H. C. Covington (ach1@sprynet.com)
Sat, 21 Nov 1998 16:16:25 -0600


Cross-posted from H-SHEAR@h-net.msu.edu (November, 1998)

A compelling book review:


Kimberly S. Hanger.  _Bounded Lives, Bounded Places:  Free Black
Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803_.  Durham, N. C., and
London:  Duke University Press, 1997.  xiii + 248 pp.  Tables,
notes, illustrations, and index.  $49.95 (cloth), ISBN
0-8223-1906-3; $16.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8223-1898-9.
Reviewed for H-SHEAR by Joseph G. Tregle, Jr.<jgthi@ix.netcom.com>,
University of New Orleans

When the United States raised its flag in the Place d'Armes of New
Orleans in 1803, the city's population numbered some 7,300 of what
Daniel Clark called "domiciliated residents."  Of that aggregate,
white inhabitants totaled approximately 3,200 and slaves 2,775, two
extremities of society separated by an additional group of almost
1,400 free persons of color.  This last class possessed an economic,
social, and legal status appreciably higher than that enjoyed by
their kind in other sections of the slave South, which generally
lumped all non-whites into an undifferentiated inferior category
defined by its color. The uniqueness of this Louisiana pattern,
approached to a degree in Charleston and Gulf communities such as
Mobile, has led Paula Foner, Thomas Fiehrer, and Paul Lachance,
among others, to identify it as a three-tiered society more akin to
the typical Caribbean model than to slave communities elsewhere in
the United States, which were essentially shaped by Anglo law and

>From the time of the Purchase until the Civil War, this "third
caste" of New Orleans society would experience the ambivalent fate
of enjoying a generally expansive prosperity and group consciousness
while at the same time suffering an ever-growing erosion of its
personal freedoms as new forces ate away at the permissive
arrangements they had known under Spanish colonial control.  Despite
these legal setbacks, however, its members continued to hold a
distinctive margin of superiority over those bound in slavery.  Its
members provided not only an appreciable portion of the unskilled
labor of the community but also a significant number of its most
accomplished artisans in carpentry, ironwork, cabinet making,
masonry, and stone carving.  Many flourished as tailors, cigar
makers, barbers, shoemakers, and tavern keepers, with the distaff
side prominent most notoriously as the storied quadroon mistresses
of white New Orleanians but also as hairdressers, milliners,
dressmakers, boardinghouse keepers, and owners of the countless
stalls proferring goods and edibles of all varieties along the
bustling levee fronting the great port.  Never given any true
integration into the basically racist white community, they
nonetheless interrelated with the ruling class on various levels of
open and frequently clandestine intimacy, and maintained a
distinctive place in the jurisprudence of the state. Sustaining that
demarcation, the state Supreme Court in 1856 held that "in the eye
of Louisiana law, there is...  all the difference between a free man
of color and a slave, that there is between a white man and a
slave."  True enough, the same court two years later adjudged that
"the African race are strangers to our Constitution and are subject
of special and exceptional legislation."  But the line of
distinction between free persons of color and slaves remained always
drawn, allowing the development of a segment of New Orleans society
which in the antebellum years would produce men and women of
considerable wealth and often of great artistic talent.

How this distinctive group came into existence, how it found
protection and nurturing under the colonial administrations of
France and Spain, and how it related to the other two elements of
the population form the central theme of Kimberley Hanger's _Bounded
Lives, Bounded Places:  Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans,
1769-1803_.  Working within the conceptual framework largely
structured in earlier studies by Ira Berlin, David Rankin, Daniel
Usner, Foner, Lachance, and Fiehrer, Hanger makes her greatest
contribution in providing comprehensive statistical data to give the
most definitive assessment of a broad range of topics addressed in
more generalized terms by her predecessors.  She has combed the
archives of the Spanish colonial bureaucracy, the Roman Catholic
archdiocese of New Orleans, and the rich collection of the city's
notarial records to quantify what previously had remained largely
impressionistic conclusions, coming essentially to the conclusion
that while France and Spain did indeed provide a cultural climate
basically conducive to the growth of a privileged class of free
persons of color, the more forceful agent in this phenomenon was the
combination of environmental, demographic, strategic, and economic
factors which shaped Louisiana's colonial society.

In her opening chapter on "Avenues to Freedom," Hanger argues that
the growth of the libre class from 3.1 percent of the total New
Orleans population in 1770 to 19 percent in 1805 derived not only
from natural increase but even more directly from a liberal
manumission process dictated by Spanish colonial policy and the
community's need for manual and skilled labor and trustworthy
manpower to provide internal and external defense not provided by
the mother country.  The always sparse number of white settlers
required them to look to the libre class for these services, and the
even more limited supply of white women inevitably promoted sexual
union across racial and status lines.  Under Spanish colonial law,
slaves could not only own and amass property but through the policy
known as "coartacion" might "purchase their freedom for a stipulated
sum of money agreed upon by their masters or arbitrated in the
courts (p. 25)."  The process functioned even if the master opposed
his bondsman's bid for freedom.  Those so manumitted frequently
found ready employment in the varied needs of the community and then
used their accumulated wealth to purchase relatives still in
bondage, whom they usually then set free to add to the growing
numbers of the libre caste.  Extensive sexual alliances between
white men and both libre and slave women produced a growing mixed
racial group made up of lighter skinned individuals called
"pardo(a)s"  and those of darker hue designated "moreno(a)s," many
slaves of both categories moving into the libre class by virtue of
emancipation by white fathers.  Hanger's data show that of the 1,921
manumissions in New Orleans from 1771 to 1803, 41.5 percent resulted
from free grant of the master, 23.5 percent from uncontested
self-purchase, 4 percent from a grant conditioned on additional
service, 23 percent from purchase by a third party (usually a libre
relative), and 8 percent by intervention of a Spanish tribunal.

Hanger gives particular stress to perhaps the single most cohesive
force contributing to a sense of identity and pride among the libre
population, pardo and moreno miltia companies which provided the
Louisiana free men of color the obviously distinctive honor of
constituting a major portion of the defense of the colony against
both external and internal threat.  They served with distinction in
the forces led by Bernardo de Galvez against the British in the
American Revolutionary campaigns, participated in tracking down
runaway slaves, helped in guarding against and repairing breaks in
the Mississippi River levees, and in fighting the ravages of fire in
New Orleans, particularly in the great conflagration of 1788.  But
aside from its casting of free men of color in an honorable and
important role in the life of the entire community, the libre
militia gave them a structured organization in which to develop
interrelationships, and Hanger is particularly effective in
detailing how such factors as uniforms, ceremony, and public display
contributed to a libre self-identity and claim upon a favorable
status in the community.  The centrality of the militia companies to
the independent place of the free people of color did not escape the
notice of the Americans at the time of the Purchase, and in a less
than admirable performance, President Jefferson and his cabinet on
October 4, 1803, agreed "that the militia of colour shall be
confirmed in their posts, and treated favorably, till a better
settled state of things shall permit us to let them neglect
themselves." [1]

By its very nature, the colored militia constituted an essentially
male institution, but Hanger's chapters on "Work and Property
Accumulation" and "Family Values and Kinship Strategies"
demonstrate the dominant position of women in the everyday affairs
of the libre community, giving her work importance in gender as well
as ethnic history.  Throughout the colonial period, females
constituted the majority of the libre class and the census of 1795
shows them as the heads of 96 households as against 61 males in that
capacity. Most sales of slaves to libres in the colonial period went
to free women of color, and not always simply to free a relative
from bondage.  Libres frequently held slaves as assets in their
business affairs, not insensitive to the additional tie to the white
community which such ownership entailed.

Despite their upward move from slave status, libres always remained
in a definitely secondary level when measured against white society.
Several basic factors emerge clearly from Hanger's data.  The
accommodations of the Spanish legal system and the constantly
pressing need for labor provided the libre class with a wide variety
of economic opportunities.  They could enter into contracts, even
partnerships with whites, and could lodge civil suits in colonial
courts.  No craft guilds or labor regulations restricted the fields
of their endeavor, but the professions, membership in the clergy,
and government positions remained closed to them.  They generally
worked for lower wages and enjoyed lower income than whites--women
largely as seamstresses, house servants, milliners, tavern and
boarding house keepers; males as carpenters, shipbuilders, tailors,
and shoemakers.  Lower or middle class whites generally provided
their competition, not the white elite, and they consequently tended
to identify their interests with those of the group with which they
had most contact.  Those born free did better than those manumitted,
and best of all if family or patronage ties resulted in bequests and
inheritances from wealthier white connections.  Some, not most,
amassed considerable property, often including slaves.  During the
Spanish period, thirty-one of the sixty-one libres who left wills
listed bondsmen as part of their estate, ownership usually limited
to one or two, with one holding numbering thirteen.  Three-fifths of
the slaves enumerated in these testaments were females, as were
two-thirds of their owners.

With so much of consequence deriving from family relationships,
Hanger gives considerable attention to the subtleties of what by its
very nature was and remains a sensitive area of enquiry.  From her
account it is clear that sexual contact among the several
classes--white, libre, and slave--was an accepted fact of life in
Spanish New Orleans, whatever might have been the pronouncements of
government or church.  But as would be true in the decades of
American control in the antebellum city, this openness of
miscegenation, often involving persons of the highest level in the
society, could never breach the barriers to any true integration of
its non-white product into the privileged domain of the ruling
class. Nonetheless, its acceptance allowed for intricate patterns of
relationship and patronage between libre and white classes,
involving not only that between white males and their natural
progeny but also that of the important "compadrazgo" connection in
which godparents of a libre child might be chosen from white
relatives or patrons.  These natural and fictive kinships did much
to separate the libre class even further from the enslaved portion
of the community and encouraged libre ambitions for closer
approximation to the status of whites.

The prevalence of these cross-racial relationships leads Hanger to
the conclusion that formal marriages were, as she puts it,
"definitely not the norm for persons of any race in late
eighteenth-century New Orleans" (p. 90).  But the data presented to
establish this finding are inconclusive at best.  They seem to show,
for example, that in 1791, formal marriages of white couples
represented 2.1 percent of their portion of the population, actually
a considerably better record than the comparable percentage for the
total population of the city in 1996, which the state bureau of
vital statistics reports as having been approximately 1.1 percent.
Hanger's figures do show clearly, however, a consistently lower
incidence of formal marriages in the libre community than in the
white.  With special governmental and parental consent, marriages
might even be sanctioned for a mixed white-libre couple, though such
unions were apparently rare.

The degree to which the libre community had by the end of the
Spanish period developed a true sense of identity marking it off as
a self-conscious entity distinct from the other two tiers of the
society remains unclear.  Hanger finds signs of such self-awareness
in the affairs of the militia companies, the formalization of almost
ritualistic natural and fictive relationships, and the eruption of
at least minimal revolutionary sentiments among a few libres
committed to the liberal sentiments spawned by the French and
Haitian revolutions.  But her final measured judgment holds that
"the city's free blacks did not develop a strong sense of group
identity until the antebellum period (p. 168)."  When that later
solidarity emerged, Hanger maintains, it built upon the
accomplishments of the Spanish colonial period, which served "as a
foundation for the emergence of New Orleans' many, prosperous, and
much-acclaimed Creoles of Color in the antebellum era of the United
States South (pp. 1-2)."  It is not clear why Professor Hanger has
chosen thus to employ the highly questionable term "Creoles of
Color," which she correctly notes elsewhere as having been unknown
to Spanish Louisiana (p. 177).  The almost certain fact is that it
is a usage equally unknown to the antebellum period as well.  Native
free blacks in antebellum New Orleans called themselves "creoles,"
without reference to race or status, and were so identified in the
press, judicial records, and common parlance.  The qualification "of
color" seems to have been largely an adaptation by
Reconstruction-era whites determined to have the unmodified title of
"creole"  restricted to members of their own race.  Despite its
popularity even in recent professional publications, the "of color"
emendation conveys a false impression as to the always delicately
balanced racial nuances in antebellum New Orleans society, implying
a divided concept of creolism in the city which actually did not

This reservation aside, Professor Hanger's work eminently deserves
the honor which it has recently received as the winner of the 1997
Kemper Williams prize in Louisiana history.


[1].  Jefferson's notes on the cabinet meeting of October 4, 1803,
in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.

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