By the end of the Nineteenth Century the French language in New Orleans was a rapidly fading vestige of the citys past. The French-speaking, or Francophone, residents of New Orleans saw the importance of their language and culture decline as the city became largely English-speaking and American in character. In 1886, Judge F.P. Poché gave a speech for Creole Day at the American Exposition. This text describes the many achievements of the citys Creole people and highlights their role in the citys history. Pochés speech, given in English and only later translated into French, asserted that the Creoles of New Orleans were the white descendants of European settlers who brought the light of civilization to Louisiana. This assumption about the identity of the Creoles is related to the widely used figure of La Belle Créole. Whether the name of a tobacco factory, a polka, or a steamboat, the emblematic Belle Créole originated in a romanticized and exclusionary representation of Francophone New Orleans. This recurring image points to what historian Joseph Tregle calls a creole mythology, a rigid group identity built on glorified cultural and political achievements of the past. This exhibition looks at the music and literature of Nineteenth Century Creole New Orleans in an effort to understand how the many Francophone voices of the city represented themselves and their place in history. Employing the mythic figure of theBelle Créole was but one of the many conflicting ways that Francophone New Orleans used music and literature to create, defend, and contest various group identities. top
See: Joseph G. Tregle, Jr. Creoles and Americans in Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. ed: Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1992).
Francophone New Orleans had roots in Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean. Under the French and Spanish colonial governments, Canadian and Caribbean settlers in Louisiana lent their colonial experience to the newly arrived European soldiers and settlers, the Native American tribes in the colony, and West African slaves to create a complex and uneasy colonial culture. While the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the appointment of William C.C. Claiborne as the first American governor of Louisiana, foretold of the eventual Americanization of the city, the arrival of various groups of French-speaking immigrants provided reinforcements to Creole New Orleans. In the decade after the Louisiana Purchase, more than 10,000 refugees from the Haitian Revolution arrived in New Orleans. These refugees found in Louisiana a three-caste racial order--white, free people of color, and black slaves--that roughly matched the social order in pre-revolutionary Saint Domingue. The cultural and linguistic connection between France and Louisiana also attracted French immigrants to the state. Throughout the century many political refugees from France also arrived in the city--whether from the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon I, the Revolution of 1848, or of other political and social upheaval on the continent. These Foreign French residents strengthened the Francophone culture of New Orleans and often took leadership roles in Creole political and cultural institutions. top
See: Carl A. Brasseaux. The
Foreign French: Nineteenth-Century French Immigration into Louisiana,
3 vols. (Lafayette: The Center for Louisiana Studies, University of
Southwestern Louisiana, 1990).
Creole New Orleans prided itself on its literary, theatrical and musical institutions-- the city supported several French-language newspapers; ballrooms thrived in a city obsessed with dancing; book and music publishers distributed Francophone cultural production to a larger audience; and several French-language theaters and opera houses nurtured the Creole love of high French culture. Auguste Lussan, a French poet and playwright who came to New Orleans in the 1830s to pursue his acting career, wrote La famille créole (The Creole Family). The play opened on February 28, 1837, at the French Theatre of New Orleans and was later published by one of the many French-language presses in the city. This five act drama alternately set in France and Louisiana, tells the story of a family of slave-holding refugees from the Revolution in St. Domingue (Haiti) that find in Louisiana a haven from both the upheaval in the Caribbean and the French Revolution. The existence of the French-language institutions in New Orleans gives the impression of a coherent creole population--a Creole Family-- united by a common language and culture. But a closer examination of these literary, musical, and theatrical works shows the conflicted and precarious status of Creole cultural production in New Orleans. top
As historical events, the 1764 transfer of Louisiana
from France to Spain, and the 1815 Battle of New Orleans were vital
to the historical imagination of Creole New Orleans. Two plays written
and produced in New Orleans--Les Martyrs de la Louisiane (1839)
by Auguste Lussan and France et Espagne, ou La Louisiane en 1768
et 1769 (1850), by Louis Placide Canonge-- were based on the events
of the 1768 revolt by French colonists against Spanish rule and the
subsequent execution of the leaders of this revolt by the Spanish Governor
OReilly. Written at a time when the economic and social power
of Anglophone New Orleans began to eclipse that of the Francophone sections
of the city, the two plays present patriotic Creole characters battling
against the tyranny of an invading culture. In the first act of France
et Espagne, we see a patriotic call to arms in a speech by Marquis,
a French officer:
The title of Frenchman is the only title that we shall never renounce: it is our heritage, it is our glory! It is as necessary to us as the powerful and life giving sun is to the nourishment of these vast lands.
The characters in the plays reject Spanish rule and declare that the executed leaders of the revolt are martyrs for the cause of Creole Louisiana. Mil Huit Cent Quatorze (Eighteen-Fourteen) by Tullius St. Céran (1839), a book of poems about the Battle of New Orleans, and Refléxions sur la Campagne du Général André Jackson (Reflections on General Andrew Jacksons Campaign) by Bernard Marigny (1848), a memoir of a veteran of this battle, demonstrate the importance that Andrew Jacksons victory held for Creole New Orleans. These two works at once emphasize the Creole contribution to the American victory over the British at Chalmette, and contrast Francophone Louisianians with their English-speaking brothers in arms. Marignys memoir of the battle also describes an incident at a ball shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in which a group of Americans insisted that the musicians play a rill or a jig instead of the waltzes and cotillions that the Creoles preferred. A high-born Creole lady argued that during the thirty years of Spanish domination, New Orleans Creoles were never forced to dance the fandango, and that she expected the same respect from the newly-arrived Americans. The representation of these two events, these two creole foundation myths, demonstrates a conflicting impulse to both celebrate the Creole contribution to the American cause and to emphasize and reinforce the differences between the Creoles and their neighbors. top
At the same time that Creole New Orleanians were producing music and literature about themselves, several Anglophone writers also based stories and novels on the history and culture of Creole New Orleans. Before the Civil War, the playwright Dion Boucicaults The Octoroon painted a damning portrait of slavery in Louisiana and served to sway public opinion toward the abolitionist cause. After the war, Kate Chopin and Lafcadio Hearn were prominent among the writers of English-language works set in Louisiana. But George Washington Cables extensive writings on New Orleans and Louisiana drew the greatest attention, both from the American audience that read his local color novels and stories, and from Creole readers who took great offense at the way in which Cable represented them in his work. Cable was born in New Orleans in 1847, but the fact that he lived in the Anglophone uptown section of the city and was a devout protestant made him an outsider in the Francophone sections of New Orleans about which he would later write. A manuscript letter from Cable to a Mr. Savini of New Orleans demonstrates Cables interest in collecting colorful material about the Creoles for his novels. In Old Creole Days and The Grandissimes, Cable portrays decadent characters in a romanticized New Orleans setting and hints at the racial impurity of the white Creole population of the city. This last point inspired a furious backlash from several prominent Creoles, the most stinging of which is Adrien Rouquettes A Critical Dialogue Between Aboo and Caboo on a New Book, or A Grandissime Ascension. Rouquettes satirical critique of The Grandissimes, written as an overheard dialogue between two ghosts on the shore of Lake Ponchartrain, mocks Cables attempt to imitate the various accents of New Orleans in his dialogue and takes issue with the fact that Cables works were given as novels and taken for history. top
While Cable presented a romanticized view of Creole New Orleans, many of the citys Creole writers and musicians also represented their home as romantic and exotic. In an 1885 lecture The Creoles of History and the Creoles of Romance, Charles Gayarré, a prominent judge and historian, disputed point by point Cables depiction of Creole New Orleans and emphatically refuted Cables questioning of the racial purity of the Creoles. Gayarrés 1885 History of Louisiana offers an alternative to Cable that is equally romantic and exotic, as he here describes the early European exploration of Louisiana:
What materials for romance!
Here is chivalry, with all its glittering pomp, its soul-stirring aspirations,
in full march, with its iron heels and gilded spurs, toward the unknown
and hitherto unexplored soil of Louisiana.
Adrien Rouquettes La Nouvelle Atala was
a response to Chateaubriands romantic story set in the New World.
Adrien Rouquettes brother Dominique idealized the simple life
and natural state of Native Americans in his book of poems Meschabéennes.
In his preface, Dominique Rouquette borrows a common romantic theme
in writing of the rich Louisiana landscape as fertile ground for poetic
Yes, our Louisiana is
a land both of sadness and of poetry! Like old Caladonia, it is an austere
and savage country--stern and wild; this nature, vast and untamed, shall
be rich with poets.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk, probably the most widely known New Orleanian of the Nineteenth Century, based several of his early compositions on slave songs that he heard in his youth. His popular Creole Trilogy included La Savane, Ballade Créole and other songs that capitalized on the exotic side of New Orleans. These creole writers and musicians sought their own romanticized formula for exporting their New Orleans to the rest of the world. top
See: Joseph G. Tregle, Jr. Creoles and Americans in Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. ed. Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1992).
See: Caryl Cossé Bell. Revolution
Romanticism and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in New Orleans,
1718-1868. (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997).
During the Civil War, the French-educated Creole elite of New Orleans played an important part in efforts to persuade France to support the Confederacy. Charles Gayarrés La Race Latine en Louisiane and Alfred Merciers Du Panlatinisme: nécessité d'une alliance entre la France et la Confédération du Sud (Of Panlatinism: the Necessity of an Alliance between France and the Southern Confederacy) both argue that Frances interest lie in defending the South and its latin race from the aggressions of the Anglo-Saxon North. These racial arguments posited and defended the purity of the white Creoles and drew a strict color line between white and black in Francophone New Orleans. During Reconstruction many of the citys free people of color assumed leadership roles in Louisianas government. This led to open hostility between the Afro-Creole and white Creole segments of the city and spawned the racist rhetoric we see in Elle Fut Nommée La Ville Du Croissant, a contemporary cartoon. Louis Placide Canonge, a newspaper editor and stage director, translated most of H.R. Helpers white supremacist tract Nojoque: Une Grave Question Pour Un Continent. Canonge preserves Helpers violent hatred of African Americans, but omits in his translation attacks against Roman Catholics and the Pope that might have offended his Catholic readers. After the Civil War, many Francophone New Orleanians insisted on the absolute racial purity of their ancestors. Gayarré briefly flirted with the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party before the Civil War and later insisted that the term Creole referred only to the pure white descendants of European settlers in Louisiana. top
See: Edward Larocque Tinker. Les écrits de langue française en Louisiane au XIXème siècle. Essais biographique et bibliographique. (Paris: H. Champion, 1932).
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Case 1 The City of
the Belle Créole