For his book on Cuba, Sublette took as his starting point Cadiz circa 1104; he ended up in the mid-20th century. He’s tempered such ambition a bit here: “My story begins in 1492,” he writes, “in Roman Catholic Europe.” His goal? To explain “how New Orleans got to 1819,” drawing that date from a traveler’s description: “On Sabbath evening, the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances.” Along the way, Sublette details just how those Africans got to that green, what their dances probably looked and sounded like, why it’s both interesting and significant that the dances were identified as “Congo,” and how we came to say that they “rocked” in the first place.
Sublette’s Cuba book would have caused great injury had it landed on your head. This one, at 360 pages (with notes), would be more likely to cause pain from inside the skull—density, not heft, lends power to its impact. There’s a meticulousness that comes at you without pause in long stretches. Still, Sublette brings genuine humor to the task too. “By 1744, Britain and France had resumed their normal status of being at war with each other,” he writes at one point. In describing the French and Indian War, he begins: “The twenty-one-year-old George Washington started a world war. At least, the French said he started it.” And throughout, he projects wonder enough to summon up questions such as, “Did a slave—or a free person of color—ever get to play a clavichord?” His keen eye for detail occasionally dovetails nicely with a deadpan delivery: After noting that New Orleans has thoroughfares named for slave-owning presidents Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Taylor, he reports: “Lincoln Avenue in the adjacent, unincorporated town of Metairie is a double dead-end, three blocks long.”
Sublette’s history of New Orleans focuses on the city’s three colonial eras, which occurred in rapid succession: French, Spanish, Anglo-American. Each, through its approaches to the slave trade, brought a distinct black population, creating “an increasingly cosmopolitan African culture of New Orleans,” he writes, “which from the earliest days of slavery in Louisiana had its own personality.”
“Brief though it was, the Spanish period in New Orleans was crucial to the creation of Afro-Louisianan culture, and constitutes a singular moment in African American history,” he explains. In part this is due to the repeal of the French Code Noir, which allowed enslaved Africans greater rights and privileges. “They could speak in their ancestral languages and play their drums: they had a past. With the right of self-purchase, they had a future. Enslaved people in English-speaking America were not permitted to have either one.”
Sublette is right to elevate the significance of the Haitian revolution: It forced France’s hand with respect to the Louisiana Purchase; set the stage for a fresh wave of Africans of Kongo descent to come to Louisiana; and, Sublette argues, set in motion both abolitionist sentiments in the North and harsh, paranoid treatment of slaves in the South. In Sublette’s telling, the fear of a slave uprising gave rise to a protectionist strategy in the United States. Perhaps Sublette goes too far in calling Jan. 1, 1808, “one of the most important dates in American history”; still, there’s little doubt that the Slave Trade Act, enacted that day, closed the door on African imports of human capital and set off a speculative bubble in the domestic slave trade for the following half-century, fed in large part by the needs of Louisiana plantation owners. This was big business for New Orleans, Sublette writes, “and greatly affected the demographics and culture of the city.” Those demographics would change yet again upon the arrival of exiles from Saint-Domingue in the wake of the Haitian uprising, exiles who arrived largely via a stay of several years in Cuba. And this rapid and unique transformation of the population of New Orleans in the first half of the 19th century, involving slaves shipped from the upper South and more “recent” Africans from the Caribbean, has a lot to do with the drum, the dance and the rhythm of justice and daily life in the city even today.
Sublette cracks the whip of scholarly re-evaluation with particular force on Thomas Jefferson, whose annexation of Louisiana made him a key figure in American slavery’s expansion, creating, as Sublette puts it, “a major industry in domestically raised humans.” He quotes Jefferson’s only book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published in 1784, on how black-white relations “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or other race,” and argues beyond defenses of historical context and any romantic notion of the former president as a conflicted soul. “He disseminated blatantly racist ideas,” Sublette writes, “and as a politician, he fought to secure the grand expansion of the institution of slavery.”
Yet elsewhere Sublette generally avoids diatribes or polemics, and his analysis of demographic shifts in New Orleans—at one point he cites not just census figures but accounts of slave populations by African ethnicity—serves to explain and delineate differences between the black population of the city and rest of the country. The uniquely horrific characteristics of the sugar plantation business, which didn’t exist further north, distinguish the black experience in New Orleans as yet more stark and atypical.