Refuge from War and Revolution

Acadia Mikmaq Wikipedia
Acadia as it stood in 1754. Most had already been ceded to the British. Map Credit: Wikimedia user Mikmaq.

New Orleans soon became a home for many groups that had nowhere else to go. The first major influx of refugees to stagger into the city and its surrounding waterways were the former French inhabitants of Acadia. Much of the French colony had been ceded to the English in 1710, following another chapter in the never ending book of war between the two nations, and the Catholic French had never quite taken to British rule.[1] It took another four insurrections and outright wars before the British finally threw up their hands after the French and Indian War of 1754-1763. As the war effectively severed French control of Canada, the Acadians and all other French residents were given an eighteen month to vote with their feet. In no mood to try their luck at war number five, the Acadians and many others packed their bags and headed to Louisiana, in a move sometimes called the Great Upheaval. Having already struggled to make one hostile climate habitable out of eastern Canada, they set to work in Louisiana, bringing along technologies like sluice pumps to help drain some of the wetlands. Clannish and at odds with just about everyone else, the Acadians settled into a life lurking in the bayous, becoming the first Cajuns.[2]

Louisiana Governor and sometime Goose Alejandro O’Reilly. Painting Credit: Francisco de Goya.

Before too long the inhabitants of New Orleans, now starting to be known as Creoles, found they were in for another nasty surprise from the French and Indian War. In 1766 a Spanish governor named Antonio de Ulloa arrived and informed them all that the Treaty of Paris had also ceded the entirety of French Louisiana (that is, the Mississippi river and its tributaries) to Spain. Given that Louisiana was already an amalgam of French culture in the new world, it didn’t take long for de Ulloa to run afoul of his new subjects. After just a few years an insurrection forced de Ulloa to flee, though by 1769 the Spanish returned with enough troops to stamp down the rebellious locals. While the new Governor Alejandro O’Reilly[3] and his successors made several attempts to toss in Spanish colonists into Louisiana, their lasting influence was more architectural. After a 1788 fire burned down large chunks of the city, much of it was rebuilt in a Spanish style, dominated by the red brick and ironwork the city still bears in places.

More influential than the Spanish was the final group of refugees that began to stream into Louisiana from the island of Saint-Domingue in 1791. In 1781, the island was the crown jewel of France’s colonies. It produced much of the world’s coffee and sugar, all on the backs of close to half a million slaves who worked on the island’s plantations. Few contemporary jobs held the horrors of working in a sugar plantation. In addition to the usual horrors of field work in the tropics, like sadistic overseers, parasites, heat, and disease, sugar cane itself is razor sharp. At harvest time slaves could expect to cut themselves on the plants, or to risk being crushed or boiled alive working the rollers and burners necessary for distilling sugar from the cane itself. Needless to say, when the island’s 30,000 or so white French began to murmur excitedly about a political upheaval happening back in France in 1789, Saint-Domingue’s slaves and freed blacks listened keenly.[4]

battle of vertieres Auguste Raffet
The decisive battle of Vertieres in 1803. Painting credit: Auguste Bartle.

After several failed attempts at revolution were swiftly put down, in 1791 a dramatic ritual finally caused Saint Domingue to erupt. Led by Vodou Houngan (Priest) Dutty Boukman more than 200 revolutionaries gathered at a place known as Bois Caiman in the middle of a thunderstorm. After sacrificing a black pig and drinking its blood, the slaves struck hard against the surrounding plantations.[5] From there the Haitian Revolt spun completely out of French control. Boukman’s death in 1791 did little to abate the fury of the revolution, and after several years the entire island fell into anarchy. At times as many as six independent factions, including some very confused British and Spanish troops, found themselves grappling for control of the island. Eventually, under the leadership of the brilliant Francois Dominique Touissant Louverture, the French state collapsed in 1803, becoming the most successful slave revolt in human history. For those who wanted no part in Louverture’s newly independent Haiti, more than 10,000 fled to Louisiana, escaping the massacre of the remaining white settlers that followed on the heels of the war.

[1] The War du jour in this case was the War of Spanish Succession (Or Queen Anne’s War 1701-1712), not to be confused with the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), or the War of Jenkin’s Ear (1739-1748) between Britain and Spain. The latter literally was sparked by the removal of an ear from an English smuggler captain named Jenkins. This is, of course, a serious deviation from our topic, but the author hopes it was worth the earful.

[2] Cajun culture and identity is a thriving part of Louisiana to this day. It includes such luminaries as James “the Economy, Stupid” Carville, actor Jared Leto, and Actual Cannibal Shia Labeouf.

[3] The son of a Irish Catholic émigré, O’Reilly actually had a fairly successful career as one of the “Wild Geese”, or roving mercenaries who mostly fought for anyone grappling with the English.

[4] Historians continue to go back and forth on the role the French revolution played in actually sparking the Haitian revolt, but the connection seems more than coincidental.

[5] Notable twit Pat Robertson and other conservative Christians have considered this a “devil’s pact” ever since. In contrast scholar Markel Thylefors notes that Haiti has drawn much of its cultural and historical identity through Vodou, and whether the exact details of the ritual line up or not the myth is extremely important.


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