Slavery In Louisiana

Historic New Orleans Collection

1852 view of New Orleans

In 1712 there were only 10 blacks in all of Louisiana. European indentured servants submitted to 36-month contracts did most of the work later performed only by slaves. In 1722, nearly 170 Indians were enslaved on Louisiana farms where they contributed useful techniques for hunting and raising food. Marriages were widespread between Africans and Indians. “Grif” was the racial designation used for their children. The people enslaved in Louisiana came mostly from Senegambia, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra, and West-Central Africa. Some of them came from Southeast Africa. The French imported near 6000 slaves in Louisiana. At the conclusion of the Seven-Year War (1756-1763), the British occupied most of the east bank of the Mississippi River and the rest of Louisiana was ceded to Spain. Louisiana was reopened to massive imports of slaves from Africa. In 1795 there were 19,926 slaves and 16,304 free people of color in Louisiana, including 2,797 slaves on the German Coast. After the prohibition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, many came from the Upper South of the USA through the domestic slave trade and thousands were smuggled from Africa and the Caribbean through the illegal slave trade. In 1860 there were 331,726 slaves and 18,647 free people of color in Louisiana including 8,776 slaves on the German Coast.

Under French rule (1699-1763), the German Coast soon became the main supplier of food to New Orleans produced by the settlers sided with their white indentured servants and African slaves just like in the early years of the French West Indian colony of Saint Domingue. The African slaves cleared the land and planted corn, rice, and vegetables. They built levees to protect dwellings and crops.  They also served as sawyers, carpenters, masons, and smiths.  They raised horses, oxen, mules, cows, sheep, swine, and poultry.  Slaves also served as cooks, handling the demanding task of hulling rice with mortars and pestles.  They performed all kinds of duties, working from sunup to sundown, to make life easy and enjoyable for their masters.  African female slaves raised their own children while caring for their masters’ children.  Slaves often escaped and became maroons in the swamps to avoid deadly work and whipping.  Those recaptured suffered severe punishment such as branding with a hot iron, mutilation, and eventually the death penalty.



Harvesting of Cane

Wealth and comfort became accessible to the masters with the massive importation of slaves and the development of the indigo production under Spanish rule (1763-1803). In this industry female slaves were mostly involved in the raising of the crops. Men undertook the process of extraction, which involved much more labor and was made all the more difficult by the strong odor that emanated from the tanks of rotting indigo. The leaves of indigo had to go through a process of fermentation and then oxidation to yield the blue dye. The harvested plants were packed into a higher vat or “steeper” (trempoire in French) and covered with water. After a few hours, the leaves became saturated and fermentation began. This process could take up to a day and a half to complete but had to be finely timed since long fermentation would ruin the product. The dark blue liquid was siphoned into the middle vat or “beater” (batterie) at a lower level, leaving the plants behind. The liquid was then stirred continuously for several hours because it needed oxygen from the air to stimulate oxidation.

The addition of limewater hastened the process. The solution was left to rest in the lower vat (reposoir), allowing for the sedimentation of the indigo at the bottom of the tank. Then the water was drained and the indigo was dried under a shed. The indigo was cut into cubes or made into balls.



Indigo vats in St. Domingo


The collapse of the indigo industry at the end of the eighteenth century was soon followed by the birth of the sugar industry, which production skyrocketed with the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the large influx of slaves, including thousands brought from Saint Domingue (Haiti).

Sugar Mill

Cotton was also cultivated with success in Louisiana but it required a great amount of work and its value in the markets of Europe was inferior to the cotton of Surinam, Cayenne, the West Indian Islands, and the Indies. When Louisiana entered the Union as a State, sugar became the main crop of the farmers of the Lower Mississippi River. The arrival of the first steamboat in 1812 soon turned New Orleans into the second most active port of the United States after New York.

The core zone of sugar production ran along the Mississippi River, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.  In the 1830s and 1840s, other areas around Bayou Lafourche, Bayou Teche, Pointe Coupee, and Bayou Sara, and the northern parishes also emerged as sugar districts despite risks of frost damage.  The farmers circumvented this ecological obstacle by windrowing their canes, which meant laying the harvested canes in furrows, and covering them with leaves until the next grinding or planting season.  Windrowed canes were called “cannes en matelas” by the predominantly French-speaking population of the German Coast.  In 1817, the introduction from Java (Indonesia) of ribbon cane, a frost-resistant variety, partially resolved the geographical limits to cane cultivation in Louisiana.  The introduction of steam-powered mills in 1822 was most welcome since the tougher bark of ribbon cane was difficult to crush with animal-powered mills.

Plantations of the Germa Coast

click for closer view

Section of the Norman’s chart of the Lower Mississippi River by Adrien Persac (1858). Reprint by the Zoe Company (2013), Laura Plantation, Vacherie, Louisiana. Courtesy of Norman Marmillon.

Sugar cane was planted in January and February and harvested from mid-October to December.  The planting season was followed by miscellaneous tasks such as the cultivation of corn, the collection of wood, and the maintenance of levees and drainage canals.  The grinding season (roulaison in French) started in early November, at the latest. According to Follett (The Sugar masters), “steam power profoundly shaped the sugar industry, but its economic success rested primarily on the mass importation of African American bondspeople to Louisiana.  The seasonal nature of sugar production imposed a forbidding regime on the slaves (…), gravely affected slave women’s capacity to bear children, and it left an appalling legacy of death in its wake.” Sugar production was a dangerous process, involving the handling of boiling liquids.  Sugar cane juice was heated in a series of open kettles and pans called the "Jamaica Train". The slaves poured juice from boiler to boiler with long-handled ladles.  This old dangerous method of sugar production did not end until the 1840s when Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), an African American born from a French farmer and a free woman of color, invented a sugar processing evaporator composed of multiple pans stacked inside a vacuum chamber.  This machine called multiple-effect evaporation was patented in 1843.  It improved the sugar refining process, saved time and money in the making of sugar, and protected lives.




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