Case 1
The City of the Belle Créole

By the end of the Nineteenth Century the French language in New Orleans was a rapidly fading vestige of the city’s 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 city’s “Creole” people and highlights their role in the city’s history. Poché’s 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 the“Belle 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).

Case 2
Diverse Origins

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).
Gwendelon Midlow Hall. Africans in Colonial Louisiana: the development of Afro-Creole culture in the eighteenth century (Baton Rouge : LSU Press, 1992).

Case 3
“The Creole Family”

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

Case 4
Conflicting Myths and Loyalties

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 O’Reilly. 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 Jackson’s Campaign) by Bernard Marigny (1848), a memoir of a veteran of this battle, demonstrate the importance that Andrew Jackson’s 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. Marigny’s 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

Case 5
The View From Outside

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 Boucicault’s 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 Cable’s 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 Cable’s 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 Rouquette’s A Critical Dialogue Between Aboo and Caboo on a New Book, or A Grandissime Ascension. Rouquette’s satirical critique of The Grandissimes, written as an overheard dialogue between two ghosts on the shore of Lake Ponchartrain, mocks Cable’s attempt to imitate the various accents of New Orleans in his dialogue and takes issue with the fact that Cable’s works “were given as novels and taken for history.” top

Case 6
The View From Inside

While Cable presented a romanticized view of Creole New Orleans, many of the city’s 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 Cable’s depiction of Creole New Orleans and emphatically refuted Cable’s questioning of the racial purity of the Creoles. Gayarré’s 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 Rouquette’s La Nouvelle Atala was a response to Chateaubriand’s romantic story set in the New World. Adrien Rouquette’s 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 inspiration.

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).

Case 7
The Free People of Color

Colonial New Orleans, like many other slave holding societies in the New World, had a three tiered racial system in which free people of color enjoyed a middle position between whites and black slaves. Its large population of gens de couleur libres or free people of color (20,000 in 1840) made New Orleans unique among American cities and became a source of conflict between the Francophone and the rapidly growing Anglophone sectors of the city. While many of these free people of color traced their heritage back to colonial Louisiana, the arrival of free black refugees from the revolution in Haiti served to reinforce their numbers in Louisiana. The achievements of many of the city’s free people of color were described in Rodolph Desdunes’s 1911 book Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire (Our People and Our History). Politicians, soldiers, poets, and playwrights, the free people of color defended their tenuous middle status between white and black. Important among the musicians and writers of this group were Armand Lanusse, Louis Charles Roudanez, and Basile Barès. Some free black New Orleanians left the city for successful careers in France. Victor Séjour wrote twenty-one plays during his career as a playwright, most of which, like Richard III, debuted in Paris. Edmond Dédé received his early musical education in New Orleans, but left Louisiana for further study at the Paris Conservatory and a career as conductor and composer in Bordeaux. Camille Thierry found success in Paris with his work Les Vagabondes, Poésies Américaines (The Vagabonds, American Poetry)(1874). Desdunes book celebrated the achievements of previous generations of free black New Orleanians at a time when his own generation was taking the lead in fighting against Jim Crow segregation in the South. top

See: Caryl Cossé Bell. Revolution Romanticism and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in New Orleans, 1718-1868. (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997).
Joseph Logsdon and Caryn Cossé Bell. “The Americanization of Black New Orleans” in Creole New Orleans, Race and Americanization, ed. Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1992).

Case 8
“The Latin Race in Louisiana”

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 Gayarré’s La Race Latine en Louisiane and Alfred Mercier’s 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 France’s 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 city’s free people of color assumed leadership roles in Louisiana’s 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. Helper’s white supremacist tract Nojoque: Une Grave Question Pour Un Continent. Canonge preserves Helper’s 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
Case 2 Diverse Origins
Case 3 “The Creole Family”
Case 4 Conflicting Myths and Loyalties
Case 5 The View From Outside
Case 6 The View From Inside
Case 7 The Free People of Color
Case 8 “The Latin Race in Louisiana”