For historians of the United States, the study of slavery in those parts of the country that were once under the domination of countries other than Great Britain, especially those employing Roman law or its derivatives, are far richer and easier to write than elsewhere. Rashauna Johnson has made full use of French and Spanish legal traditions to provide a rich and detailed history of slavery in New Orleans in the revolutionary period. The extensive detail in court records, investigations, and other legal documents allows the lives of slaves to be fleshed out in ways that are impossible in areas where English law prevailed. Johnson has made use of many short biographies that she assembled from these records to give her analysis a human face and to refine a great deal of what we know about New Orleans, mostly based on this documentation. She has organized the work around “spaces” and, using biographies, has approached slave spaces, revolutionary spaces, market spaces, neighborhood spaces, penal spaces, and Atlantic world spaces to explore various dimensions of the slave experience. An overarching and recurring theme in the book is the difficulty that all slaves had escaping the binds and restrictions of slavery, even when the person was legally free. We learn, for example, that even in markets spaces, which were places of considerable mobility and physical freedom, slaves were still bound in many ways by their condition, which limited their participation and the degree to which they could profit from marketplace mobility. A second and nearly as important theme is the importance of race in creating social positions. Although both Spanish and French custom and law recognized intermediate racial categories by granting special statuses to mixed-race people, the overarching disabilities accruing to anyone having African ancestry, even in small degrees, kept the slave order in place. Nevertheless, the culture of both France and Spain allowed much race mixing and afforded the offspring of this mixture opportunities often denied in the more caste-like racial systems of Anglo-America. This intersection is well illustrated by the fate of the multitude of émigrés from Saint Domingue (Haiti) following the revolution there. Many displaced slave owners moved to New Orleans, greatly complicating relations in the city and its surrounding area. Perhaps the most surprising chapter for most Americanists is the one on the migration from New Orleans to Trinidad after that island passed definitively into English hands from Spain in 1797. Although the migrants hoped to find more opportunities in Trinidad than they found in New Orleans, they continued to be dogged by what was still a white supremacist ideology of the English administration. This book makes a significant contribution to the literature of slavery in the United States insofar as the Gulf Coast (a relatively late acquisition of the United States) brought with it substantial variations in the long-honed narrative of American slavery, which too often excludes the unique stories of slavery in Louisiana, where an interesting intersection of Latin and U.S. slavery partook of both systems but was identical to neither. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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