The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square  – ★★★★★
Since my previous post related to Mardi Gras celebrations, it is fitting now to talk about New Orleans, and I am presenting a curious non-fiction book by Ned Sublette, the author behind Cuba and Its Music . The World That Made New Orleans is a fascinating book that traces the history of New Orleans, Louisiana, from around 1492 to the nineteenth century: from the city’s humble beginnings on swamp soils to the French Spanish, British-American colonisations, and finally the city’s growth and ultimate urbanisation in the nineteenth century. This is not one’s ordinary history non-fiction book, however. Ned Sublette pays due attention to the music tradition of the area, its unique and changing slavery regimes, and spends time explaining why New Orleans became the diverse, jazz-pioneering and carnival-hosting city it is known today. Ambitious and well-researched, this insightful book provides an eye-opening journey into historical and cultural peculiarities of New Orleans. This is definitely the story of New Orleans like you have never read before.
Sublette starts his story way back in the past, portraying a swampy and undesirable place to live. What redeemed this area near Lake Pontchartrain was that it had a strategic position near the opening of the bay, with a great river flowing through it, giving access to water and navigation. Thus, he terms the place “a bowl set in water”. In 1492, Lord of La Salle arrives to the region of Mississippi and claims it for French King Louis XIV, hence the name of the state and the town. Another curious fact is that, in 1699, there was apparently the first celebration of Mardi Gras held in the area when Canadian explorer Iberville arrived and held some festivities with a local Indian population on Fat Tuesday. The French solution to populate the area was forced migration since no one saw the region as El Dorado, and that means convicts and undesirables of France arriving to the region, spurring the culture of criminality and poverty. Slaves from Africa and other French colonies were also arriving, later forming the Afro-Louisianan culture through the growing Creole population. In fact, until the 1830s, people of colour comprised the majority in the city. The author notes that dance as leisure grew rapidly in popularity among upper classes (the 1740s), and that it was Duc d’Orleans Philippe II who gave the name to the city. It was in the 1820s that the New Orleans became a powerful city, but not before changing authority hands – this time the Spanish gained power in 1764. Sublette writes that, with the Spanish regime, there were an urbanisation boost and more freedom given to black people since they now had certain rights. Acadians then arrived from the north, forming the Cajuns, another layer in the New Orleans’s multiculturalism. When Louisiana was annexed in 1804 by the US, the author notes that, at that time, the city “was [already] an urban crossroads of languages, both spoken and musical, with a complex Afro-Louisianan culture already in existence” [Sublette, 2008: 3]. This is only a brief summary of what this book has in store.
There are two things the author is not indifferent to and feels passionate about: the issue of slavery and music. In that vein, he spends quite some time on both, and sometimes the book reads like a treatise on the development of musical traditions in the area, while at other times, it feels like a treatise on the development of slavery. New Orleans had three changes of slavery regimes – with French, Spanish and then British-Americans came different outlooks on slavery and ways to organise it. All three nations then made their impact on New Orleans, shaping it. Sublette provides both a broader and more intimate picture of slavery prevailing at that time in New Orleans, sometimes making rather bold and shocking statements about the treatment of slaves and struggles for freedom. He also writes “in New Orleans, you can easily see, and feel, that slavery wasn’t so long ago” [Sublette, 2008: 7].
After finishing this book, music and New Orleans seem like two sides of the same coin. When the Spanish took control in 1764, they had a more relaxed slavery regime, with black people freely moving and being allowed to promote their traditions. That also meant dancing to African beats. According to the author, dancing was the way to communicate with other people, and, notoriously, nocturnal dances happened at the infamous Congo Square. This was also the way for slaves to communicate their personalities, passions and longing for freedom. Sublette writes: “notwithstanding other places of importance, the musical concepts of Africa were more freely and more widely expressed in the dynamic, creative, violent city of New Oreland than anywhere else in the United States” [2008: 120]; and “the multiple subterranean line of connection – the legacy of Congo Square, voodoo, the musical funeral procession, the Mardi Gras Indians, the spiritual churches, and other cultural phenomena – come together still in the contemporary music of New Orleans” [2008: 299].
The book may look a bit chaotic the way it focuses on some cultural elements and not on others, but the feeling is still that it is cohesive. Perhaps some digressions and personal opinions of the author were not necessary to tell the story (for example, his references to the personality of Thomas Jefferson), but even these passages are intriguing. The book also takes a dark turn in its “slave-breeding industry” chapter if some readers are interested in a more unsettling side to the story.
The World That Made New Orleans maybe a historical non-fiction, but it is written in an entertaining and accessible manner. It shows one peculiar rapid power struggle (French/Spanish/British-American dominions) for the originally rockless area benefiting from a good river location, while not forgetting Acadian and Indian influences. Most importantly, there was a unique African influence on the development of the city. The great thing about this illustrated book is that it highlights some of the historical and cultural elements which go overlooked when talking about the development of New Orleans. These include Spanish coins, British banking system, different slave regimes and African musical rhythms. New Orleans is not mishmash; it is a fusion – a layering of cultures, languages and traditions which gives the place a unique aura not found anywhere else in the world.