Mud, Mud, Mud

Nathaniel Rich

  • The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans by Lawrence Powell
    Harvard, 422 pp, £22.95, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 05987 0

One of the most peculiar aspects of the public debate that followed Hurricane Katrina was the emphatic assertion, repeated incessantly in the press, that the storm was a ‘once in a generation’, ‘once in a lifetime’ or ‘once in a century’ event. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans at the time, bears some of the responsibility: ‘The city has never seen a hurricane of this magnitude hit it directly,’ he told any journalist who would listen. But this was nonsense. Katrina was not even a once in forty years storm, and by the time it hit New Orleans, its winds were barely hurricane strength. Hurricane Betsy in 1965 was more powerful, as was George in 1947, and more violent storms narrowly missed the city in 1969, 1998 and 2004. As any New Orleanian will point out, the greatest part of the damage wrought by Katrina was caused by man, not nature, the result of faulty levees and shipping canals dug imprudently through the heart of the city. This opinion was ratified in 2009 by Stanwood Duval, a federal judge who blamed the flooding damage on the ‘monumental negligence’ of the US Army Corps of Engineers. That decision was reversed on appeal in September on a technicality, but the case appears to be headed for the Supreme Court.

Katrina was both predictable and, from a historical perspective, dismally routine. No American city has endured more catastrophes than New Orleans, and Katrina is no longer even the most recent calamity to befall the region. It’s estimated that Hurricane Isaac will cost $1.5 billion, while the BP oil spill, and the subsequent poisoning of Gulf waters with dispersant chemicals, may surpass Katrina in both economic damage and loss of human life. Disaster is part of the character of the city: not just the trauma of past cataclysms, but the fear of what will come next, and how soon.

In New Orleans’s first hundred years, the period covered by Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City, its existence was imperilled more than a dozen times. The first catastrophic flood occurred in 1719, less than a year after the site was claimed by French settlers. It was ‘the worst overflow the local Indians could remember’ and left the settlement submerged for nearly six months. New Orleans flooded just about every summer after that, with especially devastating incidents in 1734 (again lasting several months), 1770, 1780, 1785, 1790, 1791, 1796, 1812 and 1816. A hurricane in 1722 destroyed the buildings erected by the first settlers, and allowed for the construction of a street grid. Six major hurricanes struck between 1776 and 1781, but the Great Louisiana Hurricane of 1812 was the worst of all, plunging the city under 15 feet of water.

On Good Friday in 1788, a pious military treasurer lit fifty wax tapers in his house, and left them burning when he was called to lunch. Five hours later, 856 buildings, or four-fifths of New Orleans, had been incinerated. The fire spread quickly because houses had been built with locally harvested cypress, which, while resistant to water, is high in oil and resin, and therefore extremely flammable. The blaze didn’t dissuade settlers from using cypress to rebuild the houses, however, and six years later the city burned down again.

A smallpox epidemic struck in 1794, followed by yellow fever in 1796. Malarial mosquitoes swarmed every summer, as the British architect Benjamin Latrobe reported in horror in 1819:

As soon as the sun sets, the muskitoes appear in clouds and fill every room in the house, as well as the open air. Their noise is so loud as to startle a stranger to its daily occurrence. It fills the air, and there is a character of occasional depression and elevation in it, like that of a concert of frogs in a marsh.

Latrobe diagnosed the source of the city’s problems: ‘Mud, mud, mud … this is a floating city, floating below the surface of the water on a bed of mud.’ The ground beneath the city is alluvial soil from the Mississippi River. New Orleans is the lowest-lying metropolis in the US, but the swamps surrounding it are lower still. After persistent rain, the streets filled with water, making each block an island; the blocks came to be called îlets. French diplomats and governors often considered abandoning the town: ‘It is more than likely we will have to give it up,’ Voltaire said. Louis XV required few incentives to cede the territory to Spain in 1762.

Why build a city on land that was described, as early as 1720, as ‘flooded, unhealthy, impracticable; fit for nothing save growing rice’? It is the crucial question about New Orleans, considered by every historian of the region. The conclusion most often reached is a variation on the observation made in 1876 by the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel: ‘New Orleans is just as poorly located as a city … as it is excellently located as a commercial site. This last mentioned advantage has made up for all disadvantages.’ In Bienville’s Dilemma, the geographer Richard Campanella writes that the site ‘made perfect, rational sense at the time of its founding – a time when man depended heavily on waterborne transportation, and when this particular site offered the best waterborne access to what proved to be the richest valley on Earth’.

Powell, as his title indicates, has reached a different conclusion: ‘To imagine that New Orleans was sited at its present location because of some kind of geographic imperative is unsupported by history.’ He proposes a better site, and justifies his claim by retelling the city’s mysterious creation myth. In March 1699, a Canadian-born midshipman called Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, set off with his older brother Pierre to explore the Mississippi River. Bienville was 18; his brother, the Sieur d’Iberville, was 37. Their goal was to establish a settlement near the mouth of the Mississippi, thus blocking entry to the channel to Spain and England, both of which had sent explorers to the river without much success. The Mississippi, as it approaches the Gulf, grows deeper and narrower, and its mouth, ‘which is often shrouded in fog and bordered with alluvial plumes of sediment, is practically indistinguishable from the minor streams and bayous that spider seaward through the marshy coastland’. Spanish vessels drifted by for nearly two centuries without noticing it. The first European to discover the Mississippi from the sea was René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who was assisted by local Indian guides in 1682. On a riverbank several days upstream La Salle shouted ‘Vive le Roi!’ and claimed the Mississippi Basin for Louis XIV. He named the vast territory, amounting to a third of the continental United States, Louisiana. But when La Salle returned two years later to establish a capital city, he couldn’t find the river. He drifted as far as Matagorda, Texas, 400 miles west of the river mouth, and spent two years exploring the coast in vain. In the end, his frustrated crew shot him in the head.

Seventeen years later, as Bienville and Iberville made their way up the river, they were approached by several Indians in pirogues near the present site of New Orleans. In exchange for a hatchet, the Indians showed them a portage trail that led to a small rivulet, Bayou St John, that emptied into Lake Pontchartrain. The lake connected to the Gulf, and so would allow large ships to reach a city while avoiding the Mississippi altogether. The rivulet was surrounded by relatively high ground, and the area was close enough to the river’s mouth to defend against foreign incursions. To mark the occasion the Le Moyne brothers put up a cross and slaughtered a buffalo.

Nearly twenty years passed before the French crown could be persuaded to build a city on the Mississippi. Bienville, by then governor of Louisiana, proposed building New Orleans along the natural levee near Bayou St John; he had granted himself ownership of the land, so stood to make a fortune. He began building even though French officials were still considering another site: Bayou Manchac, a forgotten turn higher up the Mississippi, near Baton Rouge.

Powell, breaking with historical consensus, suggests that Bienville made the wrong choice: ‘There were other geographic possibilities – less miry alternatives nearer the intended centre of agricultural activity, and probably easier to reach through the same backdoor approach.’ Note the ‘probably’. Like New Orleans, Bayou Manchac possessed a back channel to the Gulf (manchac is Choctaw for ‘rear entrance’), but the trip was longer and considerably more arduous. Powell also points out that Bayou Manchac’s location, nearly 200 miles away from the mouth of the Mississippi, made it useless for defensive purposes.

The Bayou Manchac site was ‘higher and drier’ than New Orleans, but, as Powell acknowledges, part of it collapsed into the river in the early 1800s. There was arable land to its north and east, so settlers could have moved away from the river and ‘the diseased swamps that would make New Orleans the great necropolis of North America’. And yet, as Powell concedes, this cramped geography would force ‘lineages of three continents and countless races and ethnicities’ to ‘crowd together on slopes of the natural levee and somehow learn to improvise a coexistence whose legacy may be America’s only original contribution to world culture’. In other words, if New Orleans had been built at Bayou Manchac, there would be no jazz.

In tacit rebuttal of the idea that New Orleans was the ‘inevitable city on an impossible site’, Powell writes that ‘there was nothing inevitable about the decision to make New Orleans the new capital, unless one considers cunning in the service of self-interested ambition an ineluctability of history.’ Certainly Bienville’s self-interest was important, but does any historian not consider human self-interest an ‘ineluctability of history’? Finally Powell offers a tepid surrender: ‘Maybe in light of what the city became, it is a good thing that Bienville’s guile won out.’

Turning his focus to the early development of New Orleans, he pays special attention to the slaves from Senegal and Congo who dug the town’s drainage canals, laid its streets, and constructed its houses and levees. One early governor, Etienne Boucher de Périer, on hearing unsubstantiated rumours that slaves planned a strike against the city’s military garrison, tortured and decapitated suspected conspirators, and left their heads on stakes for public viewing. But Périer was also responsible, if inadvertently, for eroding the institution of slavery in the colony. Slave militias were mobilised regularly, not only to quell Indian uprisings but to pursue runaway slaves. This policy had an unforeseen effect: it was difficult to return militia members to slavery after they’d risked their lives in defence of the colony, especially since they often fought side by side with whites. Black soldiers were thus granted their freedom, and a free black caste began to emerge.

The French government had hoped to use the colony for tobacco production, with Natchez as its base. But the tobacco plants didn’t take to the climate, and the French began to regret their investment. The Natchez uprising convinced them to drop it all together. The thousands of African slaves brought in to work on the tobacco plantations had nothing to do. Struggling planters allowed their slaves to feed themselves by hunting and fishing, which meant letting them carry weapons. Slaves were also permitted to earn money, selling game and livestock in town and renting out their services. As plantation work became less gruelling, the mortality rate dropped, and more slaves started families. It was, as Powell writes, ‘an extraordinary turn of events, maybe the only instance of a major slave society reversing course and taking on the characteristics of a protean frontier that happened to include slaves’.

The population of free blacks increased substantially after the city was ceded to Spanish rule in 1762. The Spaniards introduced the policy of coartación, by which a slave could buy himself out of bondage. Social conventions changed too. Thanks in part to the shortage of white women in the colony, it became acceptable for white men to live with women of colour; in fact this arrangement continued even after the ratio of white women to men reached parity. (Some parents, when their son reached puberty, awarded him his own negra or mulata for purposes of sexual education.) White men offered freedom to their lovers, and to their mixed-race children. By the end of the 18th century, a slave in New Orleans was three times more likely to obtain his freedom than a slave in the American colonies. Free blacks made up a fifth of the city’s population.

The city’s geography offered slaves another possibility. Runaways formed encampments protected by swamps and dense forests and not easily found by slave owners. These maroons planted corn, squash and rice; picked berries; fished; and hunted for rabbit, opossum, deer and birds. But they rarely lost contact with the plantations they had fled, often passing freely between city and swamp. They returned to New Orleans at night to pilfer from henhouses, fence stolen goods, and carouse in the grog shops and cabarets.

The folk hero of this era was Juan San Malo, a ruthless maroon leader believed by his acolytes to possess magic powers. San Malo was a swampland Robin Hood, freeing slaves and slaughtering anyone who crossed him, white or black. The governing class reluctantly tolerated the presence of maroons – there were too many of them, and they were too elusive, to police. But after San Malo audaciously murdered several Englishmen, his provocations could no longer be ignored. Francisco Bouligny, the acting governor of Louisiana, assembled an army of soldiers, militiamen, hunters and trappers familiar with the marshes where the maroons lived. San Malo twice evaded capture, before being betrayed by a slave spy. He woke up on a riverbank surrounded by armed men, climbed a tree, was shot in the arm, and fell to the ground. He begged to be killed, but his captors refused, parading him through New Orleans before cheering crowds. Twelve days later, his wound now gangrenous, the delirious San Malo was marched to the Plaza de Armas (now Jackson Square) and hanged.

Modern New Orleans has the highest murder rate in the United States, an appallingly predatory judicial system, institutionalised racial discrimination, and is struggling with the repercussions of various environmental and man-made disasters. It’s disheartening to be reminded that many of these problems have been around since Bienville’s time. Up to a quarter of New Orleans’s original male settlers were smugglers, deserters and convicts, exiled from France. ‘If I sent back all the bad characters,’ one early governor wrote, ‘what would be left of this colony’s inhabitants?’ French colonial law, still the source of many peculiarities in Louisiana’s legal system, was baffling, contradictory and often ignored. ‘Few towns in the Western Hemisphere,’ Powell writes, ‘disregarded the laws as routinely as New Orleans.’ We are also told of rampant gambling, excessive ‘tippling’, dancing, and other forms of carousing – the product of a ‘fatalism that caused the dice to roll, a fatalism born of the mud-perch precariousness of a city site on a continental ledge where deluges and disease, and the occasional fire, fostered a laissez les bons temps rouler stance towards life’.

About that ‘laissez les bons temps rouler’. Powell, no doubt trying to avoid sounding like an academic, relies on stock phrases to a startling degree: New Orleans is ‘a wild and woolly seaport’, a ‘frontier of fresh starts’, ‘a Hieronymus Bosch painting’ etc. This is a shame, since The Accidental City joins several popular and better-written histories of New Orleans – Grace Elizabeth King’s A History of Louisiana, Herbert Asbury’s The French Quarter, and The New Orleans City Guide and Gumbo Ya-Ya (both compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project). The next chapter may belong to geographers. As Powell points out, New Orleans is situated on some of the youngest land on the planet; the delta is no older than 7200 years, while New Orleans’s acreage consolidated only 4000 years ago – around the time of the Great Sphinx of Giza. The high ground on which the French Quarter rests is younger still: it dates from 1400. And now the land is disappearing very quickly: Louisiana loses a football-pitch-sized area of wetlands every 15 minutes. The city is in the middle of a boom: its population is growing, its culture thrives, and there is still no place in the world like it. But we know that flooding will increase, no matter how high the levees are built, and that storms will be ever more frequent and violent. The next hurricane season is six months away.