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Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century.

Professor Hall's Africans in Colonial Louisiana is destined to become an influential work not only on colonial slave societies but on the social and economic history of Louisiana's Europeans. Given how little we know about early Louisiana, it is a welcome addition to the literature. Based upon extensive archival research in French, Spanish, and English sources, the book analyzes the history of Louisiana slavery, beginning when the first French settlers arrived in the late seventeenth century and ending with the 1795 slave conspiracy at Pointe Coupee. Although the book is organized chronologically, strong themes--the brevity of the African slave trade to French Louisiana, the development of language-based Afro-Creole communities, planters' struggles to find a viable staple, the ubiquity of both inter-racial comity and conflict--emerge. This approach highlights such changes as the transition from French to Spanish rule and the impact of the French Revolution on slaves. A brief overview of the themes of the book cannot do it justice.

Professor Hall stresses the differences between Louisiana and the English slave societies of the Chesapeake and South Carolina. If the relatively rapid development of slave families resembled those of the mid-eighteenth-century Chesapeake colonies, the legal protection the French afforded slave families (mothers, children, and fathers) did not; if the predominance of Africans in the adult population and the concentration of slaves from one African region resembled those of coastal South Carolina, the slow population growth and failure to find an exportable staple did not. And Louisiana's continuing alliance between Africans, Afro-Creoles, and poor whites was unique in continental North America. Hall implicitly argues that French legal traditions, which placed a premium on keeping slave families together, along with the precarious state of the colony (with its small population and weak economy) explain these differences.

Over half of the six thousand African slaves entering Louisiana between 1719 and 1731, the peak years of the Atlantic slave trade during French rule, came from Senegambia. Weakened by their capture and from the Middle Passage, many died before or soon after arrival. But those who survived forged strong ethnic communities and extended families, both on individual plantations (where they often predominated) and in the woods between plantations where slaves of many owners regularly met. Speaking similar, mutually-comprehensible languages, these Africans and their children devised a creole language, based upon French vocabulary and African syntax, one eventually spoken by all blacks and many French habitants. Speaking this new language. Africans passed on African folk tales, songs, white magic (charms), and medical skills to their native-born children. When slave trade began again during the 1760s and 1770s after Spanish took over, new African immigrants, many from Senegambia, accommodated to the creole culture slaves had already devised.

French settlers tolerated the relative independence of slaves because they became and remained a minority of the population, beholden to Africans and their descendants for nearly all the colony's agricultural labor and craft work. Hostile Indians accentuated the need for inter-racial harmony, as the 1729 bloody revolt of the Natchez Indians attests. In such a frontier environment, common-law marriages between African women and Frenchmen and between Africans and Indians were apparently frequent, and French masters regularly manumitted their lovers and illegitimate children. (Other slaves managed to purchase themselves or their children.) Even the wealthiest slaveholders of the New Orleans area sometimes took African mistresses, apparently fascinated by their dark color.

Masters unwilling to accommodate to the desires of their slaves found themselves without bond laborers. Slaves ran away frequently, setting up maroon communities in impenetrable swamps only a few miles from centers of French settlement. Maroons lived off the land, fishing and hunting, or openly worked for sawmill owners. On occasion, slaves fomented conspiracies, first by the Bambara (a Senegambian nation strongly represented in Louisiana), and then in the 1790s. Imbued with the democratic ideals of the French Revolution, and hoping for freedom, African and creole slaves, supported by some radical poorer whites, conspired in 1795 to overthrow the Spanish regime and return to French rule.

Hall takes the perspective of the European invaders, analyzing racial relations between Europeans and Africans and Europeans and Indians. Indians, who constituted a majority of the colony's population until mid-century and remained a substantial minority thereafter, are not central to her story except when they disrupted European settlement, captured slaves, or allied with Africans. As Daniel Unser's recent work makes clear, early Louisiana was a tri-racial society, in which Indian nations played a major role, one perhaps not emphasized enough in Hall's work.

The book's chronological approach make its themes difficult to fully comprehend. No broad theory, like Eugene Genovese's idea of the hegemony of the master class, ties the strands of the book together. The detailed stories of African and Afro-Creole families that Professor Hall relates are fascinating, but at times detract from the book's arguments. Themes like slave familial cohesion, moreover, are discussed in widely separated places. The chronological format of the book, finally, obscures the contradictions embedded in the coexistent cooperation between masters and slaves and resistance slaves offered their masters. These problems, however, do not detract from Professor Hall's achievements. Anyone interested in the history of slavery, colonial history, and southern history should read her fine book.

Allan Kulikoff Northern Illinois University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Author:Kulikoff, Allan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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