Brighter Skies

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“Out of this nettle, danger,” says the great bard, “we pluck this flower, safety.” The dreadful scourge of 1853 roused the people of New Orleans, for the first time, to the necessity of knowing the proven truth concerning themselves and the city in which they dwelt.

In the midst of the epidemic, the city council had adjourned, and a number of its members had fled. But, in response to popular demand, a board of health had appointed the foremost advocates of quarantine and municipal cleansing a commission to study and report the melancholy lessons of the plague. It labored arduously for many months. At its head was that mayor of New Orleans, Crossman by name, whose fame for wise and protracted rule is still a pleasant tradition of the city, and whose characteristic phrase-“a great deal to be said on both sides”-remains the most frequent quotation on the lips of the common people to-day. Doctors Barton, Axson, McNeil, Symonds, and Riddell,-men at the head of the medical profession,-completed the body. They were bold and faithful, and they effected a revolution.

The thinking and unbiased few, who in all communities, must first receive and fructify the germ of truth, were convinced. The technical question of the fever’s contagiousness remained unsettled; but its transportability was fearfully proven in a multitude of interior towns, and its alacrity in seeking foul quarters and its malignancy there were plainly shown by its history in the city. The commission pronounced in favor of quarantine, and it was permanently established, and has ever since become, annually, more and more effective. They earnestly recommended, also, the purging of the city, and keeping it purged, by proper drainage and sewerage, of all those foul conditions that were daily poisoning its earth and air. The response to this was extremely feeble.

It would seem as if the commercial value both of quarantine and cleanliness might have been seen by the merchant, since the aggregate value of exports, imports, and domestic receipts fell off twenty-two and a half millions, and did not entirely recover for three years. Put it was not. The merchants, both Creole and American, saw only the momentary inconveniences and losses of quarantine and its defective beginnings; the daily press, in bondage to the merchant through its advertising columns, carped and cavilled in two languages at the innovation and expanded on the filthiness of other cities, while the general public thought what they read.

Yet, in the face of all set-backs, the city that once was almost annually scourged, has, in the twenty-seven years since the Great Epidemic, which virtually lasted till 1855, suffered but one mild and three severe epidemics. In 1878, occurred the last of these, and the only severe one in fourteen years. Its fatality was but little over half as great as that of the Great Epidemic. In the five years ending with 1855, the average annual mortality had been seventy. In the next five, it fell to forty-five. In the five of the secession and war period, it was forty. In the next, it was thirty-nine; in the next, it sank to thirty-four and a half; in that which closed in 1880, notwithstanding the terrible epidemic of 1878, the rate was but thirty-three and a half, and in the five years since that affliction it was under twenty-seven.

The popular idea that a sudden revolution in the sanitary affairs of the Creole city was effected by General B. F. Butler in 1862 is erroneous. It has just been shown that the city’s health had already been greatly improved before the Civil War set in. When General Butler assumed control of its affairs there had been no epidemic of yellow fever for four years. The year of his domination was actually less healthy than the year before, its death-rate being thirty-six, against thirty-four for 1861. In the second summer of Federal occupation the rate was an entire third larger than in the summer before the city fell. No five years since the close of the war, dividing the time off in regular periods of that length, has failed thus far to show a better mortality-rate than that five which ended with 1865; and in ten of the eighteen years immediately following that of Butler’s notorious rule, the mortality has been lighter than it was that year. The mortality of 1879 was under twenty-four, and that of 1880, twenty-six per thousand.

The events of 1878 are fresh in the public mind. In New Orleans they overwhelmed the people at large with the convictions which 1853 had impressed upon the more thoughtful few. To the merchant, “shot-gun quarantines” throughout the Southern Mississippi Valley explained themselves. The commercial necessity of quarantine and sanitation was established without a single scientific light, and measures were taken in hand for perfecting both-measures which are growing and bearing fruit day by day. They have already reduced the insalubrity of New Orleans to a point where it may be compared, though timidly, with that of other great cities, and promise before long to make the city, really and emphatically, the home of health, comfort, and safety.

In the study of his expanded city, we have wandered front the contemplation of the Creole himself. It remains to be said that, unquestionably, as his town has expanded and improved, so has he. As the improvements of the age draw the great world nearer and nearer to him, he becomes more and more open to cosmopolitan feeling. The hostility to Americans, as such, is little felt. The French tongue is falling into comparative disuse, even in the family circle. The local boundaries are overstepped. He lives above Canal Street now without feeling exiled. The social circles blend into each other. Sometimes, with the old Gallic intrepidity of conviction, he moves ahead of the American in progressive thought.

In these matters of sanitary reform, he has his share-or part of it. The old feeling of castellated immunity in his own high-fenced home often resents, in sentiment at least, official house-to-house inspection and the disturbance of a state of affairs under which his father and grandfather reached a good old age and left no end of children. Yet the movement in general has his assent; sometimes his cooperation; sometimes his subscription; and his doctors take part in debates and experiments. He is in favor of all this healthful flushing; this deepening and curbing of canals; this gratuitous and universal distribution of copperas, etc. Against one feature only he wages open war. He laughs, but he is in earnest; copperas, he tolerates; lime, the same; all odorless disinfectants, indeed; but carbolic acid-no! In Gallic fierceness, he hurls a nick-name at it-“acide diabolique.” When he smells it, he loads his gun and points it through his shutters. You shall never sprinkle him with that stuff-never! And who knows but he is nearest to the right?

On his sugar plantations, in the parishes named for the saints, he has grown broad and robust–a strong, manly figure in neat, spurred boots, a refined blood flushing through his bronzed but delicate skin, making him at times even florid. He is not so mortgaged as he used to be. Yankee neighbors have dropped in all about him lately, as they did in earlier days about his city cousins; some from the eastern, some from the western North-he calls them all by one generic term. But he likes them. They are preferable to “Cadians”-much. They stimulate him. He is not so wedded to “open kettle” sugars as he once was. He is putting “vacuum pans” into his sugar-house-nay, did not the Creole, Valcour-Aime, introduce the vacuum pan into Louisiana? -and studies chemistry till he beats his breast in the wholeness of his attention. Yet he is full, too, of the questions of the day. The candor with which he grasps the new turn of affairs resulting from the Civil War is worthy of imitation by many an Anglo-American Southern community. He is apt to say he never did believe heartily in African slavery and now he knows it was a sad mistake. The creel sentiments of caste that sprang from it still survive, but they burn with no fierceness. They cannot easily perish, for they have been handed down through generations. They are like those old bronze Argands, once so highly prized, still standing, rayless, on his mantelpiece; lamps without oil. You may still see Congo Square, where the slave once danced his savage African songs in tattered half-nakedness on Sabbath afternoons; but the thunder of African drums rumbles there no more, and the Creole and the freedman are alike well pleased that “the jig is up.” The Calaboza remains, but the irons that once burnt the flower-de-lace into the recaptured runaway’s shoulder, and he four whipping-posts to which the recalcitrant slave was once made fast by hands and feet, are gone, and the Creole is glad of it. He is willing to be just to his former bondservant, now fellow-citizen, and where he holds the old unjust attitudes does so with little consciousness. The old Gallic intrepidity of thought comes to his aid, and is helping him out of the fiercely extreme conservatism engendered by an institution that could not afford to entertain suggestions of change. There is no other part of Louisiana where the slave has made so much progress, as a mass, toward the full possession of freedom as he has in the “sugar parishes.” The colored man’s history in the laud of the Creoles we cannot write here. It would throw light upon our theme, but_some other time. It is a theme by itself, too large to be hung upon this. Later, the Creole himself will be more prepared for it. Meantime he quotes the New York papers, and tells you frankly that he only wishes he could be rid of _North Louisiana-where the “American” planter reigns supreme–it is so behind the times.

When he is not so he is very different. In such case he bows his head to fate. His fences are broken; his levee is dangerous; the plastering is falling in his parlor; his garden has become a wild, damp grove, weed-grown and untrodden; his sugar is dark, his thin linen coat is home-made; he has transferred his hopes to rice and made his home sickly with irrigation; he doesn’t care who you are, and will not sell a foot of his land-no, not for price that man can name! -till the red flag hangs out for him on he courthouse square and the man with one drumstick drums him out of house and home.

Property Value

In New Orleans, sad shrinkages in the value of downtown property have played havoc with the old Creole renter. Court officers and lawyers are full of after-dinner stories illustrating the pathetic romance of his fate. He keeps at home, on the front veranda. His wife and daughter take in sewing and make orange marmalade and fig preserves on small private contracts. His son is a lounger in the court-rooms. The young, man buttons his worn coat tightly about his small waist, walks with a brisk affectation of being pressed for time, stops yon silently in Royal Street or Pére Antoine’s Alley, on the stairway of the old Cabildo, to light his cigarette from your cigar-symbolic action, always lighting his cigarette from somebody’s cigar-gives you a silent, call-it-square sort of bow as full of grace as a Bourbon prince’s, and hurries on, hoping soon to become fifth assistant to some deputy sheriff or public surveyor, or, if he have influential relatives, runner for a bank. He “plays the lottery,” that curse of his town.

“Well, of co’se,” he says, blowing the tobacco smoke through his nose, “thaz the way with evveybody, those time’-sinz ladely.” Really he would ask you around to “The Gem,” but–his poor, flat pocket! nothing in it but his “memo’andum book,” and not even a “memo’andum” in that.

But he has kinsmen, in goodly number, who blush for him; he will tell you so with a strange mixture of pride and humility; and who are an honor and a comfort to their beloved city. They sit on the most important committees in the great Cotton Exchange, and the Produce Exchange, and in reform movements. They are cashiers and vice-presidents and presidents of street railway companies, of insurance companies, of banks. They stand in the front ranks at the bar. They gain fame and reverence on the bench. They have held every office within the gift of the State. And they have been great beyond their own boundaries-out in the great world. A Louisiana Creole was once, for a short time, Minister of War in France, under the Directory. Another sat in the Spanish Cortes. Another became a Spanish Lieutenant General. Another was a general of patriot forces when the South American provinces threw off the yoke of Spain. Jean Jacques Audubon was a Creole of Louisiana. Louis Gottschalk was a -New Orleans Creole. General Beauregard is a Creole of an old Creole line.

They are not “dying out.” Why by should they? “Doze climade sood dem” better than it suits any alien who has ever tried the drowsy superabundance of its summer sun- light, and they are becoming ever more, and more worthy to survive. Their pride grows less fierce, their courage is no weaker for it, their courtesy is more cordial, they are more willing to understand and be understood, and their tastes for moral and intellectual refinements are growing.

Even in their headlong gayeties – the spectacular pageants of the carnival – they have stricken hands with the “American,” borrowed his largeness of pretension and the barbaric ambition of the South’s retarded artistic impulse. The unorganized rout of masks peculiar to the old Latin cities has been turned into gorgeous, not to say gaudy, tableaux drawn through the streets under the glare of blazing petroleum and frequent lime-lights, on tinselled cars, by draped teams, to the blare of brass music and the roar of popular acclamation, in representation of one or another of the world’s great myths, epics, or episodes. Many thousands of people are drawn from contiguous or distant parts, with the approach of each Mardi-gras, to see -may the good town forgive the term-these striding puerilities. Some come to gaze in wonder on these miracles in papier-machae and plaster-of-Paris, and some, it is feared, to smile behind their hats at make-believe art, frivolous taste, and short-sighted outlay. The expenditure of time, money, and labor on these affairs is great worthy of more lasting achievements. One Carnival day and night some years ago the crowds were more enormous than ever, the displays were gorgeous, the whole city was one wide revel. All through the hours of a glorious day the long, dazzling procession passed with their jewelled king sparkling in their midst, in street-full after street-full of multitudes that made the warm air quiver with acclamations. Night fell, and Comus and his Krewe came forth in a blaze of torches and made everything seem tame that had gone before; and when at midnight, with the tinkle of a little bell, all disappeared, the people said that there had never been such a carnival. But when the sun rose again they prayed there might never be just such another. For on his neglected couch, sought too tardily, the victim of overfatigue, the royal Comus, lay dead. The “American,” as well as the Creole, owns an undivided half of this folly, and the Creole, as well as the “American,” is beginning to deprecate it. Already better aspirations are distinctly shown, and the city’s efforts are reaching forth in many directions to adorn herself with attractions that do not vanish at cockcrow, but, inviting the stranger to become a visitor, also tempt him to remain, a resident.

We have said that the air which the Creole breathes with unvarying satisfaction and exhales in praises of its superior merits is never very hot or very cold, by the mercury. Even in July and August the column lingers, for the most part, under 95°, and in mid-winter seldom sinks more than four or five degrees below the freezing-point. But since it is the evaporation from the surrounding swamps, marshes, and other shallow waters that makes this, moderation, the effects upon the person are those of decidedly greater extremes of heat and cold. Yet the long and dazzlingly beautiful summers are generally salubrious, and it would be difficult to exaggerate the charms of the exuberant spring which sets in before January is gone, and rises gently in fervor until May ushers in the summer. As to the summer, it goes, unwillingly, in November.

Its languid airs have induced in the Creole’s speech great softness of utterance. The relaxed energies of a luxurious climate find publication, as it were, when he turns final k into g; changes th, and t when not initial, to d; final p to b, drops initial 1i., final le, and t after k ; often, also, the final d of past tenses ; omits or distorts his r, and makes a languorous z of all s’s and soft c’s except initials. On the other hand, the old Gallic alertness and wire-edge still asserts itself in the confusing and inter-changing of long e and short i-sheep for ship, and ship for sheep-in the flattening of long i, as if it were coming through cane-crushers, in the prolonging of long a, the intrusion of uncalled-for initial h’s, and the shortening and narrowing of nearly all long and broad vowels.

The African slave in Louisiana-or, it may be more correct to say, in St. Domingo, before coming to Louisiana-corrupted the French tongue as grossly, or even more so, than he did the English in the rice plantations of South Carolina. No knowledge of scholarly French is a guarantee that the stranger will understand the “Creole” negro’s gombo. To the Creole sang pur this dialect is an inexhaustible fountain of amusement. In the rural parishes the harsh archaisms of the Acadian perform the same office and divide the Creole’s attention. But in “the City” they Acadian dialect is hardly known, and for a century or more the melodious drollery and grotesqueness of the negro patois has made it the favorite vehicle of humorous song and satirical prose and verse.

It would make a long chapter to untangle its confused mass of abbreviations, suppressions of inflections, liasons, nazalizations, omissions, inversions, startling redundancies, and original idioms. The Creole does not tolerate its use in polite conversation, and he is probably seldom aware that his English sparkles and crackles with the same pretty corruptions. For example, or as the Creole himself would say, “faw egzamp,” let us take the liberty of inventing a sentence and setting it in his lips

“I am going to do my utmost to take my uncle there, but he is slightly paralyzed and I do not think he will feel like going.” -he would say

“I goin’ do my possib’ fedge ma hunc’ yond’, bud, ‘owevva, ‘e’s a lit’ bit pa’alyze an’ I thing ‘e don’ goin’ fill ligue.”

Examples need not be multiplied. One innocent assertion that found its way to a page of the present writer’s scanty notes from the lips of a Creole country physician will stand for a hundred. The doctor, like many of his race, would have known at once that the foregoing illustration was bad English; but he is not aware, to this day, that there was any inaccuracy in his own simple assertion: “I’ve juz been pulling some teeth to your neighbor.”

There are reasons-who can deny it? -why we should be glad that the schoolmaster is abroad in Louisiana, teaching English. But the danger is, that somewhere in the future lurks a day when the Creole will leave these loveable drolleries behind him, and speak our tongue with the same dull correctness with which it is delivered in the British House of Lords. May he live long, and that time, be very, very far away!



MLA Source Citation:

Cable, George Washington and Pennell, Joseph. The Creoles of Louisiana. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1884. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 7 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/louisiana/brighter-skies.htm - Last updated on May 13th, 2013


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