For those of us who are not historians—and don’t want to be, but want to understand all of the forces that made New Orleans the city that it is—Ned Sublette’s book is a joy to read. He takes readers by the hand walking us through time and circumstances to give us an understanding of how the threads of history were woven together to produce the New Orleans culture. He brings a strong understanding of the music and how it shaped what became the Afro-Louisiana culture. He takes us on a journey from the Swamp, to Colonization, through Revolution and Purchase.
In “The Swamp” in the first section called “Rock the City” Sublette writes “…’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.”
As he says, “New Orleans is an alternative American history all in itself.”
In this book, Sublette “…backtrack[s]…to well before the founding of the Louisiana colony…introducing [his] cast of political characters: Spain, France, and England, along with their respective New World colonies of Cuba, Saint-Domingue, and Virginia.” Something I did not know is that Virginia–after its tobacco crop faltered and it became the major transit route for people from the Upper to Lower South– played a major role in the movement of African and African-ancestored people to the Louisiana region and can explain to this family researcher how/why a Louisiana ancestor came from Virginia and ended up in St. Landry Parish.
There are so many tantalizing clues, passages, mentions and references in this book that pique the reader’s interest to know more, for instance:
“La Espanola—the Spanish One—was the name Columbus gave to the second-largest of the Antillean islands when he ‘discovered’ it on his first voyage. Today, the island is uneasily shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. To the Taínos, whom Columbus called indios, the island was Quisqueya and Ayiti was their name for its mountainous part.”
“So: the word tango, to describe black dancing in New Orleans. In 1786, a full century before the emergence in Argentina of the dance by that name.”
I highly recommend this “…fascinating story of the people who created New Orleans: imperial schemers and enslaved Africans, merchants and pirates, revolutionaries and refugees from revolution, Acadians and Kongos, singing French nuns and Senegambian fiddlers…” as a must read for anyone trying to understand the forces that worked upon their families during this period of Louisiana colonial and New Orleans developmental history.