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From Spanish Silver to Congo Square

by Ned Sublette

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-55652-730-2
Publisher: Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review

Broad, overambitious cultural history of New Orleans, from its inauspicious beginnings to its arrival as an important American city by 1819.

Radio and music producer Sublette (Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, 2004) plows through several centuries, never quite deciding whether to concentrate on history or culture—or on what to omit. After a marshy site at the mouth of the Mississippi was reluctantly chosen by the French in 1698 as a post to keep out the British, he writes, New Orleans soon joined Santo Domingo and Havana as part of a preeminent metropolis in the region—the three cities constantly changed colonial masters and influenced each other profoundly. Unable to make New Orleans attractive to settlers, the French had to rely on forced emigration (it was briefly a penal colony). The duc d’Orleans hoped to make the city profitable by licensing Scottish speculator John Law’s notorious Mississippi Company; frenzied speculation and then a hideous 1721 crash did nothing for the city’s financial stability. Consequently, the fledgling town took on a unique personality during the two principal periods identified by the author. The French era got underway when African slaves began arriving in 1719. Mostly from Senegal, many were sophisticated artisans and brought with them distinct forms of dancing, drums and music. The Spanish period began in 1762, when Louis XV gave the territory to his cousin Carlos III, and ended with Napoleon’s sale of Louisiana to America in 1803. The Spanish, Sublette argues, gave New Orleans its definitive character, establishing a strong town council and creating a true urban center. Under a relatively progressive legal code, slaves could own property and buy their freedom. Describing New Orleans culture as an ajiaco (stew), Sublette throws a few too many ingredients into the pot, incorporating revolutions in America, France and Haiti as well as myriad forms of music and religion.

A heady but often murky brew.