Saturday, January 19, 2008

The World That Made New Orleans

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, Ned Sublette (Lawrence Hill Books)
In 1682, the French-Canadian explorer Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, undertook an epic journey to discover the mouth of the Mississippi River. Traveling by canoe, La Salle and his party crossed the Great Lakes and successfully negotiated the entire Mississippi. He claimed all of the territory drained by the great river for France and named it "La Louisiane," for his king. Thirty-six years later in 1718, French colonists under the auspices of the French Mississippi Company established the settlement of La-Nouvelle Orleans or, as it is known today, New Orleans. Thus began the remarkable history of the most extraordinary, culturally rich, and complex city in the United States. Ned Sublette recounts that history brilliantly in The World That Made New Orleans.

New Orleans is a great paradox. Its contributions to American and world culture in terms of music and cuisine are unmatched. At the same time, it is hard to imagine a less typically American city than New Orleans, which evolved from the confluence of six historical forces: Spanish and French colonialism, Roman Catholicism, and three strains of slave importation from Africa, Sainte-Domingue, and Virginia. Sublette's ability to meld the economic, cultural, political, and geographical aspects of these forces into a cogent, literate account is always impressive and at times breath-taking.

A musician himself with grounding in Cuban and Caribbean forms, Sublette is especially strong on the early development of New Orleans music. For example, because Spanish regulations regarding slave gatherings were considerably more lax than those of France or the United States, New Orleans' forty years of Spanish rule proved vital musically. Slaves from different parts of Africa gathered weekly in Congo Square and shared their their varying traditions of music and dance. The transfer of American slaves from Virginia to Louisiana added an element of Protestantism to a slave community grounded in Catholicism and voudou. (The influence of voudou on New Orleans is complex, to say the least. Sublette traces the development of this vital religion from Africa through Sainte-Domingue and Cuba to New Orleans.)

Along the way, Sublette demolishes any remaining myths about benign slavery, and yet he is able to do it with resorting to torture porn. It was news to me that United States stopped the importation of slaves in 1808 at the behest of the state of Virginia. Virginia had a surplus of slaves and wanted to sell the surplus south. Not an act of surpassing moral fitness, the 1808 decision was bald economic protectionism. 

Similarly, he explains how slavery itself destroyed any semblance of the black nuclear family. Among other things, slaves were chattel for breeding, the most valuable economic resource a Southern "gentleman" could have. Slaves not only provided free labor, they could be used as credit. Cotton and sugar plantation owners lived lives of great opulence and great debt. Upon the death of a slave owner, his slaves were often sold (without regard for family) to pay the owner's debts.

I've read more than a few books in my life, and I know National Book Award caliber work when I see it. The World That Made New Orleans is that kind of book, and deserves as wide an audience as possible. It's an articulate, forceful reminder of New Orleans' historical and cultural meaning. As Sublette said in an interview after Hurricane Katrina, "You cannot abandon New Orleans. You can say that New Orleans has no viability as a business or industrial city. But if our history and culture as a nation mean anything, New Orleans is central to it." Highly recommended.


Renegade Eye said...

I think Ned Sublette is brilliant and talented. I'm always telling people about his music.

See this from my blog about Congo Park.

Foxessa said...
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