New Orleans is a city, which is much older than its own country. This makes perfect sense once you get to spend a few days in this amazing city that is geographically and politically part of USA but is mentally million miles away. The history of New Orleans, which is celebrating its 300th anniversary in 2018, starts under the ownership of France in 1718, 58 years earlier than the declaration of independence by USA in 1776. Its story is also closely linked with the fourth longest river in the World – Mississippi River, which still has a hand in almost everything in the city.
New Orleans: A City Ruled by a River
New Orleans was founded in 1718 by French who started in Canada and traveled all the way down to Louisiana following Mississippi River. For my second visit to New Orleans, I take the night plane from another relatively old state of USA – New Mexico. It is one of those flights during which I rarely shut off my eyes. As the first ray of morning light starts to appear, I look down and see the river, which seems to be moving around like a snake and realize that it is the magnificent but also troublesome Mississippi River. I am at that moment yet to learn that Mississippi rules almost everything in New Orleans including how its deceased should be buried – not below but above the ground. That is maybe why New Orleans is also known as the city of ghosts with reference to its locals who love the city and fun so much that they regularly visit the city even after their death. Some also claim that only those who have unfinished business in the World would appear as ghosts and New Orleans is with no doubt the city of unfinished businesses just like it was once also the capital city of one of the most shameful periods in the history of mankind – the slavery.
This is my second visit to New Orleans. My first trip was barely enough to introduce me to the better known side of New Orleans – the fun party town. I am this time determined to go deeper and dig into the history of this remarkable city. In order to that, I first need to travel outside of New Orleans to the countryside.
Mississippi River played a key role in the transportation of goods during the period when there was no rail infrastructure and New Orleans was the most important port town located on this river. As a result, the city became the capital of slavery in early 1700s since the river was also used for slave transportation. The expression used to signify the biggest betrayals – “sold down the river” – was born out of the tragedy of the slaves sold during the auctions held in New Orleans. The river facilitated the transportation of the slaves down to New Orleans to later be sold in the slave auctions. Once purchased by their owners, they were taken to the nearby sugarcane plantations for heavy work. Despite common perception, the climate in New Orleans and the surrounding areas is ideal for sugarcane cultivation but not for cotton.
Some of these plantations are today open to visitors and you can visit the living quarters of the plantation owners as well as the cottages used by the slaves. My first stop is Laura Plantation, which once belonged to creole Duparc family. In New Orleans, you are likely to get different answers for what creole means depending on the person you raise the question to. Their answers may even depend based on the historical period you are interested in. However, according to the most common definition, the term creole refers to the people who are originally French or Spanish and but born in Louisiana. According to this definition, the owners of Laura Plantation were creole as they were originally French but born in Louisiana. The reason which makes me pick Laura Plantation as my first stop is the discovery of a diary kept by Laura Duparc during her youth and before she inherited the plantation from her parents. Thanks to her diary, the quality of information that is now available about the daily life in Laura Plantation is significantly higher than what is available for the other plantations that you can tour in Lousiana. Laura Plantation makes you really feel like you are traveling back into the history whereas the other plantations have offer a more museum like feeling. In order to visit Laura Plantation, you need to join the tours given by the in-house guides employed by the plantation. Thats a great way to tour these homes as the guidance really helps you to better understand and visualize the daily life once lived on these grounds. The things you hear are however not for the light hearted – especially those touching on the living conditions of the slaves. The guide also occasionally throw in some happier stories, which kind of make you think that there was actually a friendship between some of the slaves and certain members of Duparc family. Our guide is however quick to realize that his story may have created such an impression and further notes that “integration never meant equality“. Even the close relations between the good hearted owners such as Laura Duparc who could never embrace the concept of slavery and the slaves did not change the fact that the slaves were technically seen as properties and not humans.
Once we leave the main house and get to the section of the plantation used as housing for the slaves – the idea of equality never popes up in my mind again. It is horrifying to think of the living conditions in those very small cottages shared by up to 20 slaves at a time. I should note that the region gets notoriously hot in the summer months. Our guide points to the height of the sugar cane and notes that the plant itself was one of primary reasons leading to the early death of the slaves. The height of the plant made it difficult for the slaves to see the other slaves working next to them and it was unfortunately very common for the slaves to kill each other by accidental machete strokes. After getting an insight into their living conditions and hearing all these stories, the average life expectancy of the slaves at the time – 35 – does not surprise any of us. On the other hand, the plantation owners lived up to their 60s or 70s. Among all the stories I hear, the most poignant one pertains to the date on which the last slave family left Laura Plantation – 1977. If the date alone did not mean much to you, I need to remind you that the slavery was abolished in USA in 1866 as a result of the Civil War. The tragedy that these two dates underline tells so much about the devastating effects the slavery had on those people and also on the society in general. Our guide, with a disappointed tone, notes that “the Civil War comes and then the Civil War goes but nothing changes for these people“. It is not easy for the former slaves who had no connection with the society during their lives and just treated as goods as opposed to people to find the means to make a living for their family. As a result, the slave families chose to return to the plantations to work under ridiculously low wages even after the abolishment of the slavery. They were no longer qualified as “slaves” but there was no improvement at all in their living conditions.
Oaky Alley Plantation
My next stop is another plantation, which is surrounded by oak trees believed to be at least 300 years old just like New Orleans. Stewarts family, the last owners of this plantation, turned the house into a museum to keep the memory of this horrific period in the human history alive. You are again need to be accompanied by a guide to tour the house. However, unlike in Laura Plantation, the guides here dress up in period clothes in order to get you in the mood of the period. I however find the costume thing a little too distracting. Oak Alley – in addition to its beautiful oak trees – is also famous as a film location – the most famous one being the Interview with the Vampire, which is a movie based on the famous novel by Ann Rice, who was born in New Orleans. The house was used as the residence of the leading vampire in the movie – Louise. On the drive back to the city – we pass by fields of sugar canes and swamps – which now have a much deeper meaning for me going beyond their visual beauty.
New Orleans: The City of Death
One of the main streets in New Orleans – Canal Street used to divide New Orleans into two sections; the American side and the French side. I am this time staying at wonderful Ace Hotel New Orleans located in the former American side and I need to pass through Canal Street in order to get to famous French Quarter. Despite the name given to the neighborhood, the Spanish influence on the architecture of French Quarter is more visible. While it is usually always associated with French, New Orleans also had a Spanish phase that lasted nearly for forty years right before it was sold by France to USA as a result of Louisiana Purchase. The purchase price was set as USD 250 million with todays currency and covered the entire state of Louisiana. This historical sale took place in 1803 shortly after French regained the ownership of the area from the Spain in 1800.
New Orleans is a city which manages to absorb all these different cultures and blend it into a unique culture that you cannot find anywhere else. The colors of the city and the energy of its people take you to a higher ground. The city offers stories that you cannot hear elsewhere and somehow makes you believe in those otherwise fantastic and unrealistic stories. So when I hear a story about a deceased restaurant owner who had to hand over his restaurant due to financial difficulties and his ghostly appearances at his old restaurant, the whole ordeal sounds perfectly normal and realistic to me. Just like the solution that the current owners of the restaurant found to keep his ghost away – setting up a permanent table for him. What a perfect solution! Current owners of the restaurant are sure that the visits had stopped once they found a way to show him that they still honor his memory. I guess recognition was all this unlucky restaurant owner had ever needed.
Even though the ghosts of the city are much more popular – New Orleans is in fact the city of death. I do not think there is any other city where the cemeteries get this much attention. While the cemeteries of New Orleans are also home to some historical figures, the interest is driven primarily by the above the ground burial tradition more than any famous figure. Just like many other things in New Orleans, Mississippi River also has a hand in this tradition. Since majority of the land in New Orleans was positioned below the sea level, it was common for the coffins to be filled in with water and even float during the floods, which frequently hit the city. You may recall the images of floating coffins shown in the media during the hurricane which hit Louisiana in 2016. Even though the majority of the cemeteries in New Orleans are today located above the sea level – the traditional is still followed by majority of the locals.
The City of Jazz
The Canadian author Michael Ondaatje makes a great use of the cities story based culture. In Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje tells the story of New Orleans native Buddy Bolden. Bolden was born in 1877 – 24 years earlier than the most known jazz figure of our times and another New Orleans native Louise Armstrong. According to some sources, Buddy Bolden is the man who created the jazz music. While very little is known about the life of Bolden, the lack of sources does not discourage Ondaatje who takes the liberty to fill in the gaps with fictionalized stories when telling the story of Bolden by focusing on his friendship of another famous figure of the time – the photographer E. J. Bellocq known with his photographs of Storyville district of New Orleans, which was once the legalized red light district of the city. The narrator in the book frequently changes and the story moves without obeying any known rules of literature just like its subject-matter, the jazz music.
As an alternative guide to the music scene of New Orleans, I decide to use Ondaatje`s book as my guide. I skip Bourbon Street, which means not much to the locals other than a place for bachelor parties. Frenchman Street is where one needs to go to get a feeling of music scene in New Orleans and I find myself going back to Frenchman Street each night I am in New Orleans. On my first night I spot a barbershop already decorated for the biggest holidays in New Orleans – and no I am not talking about Christmas but Halloween. I thin of Bolden`s daily routine as told in Coming Through Slaughter; he works in the barbershop in the mornings (people who know him try to get their haircut before noon as he cannot be trusted to not be drunk in the afternoon) and turn into a street musician at night. I stop by every jazz bar on the street. New Orleans is such a welcoming and relaxed city where you do not feel any pressure to walk into the bars and get a drink in order to listen to music. You are free to listen to music wherever you deem to be fit. The next nights Bolden moment comes when a group of young musicians suddenly pick up the instruments left there on the sidewalk. Just like a friend of Bolden describes the experience of listening to him in a street corner, I feel hypnotized by the joy of these young boys.
While New Orleans was on one side home to the most painful and shameful periods in the history of humankind, it also became the center of one of the most lively but at the same time heartbreaking musics of our times. Obviously, this is more than a coincidence. Lets recall the lyrics of the Summertime, a music originally composed by George Gershwin for the opera of Porgy and Bess by remembering the hot summers in the Laura Plantation: “summertime, and the livin’ is easy…so hush little baby, don’t you cry, one of these mornings you’re going to rise up singing then you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky“. New Orleans is not only home to many cultures but also to many different emotions. Pain rebel happiness and joy. New Orleans – there is no other city like you.