POSTED Thu. Jan 9, 2014
On this day in history: the Battle of New Orleans and the German Coast Uprising
Adam Karlin
Written by ADAM KARLIN
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Two of the defining moments of New Orleans history happened this week some two hundred years ago, and while they are related to one another, and occurred within three years of each other, their connections are essentially absent in the public memory.

January 8th, 1814, marked the beginning of The Battle of New Orleans, fought at the Chalmette plantation, just east of the city. On the same date in 1811, Charles Deslonde led a band of freed slaves out of LaPlace in the German Coast Uprising, the largest slave revolt in US history.

Strictly speaking, ‘US’ history deserves a footnote; in 1811, the parish of Orleans was located in the territory, rather than state, of Louisiana. But this is splitting hairs. At the end of the day, the rebellion occurred on what is now American soil, was engendered by American policy, domestic and overseas, and may have contributed to Louisiana becoming a full-fledged member of the United States. More on this below.

But first: both of these events will be commemorated this week. Chalmette Battlefield, run by the National Park Service, is holding events Friday and Saturday to commemorate Andrew Jackson’s victory over a British force led by Edward Pakenham. There will be militia training sessions, the firing of muskets and cannons, and at 10:30am on Saturday (Jan 10), British forces will march along Pakenham’s attack route, finishing with a shared salute with American counterparts that commemorates the 199 years of peaceful relations the two countries have shared since the battle.

In the meantime, the Destrehan Plantation operates a museum dedicated to Deslonde’s rebellion, which is open on a daily basis.

So how do these two events tie together?

When the Louisiana Territory was purchased by the United States, the issue of slavery was the height of public debate. The Louisiana Purchase occurred mere months after the conclusion of the Haitian Revolution, the first successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere. Many New Orleanians – white, slave and free people of color – had family and friends in Haiti who were impacted by the uprising. Slave owners were terrified of the revolt being replicated in Louisiana, while some slaves hoped for the same possibility. The Free People of Color, some of whom owned slaves, and some of whom had been slaves, had multiple perspectives on the matter.

As all of this was occurring, the Napoleonic wars were distancing France from her remaining colonial possessions in the Western Hemisphere. Thus, while the Creole power base of New Orleans had no love of the United States, and was happy to settle the new Americans upriver, they were also eager to benefit from American military power, both as defense on the frontier and bulwark against slave uprisings.

The years following the Louisiana Purchase saw, on the one hand, the tide rise against slavery via Jefferson’s Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves and Britain’s corresponding Abolition of the Slave Trade Act , both of which outlawed the international slave trade. In response, American slave owners tightened their commitment to the institution, pressing for the introduction of more slave states within the US and harsher crackdowns on perceived or actual movements for abolition.

Movement’s like the German Coast Uprising. Deslonde, the leader of the rebellion, was a Haitian slave, possibly mixed race and possibly a driver (overseer) working in the sugarcane plantations in what is now St. John the Baptist Parish. He led around 200 compatriots (some accounts put the number as high as 500) in the insurrection, burning property and killing two white men, before the movement was put down by a quickly organized militia. Records say 95 participating slaves were executed, including Deslonde, who “had his Hands chopped off and then shot in one thigh & then the other, until they were both broken — then shot in the Body and before he had expired was put into a bundle of straw and roasted.” The heads of 18 slaves were displayed on pikes as a warning against rebellion; one contemporary observer noted “Their Heads … decorate our Levée, all the way up the coast, I am told they look like crows sitting on long poles.

When the War of 1812 broke out a year later, post-purchase Louisianans and Americans found a common ground. They would fight the British, who were trying to conquer New Orleans and the rest of the United States, and were hated in equal measure by Americans, many of whom recalled the Revolution, and those of French descent, who bore the United Kingdom an old enmity (particularly the Cajuns, who had been expelled from Canada by the British).

But for those who owned slaves, another factor was at play, one that recalled Deslonde’s failed uprising. The British were harassing slave traders via their West Africa Squadrons, and supported the Native American tribes that harbored freed slaves and resisted American westward expansion. The United States, on the other hand, actively pushed for westward expansion, was divided on whether new western states would become slave or free, returned freed slaves to bondage and was aided by slave trading smugglers like Jean Laffite.

History rarely has clear cut good and bad guys. Slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833, and continued in British India until 1843, and British alliances with Native American tribes were grounded in political expediency. Still, for those who had experienced Haiti or the German Coast Uprising or both, it was clear the United States was unambiguously committed to protecting the economic interests of local plantations.

The German Coast Uprising and Battle of New Orleans stand out as related events that speak to the shifting reality of post-purchase Louisiana, a Caribbean space on the brink of Americanization. Rarely does one weekend speak to so much of this unique past, and this is one such section of the calendar; make the most of it.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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