Gwendolyn Midlo Hall
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Callaloo 29.4 (2007) 1049-1055

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall
with Charles Henry Rowell

ROWELL: Apart from the music, the cuisine, and Mardi Gras, what makes New Orleans different from other cities in Louisiana and cities in the United States?

HALL: When I gave my first lecture in New Orleans in 1989, I said that New Orleans is the most African city in the United States. That phrase has been repeated endlessly. I think that's the first thing we need to recognize. It stems from the pattern of introduction of Africans slaves and the conditions they encountered in Louisiana. They started to be introduced in 1719. Almost all of them who were brought over during the French period landed before 1731. Thus they arrived in a compact mass. Two-thirds of them came from the Senegambia region. This region had coherent and interacting cultures, so although there were various African ethnicities among them, the Wolof were very important – especially Wolof women – and the Bamana (often misspelled and mispronounced Bambara) were very important too. They were overwhelmingly male. In Louisiana, the African ethnicities were clustered. They began to be introduced very shortly after the founding of New Orleans in 1718. So during the earliest, formative years of New Orleans, Africans arrived in a compact mass from a particular place. The Louisiana Creole language was created very early, by that first generation of Africans and their children born in Louisiana. There was significant influence on religion and culture, as well as language, on cooking, and certainly on music.

In 1729, while Africans were being introduced in large numbers, the Natchez Revolt took place. It killed one-tenth of the French colonists, especially those who had skills. Many of the surviving French colonists left. But the Canadian coureurs du bois remained. They lived in Native American villages trading in furs and other goods. They mated with Indian women and had children with them. White settlers mated with black women as well. Thus the Louisiana population was culturally and racially mixed from its early beginnings. During the remaining decades of French rule, most of the settlements of Louisiana were majority African. Their culture was very open, with a tradition of assimilating and exchanging with other peoples. The Africans interacted closely with the Native Americans: they ran off to the swamps together. The Africans taught the Indians French methods of warfare. The Indians taught them how to take refuge in woodlands and swamps and [End Page 1049] welcomed them into their villages. Thus the foundation was laid for multiethnicity and diversity from the very beginnings of the colonization in Louisiana. A creole population and culture emerged during the early years of colonization.

The Europeans and peoples of European descent were varied as well. There was a very early German immigration. The Germans settled slightly upriver from New Orleans in a region which is still called the German Coast. Aside from the Canadians, other peoples came over directly from various regions of France. Many of them were indentured servants or people deported from France for various offenses, including soldiers who had deserted, salt smugglers, and women of ill repute. Some of them were forced to marry in Louisiana against their will. Africans, Indians, and poor French colonists ran away together. There was also a French elite who got land concessions. Thus there was a variety of social classes among the French because on one hand, there were there the deportees, who were at the bottom of the social latter, and then there were people who were—you can exaggerate the level of their nobility—but there were people who had some influence and they did get land concessions. Spain took over effective control of Louisiana by 1770. People came over from various regions of Spain: Catalonians as well as Castilians and Canary Islanders. The African slave trade increased enormously when the Spanish took over Louisiana. This trade was mainly trans-shipments from the Caribbean. This did not mean that they were Caribbean born or socialized slaves. They were almost entirely new Africans, who...