Powell (American Civilization/Tulane Univ.; Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke’s Louisiana, 2000, etc.) returns with a dense, complex history of a dense, complex settlement.
The author knows well the geographical and geopolitical history of the city where he teaches, and the complexity of this story would daunt a faint-hearted historian—which Powell manifestly is not. He dives confidently into the murky bayou of the region’s story, and what a tangled tale he emerges to tell. The author begins with the explorers, provides geological history of the region and of the serpentine, intractable Mississippi River. Powell then narrates the stories of the French, Spanish, African slaves and British—all of whom settled, collided, mingled, married, reproduced and competed. The European colonial powers, especially France, attempted to impose on the area—a most unlikely spot for a settlement, as Powell continually reminds us—some sort of design, but the terrain, the weather and the unique human mixture imposed their own fluid economy and culture. After taking over, Spain found it more profitable to practice a more relaxed reign, especially with slaves, who enjoyed more freedom of movement, economic clout and opportunities for manumission than they did with the French, and than they would with the Americans. The author begins with initial settlements and ends with the War of 1812. Along the way he tells stories—sometimes too densely for general readers—of the well-known (John Law) and little known (an ineffectual Spanish governor, Don Antonio de Ulloa) and should-be-known (the organizers of New Orleans’ capable black militia). Powell is brilliant at elucidating the city’s intricate racial politics.
Superior scholarship provides a sturdy foundation for a hefty narrative edifice that sometimes groans with the weight of detail.