THE ACCIDENTAL CITY:
IMPROVISING NEW ORLEANS
By Lawrence N. Powell
Harvard University Press, $29.95
The name La Nouvelle Orléans had been chosen for the “principal town” (so-called) of French Louisiana, honoring the regency of the Duc d’Orléans. Where to put it was a matter of transatlantic political wrangling. The Paris investors wanted it upriver at Bayou Manchac, near Baton Rouge, owing to higher elevation and its greater promise as dry land meant to produce enough tobacco to rival the English colony of Virginia.
The headstrong, Canadian-born Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, had other ideas. Conversant in Indian languages, he was a skilled diplomat, an opportunist, and a survivor. Having granted himself land on the outskirts of the French Quarter, he was committed to the Crescent City. And in 1718-19, with the first settlers brought together and shiploads of African slaves en route, he took advantage of an economic shock back in France and founded the “improvised” Gulf town. New Orleans nearly disappeared that first year — the worst flood the still plentiful Indians could recall having ever experienced — and Bienville responded with the first crude levees, built (as the streets were) by slaves just out of Africa.
And so it all begins: a city rising out of the mud. The author of this finely detailed history of New Orleans in its first century is a professor of history at Tulane. Lawrence Powell writes that despite of the orderly grid pattern that described the Vieux Carré from the start, “the place looked like a manmade bog with intersections.” None of the early buildings survived more than 20 years, and the “liquid frontier” loomed large.
By the end of the first decade, at least half of the whites who had journeyed over had either perished or had moved elsewhere. Beyond the great landowners and merchants, the population distilled into a strange elixir: soldiers (many obliged to sleep outdoors), indentured servants, vagabonds, beggars. Inmates from French asylums were unloaded on the colony, other undesirables plucked by bounty hunters from the streets of Paris and quickly expelled from the country. Only a minority lived in Bienville’s town out of choice.
The middle decades of the 18th century are as arresting as an adventure story, with slippery smugglers, seductions, and suspicions. Powell takes us beyond the French Quarter to the maroon colonies of escaped slaves — wetlands hunters and herdsmen who traded with neighboring whites. By no means does he leave out les grands, the familiar surnames, who set in motion the drama of the cession to Spain in the 1760s. Members of the Creole elite feared changes in local authority and some rose up in rebellion. Ironically, an Irish-Catholic military strategist, Alexander O’Reilly, was the man who took charge of asserting Spanish power over New Orleans. As the port was integrated into the Spanish trading empire, its town government put in the hands of the Cabildo council, the idea of English vessels monopolizing the colony’s trade and Spain’s inability to supply more than olive oil and sausage made Madrid nervous.
During the American Revolution, the Spanish, under Bernardo de Gálvez, took the rebels’ side, helping Virginian George Rogers Clark oust the British from the upper Mississippi. It was around the same time that Etienne de Boré came up with a drainage system capable of supporting sugarcane production, bringing an end to the never-quite-practical tobacco economy. But as American independence was won, a catastrophic flood washed away much of Lower Louisiana; this was followed by the 1795 fire that started in a home on Chartres Street and destroyed 856 buildings in five hours — reminders of the fragility of close-quarters urban living.
The author’s most powerful descriptions come in chapters that deal with real-life conditions. We learn, for instance, about the extraordinary efforts of Barón de Carondelet in the 1790s. During his six years as governor, he used convicts and slaves to build the canal, opened the city’s first newspaper, and lit the streets with lamps fueled by pelican grease. Nothing, however, dispelled the city’s unhygienic feel — marked by “decomposing animals and dead fish, whose reek permeated the town.” Interwoven with all of this is Powell’s sharp characterization of the evolving racial and religious demographic, and the ways in which French, Spanish, and American laws contended with entrepreneurial slaves who could never really be subjugated. Indeed, the Spanish courts were constantly promoting leniency, to the point of allowing slaves to sue their masters for cruelty.
Powell writes for a wide audience. So, it’s no accident that The Accidental City is a smooth and satisfying synthesis of a long century of political upheaval and cultural formation. To read this book is to appreciate what makes the region’s creolized past unique — proof, once again, that Louisiana history is as serpentine as the lower reaches of the Mississippi River.
Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American politics and culture. His website is: http://www.andburstein.com.
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