The Creoles of Louisiana
Louisiana’s introduction to the world theater
In 1682, the French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle named Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV of France. While European interest in the territory waned and waxed over the years, Louisiana eventually became a cultural and economic center in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. The close ties between France and the Ivory Coast of West Africa facilitated a prolific slave trade comprised of Sene-gambian captives. These slaves were used to fuel Louisiana’s economic progress and eventually laid the foundations of modern Louisiana Creole culture.
The continuous influx of immigrants over the years has led to a diverse and colorful society that holds strongly to tradition and the celebration of life. While the origins of Creole in Louisiana are the topic of fervent dispute among historical sources, it is generally accepted that the slave trade under the French colonists, and the ensuing slavery revolts in Haiti, had the most direct impact on the culture.
The first settlers of Louisiana
Although La Salle had the honor of naming Louisiana, the territory had long been the home of indigenous Native Americans dating back to the Archaic Period. In 1528, Europeans first discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River during an expedition led by Spanish explorer Panfilo de Narvaez. Captain De Soto encountered hostile tribes in 1543 trying to find the Mississippi and follow it back to the Gulf of Mexico. European interest lay dormant until the 17th century when the French showed an interest in the region, and following La Salle’s expedition they established the first colony at Fort Maurepas.
The Great Upheaval of the Acadians
The effects of the Seven Years War between the British Empire and France had a dynamic impact on the population of Louisiana, and more specifically New Orleans. The British gained control of Acadia during the war and began an expulsion of the French Canadians that called the area home. Many of these displaced immigrants made their way to the Spanish territory of New Orleans and the parishes surrounding Lake Pontchartrain. Their descendants in Louisiana have become the people known as Cajuns. Not to be confused with Creoles, the Cajun culture is founded in Acadian roots and influenced by hundreds of years in the melting pot that is New Orleans.
Slavery in Louisiana
In 1706, French colonists in Louisiana introduced the concept of chattel slavery to the region. Settlers began raiding indigenous tribes and slaughtering the men, sparing the women and children in order to make them domestic slaves. It was not until 1710 that the French discovered the value of African slaves. During the War of the Spanish Succession, Spanish men-at-war seized slave ships and redirected them towards the territories at Louisiana. This was the beginning of a trend for the French Empire that saw its peak in a four-year blitzkrieg from 1717-1721. During these years eight French slave ships transported over 2000 Senegambian slaves to New Orleans under the worst possible conditions. Slaves and sailors alike suffered from scurvy due to a lack of vitamin C and poor nutrition. Many of the slaves perished en route due to infection and dysentery that resulted from deplorable waste management conditions. The French engaged in the detainment and importation of thousands of slaves into the Louisiana area until they declared war with Britain in the 1750’s.
The Language of Bondage
The term Senegambia refers to the area between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers, and is commonly used in context with the French slave trade of the first half of the 17th century. The tribal people in these areas were fragmented into various societies with unique traditions, as well as many that they shared with their immediate neighbors. The languages spoken in the Senegambia region at that time were Sereer, Wolof, Pulaar, and Malinke, and were known to be so similar that they were referred to as being mutually intelligible. Many of these tribesmen were captured, shipped, and sold into slavery in the Americas and West Indies. With a need to communicate, the slaves assimilated their own shared African dialects with those of their masters and created the first variety of Louisiana Creole.
Some historians have suggested that the term Creole was first applied to the European colonists that were born in the territory. These pre-African slave days could have included French, Spanish, German, Irish, Acadian, and Canarian immigrants. The available information implies that the modern Louisiana Creole culture and language is the product of a long process of adaptation, refinement, and improvisation.
Influences that impacted Louisiana Creoles
The area of southern Louisiana witnessed the arrival of many different cultures since its discovery by Europeans. While the traditions of the French and Acadian settlers, along with those of their Native American and African slaves, contributed a significant amount of influence on modern Louisiana Creole culture, it would not be complete without the many other immigrants that sought refuge in New Orleans. The Louisiana territories were shuffled between France and Spain during the last half of the 17th century, but during the periods of Spanish control many main-landers and Canary Islanders, Spanish subjects known as Isleños, used this period to migrate to the Louisiana area. Consequently, they introduced the Spanish language to the region and played their part in forging the Creole culture into what is today.
The many faces of Louisiana Creole
The known history of Louisiana is comprehensive and well-documented. It is possible to assume from the facts available that every major period of cultural or racial immigration in Louisiana’s history has played a role in shaping the Creole language and lifestyle. While French, Spanish, and English remain key ingredients of Louisiana Creole, other contributions came from slave owners fleeing Haiti, both white and black, that sought asylum in the pro-slave American South. Haitian Creole included aspects of other languages not found in Louisiana at that time and added a unique, exotic injection to the existing dialects. The small territory soon became a cultural capital in the Caribbean and gave birth to a new proud nation of Louisiana Creoles.
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