Slavery in New Orleans, and Napoleon’s view thereof

Rose is the only character in Napoleon in America for whom I had to invent a name. The 1820 US census lists Nicholas Girod as having a female slave age 26-44, which means she was born before 1795. Girod also had a male slave age 14-25. Though nothing more is known about “Rose,” one can surmise something of her life from the general situation of slaves in New Orleans in the early 19th century. One can also imagine how Napoleon might have reacted to her, given his view of slavery.

“Sale of estates, pictures and slaves in the rotunda, New Orleans.” Engraved by J.M. Starling after work by William Henry Brooke, 1842.

“Sale of estates, pictures and slaves in the rotunda, New Orleans.” Engraved by J.M. Starling after work by William Henry Brooke, 1842.

A race-based society

New Orleans society at the time was stratified into three race-based tiers: whites, free people of colour (gens de couleur libres) and slaves.

The whites were a mix of:

  • Europeans – primarily French and Spaniards, but also Germans, Italians and others. Examples include Nicolas Girod, Charles Lallemand, Vincent Nolte and Félix Formento.
  • Creoles – American-born descendants of the Europeans, typically people of French or Spanish descent born in Louisiana, the West Indies, or Spanish America, e.g. Josephine Lauret. Napoleon’s first wife Joséphine was also a Creole, born in Martinique. Note that “Creole” in the early 19th century universally referred to white people, in distinction to how it is used today.
  • Americans – English-speakers, many of whom came to Louisiana after Napoleon sold the territory to the United States in 1803, e.g. Jean Laffite’s nemesis, Governor William Claiborne. They were often called Anglo-Americans, to further distinguish them from the primarily French Creoles.

The free people of colour, who were considered legally and socially inferior to whites, included:

  • people of mixed white and Negro ancestry, further divided into mulattos, quadroons and octaroons, depending on the proportion of white blood, e.g. Marie and Catherine Villard.
  • people of mixed white and Indian ancestry, also known as mestizos.
  • Indians and people of mixed Negro and Indian ancestry.
  • free Negroes. When Spain ruled Louisiana, it had generous policies regarding the freeing of slaves. Slaves could be freed by their masters voluntarily, or could earn their liberty by serving in the militia. Alternatively, slaves could be bought and freed by a third party, or could buy their own freedom. Technically, an escaped slave (maroon) was also a free person of colour. In 1805, free Negroes constituted 19% of New Orleans’ total population of 8,222, and just over 30% of the city’s free coloured population of 5,117. (1)

Slaves were typically Negroes, primarily of African origin. Virtually all well-to-do New Orleanians – whether white or coloured – owned slaves. Some used them as servants. Some hired them out for wages. Effective in 1808, there was a ban on importing slaves from outside the United States. However, New Orleans slavery could still be fed by imports from within the country. There was also a thriving trade in smuggled slaves, brought into New Orleans by the Laffite brothers and others.

Slaves among the Saint-Domingue refugees

In 1809 the population of New Orleans doubled with the arrival of three dozen ships from Cuba, carrying over 9,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue. Another 1,000 arrived in 1810. They had fled Saint-Domingue – renamed Haiti – during the slave revolution that culminated in independence from France in January 1804 (the troops Napoleon sent under his brother-in-law, General Leclerc – husband of Pauline Bonaparte – to suppress the insurrection were crushed by disease and the revolutionaries). The refugees first settled in Cuba, which was under Spanish rule. Then Napoleon invaded Spain and, in 1808, placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the Spanish throne. In retaliation the Cuban authorities, who remained loyal to the ousted Spanish king, expelled all French nationals, including the Saint-Domingue refugees.

The refugees were a mix of whites (primarily French and French Creoles), free people of colour and slaves. Lawrence Powell, in his excellent book The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, notes that:

Legally speaking the ‘slaves’ listed on the manifests were probably not slaves. The French National Convention had granted them freedom in law, which Toussaint’s [Haitian] armies then established in fact. Somehow these liberties had been forfeited during passage to Cuba. There are documented cases of so-called friends and guardians, to say nothing of former business associates and creditors, re-enslaving the legally helpless exiles upon arrival in Cuba. (2)

The same thing happened in New Orleans. The Africans who arrived were presumed to be slaves, while the people of colour were presumed to be free. I decided to make Girod’s female slave one of the Saint-Domingue arrivals, and I named her Rose.

New Orleans Slavery and Congo Square

In Chapter 5 of Napoleon in America, Rose goes with voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau to the market in Congo Square. Slaves were granted Sundays and religious holidays off. On these “free days,” they could sell their crafts and produce – surplus crops, nuts and berries, fish and game, etc. A grass-covered field behind the Vieux Carré (the French Quarter), across Rampart Street at the end of Orleans Street, was the legally designated place for slaves to gather. Originally called the Place de Nègres, by the mid-19th century it was known as Congo Square. It is now part of Louis Armstrong Park. Here slaves congregated to socialize, to buy and sell, and to dance and sing, African-style.

British architect Benjamin Latrobe stumbled upon such a gathering in 1819. Approaching the square, he

heard a most extraordinary noise, which I supposed to proceed from some horse mill, the horses trampling on a wooden floor. I found, however on emerging from the houses onto the Common, that it proceeded from a crowd of 5 or 600 persons assembled in an open space or public square. I went to the spot & crowded near enough to see the performance. All those who were engaged in the business seemed to be blacks. I did not observe a dozen yellow faces. (3)

The crowd was formed into circular groups. In one of these rings, two women were dancing.

They held each a coarse handkerchief extended by the corners in their hands & set to each other in a miserably dull & slow figure, hardly moving their feet or bodies.

In another circle, a dozen women “walked, by way of dancing, round the music in the center.” Latrobe described the drums and other instruments, some of which he drew. Reflecting the general European attitude of the time, he recorded:

A man sung [sic] an uncouth song to the dancing which I suppose was in some African language, for it was not French, & the women screamed a detestable burthen on a single note. The allowed amusements of Sunday have, it seems, perpetuated here those of Africa among its inhabitants. I have never seen anything more brutally savage, and at the same time dull & stupid, than this whole exhibition. (4)

Napoleon’s view of slavery

When he was still a teenager, during his first posting as an artillery officer with the La Fère regiment at Valence, Napoleon read over and over again one of the most powerful anti-slavery works of the period: the multi-volume Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes by the Abbé Guillaume Raynal. The extent to which this affected his view of slavery is unclear.

Like most of his European contemporaries, Napoleon was a racist. He referred to Bedouins, native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Africans as “savages” – a term he also applied to Cossacks. He treated the Saint-Domingue-born mixed-race general Alexandre Dumas (father and grandfather of the writers of the same name) with contempt. At the same time, he welcomed mixed-race men into his army in Egypt and for the expedition to Saint-Domingue.

While Napoleon condemned the slave trade, he had no strong opposition to slavery. He based his policies on pragmatism: what would most benefit him and France. When he conquered Malta en route to Egypt in 1798, he freed 2,000 Muslim slaves found on the galleys of the Order of Malta, and called on the Turkish governors in Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli to reciprocate the gesture by liberating any Christians who might be found on their galleys. (5) Yet in Egypt he condoned slavery, hoping to gain the goodwill of the Egyptians.

The French Revolution had, in 1794, abolished slavery in France’s colonies, though this policy was not fully implemented. When insurrection broke out in Saint-Domingue, Napoleon at first argued France should renew its commitment to emancipation, because

this island would go for England if the blacks were not attached to us by their interest in liberty…. They will produce less sugar, maybe, than they did as slaves; but they will produce it for us, and will serve us, if we need them, as soldiers. We will have one less sugar mill; but we will have one more citadel filled with friendly soldiers. (6)

He continued to express his commitment to emancipation even as he sent an expedition to try to overthrow the black leader Toussaint Louverture.

Nonetheless, as First Consul, by a decree of May 20, 1802, Napoleon restored slavery and the slave trade in Martinique and other West Indian colonies (the law did not apply to Guadeloupe, Guyane or Saint-Domingue). Napoleon argued he was “maintaining” slavery, since its formal abolition had not actually been realized. He hoped to encourage the return of former French colonists, believing they were better able than the blacks to defend French interests against the British. Also, white planters in La Réunion had threatened to secede rather than free their slaves.

When Napoleon returned to France in 1815 after his exile on Elba, he knew he had to appear to be a more liberal leader. As part of this, he issued on March 29 a decree abolishing the slave trade, which you can read on the Napoleon Series website.

When he was in exile on St. Helena, Napoleon conversed (via the interpretation of one of his companions, the Count de Las Cases) with an old slave called Toby, who served in the household of the Balcombes, the family in whose pavilion Napoleon resided when he first arrived on the island. When he heard how Toby had been captured and enslaved, Napoleon reportedly expressed a wish to purchase him and send him back to his home country. He said to Las Cases:

What, after all, is this poor human machine? There is not one whose exterior form is like another, or whose internal organization resembles the rest. And it is by disregarding this truth that we are led to the commission of so many errors. Had Toby been a Brutus, he would have put himself to death; if an Aesop he would now, perhaps, have been the Governor’s adviser, if an ardent and zealous Christian, he would have borne his chains in the sight of God and blessed them. As for poor Toby, he endures his misfortunes very quietly: he stoops to his work and spends his days in innocent tranquility…. Certainly there is a wide step from poor Toby to a King Richard. And yet, the crime is not the less atrocious, for this man, after all, had his family, his happiness, and his liberty; and it was a horrible act of cruelty to bring him here to languish in the fetters of slavery. (7)

As for what Napoleon might have thought had he encountered slavery in the United States, you’ll have to read Napoleon in America.

You might also enjoy:

Nicolas Girod and the history of Napoleon House in New Orleans

Jean Laffite: Mexican Gulf pirate and privateer

Félix Formento and medicine in 19th century New Orleans

François Guillemin: Spying and scandal in 19th century New Orleans

Josephine Lauret, namesake of a New Orleans street

Pirate consorts: Marie and Catherine Villard

Voodoo queen Marie Laveau

Celebrating July 4th in early 19th century New Orleans

Napoleon & New Orleans in 1821

  1. Kimberly S. Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803 (Durham & London, 1997), p. 18.
  2. Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge and London, 2012), p. 337.
  3. Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe, Impressions Respecting New Orleans: Diary & Sketches 1818-1820. Edited with an introduction and notes by Samuel Wilson, Jr. (New York, 1951), p. 49.
  4. Ibid., p. 51.
  5. Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path to Power (New Haven and London, 2007), p. 359.
  6. Philippe R. Girard, The Slaves who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War (Tuscaloosa, 2011), pp. 39-40.
  7. Emmanuel Auguste Dieudonné Las Cases, Memorial de Sainte-Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena (London, 1823), Vol. 1, p. 383.

2 commments on “Slavery in New Orleans, and Napoleon’s view thereof”

  • crystal bonaparte-dupree says:

    Hello, I’m introducing myself. Crystal Bonaparte-Dupree. I’m just interested in learning more about the black Bonaparte that originally settled in America.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Hi Crystal, it’s lovely to hear from you. I don’t know anything about the black Bonapartes. Maybe somebody reading this post will have more information and can leave a comment.

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This man, after all, had his family, his happiness, and his liberty; and it was a horrible act of cruelty to bring him here to languish in the fetters of slavery.

Napoleon Bonaparte