- Caribbean New Orleans: Empire, Race, and the Making of a Slave Society by Cécile Vidale
Caribbean New Orleans: Empire, Race, and the Making of a Slave Society.
Williamsburg, Virginia: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 552 pp. 10 illustrations, 9 maps, 7 tables, notes, index. $49.95 cloth (ISBN: 978-1-4696-4518-6); $29.99 electronic (ISBN: 978-1-4696-4519-3).
For those familiar with the caribbean and who also know New Orleans through its cuisine, architecture, or music, it may seem unsurprising that recent scholarly research should identify New Orleans as a Caribbean city. But in her latest book, historian Cécile Vidale has analyzed a rich array of documentary sources to provide abundant evidence of the historical similarities that New Orleans shares with the Greater Caribbean, in particular Saint Domingue and the Lesser Antilles of the French Caribbean. Caribbean [End Page 299] New Orleans specifically examines the racialization of society in New Orleans under the French regime from the founding of city in 1718 through the 1760s and the transfer of the city to Spanish rule. The book is an illuminating and often delightful portrait of a racially complex city of endless conflict that strived to define itself in the midst of myriad demographic influences. Scholars and non-academic readers alike will enjoy the finesse with which Vidale teases out compelling anecdotes from archival documents that hold the story of this beloved city’s rough beginning.
As Professor of History and Director of the Center for North American Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Dr. Vidale brings to this book a deep historical understanding of the Mississippi Valley region as well as a critical Continental perspective on the French empire and its colonies in the Americas. Following her equally illuminating Louisiana: Crossroads of the Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), Caribbean New Orleans is the result of Vidale’s decision to undertake a more exacting investigation of New Orleans’s place beyond its North American geographical milieu and reveal its historical affinity with the French Caribbean.
Her work is a beautiful example of painstaking archival investigation that generates for the reader a sense of daily life in eighteenth century New Orleans, with a focus on racialized interpersonal relationships. With this book, Vidale has contributed to the labors of New Orleans archival scholars such as Gwen-dolyn Midlo Hall (among her many books, see Africans in Colonial Louisiana, LSU Press, 1992), who insists that any historical understanding of the city demands examination of the original documents in French, Spanish, and English, and Richard Campanella, geographer and prolific author of archive-based research on New Orleans (see, for example, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans, Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2008).
Vidale’s investigative work in Continental archives is a welcome element of the book that helps readers to understand how New Orleans experienced the influence of the distant but omnipresent metropole. This critical examination of imperial documents complements the author’s extensive research in New Orleans libraries and collections as she interrogates French colonialism in the Americas. Indeed, an invaluable asset of the book is the meticulous annotation of all of the document sources referenced by archive, folio, and number that Vidale includes in her footnotes, details that will greatly assist any researcher wanting to investigate related topics. Regrettably, there is no full bibliography at the end of the book, and the index is limited, so readers and researchers seeking scholarly bibliographic references will need to rely on the extensive footnotes in each of the nine chapters.
The various chapters of Caribbean New Orleans, each intriguing for its own thematic content, treat specific spaces and arenas of early New Orleans society where disparate populations mingled. Throughout, Vidale argues that one of the key elements that connects New Orleans to the Caribbean is the creation of a slave society in a port city that maintained power through a repressive [End Page 300] legal structure developed specifically to uphold white supremacy and systematically...