In January 1804, an event of enormous importance
shook the world of the enslaved and their owners. The black revolutionaries,
who had been fighting for a dozen years, crushed Napoleon's 60,000 men-army - which counted
mercenaries from all over Europe - and proclaimed the nation of Haiti (the original
Indian name of the island), the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere
and the world's first black-led republic. The impact of this victory of unarmed
slaves against their oppressors was felt throughout the slave societies.
In Louisiana, it sparked a confrontation at Bayou La Fourche. According to white
residents, twelve Haitians from a passing vessel threatened them "with many
insulting and menacing expressions" and "spoke of eating human flesh and in
general demonstrated great Savageness of character, boasting of what they
had seen and done in the horrors of St. Domingo [Saint Domingue]."
The slaveholders' anxieties increased
and inspired a new series of statutes to isolate Louisiana from the spread
of revolution. The ban on West Indian bondspeople continued and in June 1806 the
territorial legislature barred the entry from the French Caribbean of free
black males over the age of fourteen. A year later, the prohibition was extended:
all free black adult males were excluded, regardless of their nationality.
Severe punishments, including enslavement, accompanied the new laws.
However, American efforts to prevent the entry
of Haitian immigrants proved even less successful than those of the French
and the Spanish. Indeed, the number of immigrants skyrocketed between May
1809 and June 1810, when Spanish authorities expelled thousands of Haitians
from Cuba, where they had taken refuge several years earlier. In the wake
of this action, New Orleans' Creole whites overcame their chronic fears and
clamored for the entry of the white refugees and their slaves. Their objective
was to strengthen Louisiana's declining French-speaking community and offset
Anglo-American influence. The white Creoles felt that the increasing American
presence posed a greater threat to their interests than a potentially dangerous
class of enslaved West Indians.
American officials bowed to their
pressure and reluctantly allowed white émigrés to enter the city with their
slaves. At the same time, however, they attempted to halt the migration of
free black refugees.
Louisiana's territorial governor, William C. C. Claiborne,
firmly enforced the ban on free black males. He advised the American consul
in Santiago de Cuba:
Males above the age of fifteen, have . .
. been ordered to depart. - I must request you, Sir, to make known this circumstance
and also to discourage free people of colour of every description from emigrating
to the Territory of Orleans; We have already a much greater proportion of
that population than comports with the general Interest.
Claiborne and other officials labored
in vain; the population of Afro-Creoles grew larger and even more assertive
after the entry of the Haitian émigrés from Cuba, nearly 90 percent of whom
settled in New Orleans.
The 1809 migration brought 2,731 whites, 3,102 free
persons of African descent, and 3,226 enslaved refugees to the city, doubling
its population. Sixty-three percent of Crescent City inhabitants were now
black. Among the nation's major cities only Charleston, with a 53 percent
black majority, was comparable.
|Letter from James Mather to William Claiborne, New Orleans, July 18, 1809 from Official Letter Books of W.C.C. Claiborne, 1801-1816, vol. 4
by James Mather
|Letter from William Claiborne to Robert Smith, New Orleans, November 5, 1809 from Official Letter Books of W.C.C. Claiborne, 1801-1816, vol. 4
The multiracial refugee population
settled in the French Quarter and the neighboring Faubourg Marigny district,
and revitalized Creole culture and institutions. New Orleans acquired a reputation
as the nation's "Creole Capital."
The rapid growth of the city's population
of free persons of color strengthened the "three-caste" society - white, mixed,
black - that had developed during the years of French and Spanish rule. This
was quite different from the racial order prevailing in the rest of the United
States, where attempts were made to confine all persons of African descent
to a separate and inferior racial caste - a situation brought about by political
reality in the South that promoted white unity across class lines and the
immersion of all blacks into a single and subservient social caste.
In Louisiana, as lawmakers moved to
suppress manumission and undermine the free black presence, the refugees dealt
a serious blow to their efforts. In 1810 the city's French-speaking Creoles
of African descent, reinforced by thousands of Haitian refugees, formed the
basis for the emergence of one of the most advanced black communities in North