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NOLA History: The New Orleans-Haitian Connection

San Domingue. Hispanolia. Haiti. Three names for one island. First “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Haiti’s history is tumultuous but also full of positive contributions to other cities and societies, significantly New Orleans.

While modern Americans usually associate Haiti with Miami and South Florida, there once was a strong connection between the island and New Orleans. European involvement on the island began with Columbus and his ship, the Santa Maria, which ran aground and was abandoned there. The men Columbus left behind established a settlement, beginning the Spanish presence. The island’s natural harbors were attractive to more than merely the Spanish; French pirates used the western side of Hispanolia as a haven. The fertile soil was suitable for growing tobacco, and soon Frenchmen from other colonies migrated to Haiti. The combination of the French in the west and the Spanish in the east was a troubling one; small conflicts regularly erupted. In the grand scheme of European geopolitics, though, Haiti was small potatoes. The conflicts on the island were formally settled in 1697. That year marked the end of the Nine Year’s War (known in North America as King William’s War), which pitted the French against the Dutch, British, and the Holy Roman Empire. The Treaty of Ryswick (named for the Dutch town where it was negotiated) settled many of the disputes of the war, and issues between Spain and France in Haiti were included. France received the western third of the island, Spain the rest.

With the political situation firmed up, the French began colonizing the island in earnest. The colonists expanded farming, adding sugar cane to their crops as well as tobacco. Sugar cane is a labor-intensive crop, however, requiring the white planters to bring in large numbers of slaves from Africa. Conditions for slaves on Haiti were rough. Thousands died of disease, forcing the planters to constantly import new slaves. The number of slaves coming to the island, in proportion to the number of white landowners, became a serious concern for the Spanish colony on the other side of the island, as well as other Spanish outposts in the Caribbean. By the 1760s, the Spanish banned importation of slaves from Haiti into Louisiana. Their concern was that the stories of life on the island would outrage Louisiana’s slave population to the point of rebellion.

By the time of the French Revolution, the free population (whites and free people of color) in Haiti rose to 40,000. The number of slaves in Haiti was more than double that. Revolution is an infectious disease, as contagious as yellow fever or malaria. Thousands of Frenchmen fled to Haiti, escaping the revolution and the “Reign of Terror,” only to find that the harsh treatment of slaves by their countrymen was a fertile breeding ground for revolution. Slaves rose up against their masters and the free people of color. So great was the turmoil that the colonists, their families, and many blacks fled Haiti for Louisiana. The Spanish ban on Haitian slaves in their territories was still in force, so all the refugees brought with them was money and the possessions they could carry. Many were from influential and powerful families, so they assimilated into the Creole population of New Orleans easily. Some stayed in the city, others moved up and down the river, and into the bayous, re-establishing their sugar cane plantations.

This influx of French colonials into New Orleans didn’t really upset the Spanish, mainly for two reasons. First, the city was still reeling from the Great Fire of 1788. Over 80% of the city was destroyed in that fire, so more people willing to pitch in with the reconstruction was a big help. The refugees from Haiti arrived in 1792-93, and they were there to get the city re-built after the second big fire in 1794. It’s after these two fires that we see the huge shifts in architecture in New Orleans. With the original French-style wooden buildings destroyed, the Spanish imposed their building codes, requiring brick buildings. The Spanish built homes centered around small gardens and courtyards. The French colonials brought the style we now know as the “Creole cottage” with them from Haiti. These cottages, found in the rear and downriver sections of the Vieux Carre’, are the forerunners of the shotgun-style we see around the city as expansion continued.

The huge influx of French-speaking people to New Orleans from Haiti all but ensured that French would continue to be the dominant language of the city, in spite of 30 years of Spanish control. When Bonaparte’s strategies shifted ownership of Louisiana from Spain, briefly back to France, and ultimately to the United States, the city looked Spanish and sounded French. The mix of white Europeans with the gens de coleur libres (free people of color) became the foundation, the “roux” for the gumbo that is New Orleans.

New Orleans has never forgotten its Haitian Connection, regularly lending assistance to those who live on the island through good times and bad.

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, will be available at bookstores and online on April 7th. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @NOLAHistoryGuy on Twitter.

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