Gwendolyn Midlo Hall
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall discusses deep Louisiana history with Ned Sublette, as background for Afropop Worldwide’s Hip Deep program, The Fertile Crescent of Music: Haiti, Cuba and Louisiana. She spoke with Ned by remote hookup from New Orleans on July 1, 2005.
Dr. Hall is the author of the landmark work Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Louisiana State University Press, 1992),and the forthcoming Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). She has compiled a database of the identities of some 100,000 enslaved Louisianans.
NS: When you were getting started as a historian, what was the state of Louisiana historiography? How accurately was the history of Louisiana being told? And what did you feel needed to be done, and how has it changed in the intervening years?
GMH: Well, that’s an interesting question. It goes way back. I went to public school here. Historiography then was quite overtly racist. It has improved a bit over time. When I was in public school, the teachers spent about half their time pronouncing racist diatribes, and that was called education. The main theme was that blacks were all stupid, and uneducated, and violent, and dangerous, and that the only way to keep order and preserve the white race was to maintain very severe repression of blacks. So if I could put the history in a nutshell, that was about it. It had to improve from there.
NS: What did you feel needed to be done as you began your career as a historian?
GMH: Well, this was a very long process. I started studying history at Newcomb in Tulane. And I was getting racist history there, too – a bit more sophisticated, but not a whole lot different – to the point where I just got out of the field. I came back in Latin American history about fifteen years later. And the impression I had was that it was okay to be critical of Latin America but not of the United States. So I avoided U.S. history and studied Latin American history. Then, of course, I had mastered the two languages necessary for colonial U.S. history — French and Spanish — and I kind of snuck back into U.S. history via the Caribbean and Louisiana.
NS: Between going into Louisiana history and producing the work that became Africans in Colonial Louisiana, you had to go and unearth a great deal of material. Could you tell me a little about that process?
GMH: Part of the racist historiography was the state of denial that slaves even existed in colonial Louisiana, which was very interesting. Even the French historians wrote administrative histories of Louisiana and didn’t even mention slaves or slavery — there’s one that’s four volumes. I think my favorite story is that when I first started studying documents in Louisiana, I went into the Pointe Coupée courthouse, and the clerk of court came up and asked me what I wanted, rather protectively. I told him that I was studying slavery in 18th century Pointe Coupée, and he assured me that slavery did not exist in 18th century Pointe Coupée. Of course I knew better than that, but he was so sure, he went to get a 1745 census to show me that there were no slaves. And he brought the census, and the vast majority of the population were slaves! He didn’t realize it until he looked at it! And he was shocked.
And actually, French Louisiana has been somewhat glorified by historians. There’s this identification with France among people in Louisiana. And it’s – the French don’t identify with Louisiana, but the Louisianans identify with France.
NS: I was going to ask you about that, because it seems to me that what there is in Louisiana is less of a colonial heritage from France than an ideology of Frenchness.
GMH: Exactly. You put it perfectly.
NS: Could you explain a little to our listeners about the history of French colonization of Louisiana?
GMH: Well, the French colonization of Louisiana was extremely thin and not very effective. And very insecure. There was a serious attempt to bring French colonists over in the early 1720s. I’d say from about 1717 on, they brought French colonists. A lot of them, though, were forced laborers or army deserters. In other words, it was sort of like Australia, it was kind of a criminal colonization. Not that these people were necessarily criminals, but by French law they were – you know, like salt smugglers. And they brought women who misbehaved sexually. These people didn’t function very well in Louisiana, and the people who needed labor ended up by crying for Africans, and disaparaging the French workers, saying that they were just non-functional. So the colonization of Louisiana relied very, very heavily on Africans, including African knowledge of rice cultivation, indigo cultivation, navigation, waterways, shipping, construction, so that the technology came heavily from Africa. They went out of their way to get slaves who knew how to do this cultivation, because the French really didn’t know, and if they did they wouldn’t do it anyway.
The first ship that was sent to collect slaves in Africa – the first two ships – the captains were instructed to be sure to buy slaves who knew how to cultivate rice and barrels of rice seeds for cultivation. So there was this very conscious decision to do this. And indigo was not produced here until Africans arrived, and of course indigo was widely produced in the regions where most of the slaves were brought from.
NS: Where in Africa did these rice cultivators come from?
GMH: Greater Senegambia. That’s presently Senegal and the Sierra Leone area now. And this is a very old region where rice had been domesticated independently from the Asian variety and had been cultivated for millennia.
NS: And you discovered in your work that we have a very precise knowledge of what Africans were brought during the French colonial years, correct?
GMH: Yes, the French documentation on the slave trade to Louisiana is very, very unusually complete. So that they give details about where the ship went, and which ports, and how many slaves they collected, and how many slaves they landed live in Louisiana. So we know pretty precisely that two-thirds of the slaves during the French slave trade were brought directly from Senegal.
NS: And within that, the ethnicity of these Senegalese, we have some idea also of that, right?
GMH: Yes, we know that those who were collected near the coast were mainly Wolof, and those who were brought from the interior were mainly Bambara. It’s better to say Bamana, but anyway – that’s a long story, I don’t need to explain. But the Bamana were basically males, and the Wolof were heavily females, so that the basic population which was born in Louisiana probably were likely to have Wolof mothers and substantial numbers of Bamana fathers. And of course there was also intermarriage and intermating with native Americans. Of course, the whites also intermarried and intermated with native Americans and Africans. And there are a lot of white families – or rather, families who think they are pure white – who, if they go back in their genealogy a little bit, find out that they were descended from Africans and Indians as well. So Louisiana has always been a very mixed-up place. And I think that the main changes – positive changes – in looking at Louisiana history is the growing recognition that this was not strictly French culture in the colonial period. And even the Spanish period is pretty much neglected, because, as you say, France is somewhat glorified, maybe more than it should be.
NS: France basically abandoned the colony after 1731, right?
GMH: Well, “abandoned” in the sense that most of the French colonists left, and very few came, so that there was a majority of Africans in all of the French settlements in colonial Louisiana, so that French Louisiana was heavily African. And it remained heavily African during the Spanish period, although there were more European-type colonizers who were brought in during the Spanish period, but there was still a slight majority of Africans and their descendants – a slight majority of slaves, in fact. There were also some Native American slaves.
NS: One of the major points I get from reading Africans in Colonial Louisiana was that there was an Afro-Louisianan identity firmly established early on.
GMH: Yes, it was established through language and culture. And the language, of course, was Louisiana Creole, which arose in the first generation. And that’s normal; Creole languages do that, they are established very early, and then newcomers have to pretty much learn that language, although of course, all languages evolve. But Louisiana Creole had been established for a long time before there was any substantial immigration from Haiti. So that Haitian Kreyol and Louisiana Creole are fairly distinct languages. And you cannot attribute Louisiana Creole to Haitian Kreyol, which is often done.
NS: If an Afro-Louisianan culture was well-established from an early date, that also would necessarily have included music.
GMH: Yes. Now, unfortunately, at least from what I’ve seen, I’ve seen much less about music than what we would want. Just a few descriptions of dances and instruments and stuff like that in the documents, but not a lot.
NS: Even in the Spanish period, it seems as though there’s very little.
GMH: That’s true, from what I’ve seen. There’s not much information about music.
NS: When the Spanish came in as a result of changes following the Seven Years’ War, Louisiana was being run as an administrative department of Havana.
GMH: That’s right. It was run from Cuba. By the Captain General of Cuba.
NS: And this is at a time when in Cuba African importation has been thrown out, the asiento system is being discarded, and we’re seeing people from many different parts of Africa come into Cuba.
GMH: Well, that’s true in Louisiana as well. I think the year was 1782. As the U.S. War of Independence was coming to a close, Spain opened the slave trade to any friendly power, with no customs charged for slaves, and they didn’t even keep very careful records, because they didn’t have any money to collect. Yes, it was thrown open, and I have studied, though, the changes over time. In the Spanish period, there’s a continuous migration from the Bight of Benin, which is where you would get vodou from, and there’s a continuous migration from greater Senegambia, but there’s an increased migration from the Congo. And especially around New Orleans and then St. Charles Parish, it originates heavily from the Congo. After about – well, New Orleans shortly after the Spanish took over, the migration became heavily Congolese in New Orleans. Then, when the Americans took over, it remained heavily Congolese in New Orleans, but it also spread up to St. Charles, where the sugar industry was flourishing, in those two parishes. That explains, I think, the large numbers of Congolese people brought in.
NS: One thing we notice when we look at Louisiana history is, there’s a great deal of myth…
GMH: Oh, yes.
NS: …and a great deal of things that we surmise but we can’t really make the connection. The Spanish had all kinds of social institutions that were unique, especially in Cuba. For example, coartación.
GMH: Well, it was introduced into Louisiana as well, but slowly. At first they didn’t want to introduce it, but they did.
NS: Which created a class of free people of color, no?
GMH: Yes, but they had good reasons for doing that. Because the free people of color were used for military purposes and for social control. So that they made a distinction between slaves and former slaves who were free, and they made a distinction on the basis of color – in other words, blacks were inferior to mixed bloods. And so we had this whole conscious imposition of a hierarchy based on race and status in order to better maintain control in the society. So it’s a distinctive pattern which is still going strong in Louisiana.
GMH: Still, yes. It’s amazing.
NS: Is there any indication that we have that the Spanish introduced into New Orleans something that was basic to life in Cuba and was known in Spain as well, the cabildo system? Were there cabildos for blacks in Louisiana?
GMH: You’re speaking of the cabildos de naciones, right? Organizations which were recognized and even encouraged by the government based upon African ethnicities, right?
NS: Did those exist in New Orleans?
GMH: Not as far as we know, not formal ones, but there was an organized community of Mina in Louisiana, which I found in connection with the Mina conspiracy, and also the 1795 conspiracy against slavery. But there’s no indication in administrative records that they were officially recognized, whereas in Cuba they were quite strong and open, and they still have records of these cabildos. Cabildos were treated as corporate entities that could sue and be sued, and that collected money to help free their fellow countrymen.
NS: When slavery ended in Cuba, the cabildos were disbanded by order of the government, and many of them became social clubs, which is, so curiously, just about the time, as far as I know, that we start to see the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans.
GMH: Yes, this is very similar, and had the same function as the cabildos, which were kind of group self-help organizations, and functioned as insurance.
NS: Is there any way that we could trace the antecedents of the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs back farther, prior to the 1880s, to pre-Civil War days, or even Spanish times?
GMH: Well, if we could find some more hard-working historians! Maybe. Maybe! [Laughs] Because my work stops with 1820, although it’s going forward in time now, I don’t know if I told you. Southern University System asked me to come on board, and they hired me as a – how’s this for a title? – Distinguished Research Fellow. And they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to extend my database throughout the entire period of slavery in Louisiana, all times, all places, and I wanted to extend it to all parts of Latin America where they have information about African ethnicities of slaves. And they agreed to do that, and I’m working on doing it right now.
NS: I think perhaps this is the moment for you to tell us about your database.
GMH: Okay. Well, this is part of the story I started to tell you about going into the Pointe Coupée courthouse. Because that’s where I discovered all this information about African ethnicities. I looked through various types of documents, and I found an extraordinary amount of information about the ethnicities. Like, when a master died, they would list the slaves as part of the master’s property and describe them, just like they’d describe a chair or a table or a barn or a horse. And part of the descriptions was very often the ethnicity of the slave. From what I’ve studied, these were largely self-identified ethnicities, because every now and then I’d come across documents that say: we can’t indicate this slave’s ethnicity, because this slave does not know his ethnicity. So obviously they were asking them. And then in sales documents, we also found some descriptions, but even more interesting, when slaves were called into court to testify – and these usually involved people who had run away and been recaptured, or people who had been arrested for conspiracies and revolts against slavery. And they were sworn in, and very often when they were sworn in they were asked standard questions: What is your name? What is your age? What is your skill? Who was your master? What is your nation? And these are clearly self-identified nations.
So that finding all of this ethnicity information, provided by slaves who were not supposed to exist in the first place, I found quite fascinating. There was information about family relationships as well, illnesses, you know, a tremendous amount of information. And since I’m very bad at taking notes, I figured the only way I could do this intelligently would be by creating a database. Now this was over twenty years ago, and nobody was doing databases then. But fortunately, I had a colleague at Rutgers who showed me how to use a primitive database that worked on a portable computer. And I started doing that, and I used that database to construct parts of my book, Africans in Colonial Louisiana. But when the book was in press I applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities contract to extend the database to the entire Spanish period, and then after that to the entire American period as well. And so all together we worked on this for about five years, and we have every slave we could find in any document, recorded in this database, every slave through 1820. And of course since then it got a lot of attention. I never expected it to get any attention. Genealogists loved it, because I recorded all the names of everybody. Now the genealogists get very frustrated – some of them go back that far, but that’s a lot of work. A lot of them don’t go back that far, and can’t go back that far, and so there’s been a clamor.
NS: And genealogy is a large part of any library’s clientele.
GMH: Oh, indeed. In fact, when I was doing research in courthouses, I would never see historians, but I would see lot of genealogists. And sometimes it was be amusing, because there would be folks there who were lookin’ for their ancestors, and every now and then, somebody would ask me, “What does FMC mean?” And I’d say, “Free Man of Color.” And they almost fainted! Because they didn’t know that they had free people of color as ancestors. But now there is a tremendous move towards African American genealogy, and it’s really exploding.
NS: You had to go around from parish courthouse to parish courthouse to do this?
NS: Can you talk a little about that experience?
GMH: Very few people in these courthouses knew the value of the documents they had. And I would go in with a couple of researchers, and say, we want to see the old documents. And they said, “Oh, you can’t read that, that’s in French,” or, “You can’t read it, it’s in Spanish.” And I said, “Well, we do read the languages.” And so then they would very reluctantly let us look at them. Some of them were kept in very, very bad shape, but it varied according to the courthouse. I went into the Natchitoches courthouse and saw volumes of documents – I think one of them dated from 1735 – just sitting on the shelf, a bound volume, and I said to them, “You can’t leave this here. Put it in your safe. If somebody wants it, take it out. But don’t let people look at it unsupervised.” Because there are people who have just snatched documents out of the books.
NS: Sure, tear a page out!
GMH: Tear a page out! “Oh, that’s my ancestor!” Zip!
And apparently Africans in Colonial Louisiana upset some folks in Pointe Coupée, and there was an arson fire directed at the colonial documents. Four books were badly scorched. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities got funding to restore one of the volumes, and that was the volume with the testimony from the slaves involved in the 1795 conspiracy, so that volume has been restored. But in any case the Mormons had microfilmed all of this stuff, so that the actual data is not lost, but of course the documents themselves were scorched. Now, I think, that since my database got so much attention, and there was an article about it on the front page of the New York Times, and that really created quite a sensation, the clerks of court have become much more conscious of the value of the documents. And a lot of them are really proud of their documents, so there’s been a change for the better. More consciousness of the importance of these documents. And in Louisiana it’s better than anywhere, in terms of the value of the documents, because we have a notarial system in Louisiana. So a lot of documents which would be private papers, which people would keep in their safe or give to their kids or something like that, are public documents in Louisiana. So there are notaries who are obligated to file them, and who often put them in bound volumes, and take care of them and protect them, that’s their obligation. And they sit on the courthouse shelves.
NS: And free people of color in particular were heavy users of notaries, I should think, because they needed to be able to document what they owned.
GMH: Everybody was a heavy user of notaries. Especially in the Spanish period. The Spanish, you know, they loved documents. Not only that, but they charged for them. And so you have to document everything. You know, like now, if you buy a car you’ve got a title to the car. If you buy a house, you’ve got the title to the house. In the colonial period, you don’t keep your own house title, you have it all registered. You register all of your papers relating to slaves. When you buy a slave, it’s got to be in the notarial documents. When you sell a slave, likewise.
NS: And so you were able to put together a pretty complete picture of what happened in the Spanish era in terms of the slave population.
GMH: Yes. The French documents are beautiful, too. They vary in terms of how rich the information is from one time and place to the other. And the French – one thing that’s interesting is that, in the French period, because the slaves were introduced very suddenly and they were almost all Africans, right? And the Natchez revolt happened, some of the slaves co-operated with the Natchez. A tenth of the French population was wiped out, and these were highly skilled French. A lot of the French just left. And they left these slaves in a pretty powerful position, as slaves go, right? And they insisted that their family was sacred, and you don’t break up a family. You find very few slaves for sale in the French period. Interesting. But the French law provided that you could not sell a husband, wife, and/or their child under the age of 14 separately. They had to be sold together. And this was true of Haiti as well. But in Haiti they paid no attention to this at all. In Louisiana it was done. At least in the French period, it was done.
NS: When the French began bringing Africans to Louisiana, was this before Africans were being brought directly in ships to South Carolina? At that point were the Atlantic Coast slaves coming up from Barbados?
GMH: No, I think that the Louisiana slave trade, in terms of a shipload of slaves, the first ones didn’t arrive until 1719. And so there were shipments of slaves. Slave trade ships did arrive directly to South Carolina from Africa. The transshipment from Barbados, I think it may have been somewhat exaggerated, too, because a lot of the slaves did come directly from Africa. And they continued to come directly from Africa. And furthermore, ships that arrived from the Caribbean very often were newly arrived Africans, too. In other words, they may have just stopped in the Caribbean for refreshments and then the same ships went on. Or they were sold in the Caribbean, but to people from what is now the U.S. So a lot of slave owners sent their own ships to the Caribbean islands and bought slaves off ships as they arrived from Africa. So that the African population was very strong, throughout the United States, and it’s been understated because of an exaggeration. The idea that they were bringing in large numbers of Caribbean slaves is a big mistake, because they weren’t. They didn’t want Caribbean slaves.
NS: We have an interesting set of layers, looking at what might have built up the Afro-Louisianan culture. First, we have this fairly restricted population during the French period. That is, from only three places in Africa. Then in the Spanish period, we have this explosion of African ethnicities coming in.
GMH: Ehhhh, okay… now, you say, only three places in Africa? That’s a lot of places. Because you talk about African coasts, that’s very broad. Each coast is a very broad area, and there could be a variety of ethnicities coming from each coast. Although there were lots of ethnicities coming from different coasts, the pattern of the slave trade was such that they tended to be clustered by ethnicity in any case. And this is a complex issue which I deal with in my book that’s coming out in September. It deals with all of the Americas. It’s a very ambitious but short book. [Laughs]
They came in waves, for a number of reasons which I can’t go into here, because it’s too complicated. It requires a book to explain. But because there were more slaves – you say, three coasts? Okay. Greater Senegambia – that would be Senegal and what’s currently Sierra Leone. This doesn’t mean they were all different ethnicities. Because the same ethnicities were being shipped from both Senegal and the Sierra Leone region. In the case of West Central Africa, they were mainly Congolese. There were various groupings within the term “Congo,” but they were extremely closely related, in every respect – culturally, linguistically, and in every other way. And as far as the Bight of Benin is concerned, there’s a question of warfare. And this is probably true of Senegal as well. The ships did not just simply wander along the coast and collect any old body who they could find. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database establishes that ships came from almost entirely from one coast. Often they collected slaves at one port. And often the slaves were available because they had been captured in warfare, or they were villages raided in warfare. And these tended to be the same peoples. So that they did come in groups. And when you look at all of the ethnic descriptions of Africans throughout the Americas, there’s a relatively small number of African ethnicities that were brought to the Americas throughout time and space. So it’s not what it looks like.
NS: That said, the African panorama that came into Louisiana during the Spanish period changed the cultural picture, no?
GMH: Well, to some extent I’d say they were more heavily Congo than in the French period, although there were some Congo in the French period. But you still had this basic Greater Senegambian population which was, depending on how you counted, it could be close to half. And you had the Bight of Benin population, which was – in the parishes upriver from New Orleans, there were substantially more Bight of Benin slaves than Congo slaves. And then again, there’s clustering by region as well, and this has to do with preference among masters. Because the masters tended to bring in slaves from the same ethnicities that they already owned. And this is another myth. The myth is that they liked to mix up the slaves. They didn’t. Their plan was to bring in ethnicities who spoke the same language as the ethnicities they already had, and then the older slaves could be used to socialize the newcomers. So upriver from New Orleans, from the earliest time, evidently there was a substantial contingent of Africans from the Bight of Benin, and this was where voodoo would be coming from. And they continued to demand Africans from the Bight of Benin. So they sent their ships to the Caribbean as the slave ships arrived, and they would tell them which coasts they wanted slaves from, or which ethnicities. The captains were given orders. No Ibo! That was one order.
NS: How did this change, then, with the transfer of Louisiana to the United States?
GMH: Well, it didn’t change a lot except that the slave trade was then outlawed. So in theory, it was illegal to bring in foreign slaves once the United States took over Louisiana. In practice they were brought in en masse. And I know specifically which ethnicities were brought in after the U.S. took over, because I did age by ethnicity studies. From the database. It’s amazing the kind of questions you can pose to a statistical package.
NS: If one knows how to formulate the question.
GMH: Well, it’s easy, you know? I use SPSS, which is Statistical Package for the Social Sciences. And it’s set up in such a way that it’s very easy to ask questions and it’s very easy to select certain data that you get the answer about. So I asked the computer, between 1800 and 1820, which African ethnicities show up in the documents, and how old are they? And they often gave precise numeric ages. And you don’t see people getting older!
NS: And this is what’s on the web?
GMH: Yes, but you can’t do the calculations on that. You have to download the database. There is a file in SPSS that you can download directly if you’ve got SPSS software. And then you can ask them the same questions I did, or ask any questions you can think of. It does tell you, though, that among those slaves who are getting older, then this is telling you, no, they’re not smuggling these slaves in, because they’re superannuated, right? Whereas those who stay young – you know, those who get younger or their age is no more than two years higher, mean age, over 20 years, you know that they’re being introduced – that large numbers of them are being introduced, illegally.
NS: You discovered that large numbers continued to be introduced after 1808?
GMH: No, it was even before 1808. It was outlawed in Louisiana by 1804.
NS: 1808 was the cutoff date – specified in the Constitution, in fact –
GMH: For the U.S., but it was earlier in Louisiana. Because they were afraid, you know. I think there was a lot of fear of new Africans. The greatest fear of all was for Caribbeans. But new Africans were also feared.
NS: Then there was also a commercial motive, given the power of Virginia, to sell Americanized slaves from Virginia and Maryland down South.
GMH: Oh, that became tremendous business in the 19 th century.
NS: The slave-breeding industry…
GMH: Yes. That’s something else that needs to be databased, because there are shipping records giving great detail about slaves who were shipped from the east coast ports, all the way through 1860. Especially into New Orleans, but you can track them, you know, where they went from there, a few other ports, these were customs-house records of the United States, and they’re on microfilm. And so somebody needs to database that too.
NS: And that makes sense, because, as I understand it, the portion of the interstate slave trade that came by water mostly came to New Orleans and the portion that came overland went to Natchez.
GMH: Overwhelmingly they came through the port of New Orleans. But some of them came through other ports – Mobile, Galveston. I’m not sure about all that.
NS: Of course, New Orleans’s population doubled, practically overnight, in 1809 and 1810.
GMH: Yes, that was quite an impact, I’m sure. These were Haitian families who had left Haiti in 1803, when the masters of slaves were driven out, whether they were free people of color or whites. And they went to Cuba – they went to Santiago de Cuba, which is right on the eastern end of the island of Cuba, right across from Haiti. And they became very quickly well-established. They introduced coffee cultivation into Cuba. They were very good at teaching the Cubans how to grow sugar, and they established their own sugar plantations, coffee plantations. Then in 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain and put his brother in as the King of Spain. And there was such a reaction against this in Cuba that they expelled the Haitians. And so these were about 10,000 people. About a third of them were free people of color who owned slaves. Another third were so-called white creoles of Haiti who also owned slaves, and another third were the slaves owned by either group. And these people were expelled between 1809 and 1810. They showed up in New Orleans in a whole bunch of shipments. So that there was a sudden introduction of Haitians into New Orleans, and this doubled the free colored population in New Orleans, so that about half the free coloreds were Haitians.
NS: I seem to recall reading that a large proportion of the free people of color were women.
GMH: Of the slaves, they were women. For sure. At least, from my database, the slaves who show up in documents were mainly young female domestics.
NS: There’s a certain amount of lore that suggests that from that point we start to see – though there was already, as you pointed out, a Dahomeyan population in Louisiana. At that point we start to see voodoo appear in New Orleans culture. And I notice that in Louisiana they have “voodoo queens,” something unknown in Haiti…
GMH: Exactly. It’s distinctive. And Marie Laveau – you know, there’s this tendency to have everybody be Haitian. And they weren’t! Including Marie Laveau. She had no Haitian ancestors. She was Louisiana Creole. Charles Lalond, who was the leader of the 1811 slave revolt on the German Coast – Charles Gayarré passed the misinformation that he was a free man of color from Haiti. He was no such thing. He was a mulatto Creole slave of Louisiana. And I have not found any Haitians involved in any revolt or conspiracy against slavery in Louisiana. And I’ve looked through lots and lots of documents. And you can look yourself in my database. None of them were Haitians.
NS: But the example –
GMH: The example of Haiti was important, yes. And the testimony shows that they knew about the revolution in St. Domingue, and were very proud of it, and it inspired them.
NS: This influx of whites from St. Domingue via Cuba delayed the Anglicization of New Orleans.
GMH: Oh, yes, because they of course were speakers of French or Haitian Creole. And yes, it certainly did prolong the French influence. In fact, if you look at the documents in New Orleans, they remain heavily French. Now during the Spanish period the documents were almost all in Spanish in New Orleans and French in rural parishes. But after the Americans took over, the documents in New Orleans became heavily French. Some English, but heavily French. And you even see the dates of the French Revolution in the documents in Louisiana – you know, the dating system? Florial…
NS: Messidor, Thermidor…
NS: I’ve often wondered if their impact on New Orleans wasn’t a little like the Cubans arriving in Miami in 1959.
GMH: Could be…
NS: A big population of arch-conservatives, the wealthiest of whom were sugar planters, who had lost their property, would not assimilate and continued speaking their language, and transformed the local politics.
GMH: Yes. That’s probably a good parallel. They certainly were not there to promote revolution in Louisiana.
NS: I’ve always wondered what effect this influx had on forming the character of what would be the Confederacy’s largest city, and in forming the character of the slaveholding South as a whole. It’s a question for interpretation, but I’ve always wondered.
GMH: Well, I think we need some hardworking historians to answer that.
NS: Where do you think at this point that the work should focus?
GMH: Well, certainly slaves. After 1820. But you know, there are some wonderful documents out there. And local documents. For example, one of the things I hope to do next year, is, there are reports from the post comandantes. From rural places in Louisiana to the Spanish governor of Louisiana, throughout the Spanish period. They were all written in French, because these people promised they were gonna learn Spanish and never did, but they give the most fabulous detailed day-by-day accounts of what’s going on in these places, which is total surprises. It’s not at all what you expect.
Then there are also police jury records, in which there are trials in various parishes, which also gives you these day-by-day, blow-by-blow accounts of relationships between people. One thing I find – and I haven’t gone far enough into the 19th century to say with any confidence – but in the colonial period, and even up to 1820, Louisiana was very open racially. It was not this rigid race hatred from below. And that’s heartening in a way. The racism was imposed from above. Very deliberately and consciously, and with great difficulty. I have a chapter coming out, it should be out any minute now, in a book that studies this question of race relations, and where racism came from in Louisiana in the colonial period. It’s a chapter in a book edited by Bradley Bond, French Colonial Louisiana and the Atlantic World. There’s a number of very good chapters in there.
But I think that the question of racism – you know, you can’t understand it until you study the local documents and you see what’s going on down below.
NS: There must be a tremendous number of documents, even in New Orleans, that have not yet really been gone through properly.
GMH: Oh, yes, no doubt. There’s just lots of documents. Although some people have started studying them seriously. But there’s many, and I think the rural documents should be very rewarding, too. So these would be in parish courthouses, again. But, you see this – it’s a little bit of a problem of historiography, because many historians look down on local studies as some kind of inferior local history. But then they tend to operate on a level that’s more abstract than what was really going on. So you see a lot from the local stuff that you won’t see in things like – you know, you look at government documents and there’s debates, there’s policies, there’s this, that, and the other thing, which may have very little to do with what was actually happening.
NS: And also, to go through primary documents like that is slow and painstaking work.
GMH: It depends. I think if you are fascinated by them, it’s not like that. You enjoy it. And especially if they’re so rewarding, and in Louisiana they are. And if you do it with an open mind. It can be totally surprising, often enough. So you know, it’s like detective work. Everybody watches detective stories. A good historian is a good detective who’s looking for evidence.
NS: The document find that you made in Pointe Coupée – if you had to pick one thing out of all of the searches you’ve done and all of the documents you’ve done, what would you say would be the most significant finds that you’ve made?
GMH: Well, I wouldn’t say I found them, because someone else found them first: the testimony in the 1795 [Pointe Coupée] conspiracy. The testimony of slaves is fabulous. Especially the runaways. First of all, there are very few documents that contain testimony of slaves. I have a friend who was director of the archives of Martinique, and when she saw my book, she said, “I have to see this, because I’ve never heard of testimony of slaves.” And so she came and looked at them, and she told the director of the archives in France about them. He said: “Testimony of slaves? We don’t even have testimony of peasants!”
NS: Well, that’s the music problem in a nutshell. Very often the only indication we have that there was even music was as an incidental description of slaves dancing.
NS: The famous picture of dancing in Congo Square wasn’t even made by someone who actually saw it.
GMH: Freddi Evans. Do you know Freddi Evans?
GMH: She’s just finishing a book on Congo Square, and she really went into it, very thoroughly. You should see her book. She’s a counselor for the public schools in Jefferson Parish, and she’s published a number of children’s books. She’s been working on this Congo Square book for quite a while.
NS: If we want to talk about myth in New Orleans, Congo Square is the founding myth of New Orleans music.
NS: Everybody in New Orleans music refers to Congo Square when they talk about what they’re doing.
GMH: Yeah. And it may or may not be accurate.
NS: As with much of what we say about New Orleans. You hear people say all the time that New Orleans is the northernmost Caribbean city. But it’s not on the Caribbean, it’s on the Gulf of Mexico.
GMH: Right, but even culturally, it’s much more just Louisiana than Caribbean. It’s unique in many ways.