Background Historical Notes and Reading References
My favorite text is Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall. Here are some notes from it. Interestingly, the vast majority of Africans imported into Louisiana came from Senegambia, in French West Africa. East coast slaves in contrast mainly came from islands in the Caribbean. Louisiana Africans came as groups, bringing skills swamp draining, rice farming, and blue indigo dye production, as well as their language, culture, and religion. Woloof, today the main tribe of Senegal, and Bambara, from the Niger River area at today's capitol of Mali at Bamako made up the majority. The Woloof were more likely skilled and domestic slaves, while the Bambara drained the swamps and built the levees of New Orleans. Both groups had established slave systems in Africa, but the treatment of slaves in Louisiana was harsh for a variety of reasons. Since, French settlers were quite literally the rejects from France--criminals, drunks, and others unfit for society in France--slaves mixed with a disreputable lot. Also forced to emigrate to Louisiana, French settlers were given very few resources. The French military system was spread very thin with very few resources as well, and soldiers frequently escaped service to live with the Indians. Louisiana was the least of the French colonies in America, since it didn't provide the easy riches of the fur pelt industry of Canada, nor the easily created plantation economies of the Caribbean. Louisiana was a swamp full of unhealthy dangers, and the river remained difficult to navigate until the 19th century. The French depended upon agreements with the Indian tribes to defend against the English and Spanish incursions, and for the return of slaves and soldiers that ran away. Punishments for soldiers and slaves were so harsh that the Indians disrespected French authorities who treated their own more cruely than they did an enemy. Bienville and other governors familiar to us were businessmen that enriched themselves at the expense of settlers. Supplies and slaves destine for the settlers were often taken and sold elsewhere for a profit by this small aristocracy in New Orleans. Essential food and clothing rations for the ragtag army were diverted elsewhere or sold at a multiple of their value to the desperate settlers. As the slaves population grew, so did the plantations, which became the largest in the antebellum south. Slave revolts in combination with Indian allies was frequent. Modern racial bigotry was not, however, existant. Free blacks mingled early on and mixed with both the settlers and Indians. As enslaved Indians and settlers died African slaves labor became essential. After the French Arcadians pushed out of Canada by the British, they refurbished the French language influence, but New Orleans Creole was probably already firmly established. It was the influence of the Lousiana creole--essentially African traditions mixed with Indian and French influences--that spread up the Mississippi and eastward across the south, providing much of the character of modern American music and food. New Orleans, the leading city for slave auctions in the south during antebellum times, was an isolated, lazy, and festive city as it is today. Thus, the reputation for civic corruption has its origins in the French colonial corruption that predated the more stark racial bigotry of the more modern era. The music, cuisine, and even the lingering spirituality of the city have their origins in the Africa. If New Orleans losses its black population as a result of Katrina's devastation, it could well lose this fundamental influence. The other texts I purchased in advance of the soujourn to Natchitoches and the plantations in this region of New Orleans (see my VT pages for Natchitoches).