have to explain what it consisted of. It gets into things we would prefer children not know about—middle-aged men fornicating with adolescent girls, women used for breeding purposes, children sired and sold, black men dehumanized, and families routinely shattered.”
Clearly those of us who have endured the so-called “American History” classes in high school never learned this part of the history of this country. In his history of New Orleans, Sublette gives us the facts informing us of this nation’s true history.
We can begin with the French colony of San Domingue. We have already seen how important this colony was to France. However, the wealth of this colony came directly from slaves who were virtually worked to death. A slave who worked in the cane fields was only expected to live for ten years.
In the history of slavery, there were several women who distinguished themselves in the struggle to abolish this horrendous institution. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were just two of these women. However, there were other women who defended slavery and not all these women were Caucasian.
In the French colony of San Domingue, there were thousand of mixed race women who were not slaves and lived as concubines. These women may have owned as many as 150,000 slaves in San Domingue. Most of these women, in no way opposed slavery.
In New Orleans Sublette quoted an eyewitness who commented on how graciously he was treated by one of these concubines. Then, he noticed how this concubine routinely carried whips. This eyewitness reported how this supposedly gracious concubine viciously beat one of her slaves.
Ned Sublette argued that one of the reasons why the confederate states waged war was to defend the fact that Caucasian men had the right to routinely rape Black women who were slaves. Even President Jefferson apparently fathered children from a slave he owned named Sally Hemings.
The revolution that created Haiti and made New Orleans a part of the United States
These were the conditions that led to the revolution that transformed the French colony of San Domingue into the nation of Haiti. This revolution was the only one in the history of the world where a government of slaves managed to maintain political power.
The initial response of the French to this revolution was one of horror. Clearly many people died in the revolution and there may have been numerous horror stories. However, The French who promoted the horror stories of the Haitian Revolution didn’t have a problem with the routine horror stories experienced by the slaves of their colony of San Domingue.
For this reason the revolutionary slave government initially supported the Spanish section of the island against the French. Then came the French Revolution, and the new revolutionary government outlawed slavery.
The new government of former slaves in San Domingue appreciated this change in policy and joined with France to take over the Spanish half of the island of Hispaniola. They also defeated an attempt by the British to take control of the island.
The new government in San Domingue then faced a civil war between the creoles in the south and the slave government led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in the north. The creoles had been loyal to the slave owners and they in no way wanted to be ruled by a government of slaves. For this reason they initially received support from France.
At that time the relatively new government of the United States was wary of the French presence in the area and President Adams gave support to the government of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Then, Thomas Jefferson was elected President. Ned Sublette argued that Jefferson was terrified of the slave rebellion in San Domingue. After all, the totality of the enormous wealth Jefferson enjoyed came from the labor of human beings he owned.
In France Napoleon came to power and reversed the gains of the revolution. Jefferson made a deal to aid Napoleon in an attempt to defeat the slave revolution. Napoleon sent a huge force of about 43,000 soldiers to reestablish slavery in the French colony. If he was successful he thought he could have used this force to overcome the government of the United States.
However, in his first decisive defeat, Napoleon lost the totality of his army to the army of former slaves. During the course of this war literally hundreds of thousands of former slaves lost their lives. This defeat caused Napoleon to sell his vast colony in North America to the government in Washington. This is how New Orleans became a part of the United States.
Looking at this history, I thought of a basic question that might start with the words “What if.” What if Napoleon, instead of going to war against the former slaves, had joined their cause?
We know that Toussaint L’Ouverture was thinking about establishing a movement that would attempt to do away with slavery throughout the hemisphere. Former slaves from San Domingue could have fought with the French armed forces to free the slaves held in bondage in this country. This armed force could also have formed an alliance with Indians who were in an active war aimed at preventing the theft of their homeland.
Had this path been advanced, clearly the history of the world might have been different. The reason why Napoleon never considered this path was because he was about bringing back the old relations that existed before the French Revolution. It was this act of sheer stupidity that led to his eventual downfall.
However, the Louisiana Purchase virtually doubled the size of the United States. This acquisition was paid for in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of former slaves who established the government of Haiti.
The Louisiana Purchase, the slave trade, the Civil War, and today’s New Orleans
The Louisiana Purchase opened up vast areas that would be used to cultivate cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco using slave labor. The biggest business in New Orleans became the sale of human beings into slavery. The production of cotton by slave labor marked the beginning of the industrial revolution that transformed the world.
These new vast areas of land were a bonanza for the slave trade. In those days, the only way for much of this land to have value was in slave labor camps. Therefore the price paid for slaves increased. The price paid for women were higher because they could give birth to children. Slave women continued to work during most of their pregnancy. Even President Thomas Jefferson spoke about why the price for slave women was higher.
As in all revolutions, the Haitian Revolution caused an exodus from the country. Initially many French slave owners went with their slaves to the eastern section of Spanish Cuba known as Oriente. Then, when Napoleon took control of Spain these French nationals were exiled from the island, and most went to New Orleans.
We should keep in mind that many of these French nationals were familiar some of the advancements of French culture. They were familiar with engineering, literature, as well as the arts. The former slave owners were also adamantly opposed to the abolition of slavery.
On the other had the slaves that came from Haiti knew about revolution as well as the music that came from the Congo in Africa. They joined with the slaves of New Orleans every Sunday in Congo Square and performed music that developed a unique sound.
When we think of the music of this country, from the blues, to jazz, to rock & roll, to rhythm & blues, and even country western, all this music has a connection to the Sunday gatherings at Congo Square that took place for over 100 years.
It took one of the most profound wars for the United States to abolish slavery. About 600,000 soldiers of the Confederacy and the Union armies perished. There might have been millions of casualties. When the Union army marched through South Carolina they destroyed literally every building they saw.
While the government abolished slavery, after the year 1877 the Ku Klux Klan effectively took power in the former slave states. The governments in those states took away citizenship rights of Black people with their Jim Crow laws.
Ned Sublette gives us a glimpse in his book of the Indian Clubs of present day New Orleans. The members of these clubs come from working class neighborhoods in the Black community.
They make elaborate costumes and march the streets in their neighborhoods playing the music that have been performed in the city for over a century. They don’t ask the police for permits to march and believe that this is their city. Looking at the history of New Orleans and the United States, it is clear that they have earned the right to march in the city that they and their ancestors created.