Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalbaby Christina Vella
Born into wealth in New Orleans in 1795 and married into misery fifteen years later, the Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba led a life ripe for novelization. Intimate Enemies, however, is the spellbinding true account of this resilient woman's life and the three men who most affected its course.
Immediately upon marrying Célestin de Pontalba,
Born into wealth in New Orleans in 1795 and married into misery fifteen years later, the Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba led a life ripe for novelization. Intimate Enemies, however, is the spellbinding true account of this resilient woman's life and the three men who most affected its course.
Immediately upon marrying Célestin de Pontalba, Micaela was removed to his family's estate in France. For twenty years her father-in-law attempted to drive her to abandon Célestin; by law he could then seize control of her fortune. He tried dozens of strategies, including at one point instructing the entire Pontalba household to pretend she was invisible. Finally, in 1834, the despairing elder Pontalba trapped Micaela in a bedroom and shot her four times before turning his gun on himself.
Miraculously, she survived. Five years later, after securing both a separation from Célestin and legal power over her wealth, Micaela focused her attention on building, following in the footsteps of her late, illustrious father, Andrés Almonester. Her Parisian mansion, the Hôtel Pontalba, is today the official residence of the American embassy in France; and her Pontalba Buildings, which flank Jackson's Square in New Orleans, form together with her father's St. Louis Cathedral, Presbytere, and Cabildo one of the loveliest architectural complexes in America.
As for Célestin, he eventually suffered a total physical and mental breakdown and begged Micaela to return. She did so, caring for him for the next twenty-three years until her death in 1874.
In Intimate Enemies, Christina Vella embroiders the compelling story of the Almonester-Pontalba alliance against a richly woven background of the events and cultures of two centuries and two vivid societies. She provides a window into the yellow fever epidemics that raged in New Orleans; the rebuilding of Paris, the Paris Commune uprising, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III; European ideas of power, class, money, marriage, and love during the baroness' lifetime and their inflection in the New World setting of New Orleans; medical treatments, legal procedures, imperial court life, banking practices, and much more.
Combining the historian's meticulous research with the biographer's exacting knowledge of her subject and the novelist's gift for narrative, Vella has crafted a rare cross-genre work that will capture the imagination and admiration of every reader.
The baroness, born Micaela Almonester, was the daughter of a Spanish immigrant who had made it in the rough-and-tumble commercial world of New Orleans; at 15, she was the sole heir to a considerable fortune. As such, she attracted the attention of the Pontalbas, her aristocratic French cousins. Xavier Pontalba wrote to Micaela's mother to propose to her daughter on behalf of his son, Célestin, and in 1811, Célestin sailed to America to meet and court his young cousin. The two were married within a month, and Micaela returned with her new family to France. Once there, however, Micaela's troubles began. She was not entirely content with her life in the country estate of her in-laws. Vella (History/Tulane Univ.) writes, with the tongue-in-cheek style that contributes greatly to the book's charm, that "sixteen-year-olds often look on compost with indifference." But the bigger problem came when the dowry of the young heiress was finalized, and the greedy Pontalbas discovered that it was considerably less than they had hoped. Xavier Pontalba, who dominated his weak-willed son, began a war against his daughter-in-law that would last until he ended his own life, in 1834, after shooting Micaela four times at close range and nearly killing her. This dramatic climax was followed by divorce, an interest in construction that took hold of the baroness in her middle years (the home she built in Paris is now the US embassy), and an odd semi-reconciliation between Micaela and an ill Célestin as she nursed him for the last 23 years of her own life.
While the baroness's story might make a more satisfying novel than biography, Vella makes up for the occasional skimpiness of her material with an easy, elegant style.
- Louisiana State University Press
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Read an Excerpt
New Orleans in 1795
The town was so small and shabby that, except for its location at the entrance to the Mississippi River, a stranger could not have guessed it was the capital of an enormous Spanish colony. The little houses stretched for about a mile along the levee and went only six blocks deep. The buildings faced the river, for everywhere, in both Europe and America, the main thoroughfares were water. Visitors coming by land entered the city gates at the ramparts and made their way past backyards to the front of town. The gates closed at nine in the evening. Any citizen departing was to leave behind a bondsman who would guarantee his local debts.
Beyond the rampart and surrounding the clump of houses on all sides was swamp, moss-curtained and rippled with alligators, for the town was constructed on stagnant water. A drainage canal had been started in 1795. It was a popular swimming place for society women who, according to Joseph Xavier Delfau de Pontalba, dived "head and all" into whatever water was there until summer droughts turned it into a mudhole. Then as now the center of town was a plaza near the river, but open to the water in those days, for there was no Moonwalk or cement levee wall to obstruct the flooding or the view. This plaza de armas (insistently called the Place d'Armes by French residents) was the parade ground for troops guarding the city. It was a treeless field of brown stubble, bordered by a Spanish church and two worthy colonial buildings: the Presbytere, which was destined never to be used as a priest's house, and the Cabildo, oradministrative building, which housed the town council. Behind the Cabildo and attached to it were stables and the city jail, "a wretched receptacle of vice and misery," according to an observer. During its deliberations the council, or cabildo, could hear prisoners being chastised, and visitors to the council meetings were disturbed by screams issuing sometimes from the jail.
Despite its little triad of church, Presbytere, and Cabildo, the plaza must have been a charmless place. A wooden gallows cast its malign shadow near the spot where Andrew Jackson now presides in bronze; a hangman on the city payroll at fifteen pesos a month eventually requested a raise when executions tripledfrom one to three a year. Two pillories stood a few steps from the church, a convenience for slave owners who could have their servants punished there. Pontalba remarked in one of his letters that a pregnant kitchen slave had stayed away from home a few days: "The pillory will be the place for her," he wrote. Along the mud street that separated the plaza from the levee was Ursuline Convent, which served as a school, orphanage, and abbey; it is still standing below the plaza, its front facing the river as in the eighteenth century, and its back doors facing the street.
A long colonnade, the market, stretched out from the plaza to the city limit. The cabildo wanted peddlers to be stationed where food could be inspected and a fee collected for a shaded stall; thus, food vendors who trafficked outside the market were threatened with "eight days in jail and a discretionary fine or lashing if they are slaves." The market contained furs, food, cloth, and tools, most of which were brought from plantations and settlements outside town. Almost any morning one could see slave women hawking sweetmeats left over from some party the previous evening and, everywhere, reeking butcher stallsAndres Almonester estimated that the market housed at least twenty-five. The slaughterhouse, also reeking, was just over the levee from the food stalls, on the riverbank.
Everything between this bustling Front Street and the city gates was "town," a congestion of some six thousand people and perhaps a thousand houses. Here the crier patrolled all night, watching for fires, calling out the hour, and giving notice when new laws were decreed or government contracts were let out for bidding. And here, by all accounts, were streets so incredibly foul that sometimes even carriages could not get through them. They were choked with garbage, filthy as sewers, and always wet. Dogs, pigs, and cows roamed about; their dung was never taken away. Privies overflowed, even those of the Ursuline nuns, whose waste, according to the cabildo, "empties directly into the public street." The road itself served as a toilet when no other was convenient; one of Almonester's slaves unhesitatingly mentioned in court testimony that he woke one night with an intestinal upset and hurried into the street to relieve himself, the same street where Almonester's daughter, Micaela, grew up.
She never played there, of course, for no one used the street except to get to somewhere else. Since the area was below sea level, every rain shower turned the town into a morass. Even in dry weather there were rotted carcasses in the pathways, along with refuse the citizens threw out to be purified by the air. Wealthy and poor alike lived indoors behind closed shutters and plain facades that completely sealed in the front of most homes. No one conducted business or met friends in public places.
The highest ground in New Orleans was at the banks of the river. That meant there was no easy way to drain the city. Toward the back of town, the habitable land sank into swamp. Water seeped through the levees, when it did not overflow them, making the soil so soft that people were spared the trouble of having to shoe their horses. There were ditches along every street in town with little bridges at the corners for crossing; but since all the roads held water for most of the year, the ditches and the street were indistinguishable, both full of sodden masses of rubbish anchored in the mud. Travelers who were repelled by the streets in New Orleans had seen waste dumped in other towns; but the wet garbage of New Orleans seemed nastier than dry garbage elsewhere.
The roads of course were worse at night, since the only light came from lamps and candles people carried with them. If pedestrians ventured out after dark, they filed down the plank sidewalk behind a slave who carried a lantern. Eighty lampposts were installed in 1796 under Almonester's supervision; but though the cabildo was proud of its newest civic improvement, the lamps scarcely illuminated ten paces. Darkness increased pests: cockroaches, rats, poisonous water moccasins, and the occasional swamp alligator that got into town through the drainage ditch. The whole city was a breeding ground for the most vicious and (though the townspeople did not realize it) lethal nuisance of all, the mosquito. People spent their nights indoors in beds enveloped in insect netting, for in the centuries before drainage and fumigation, mosquitoes owned Louisiana. The architect Benjamin Latrobe observed, "The muskitoes ... furnish a considerable part of the conversation of every Day & of every Body.... they regulate many family arrangements, they prescribe the employment and distribution of time, & most essentially affect the comfort & enjoyment of every individual in the country."
Though everyone knew mosquitoes bred in stagnant water, the town council was too preoccupied with maintaining the levees during rainy seasons to worry about draining streets. Riverfront land had to be protected whether or not it was occupied; therefore, the cabildo tried offering levee lots free to anyone who would keep the dikes in good condition. There were few takers. Even though he had an uncle on the council, Pontalba was denied permission to abandon twenty arpents that two other owners had likewise found onerous because of the need to keep up the levee. In spite of everything the cabildo tried to do, the dikes were full of cracks and the city was often threatened by flood.
With cypress bogs surrounding the town and stagnant water lying year-round in the streets, it is no wonder that New Orleans became famous in the eighteenth century as a pesthole of malaria and what the inhabitants, including Pontalba, at first described as "putrid fever" or "the sickness." Yellow fever was a mystery plague that did not have a name in Louisiana until after the epidemic of 1796; then it, too, took its place as one of the territory's notorious curses, along with smallpox, which was the major scourge of the times. Governor Miro had introduced quarantining for smallpox in 1787, and it was being used increasingly. Inoculation was also gaining acceptance in spite of the Church's opposition to it. "The Creole youth," an observer commented, "continue to be inoculated before the very eyes of the governor, the bishop, and the Capuchin clergy, who can, if they see fit, excommunicate alike the inoculation, the inoculated, and the inoculator." Pontalba, writing to his wife during the yellow fever epidemic of 1796, was relatively sanguine about his chances of getting "the malady"; but he pleaded with her in one missive after another to have their child inoculated against the infection he was really afraid of, smallpox.
Along with serious epidemics of one sort or another, there were the more commonplace colds, dysentery, "fevers," and something the settlers described as "mange." At least one of the six councilmen was usually incapacitated, according to cabildo records, and correspondence of the 1790s leaves the impression that nothing in Louisiana was more normal than illness. "Beside the fatal contagion reigning here now," Pontalba wrote to his wife, "there is an epidemic of gangrenous throat infection carrying away many of the children. Madame Cruzat has lost two of hers, and every day a few are being buried." Disease struck high and low: Governor Carondelet's brother died in the malaria epidemic of 1794. Pontalba, writing to Esteban Miro, described a frantic instance when his Celestin went into convulsions, "his head thrown back, his legs and thighs stiff, eyes turned back in his head. His suffocated breathing made us think he would smother. His mother had just taken a purge an hour before, I had the fever...." Nevertheless, Pontalba threw himself and the baby into a carriage and sped into town. There Dr. Montegut "brought him back to life," though the child suffered "violent fevers" for days. Miro remarked that Pontalba's letters were "full of sickness and the deaths of friends whom I cared for. It made me appreciate having left all that."
No one doubted the benefits of purging to relieve every kind of symptom, along with the ingestion of amazing quantities of quinine. Pontalba described giving a house guest "eight separate doses of quinine yesterday and five today...." Furthermore, he intended "to keep on at that rate for five or six more days." The patient died, however, before the treatment was complete. Only a few years previously Pontalba had reported to Miro the side effects he himself suffered from too much quinine: "unbearable depression," "tightening" of the temples and jaws, "quivering of the extremities, swollen gums, chattering teeth," and "such extreme weakness in the legs that it hurts me to hold myself up." But quinine was what everybody took.
When the 1796 outbreak of yellow fever turned into an epidemic, the frightened citizens followed each preventive vogue: herb tea (promoted by the Baroness de Carondelet), cold baths, cream of tartar, vinegar, camphor and abstemious diets. Every get-together generated its lore of medicaments and precautions. Something the doctors called the "mercurial treatment" passed in and out of fashion. It consisted of dosing a fever victim with mercury so as to produce copious salivation. Three companies of a regiment in New Orleans were killed in 1812, not by the enemy British nor by yellow fever, but by lethal applications of mercury, according to a physician who doubted the benefits of the treatment.
Business was transacted during the winter, for everyone knew that New Orleans was more dangerous in summer. In the hot months (and this became more true as yellow fever returned with increasing severity), theaters and ballrooms closed, Le Moniteur reduced its publication, and the streets emptied as residents went to their country houses. "The city is almost deserted," Pontalba wrote to his wife in October, 1796. "My storehouses, which had all been rented, are now left vacant.... Clark ... was so frightened that when the only clerk left to him came to render him an accounting, he would only speak to him from a distance; three people had already died at his house, and his own fright kept him from being able to urinate."
During such times, the recurring issue for the cabildo was getting rid of dead bodies that tended to reappear after burial in the marshy cemetery, causing "pestilent exhalations." A particular problem, one complainant told the cabildo, was the interment of those persons "who have the misfortune to die in other beliefs than that of our Holy Catholic Religion." The only official cemeteries were managed by the Church, and as these were forbidden to heretics, Protestants were put to rest in a field outside town. They did not rest for long, according to Almonester, who tried to get the cabildo to take responsibility for the Protestant graveyard. He reported that "dogs and birds feed on the cadavers, there being uncovered coffins at the edge of the Canal due to the current of the waters."
Notwithstanding the distinctions between dead Catholics and Protestants, the living society of New Orleansthe white segment, that iswas remarkably integrated. According to contemporary estimates, Louisiana's white population in the 1790s was about half French and a quarter Spanish, with Americans, British, and other Europeans making up the rest. The French and Spanish formed a solid, cooperative ruling class. When France first ceded the colony to Spain in 1762, relations had been bitter between the French settlers and their new Spanish masters. Leaders of the French community ejected the first Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa, causing the second governor, Alejandro O'Reilly, to arrive with two thousand Spanish troops, a third of the total population of New Orleans and its surrounding area at the time. O'Reilly ended the rebellion by executing five Creoles, members of the city's most prominent French families.
Despite such initial hostility, the French gradually became resigned to the Spanish presence and, as time went on, found less and less reason to wish their colony returned to France. Even when Louisianians learned in 1793 that Spain had declared war on republican France, there were only random incidents of republican agitation among the whitesthe singing of jacobin songs in the theater, for example. Governor Carondelet reacted excitedly to the displays of French sympathy that came to his attention; he began banishing people for possessing "diabolical ideas of freedom and equality" or "making remarks against the Spanish government." But in three years he had to get rid of only sixty-eight such troublemakers. Some of these showed up at Carondelet's residencia, the official review of his administration, to complain that he had acted against them without cause.
It is easy to see why there was no real outpouring of pro-French sentiment. For one thing, the Creoles were profoundly shaken by what they heard about the revolution raging in France. As they traded horror stories from the continent, they trembled at the thought of mob rule. "Have just learned of your bad news, ours are much worse," Julien Poydras's friend wrote to him from France. "I have heard that de la Lande and Garnier, the former received two bullets in his arms and will be crippled, have been sent to Paris to be guillotined but the executioners were guillotined themselves and they were saved.... Keep silent and never speak of what I have written of this revolution in any way." Poydras himself, in the center of the Pointe Coupee revolt, thought he was still better off than his brother in France: "You ask me to return to France. Spare me the pain. I do not need to be coaxed, I am unfortunately too anxious but how can I go to a country where property is not respected; where ... everyone urges me not to undertake any business as none can be transacted with safety." For another very important thing, slavery had been abolished in republican France; colonial slave owners were afraid of losing everything if Louisiana reverted to French control. Even people who owned no blacks were threatened with ruin if the slaves were freed, because the colony ran on creditalmost every transaction involved a deferred payment of some sortand the biggest debtors were planters with many slaves. If the slave owners were forced into bankruptcy, they would cause the impoverishment of merchants, shippers, doctors, carpentersanyone holding their promissory notes or dependent on them for business. The whites in Louisiana were thus not attracted to jacobinism.
However, the French Revolution and the ensuing war between France and Spain caused trade with France to be cut off, exacerbating the colonists' longstanding dissatisfaction with Spanish trade restrictions. This was the real source of Carondelet's headaches, his reason for fearing that the colonists might cooperate with a French or American invasion of Louisiana. In settling Louisiana, the Spanish Crown had the usual mercantile expectations: that the colony would export its raw materials, such as cotton, to the mother country, while Spain would sell its manufactured products, such as clothing, back to the colony. Naturally, the Crown protected its colonial monopoly by trying to control trade between Louisiana and other countries and their colonies. But Spain was never able to supply its American colonies sufficiently. In Louisiana there were chronic shortages of flour, coinage, arms, fortification materials, and other necessities, which could only be remedied by exceptions to the commercial regulations or by illegal trade.
The War of the French Revolution closed Louisiana's legal trade with France and the French West Indies in 1793; Americans were pouring into the region west of the Appalachians and increasing their demand for free access to the Mississippi River. The Americans pressed on the Spanish borderland just as Louisiana was forced to rely more than ever on American contraband goods. Carondelet persuaded the Crown to reduce temporarily the duty on imports from Kentucky, arguing that frontiersmen would seize the Mississippi by force if compelled to pay the usual charge of 15 percent (plus another 6 percent if the cargo was re-exported at New Orleans), and they would be cheered on by the colonists. Despite the Creoles' antagonism toward the Americans, they now were as eager as the Kaintocks for free trade on the river.
Since the Crown could not enforce its commercial regulations, it had no choice but to ignore the flourishing contraband trade on which the colony survived. The government conceded one trading privilege after another during the war with France, privileges which the colonists then retained permanently. Ultimately, the pressure from the United States forced Spain to withdraw from Louisiana; but before that juncture, the colonists were happy enough with the right of free trade. They began prospering again in the last years of the century with export crops that replaced the diminishing indigo and tobacco. In 1795, on a plantation which is now the site of Audubon Park, Etienne de Bore succeeded in granulating sugar. Because of that success, plantations all over the colony revived. In February, 1801, Le Moniteur was reporting a yearly export rate of more than a million pounds of sugar, a figure that would quadruple in a few years. And there was cotton, the demand for which was soaring even before Eli Whitney's revolutionary invention of 1793.
By the time Louisiana was returned to France in 1803, there was no longer any danger of the whites rebelling against the Spanish Crown. The French and Spanish oligarchs of the colony ran its internal affairs with a fairly free hand, dividing the lucrative offices among themselves and circulating their wealth within careful limits by intermarriage. Creoles who had been appointed to high offices through the years were handing them down in their families. French nationalism had been placated by a succession of competent and conscientious Spanish governors who did not attempt to change the French character of Louisiana. French remained the language of the colony throughout the Spanish periodeven the deliberations of the cabildo might lapse into Frenchand when Spanish was required for a formal proceeding, a translator was generally present. The Spaniards in Louisiana, right up to Governors Galvez and Miro, married the daughters of Creole planters, served Bordeaux at their official dinners, danced the galopade, sedulously gambled their money at bourre, and reared children who could not speak a word of Spanish. Almonester and Miroone Andalusian, the other a Catalanspoke only French at home, like many other Spaniards in Louisiana. Influenced perhaps by the vogue for French that was sweeping the educated classes in Europe, Almonester allowed himself to be called "Don Andre"; his wife (who was French anyway) was referred to as "Madame Don Andre." Before the turn of the century, the French and Spanish had closed ranks against the real threats to their provincial authority: the blacks within the colony and the Americans invading from the outside. For if the Creoles in Louisiana were a privileged class, surrounded by luxuries and catered to by servants, they were not at ease. All of the whites together were outnumbered by people of varying degrees of colorIndians, free Negroes, and slavesand they never for a moment forgot the insecurity of their position.
Although Indians in the colony included Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, Caddos, Shawnees, Arkansas, Apalaches, and Osages, all very widespread, there was no danger of an Indian attack on New Orleans by 1795. In outlying posts such as Fort Arkansas, a few braves might commit some violence against a trapper or raid an unoccupied country house. For these depredations, Governor Miro advised that it was necessary "to scream at them [the Indian chiefs] ... and to be satisfied with the repentance which I do not doubt they will demonstrate." The real danger presented by the Indians ranged within and around Louisiana was that they would draw their Spanish allies into risky confrontations with Americans, the mutual enemy. Miro, for one, believed the Americans provoked the Indians in the hope that Spain would come to their aid and provide an excuse for an American invasion of New Orleans via the Mississippi. President George Washington, who was dominated, according to the Spanish view, "by the ambition ... to see himself again at the head of an army," became notorious in Miro's dispatches for his shifty treatment of the red man. The president was accused of exploding peace conferences by deliberately insulting Indian delegates. It was alleged that on one occasion he "deceived them into signing their mark on some paper, believing it to be a list of presents...." The paper was a treaty by which the Indians agreed to give away their land. The Spanish thus had many willing allies such as a Choctaw chief who "offered to kill any American that would pass through his land."
For thirty years the Spanish tried assiduously to consolidate their control over these Indian neighbors, to create a buffer of alliances with the Indian nations around Louisiana to help protect the nearly unfortified frontier. As a first step, the Spanish tried to monopolize trade with the Indians to keep them dependent upon Spain for their needs. The Crown granted exclusive rights to several individuals to provision the Indians with firearms and foodstuffs. Governor Galvez found his father-in-law, Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent, uniquely qualified to perform such services. St. Maxent negotiated with a partner to ship huge cargoes of goods to New Orleans for sale to the Indians. But the policy led to all sorts of complications when the Spanish found that they could not in fact supply the products the Indians had come to like. In desperation, the Spanish governors hired English merchants to bring goods from London for the Indians, transporting them in English ships flying a Spanish flag and accepting colonial produce as payment. Such arrangements were certainly illegal, but Miro, for one, justified them as necessary to keep Americans from entering into the Indian trade.
The dispatches of the governors are heavy with their failures to manipulate the Indians. The Spanish followed the example of their French predecessors in providing gifts to the Indians as part of any attempted negotiation. But even a small conference could prove costly because "the Indian chiefs are not capable of stopping their warriors, women, and children from following them." A Choctaw chief was to meet with Miro accompanied by no more than a hundred persons so that, Miro wrote, "I would be able to shower him with gifts and those who might accompany him." However, the exasperated governor reported, "He at last presented himself with one thousand two hundred persons, telling me that although he had left his village with a little more than one hundred, he had been joined by the rest on his way, and it was impossible to make them return." The townspeople, of course, had little awareness of the importance of the tribes in the eyes of the government. To them, the Indians were just shabby and harmless people living in a few hundred shacks on the outskirts of town, hardly more than a curiosity in the marketplace with their game, baskets, wood, or the few other products they were permitted to sell.
The free people of color, on the other hand, were a pronounced element of Creole life. In 1795 there were only fifteen hundred to two thousand of them in Louisiana, many of whom gravitated to New Orleans because of the scarcity of labor and chance for employment in the city. Usually, free Negroes were of mixed blood, children or grandchildren of white men and slave women. There had always been a shortage of white women in the colony, since neither the French nor the Spanish soldiers had immigrated with their families, and intermating had been widespread. The white masters sometimes freed their slave lovers or their mulatto offspring, if only in their wills; these freed slaves and their descendants found ready work as dressmakers, housekeepers, shoemakers, dancing teachers, shopkeepers, tailors, joiners, carpenters, mechanics, bricklayers, blacksmiths, slave dealers, and, notably, soldiers. If a slave could work outside his master's home and keep his earnings, he could buy himself, that is, buy his freedom. The Spanish Crown encouraged this and other forms of manumission, and slave owners such as Pontalba who found themselves overstaffed might cooperate in letting a slave earn his freedom; but given the imaginable difficulties of a slave procuring several hundred dollars, it is no wonder the overwhelming majority of free blacks or their ancestors had simply been granted freedom by some former master. The Spanish government was always desperate for troops to defend the colony and welcomed every loyal body it could get under arms, white or black. The free Negro battalion, which for most of the Spanish period had black officers and a white commander, fought alongside whites and were part of the strategic forces of every important military expedition.
But although free blacks could and did prosper in Louisiana, perhaps more than in any of the English seaboard colonies, they were at various times subjected to many of the legal restrictions of slaves. They had to be off the streets by nine in the evening; since they could not "be recognized from slaves or savages [runaways]," they were required to carry their certificate of freedom at all times. The firmness with which these rules were enforced depended upon whether rumors were circulating of a planned black uprising, whether New Orleans was being flooded with mulatto refugees from Santo Domingo, and whether the free black found violating a rule was a trusted resident, a known troublemaker, or a stranger. The law prescribed severe penalties for free Negroes who engaged in sexual relations with either whites or slaves; like many other colonial laws, the prohibition was constantly and openly violated. As for the famous quadroon concubines of New Orleans, the government was officially hostile to them: a woman known to have any black ancestry, no matter how remote, was forbidden by law to use a coach in daylight, enter a public room if a white woman was there, or sit in the presence of a white. But again, the zeal of enforcement depended on the individual woman and individual official apprehending her, since at least a few of the quadroons had liaisons with prominent white protectors. Judging from the repeated attempts to regulate every detail of the courtesans' dress (Miro ordered them to stop wearing feathers, curls, jewelry, mantillas, or caps), they must have given the city a scattering of glitter.
But however often the whites might lump all blacks together, one curious fact set free people of color apart from slaves. In any showdown between whites and slaves, the free Negroes would side with the whites and keep them from being seriously outnumbered. Under Governors Galvez and Miro, free black militiamen were used to catch fugitive slaves and to infiltrate and attack a colony of runaways. Governor Carondelet used free people of color as a valuable and voluble source of information about slave conspiracies, coaxing long depositions from them; in return, he tried to keep those found guilty of crimes from being punished by the lash, like slaves. The white citizens, if not the governors, nevertheless viewed the free blacks as a potential threat and distrusted them. Slaves were dangerous, but they were a necessity; no enterprise could begin, no plantation could continue without them. Free Negroes could not be supervised like slaves. Despised by both whites and slaves, and hating both in return, they could be counted on to act only in their self-interest; therefore, the whites reasoned, the fewer of them, the better.
In 1791 a revolution of slaves began in Santo Domingo which culminated, after more than a decade of ferocity on both sides, in the establishment of a black republic in 1803. Throughout the period, free Negro refugees immigrated to New Orleans in successive waves, causing the alarmed cabildo to offer one proposal after another for stopping their influx. The whites in Louisiana were slow to realize that the mulatto emigres had been driven out of Santo Domingo by revolutionary slaves and that, by and large, they were no more sympathetic to slave rebellion than the white refugees also flocking to New Orleans and the Gulf ports. When Americans took over Louisiana, they began abrogating the privileges of free blacks, deactivating the Negro battalion, for example. Even so, in 1811, during Louisiana's most serious slave uprising, near New Orleans, free Negroes volunteered their services against the insurrectionary blacks. At the end of the rebellion, Governor Claiborne reported on the "exactitude and propriety" of the free black militiamen, commending their "zeal for public safety."
Whether they loathed or liked the white people, both Indians and free blacks were comparatively few and peaceable. It was the largest element of the colored population, the slaves, that caused continual anxiety. During the 1780s the major problem had been to keep them from running away. In session after session of the cabildo, ideas were proposed for stopping what must have seemed an evacuation of slaves from the houses and plantations around New Orleans. Not only were the owners required to register their blacks, but until Carondelet interfered with the practice in 1795, any slave found off his owner's property without a note could be punished with twenty-five lashes by any white who met him. No one was allowed to give a slave a horse. No locksmith was to make keys "unless the lock is brought to him by identified persons." Despite the precautions, cabildo records of the 1780s are filled with references to cimarrons, runaways who were supposed to have gathered in the swamp; the white folklore described horrible deeds reputedly committed by these fugitives when they ventured out of their lairs in search of food or vengeance. Bounties were advertised for anyone who caught a cimarron, and the bounty hunters were not careful with their prey. Cabildo meetings constantly touched on the subject of "savage Negroes" who were killed while being recaptured. Nevertheless, there were always slaves willing to brave the odds for a chance at freedom.
One of the first efforts of the Spanish Crown after taking over the colony had been to regulate the treatment of slaves. But the royal government was far away and the local governor could not supervise every planter in the colony. In July, 1792, Pontalba reported to his uncle Miro that many slave owners were defying the requirement that the Negroes have Sundays free, receive one barrel of Indian corn per month and one set of clothing per year. The Spanish Crown sent a stream of edicts ordering the humane treatment of slaves; and the cabildo sent back sulky letters explaining "the great injuries which would result if ... the Royal Order were carried out." The Crown tried to coerce owners into registering slave marriages; it prohibited the separate sale of husbands and wives; it insisted that owners observe the day of rest and support a priest to minister to the spiritual needs of the slaves. The observance of Sundays and holidays, the masters protested, was impractical during harvesttime. The expense of a chaplain for the slaves was prohibitive. As for slave marriages, the Creoles dismissed the idea by pointing out that "only the Spanish allow marriage, with the other colonists it is not the custom."
By the 1790s the preoccupation with runaways had given way to a graver fear of revolt which obsessed the whole colony. Long before any significant slave rebellion erupted, the cabildo had prohibited any merchant from storing more than fifty pounds of gunpowder "in order to avoid such ammunition to fall into the hands of the negroes." Slaves were forbidden by law to buy liquor or possess weapons, even sticks. Yet despite all the restraints placed on slaves by the masters and on masters by the king, the letters and judicial records of the period reveal frequent, random violence between the owners and the owned. The French Revolution exacerbated the chronic tension. The main fear concerning republican ideas was not that they would infect the citizens but that they would incite the slaves. Carondelet believed that white jacobin agitators from outside the colony were behind the increasing slave unrest. Panic-stricken whites fleeing to New Orleans from Santo Domingo added their voices to the general apprehension and conservatism of the town. Because of the Santo Domingo revolution, Carondelet in 1792 banned the importation of slaves from either Jamaica or the French Caribbean colonies where Negroes might be contaminated with revolutionary ideas. The cabildo considered recommending further restrictions, such as admitting only blacks who were "entirely illiterate."
The Spanish Crown's laws and policies regarding slavery in the Mississippi Valley and Gulf Coast were more humane during the colonial period than those of the French, British, or later, the Americans. But nothing in Louisiana was as routinely disregarded as law, and the governors, whose responsibility it was to curb slave masters, often had their hands full with more pressing business. In 1791 and 1792 two minor slave uprisings occurred in Louisiana, and one potentially serious conspiracy was uncovered in April, 1795. This rebellion was to have begun on the indigo plantation of Julien Poydras in Pointe Coupee, some 150 miles from New Orleans. All of the slaves in the area reportedly knew of the plans for a revolt, and several hundred were directly involved, or so the authorities believed, when the plot was aborted. Twenty-five slaves were killed while the militia was making arrests. In addition, Carondelet in his dispatches took credit for "the prompt and exemplary punishment of fifty-four"; or as Poydras reckoned the loss of life, "They hung 20,000 piasters worth of my negroes." Several were left hanging near churches in the area. Three whites arrested among the ringleaders were sentenced to leave the colony.
For weeks after the revolt was crushed, the cabildo solicited information from citizens regarding possible culprits, conversations overheard, gossip picked up from house servants, and the like. Among the scraps of evidence turned over to the council was a "Patriotic Song" supposedly used to rally the slaves. "When we get to be republicans," the song promised, "we shall punish all those scoundrels." The intended victims included "the swine governor," who was to be guillotined, and the treasurer of the colony, who would be "hanged in the rampart." Pontalba, commandant of the troops reinforcing the local militia, had earned special treatment. "We shall not hang Pontalba," went the last verse of the song, "he shall be whipped in the street/And we shall keep him to make a spy out of him."
In cabildo meetings, no rumor or remark about revolt was deemed too trivial for lengthy discussion. Carondelet's dispatches to Cuba were replete with frantic pleading for troops, along with various schemes for forestalling a black revolution. The governor had fortifications constructed at the corners of the town, ostensibly to protect against attack from outside the colony, and he had a wall fifteen feet high built around the frightened inhabitants of the city. As we know, the terrible rebellion did not materialize; it is perhaps easy now to believe that the white community was hysterical and that Carondelet's anxious letters to his superiors reflected his paranoia. But Carondelet had seen the countryside around New Orleans, where whites lived in isolation, each surrounded by as many as a hundred slaves whose grievances were fierce. Except for their own guns, the planters and farmers had no protection; there were hardly enough troops in the area to safeguard the town. Carondelet's superior, las Casas, even warned the governor that the best way to deal with jacobin agitators of the slaves was to let them alone as far as possible, "to avoid a confrontation that will reveal how desperately weak we are."
Whatever policing measures existed in the colony were intended primarily to police the slaves. In the countryside Carondelet appointed a planter every nine miles to serve as justice of the peace, to keep an eye on the levees and the Negroes and report to him if either appeared to be at the breaking point. "This Easter Sunday had been chosen by the blacks to get rid of all the whites," Pontalba wrote in 1796, when a new plot surfaced at Pointe Coupee. His relief is palpable when he later reassures his wife that no attack occurred. "This Easter day ... is finally over."
Rumors of rebellion were constantly in the air, and the events at Pointe Coupee and Santo Domingo haunted the whites. "I can recall when our position in this colony was ever so critical," Pontalba wrote to his wife a year after Pointe Coupee, "when we used to go to bed only if armed to the teeth. Often then, I would go to sleep with the most sinister thoughts creeping into mind, taking heed of the dreadful calamities of Saint Domingue, and of the germs of insurrection only too widespread among our own slaves. I often thought, when going to bed, of the means I would use to save you and my son, and of the tactics I would pursue if we were attacked." Pontalba's wife must have had her own sinister fears; when she was a young girl, her father had been murdered by one of his slaves.
Carondelet's nightmare of revolution ultimately came true, but not while he was in Louisiana. In 1803, after the governor had left New Orleans to become president of the Audiencia of Quito, in present-day Ecuador, a furious Indian revolt began in Guamote. The 400 soldiers whom Carondelet sent to put down the rebels found the road to the town strewn with the hands, legs, arms, and heads of the Spanish victims.
Not until 1811 did Louisiana have a serious slave insurrection, sometimes called the largest slave uprising in U.S. history. On the night of January 8, slaves numbering between 180 and 500 gathered on the levee at the border between St. Charles and St. John the Baptist Parishes, thirty-six miles above New Orleans. Fortified by taffia and armed with cane knives, sabers, and a few guns, the slaves first attacked the plantation of Manuel Andre, a colonel of the militia, and murdered his son. Then, led by a mulatto slave, they began moving toward New Orleans, burning two houses and pillaging along the way. At the Trepagnier plantation they hacked Francois Trepagnier to death with a hatchet. But Andre and Trepagnier were the only whites killed. The other planters in the area were saved by loyal slaves who ran ahead of the rebels and urged the families to flee to the woods. The Labranches, Bernoudys, Fortiers, and Charbonnets thus escaped the mob, Jacques Charbonnet carrying his elderly mother on his shoulders. Though wounded, Colonel Andre gathered a citizen militia and dispatched an alarm to the governor. On January 9, Claiborne sent an army detachment and two companies of volunteer militia (including free men of color "under a respectable Citizen Major Dubourg"), whose instructions were to "meet the Brigands and arrest them in their murdering career." In the rout that ensued, twenty-one slaves died in the fighting and forty-five others were apparently executed summarily.
The leaders of the insurrection were rounded up within a few days and tried by a judge and a planter tribunal. Claiborne counseled the six men to be merciful "for the sake of humanity" and expressed his willingness to grant any pardons the tribunal recommended. Of twenty-two slaves interrogated, eighteen were found guilty of a capital offense. They were sentenced to be shot "without torture," their heads displayed on pikes along the river. The eighty-four slaves killed in the uprising and its aftermath, together with twenty others who took the opportunity to run away, represented a hard loss for their owners, according to the accounting made after the revolt. Most of the slaves killed had been youngabout thirty years of ageintelligent, and experienced cane workers, each worth on average a thousand dollars.
In Louisiana, as in all the Indies, such exigencies as slave rebellions had to be dealt with by local people. Since the Crown was too far away to provide assistance in a crisis, the system for administering the colonies was critical if frontier towns such as New Orleans were to survive. The governor was under the jurisdiction and, invariably, the close supervision of the captain-general of Cuba. We tend to think of colonial governors as earlier versions of the modern official, but their position was actually that of commander of a military post who had, in addition to the primary responsibility of defending the colony, the secondary concern of governing its inhabitants. Perhaps 90 percent of the governor's correspondence with his superiors dealt with military matters: service records of officers, justifications for new appointments, Indian policy, defense strategy, and the like. In military expeditions out from the capital, the governor might lead his troops like any other commander. Just as every military officer does, the governor turned over to his superior, the captain-general in Havana, the most important messages of his subordinates, as well as every significant letter, rumor, conversation, or transaction that caught his attention.
These dispatches of the Louisiana governors are refreshingly candid, especially the confidential correspondence to Cuba. The governors frankly disclosed what was in their minds as they made particular decisions; which rivalries and winds of malice influenced their actions; and which contingencies or developments they were watching out for. The letters are never those of a groveling subaltern to his superior; they are rather like advisories from one soldier to another. Like any sincere missives, the dispatches reflected the personalities of the individual governors. Young Galvez (he was twenty-nine when he became governor in 1777) was open and emotional in his letters. Miro was blunt, self-assured, and cynical. Carondelet tended to fret, or as A. P. Nasatir expressed it, "He got excited and wrote at length and with great patience." Obviously, the governors made self-justifying comments to the captains-general, but even more, they confided in them, unburdening themselves of all sorts of observations. This is particularly true in the case of Carondelet, whose superior was his wife's half-brother. Luis de las Casas, in turn, addressed Carondelet in the tone of an experienced man dealing with a kid brother, though the "kid" had been in the service of the Crown for twenty-nine years when he took his post in Louisiana. All of the dispatches make it clear that the governors expected to receive orders regarding anything that mattered. Since their most trifling decisions were subject to review sooner or later, the governors welcomed orders and advice. As Spanish administrators, it was their right not to bear total responsibility for any mistakes, and to enjoy the protection of the long, legalistic chain of command.
Just as his subordinates usually had to go through the governor to reach the captain-general, the governor generally had to go through the captain-general in addressing the Crown. The captain-general sent back a reply and perhaps certain orders to Louisiana, and then forwarded the governor's communication to the Minister of the Indies in Spain, together with his own remarks or recommendations concerning the matter at hand. Several weeks were required to send a message to Cuba and receive a reply. The journey from Cuba across the Atlantic to Spain took another three or four months. The Crown, appreciating the irreversibility of its decisions, took its time in sending a reply which in turn required several months to cross the ocean. Meanwhile, the governor or the captain-general could issue directives that had the effect of lawuntil somebody got around to reviewing them.
Bernardo de Galvez was governor from 1777 to 1782, a popular hero, since he wrested East and West Florida from the English in several military campaigns. Esteban Miro was acting governor from 1782 to 1785, and governor in his own right until 1791. He developed both firm friends and loyal enemies; his protracted tenure and his position as both governor and intendant gave him the prestige to brush aside the carping of a hostile cabildo. Miro was followed as governor at the end of 1791 by the energetic Baron de Carondelet, a Walloon from the southern Netherlands. Although Miro called his successor "prejudiced and two-faced" (presumably meaning prejudiced against Spaniards), the Creoles thought they had in Carondelet a governor who understood themhe was intensely Catholic, French-speaking, and anti-Americanand they showed him more courtesy than his abler predecessor had received. Carondelet was succeeded in 1797 by Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, who arrived in New Orleans with an English education and long military service. Honest and enlightened, Gayoso showed ability in dealing with the Americans who were beginning to pour into the colony. He liked women and liquor, but only his susceptibility to yellow fever proved fatal. He died in 1799. The courteous and officious Marques de Casa Calvo was appointed acting civil governor, and Nicolas Vidal acting military governor, until the arrival of Juan Manuel de Salcedo in 1801. This last Spanish governor, though notoriously ineffective and decrepit during his two years in office, did not formally die until some time after completing his term, long after Louisiana had become a United States territory.
A GOD STROLLING IN THE COOL OF THE EVENING
By MARIO DE CARVALHO
Translated by Gregory Rabassa
LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 1997 Louisiana State University Press. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Christina Vella is an adjunct professor of history at Tulane University and coauthor with Radomir Luza of The Hitler Kiss: A Memoir of the Czech Resistance. She writes, lectures, and teaches in New Orleans, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters.
Christina Vella writes and lectures in New Orleans and is a consultant for the U.S. State Department. She is author of Indecent Secrets: The Infamous Murri Murder Affair of 1905 and coauthor of The Hitler Kiss: A Memoir of the Czech Resistance.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >