“Experience Louisiana’s deep and colourful history told through the area’s historical architecture and rich countryside,” proudly proclaims the brochure on Louisiana’s Historic Plantation Homes.
It describes some of the 140 plantations able to be visited along the Mississippi River running from Natchez south to New Orleans.
Many of the plantations’ houses and gardens are physically impressive and the stories of the families who lived there are compelling and dramatic sagas of human history, and the tour guides generally recount them well.
But there is one aspect which I found profoundly disturbing.
These are the stories of the white folks, the people who owned the plantations and lived in the ‘big house’; the slaves who worked the land which made the white folks wealthy hardly get a mention.
Race still major flashpoint
Race was, and still is, a major flashpoint in the United States, and nowhere more so than in the South where, as William Faulkner put it, the past is not dead yet.
Essentially, many Southerners want to deny their own past. A key strategy in the tourism context is to focus on the story of the houses and the white folks. I first experienced this in the antebellum houses of Natchez in Mississippi.
Before the Civil War of 1861-65, the cotton plantation owners competed to build the most lavish mansions in the town, and their wives vied with each other for the most expensive table settings, furniture, decorations and ornaments – one place had a 999-piece table setting hand-made in Paris.
At one mansion I politely asked the guide where the slaves were kept. She replied that the “servants’ quarters were out the back”. Granted, the life of a house slave was certainly better than that of a field worker, nevertheless the euphemism of ‘servants quarters’ remained with me.
In Louisiana, where sugar not cotton provided the wealth for European families, slavery is airbrushed away. Its existence is not denied, but it’s not talked about, and when it is the discussion is brief, and there is a lot of minimising language used.
Reference is made to the path-ways for slaves to become free, but no numbers are given – I did ask. Same as to the blacks who owned slaves themselves -and it’s true, a few did.
In Louisiana, the guides often refer to the Code Nair, the French legal code regulating how slaves were to be treated. As if this some-how protected the slaves from torture, forced breeding and other brutalities.
Only one place, the Whitney Plantation, tells the story of the slaves from the perspective of the enslaved people. Tellingly that facility opened in just December 2014, and amid much controversy.
At other places you can see replicas of slaves’ quarters in the gardens, actual or reproductions of the large pots used to process sugar cane, and occasionally there is a list of names of some of the slaves who worked there.
It’s wrong to say slavery is never mentioned or is furtively hidden away, but it is certainly not the focus anywhere but at Whitney.
A visitor to Whitney gets a lanyard with the image of an actual slave on it. I had Catherine Cornelius who is quoted “Ah was a slave born an raised on de Smithfield Plantation.”
Catherine is one of the many former slaves whose stories were captured on tape and in print during the Depression Era by the Federal Writers’ Project, part of Franklin D Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.
The reality of slavery
The Whitney Plantation shows the reality of slavery in Louisiana. Branding, whipping, cutting knee tendons, removing ears and noses were just some of the punishments. Forced breeding was a common practice as slave Julia Woodrich recalls:
“My ma had fifteen children and none of us had de same pa. Every time she was sold she would get another man. De missis (of the plantation) would put a broom down and dey jump over it, den dey was married. Sometimes dey would give dem a chicken supper.”
Memorial walls display the names of over 109,000 slaves known to have been in Louisiana in the early 19th century, often with quotes collected by the Writers’ Project.
A visitor to any of the great houses on Plantation Road, which winds from Baton Rouge down to New Orleans, gets a rather different story.
Many of these houses are preserved in their original state, with furniture, wallpaper, table settings and decorations to match with guides giving compelling narratives of the families that lived there, and what became of them.
Oak Alley has an impressive avenue of oak trees running for 300 metres from the Greek Revival-style mansion built in 1839 by the Roman family, to the Mississippi River at the end of the drive.
One of the largest estates in its day, an average of 110 slaves worked there. The dining room has an Indian-style punka device, a screen pulled backwards and forwards by a slave over a large block of ice to keep the diners cool in the blistering humidity of a Louisiana summer.
Louisiana was fundamentally French. The colonists brought with them their language, their Roman Catholic faith, and their laws.
The Code Noir
One of these was the Code Noir which sought to regulate the treatment of slaves. First promulgated by King Louis XIV in 1685, it applied in Louisiana from 1724.
Encyclopaedia.com says: “the Code Noir, consisting of fifty-four articles, fixed the legal status of slaves and imposed certain specific obligations and prohibitions upon their masters. It prescribed in detail regulations concerning holidays, marriage, religious instruction, burial, clothing and subsistence, punishment, and manumission of slaves. It also defined the legal position and proper conduct of freed or free blacks in the colony.”
By 1803 when Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $5 million, the sugar trade was flourishing. Growing and processing sugar is labour intensive and there was a high demand for slave labour.
Many of the slaves came from the Northern states, and were sold to the owners of Southern plantations, hence the expression “being sold down the [Mississippi] river”
One plantation still displays a bill of sale from just such a transaction. It lists a “buck nigger 25, in good health,” bought for $1000, about $110,000 in today’s money. Various “females trained as domestic servants” were bought at $250 each.
Use in tourist industry
Ashley Rogers, the Director of Museum Operations at the Whitney Plantation, answered my inquiry about the real impact of Code Noir, particularly its use in the modern tourist industry.
“I know that a lot of more ‘traditional’ sites like to look to the Code Noir as making slavery in Louisiana somehow different or even more benevolent than slavery in Anglo-American societies.
“Frankly, I think this is a mis-characterisation of the document. Make no mistake: the Code Nair sanctioned a great deal of bodily violence inflicted upon enslaved people.
“The other thing to remember about the Code Nair is that it was a French colonial document. That is to say, it was the law of the land only in Louisiana.
“It was promulgated in Louisiana in 1724 and remained in effect until 1763. In 1763 the Spanish took over, passing their own slave codes. In 1803, Louisiana became a territory of the USA with the Louisiana Purchase.”
Value claims disingenuous
Claims about the value of the Code Noir as a form of protection for slaves after that time are disingenuous, she says. Nor was there any means of enforcing it.
“In this time period, the law and business was conducted in French and most enslaved people were African-born and illiterate. Furthermore, there weren’t exactly people standing over plantation owners’ shoulders to make sure they actually did things like instructed enslaved people in religion, fed them well, etc.”
At the Frogmore cotton planation, my guide put it simply: “the quality of life of a slave depended entirely on the mood of the plantation owner. Some looked after their property well: others did not.”
Racial issues are still very alive in America, as the recent controversies over police shootings of black people demonstrate.
Amid the accusations of institutional racism which rage through the various incidents, I found it interesting to reflect on how hard Americans found it to be honest about their past. (Not that any country, South Africa on apartheid, Canada and Australia in respect of their indigenous people, and New Zealand’s own long and difficult path to dealing with historical grievances by Maori, have ever found that easy to do.)
One of the tests used by those passionate about racial issues is whether the modem owners of plantations and other facilities built or operated by slaves, including the White House and the Capitol Building, own up to the horrors and inhumanity of slavery and present the past fully and honestly.
In Louisiana, Whitney does; the others either don’t, or do so only by varying degrees.