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The West Indian Cousin
Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Louisiana | No Comments
Between 1804 and 1810, New Orleans doubled its population. The common notion is that there was a large influx of Anglo-Americans. This was not the case. A careful estimate shows not more than 3,100 of these in the city in 1809, yet in the following year the whole population, including the suburbs, was 24,552. The Americans, therefore, were numerically feeble. The increase came from another direction.
Napoleon’s wars were convulsing Europe. The navies of his enemies fell upon the French West Indies. In Cuba large numbers of white and mulatto refugees who, in the St. Domingan insurrection, had escaped across to Cuba with their slaves, were now, by hostilities between France and Spain, forced again to become exiles. Within sixty days, between May and July, 1809, thirty-four vessels from Cuba set ashore in the streets of New Orleans nearly fifty-eight hundred persons – whites, free mulattoes, and black slaves in almost equal numbers. Others came later from Cuba, Guadaloupe, and other islands, until they amounted to ten thousand. Nearly all settled permanently in New Orleans.
The Creoles of Louisiana received the Creoles of the West Indies with tender welcomes. The state of society in the islands from which these had come needs no description. As late as 1871, ’72, and `73, there were in the island of Guadaloupe only three marriages to a thousand inhabitants. But they came to their better cousins with the ties of a common religion, a common tongue, much common sentiment, misfortunes that may have had sonic resemblance, and with the poetry of exile. They were reenforcements, too, at a moment when the power of the Americans – few in number, but potent in energies and advantages – was looked upon with hot jealousy.
The Anglo-Americans clamored against them, for they came in swarms. They brought little money or goods. They raised the price of bread and of rent. They lowered morals and disturbed order. Yet it was certainly true the Anglo-Americans had done little to improve either of these. Some lead come to stay; many more to make a fortune and get away; both sorts were simply and only seeking wealth.
The West Indians had not come to a city whose civilization could afford to absorb them. The Creole element needed a better infusion, and yet it was probably the best in the community. The Spaniards were few and bad, described by one as capable of tine vilest depredations, “a nuisance to the country,” and even by the mild Claiborne as “for the most part . . . well suited for mischievous and wicked enterprises.” The free people of color were about two thousand, unaspiring, corrupted, and feeble. The floating population was extremely bad. Sailors from all parts of the world took sides, according to nationality, in bloody street riots and night brawls; and bargemen, flat-boatmen, and raftsmen, from the wild banks of the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland, abandoned themselves at the end of their journey to the most shameful and reckless excesses. The spirit of strife ran up into the better classes. A newspaper article reflecting upon Napoleon all but caused a riot. A public uprising was hardly prevented when three young navy officers released a slave girl who was being whipped. In September, 1807, occurred the “batture riots.” The batture was, the sandy deposits made by the Mississippi in front of the Faubourg St. Marie. The noted jurist, Edward Livingston, representing private claimants, took possession of this ground, and was opposed by the public in two distinct outbreaks. In the second, the Creoles, ignoring the decision of the Supreme Court, rallied to the spot by thousands, and were quieted only by the patient appeals of Claiborne, addressed to them on the spot, and by the recommittal of the contest to the United States courts, in whose annals it is so well-known a cause. Preparations for war with Spain heightened the general fever. Claiborne’s letters dwell on the sad mixture of society. “England,” he writes, “has her partisans; Ferdinand the Seventh, some faithful subjects; Bonaparte, his admirers; and there is a fourth description of men, commonly called Burrites, who would join any standard which would promise rapine and plunder.” These last had a newspaper, “La Lanterne Magique,” whose libels gave the executive much anxiety.
Now, into such a city – say of fourteen thousand inhabitants, at most – swarm ten thousand white, yellow, and black West India islanders; some with means, others in absolute destitution, and “many . . . of doubtful character and desperate fortune.” Americans, English, Spanish, cry aloud; the laws forbid the importation of slaves; Claiborne adjures the American consuls at Havana and Santiago de Cuba to stop the movement; the free people of color are ordered point-blank to leave the country; the actual effort is made to put the order into execution; and still all three classes continue to pour into the streets, to throw themselves upon the town’s hospitality, and daily to increase the cost of living and the number of distressed poor.
They came and they stayed, in Orleans Street, in Du Maine, St. Philippe, St. Peter, Dauphine, Burgundy, and the rest, all too readily dissolving into the corresponding parts of the native Creole community, and it is easier to underestimate than to exaggerate the silent results of an event that gave the French-speaking Louisianians twice the numerical power with which they lead begun to wage their long battle against American absorption.
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