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The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square

by Ned Sublette
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556529580
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 149,302
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ned Sublette is the author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. Cofounder of the record label Qbadisc, he coproduced the public radio program Afropop Worldwide for seven years.

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The World That Made New Orleans

From Spanish Silver to Congo Square

By Ned Sublette

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2008 Ned Sublette
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-513-5


Rock the City

"On sabbath evening," wrote a visitor to New Orleans in 1819, "the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances."

Most of the United States was quiet on Sunday. In many parts of the rural, mostly Protestant nation, dancing was frowned on. But the mostly French-speaking, mostly Catholic, black-majority port city of New Orleans, proudly unassimilated into the English-speaking country that had annexed it, was rocking.

Jump forward 128 years, to Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight." If I had to name the first rock 'n' roll record, I would first say that there is no such thing, then I would pick "Good Rockin' Tonight." It was recorded at Cosimo Matassa's rudimentary studio on the edge of New Orleans's French Quarter: a microphone and a disc cutter, in the back room of a record store at Rampart and Dumaine.

Cosimo's place was catty-cornered from the legendary "green by the swamp," known in the old days as Place Congo, or Congo Square.

The distance between rocking the city in 1819 and "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1947 was about a block.

* * *

This book is about how New Orleans got to 1819. It's not about music per se, but music will be a constant presence in it, the way it is in New Orleans.

When the United States took possession of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the city was an urban crossroads of languages, both spoken and musical, with a complex Afro-Louisianan culture already in existence. By the time Louisiana became the eighteenth state in 1812, most of the elements that make New Orleans so visibly, and audibly, different from the rest of the country were already in place.

New Orleans was the product of complex struggles among competing international forces. It's easy to perceive New Orleans's apartness from the rest of the United States, and much writing about the city understandably treats it as an eccentric, peculiar place. But I prefer to see it in its wider context. A writer in 1812 called it "the great mart of all the wealth of the Western world." By that time, New Orleans was a hub of commerce and communication that connected the Mississippi watershed, the Gulf Rim, the Atlantic seaboard, the Caribbean Rim, Western Europe (especially France and Spain), and various areas of West and central Africa.

New Orleans is an alternative American history all in itself. Different in everything, Louisiana had what amounted to three colonial eras in rapid succession: French, Spanish, Anglo-American. Moreover, each colonial power that ruled Louisiana was associated not only with a different European language, but with a different slave regime. Each change of flag brought new laws and customs, causing black New Orleans to develop differently according to the possibilities afforded it during each of the colonial periods, and each flag brought with it distinct black populations. The Bambara, the Bakongo, the Baptists — they came in different demographic waves, at different moments in history. Each new wave had to fit into, and became another layer in, the increasingly cosmopolitan African culture of New Orleans, which from the earliest days of slavery in Louisiana had its own personality.

Louisiana was founded as a French project, but the French colonization effort was halfhearted and brief, and the French king gave Louisiana away to Spain. A little more than forty years later, the still mostly French-speaking territory returned to French control — but only for twenty days, until Napoleon Bonaparte's governor could hand Louisiana over to the United States.

Spain held Louisiana for only about two generations — in theory, from 1762 to 1800; in practice, from 1769 to 1803. But this last third of the eighteenth century was a time of great change, encompassing the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. During this time, New Orleans began to be a port of importance, entering into its substantial ongoing relationship with Havana — a relationship that lasted more than 190 years. From the earliest days of New Orleans's commercialization as a port until the imposition of the U.S. embargo of Cuba by President Kennedy, New Orleans's constant trading partner was Havana, right across the Gulf of Mexico. The 1962 U.S. embargo of Cuba was also in effect an embargo of New Orleans, taking away a chunk of what had long been the city's core business and damaging the economy of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast. But not only that: with the embargo still in effect as of this writing, the more than forty years of communications blackout between New Orleans and Havana has clouded our memory of how important that link was, from Spanish colonial times though the 1950s.

Brief though it was, the Spanish period in New Orleans was crucial to the creation of Afro-Louisianan culture, and constitutes a singular moment in African American history. During the years when the Spanish governor of Louisiana reported to the Spanish captain general of Cuba, the rules in New Orleans regarding slaves were much like those in Havana. There was a large population of free people of color. Slaves were treated badly, but enslaved people had some liberties — most important, they had the right to purchase their freedom. That was more than black New Orleanians had before, and more than enslaved people in the United States would have.

In Cuba, where such a regime lasted through the entire experience of slavery, there is every indication that this greater degree of freedom within slavery was good for music. The big city of Havana, central to maritime commerce, took music in from all over, including from Louisiana, but radiated it out even more powerfully. As New Orleans grew, it would do the same, inhaling and exhaling music, up through the days of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and the town's latter-day musical lingua franca, funk. Cities drive innovation, and New Orleans was the city of the antebellum South — a hot town where conditions existed for something new to appear, and a valve through which commerce and culture entered into and embarked from the United States.

Besides Cuba, there was another Antillean society whose legacy is essential to understanding New Orleans: the disappeared planter colony of Saint-Domingue, whose refugees transformed Cuba and Louisiana both. So did, from a distance, its black revolutionaries, who burned down the plantations of Saint-Domingue, forced the issue of emancipation, repelled the English, Spanish, and French armies, and created the Republic of Haiti, the second independent nation in the hemisphere. In the process, they reshaped the world's sugar and slavery businesses, and precipitated the bargain sale of Louisiana to the United States.

* * *

To get around in New Orleans, you drive through history, navigating the dense web of references embedded in the street names. Lasalle. Iberville. Bienville. Orleans. Chartres. Poydras. Ulloa. Galvez. Miro. Carondelet. Claiborne. Lafitte. St. Louis. St. Charles. St. Claude. St. Bernard. Frenchmen. Names New Orleanians negotiate every day. The street map is a time capsule. Unpack all those names, and a lot of the city's history is right there.

Uptown, major thoroughfares are named for the big three of slave-owning presidents: Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson. The last president to own slaves while in office, Louisiana cotton planter Zachary Taylor, is commemorated by a street named General Taylor (pronounced something like Jennatayla), for his military leadership in the Mexican War, when he sent his troops down to New Orleans on steamboats.

You can even read history in the street names that aren't there. There's no Lincoln Street. Lincoln was considered the very devil when he ran for president in 1860, and wasn't even listed on the ballot in Louisiana, or anywhere in the South, because he was a threat to four billion dollars of human property — the total estimated on-paper value of slaves in the South. There's a Lincoln Avenue in the adjacent, unincorporated town of Metairie, but it's a double dead end, three blocks long.

Mystery, Music, and Pleasure are streets. Piety and Desire, without the latter of which Tennessee Williams would have had no streetcar, are a pair of one-way streets that run in contrary directions. A series of uptown streets dating from the 1830s commemorates Napoleon Bonaparte, who was the object of a considerable cult in Louisiana. Alongside the major thoroughfare named Napoleon, lesser streets celebrate the battles of his career: Valence, Jena, Milan (pronounced Mylon), Austerlitz, Marengo, Constantinople, Cadiz. This is a history that only commemorates victories, so there's no Moscow Street, no Waterloo, and certainly no Port-au-Prince. There is no Toussaint Louverture Avenue to honor the greatest black revolutionary leader in American history, betrayed and murdered by Napoleon.

For that matter, few New Orleans streets are named after black people. A stretch of Dryades Street (named to honor wood nymphs) was renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard for the civil rights activist who died in 1987. A section of Melpomene (pronounced Melpa-mean) — just the part in the ghetto — was renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard while retaining its original name of the muse of tragedy spelled out on the sidewalk in chipped, gouged cornerstones. The entire length of the street wasn't renamed because it would have spoiled the set of nine parallel streets named for muses. ("We have no problems with Dr. King," said the president of the Coliseum Square Association. "It's just that he wasn't a Greek muse.") There is a corner where Martin Luther King meets Jefferson Davis.

In the city's antiquated architecture, slaves' handiwork is everywhere — in the grillwork, the tilework, the mortuary work, and the carpentry. One hundred fifty years ago, there were two dozen slave dealers in the vicinity of Gravier Street, with showrooms and slave jails. There are plenty of houses standing in New Orleans that are older than that — houses that were built by enslaved artisans, with the income from slaves' labor.

In New Orleans, you can easily see, and feel, that slavery wasn't so long ago.


The Gift of the River

Mud, mud, mud.

— Benjamin Henry Latrobe, describing New Orleans, 1819

I was at a backyard Mardi Gras party where people kept falling out of their chairs.

Admittedly, there was drinking going on. But that wasn't the reason people were dropping onto the ground. Someone would shift their weight and suddenly a spindly, pointed, plastic chair leg would punch down, breaking through the soft, porous earth and penetrating the ground. The chair would tip over, dumping out its laughing, inebriated occupant.

New Orleans is not exactly built on land.

Thirty feet down there is not bedrock, but peat and clay. The water table is so high that the city has to bury its dead in aboveground tombs. The architect and engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe, developing waterworks for the city in 1819, struck water not three feet down. There are vacant pockets underground where long-buried tree trunks and other organic material have rotted away. Many houses in the city sit on pilings that go fifty feet deep, or more; in the case of One Shell Square, at fifty-one stories the tallest building in Louisiana, they go two hundred feet deep.

The city is sinking. Some of New Orleans is subsiding a third of an inch or so a year. One of the worst-inundated sites of 2005, the Lakeview area, has sunk somewhere between ten to sixteen inches over the previous fifty years. Not only that, the city is going south. Located on the hanging wall of a fault system, detached from the main continent, southeast Louisiana is sliding southward, away from North America, a few millimeters a year. And sea levels are rising.

* * *

Louisiana is the nation's drainpipe. Approximately 41 percent of the runoff of the continental United States — water from as far away as New York State and Montana — flows down the Mississippi River past New Orleans on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

After the Mississippi descends past New Orleans, it branches off into the delta, a maze of waterways and silt that becomes increasingly fractal. Major Amos Stoddard noted in 1812 that "the Mississippi, near its confluence with the sea, is divided into five branches, and of course has its embouchure in the gulf by means of five mouths."

There are delta regions all over the world, whose curious ecosystems figure in some of the oldest stories of civilization. "An incredible marshland, a tangled amphibious world, with floating islands of vegetation, muddy forests, fever-infested swamps and, living in this hostile environment, where wildlife thrives, a few wretched fishermen": that description of the delta in Romania where the Danube empties into the Black Sea could equally apply to the southern tip of Louisiana. Statesmen of another time called the Mississippi "the American Nile"; upriver from New Orleans is the city of Memphis, formally incorporated in 1826 and named for the ancient Egyptian city.

Herodotus, the father of geography as well as of history, used the term "delta," deriving from the triangular letter of the Greek alphabet, to refer to the approximately triangular footprint of the fanning-out of the sedimentary deposit built up by the Nile as it approached the sea. "Anyone who sees Egypt," he wrote, "without having heard a word about it before, must perceive, if he has only common powers of observation, that [it] is an acquired country, the gift of the river."

Lower Louisiana is a "gift of the river." Built up out of the Gulf of Mexico by the vast quantities of mud that the Mississippi River system carries, it's the geologically youngest part of the United States. As in other river deltas of the world, the area around the lower reaches of the Mississippi is mud — small grained, and, as a glance at southern Louisiana's riot of fast-growing flora can tell you, fertile.

There are no rocks in the soil of southern Louisiana, not "even a single pebble." The river filters them out farther upstream. The filtering extends to the terrain of New Orleans: heavier grains of earth are closer to the river, so that the French Quarter has a coarser mud than the finer, slimier soil of what is known as Back of Town.

A traveler heading south to New Orleans in 1819 was surprised that plantations could be established on the unstable ground: "Early this morning we passed the thriving town of Baton-Rouge. ... Not far from hence, the high lands or primitive soil terminates, beyond which, to the sea, the whole country is alluvial and marshy. Continued lines of settlements still present themselves on either bank, and cotton and sugar are the great articles of their agricultural opulence." Even today, driving on the concrete ribbon of I-10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, it seems miraculous that they could run a highway over the slop.

Beyond New Orleans, the Mississippi River runs about ninety-five more miles, south by southeast, before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Obstructed by shifting sandbars, it has always been the least navigable part of the lower Mississippi. The Mississippi, which has changed its course various times over the millennia, took its present course in Louisiana perhaps eight hundred years ago, and the final fifty miles is geologically the newest of the new, built up only in that time. A glance at a satellite image of what geologists call the "alluvial birdfoot" of southernmost Louisiana makes clear that there is no exact demarcation where land ends and sea begins. What is called Plaquemines Parish is a strip thrown up by the Mississippi to either side that protrudes down into the Gulf of Mexico. Barely habitable, it has never been more than sparsely populated.

Old accounts refer to the town as the "Isle of Orleans." Built on the side of a natural levee of the Mississippi River, it pokes up out of a cypress swamp, surrounded by water and muck. Until the advent of electrical pumps in the 1890s made the swamp drainable, it slurped up to the edges of the city, constraining expansion that otherwise would have stretched outward from the crescent-shaped riverbend. Naturally fenced in, the town had a dense, urban character from the beginning. From the last years of the nineteenth century through the teens of the twentieth, New Orleans's push lakeward into drained swampland began a major new phase of the city's history that counterpoints the more famous notion of Storyville and coincided with the evolution of the musical practice that would come to be called jazz.

As long as there's commerce in North America, there'll have to be a port at the base of the Mississippi River. That crescent-shaped riverbend was a terrible place to build a town. But it was the least bad place in the swamp, and it was the spot that best connected the Mississippi River with the Gulf of Mexico. No place farther south on the river was usable, and any port farther north could be choked off by it. Whoever controlled that port possessed the key to the North American continent, which is why New Orleans was a primary target of Union forces in the Civil War, and why its capture in 1862 was a turning point for the fate of the Confederacy. It was a jump-off point for troops leaving for the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War, as well as for nineteenth-century filibustering expeditions against Cuba.


Excerpted from The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette. Copyright © 2008 Ned Sublette. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Rock the City,
2 The Gift of the River,
3 Piety,
4 Louis, Louis,
5 Mardi Gras,
6 The Duke of Arkansas,
7 The Senegambian Period,
8 An Ear for Musick,
9 The Cabildo,
10 Them Kongo Period,
11 The Eighteenth-Century Tango,
12 Desire,
13 The Sincerest Attachment,
14 Dance, Boatman, Dance,
15 Not Only as a Dance,
16 Bonaparte's Retreat,
17 An Addition to Capital,
18 The Slave-Breeding Industry,
19 The French Quarter,
20 Bargainland,
21 A Most Extraordinary Noise,
22 We Won't Bow Down,

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The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Neverwithoutabook on LibraryThing 5 months ago
All I can say is that I wish I'd had this book before my visit to New Orleans, but, that being said, I do plan to go back. It is a wonderful history of the development of New Orleans and it's history. I look forward to re-visiting sites that impressed me the first time, but that I can now look at with a more knowledgeble eye. I learned a lot from this book, not just about the history of New Orleans, but also the world events that affected it's growth and development and why it's culture is so very different from other parts of the US. This book makes it to my keepers list! If you haven't been to New Orleans and you enjoy history, this is a good place to start, but whether you read it or not....New Orleans is a wonderful place to visit!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read! Well detailed in describing all the events of the time period and how they intertwined with each other to affect the circumstances that created and preserved the people and culture of New Orleans. I used to live in the "Big Easy" and this book created a path to a deeper understanding of what was and what, I believe, now belongs to the ages. My fascination with the history of the city never gets old. And a thanks to a book like this one. I recommend it to anyone with a spirit for romance and a "shout out" to the author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago