Saturday, September 12, 2015

How Haiti's Revolution Gave New Orleans to America

It is a little discussed but well established fact that Haitian Free People of Color, along with their local counterparts, were the most seminal influence on what we think of as traditional New Orleans culture. A new book explains the sequence of events that led to thousands of Haitian emigres, including much of Haiti's Afro-Creole professional class, literally doubling this city's population during the early years of the 19th century.


The 1791 Haitian Revolution secured black independence in the former French colony and sounded the death knell for the European slave trade. It also ensured the expansion of U.S. slavery.

By Edward E. Baptist

In 1800, French traveler Pierre-Louis Duvallon prophesized that New Orleans was “destined by nature to become one of the principal cities of North America, and perhaps the most important place of commerce in the new world.” Projectors, visionaries, and investors who came to this city founded by the French in 1718 and ceded to the Spanish in 1763 could sense the same tremendous possible future.

Yet powerful empires had been determined to keep the city from the United States ever since the 13 colonies achieved their independence. Between 1783 and 1804, Spain repeatedly revoked the right of American settlers further upriver to export their products through New Orleans. Each time they did so, western settlers began to think about shifting their allegiances. Worried U.S. officials repeatedly tried to negotiate the sale and cession of the city near the Mississippi’s mouth, but Spain, trying to protect its own empire by containing the new nation’s growth, just as repeatedly rebuffed them. Spain’s stubborn possession of the Mississippi’s mouth kept alive the possibility that the United States would rip itself apart. Yet something unexpected changed the course of history.

In 1791, Africans enslaved in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue exploded in a revolt unprecedented in human history. Saint-Domingue, the western third of the island of Hispaniola, was at that time the ultimate sugar island, the imperial engine of French economic growth. But on a single August night, the mill of that growth stopped turning. All across Saint-Domingue’s sugar country, the most profitable real estate on the planet, enslaved people burst into the mansions. They slaughtered enslavers, set torches to sugar houses and cane fields, and then marched by the thousand on Cap-Francais, the seat of colonial rule. Thrown back, they regrouped. Revolt spread across the colony. More>>