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  • Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans
  • Jennifer M. Spear
Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans. By Shannon Lee Dawdy (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008) 336 pages $35.00

In her insightful analysis of French New Orleans (1718–1769), Dawdy draws upon the methodologies of history, archaeology, and anthropology to argue that the city’s early history reflected not the failure of imperial designs but the success of “practical knowledge and flexible survival strategies.” New Orleans was transformed “from an experimental colonial enterprise . . . to a more stable, locally adapted society . . . in which actors [came] to share a basic set of understandings about who’s who and how things work” (5–6). Using the trope of disorder that historians of the city find difficult to avoid, Dawdy locates the roots of this perspective in the importance of smuggling to the city’s economy, the heterogeneity of its population, and a process of local governance that she calls rogue colonialism.

Dawdy contrasts the idealized plans (both literal and figurative) of the city’s Enlightenment architects with the adaptations that colonists made to local circumstances. Smuggling was one of their strategies for survival that required those involved to evade the constraints constructed by metropolitan mercantilists. The case of smuggling illustrates how rogue colonialism could be both illegal from the metropolitan perspective and permissible out of expediency. Anyone, from an enslaved boatman to a colonial governor, was likely to participate in it, either as a perpetrator or as a consumer. That smugglers understood their activities as illicit, even if accepted by fellow colonists, is underscored by their efforts to limit their presence in the official and judicial record. Dawdy is able to overcome this absence of documentation by fruitfully turning to the archaeological record and finding evidence of smugglers’ activities in the material culture that colonists left behind.

Documentary absences are also a problem in coming to terms with the demographic make-up of New Orleans’ population. Dawdy effectively challenges those who use lack of presence in the historical record [End Page 455] to argue for historical absences—for instance, those historians who claim that forçats (the forced exiles who comprised as many as one-quarter of French immigrants) “had almost no demographic impact” on the colony, partly because they do not appear in censuses and other official reports (151).1 Dawdy instead argues that the census categories themselves increasingly deemphasized differences in legal status among Euro-New Orleanians in favor of organizing the population into groups defined by ancestry, gender, and age.

Although she finds an increase in the use of racial categories in an attempt to make the colonial population legible, to paraphrase Scott, her analysis of free people of color in censuses shows that the transition from an emphasis on status to one on race was not yet complete by 1769.2 The relative absence of people identified as free persons of (at least partial) African ancestry does not, as Dawdy demonstrates, provide support for those who can envision scarce métissage and little manumission in French New Orleans. Rather, it reveals the lack of concern that many French New Orleanians had with identifying and categorizing people solely on the basis on ancestry. Dawdy makes this point dramatically in her description of a cemetery excavated in the 1980s. Analyzing the organization of the burial sites, she concludes that even at the level of the individual household, ordinary people in the city “were a multihued lot who mingled in casual, intimate, and sometimes profound ways” (141). Such evidence allows Dawdy to look beyond the idealized, and often unrealized, plans of metropolitan officials for segregating easily identifiable populations and to appreciate where local knowledge and creole innovations greatly shaped the city’s development.

Jennifer M. Spear
Simon Fraser University

Footnotes

1. See, for instance, James D. Hardy, Jr., “The Transportation of Convicts to Colonial Louisiana,” Louisiana History, VII (1966), 207–222; Mathé Allain, “Manon Lescaut et Ses Consouers: Women in the Early French Period, 1700–1731,” in James J. Cooke (ed.), Proceedings of the Fifth Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, March 29–April 1, 1979 (Lanham, Md., 1980), 18–26; Thomas N...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 455-456
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-06
Open Access
No
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