The "circum-Caribbean" and the continuity of cultures: the Donato Colony in Mexico, 1830-1860.

Author:Lemelle, Sidney J.
Position:Essay
 
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Migration is the motor of social change and the leaven of culture. It is the wild card of politics and the handmaiden to history. Thomas Fiehrer (1)

Over a decade ago I attended a Family reunion in Louisiana, and while enjoying the festivities, I came across a genealogy of five inter-related families of the area. My curiosity was piqued by a reference to a family connection with Mexico. As a trained historian of the African Diaspora I found this tidbit irresistible.

The year was 1857, and the newcomers, from Louisiana, had settled in Tlacotalpan near Alvarado, Mexico, about 50 miles inland from the Caribbean port of Veracruz. Their history, like much of the history of the African Diaspora, is virtually unknown. When the new arrivals moved in, there were comments about their appearance, how much money they might have, what kind of work they did, their morals, their customs and their character. Initially, their presence was uneventful. The newcomers, most of whom were farmers, engineers, mechanics and other workers, wrote to family and friends left behind and celebrated the advantages of their new home. Later, however, a U.S-owned Mexican newspaper ran an editorial that stirred anxiety and fear. The editor was alarmed that more of these people might come and warned that "since the Negro is a creature of imitation and not invention. they will degenerate ... and [become] vicious.a nuisance and pest to society." (2) Spurred by this glimpse of family history, I decided to investigate this little-known aspect of history in the broader context of the African Diaspora.

Traditionally, the movement of peoples of African origin has tended to be framed almost solely in the context of the Trans-Atlantic enslavement. While many U.S. historians acknowledge that the presence of these Africans forever altered the political, economic, social and cultural nature of the Americas, what is often overlooked is the movement of these unwilling migrants after reaching the "New World."

This later involuntary migration helped build regional economies in what Thomas Fiehrer terms the "circum-Caribbean" socio-economic formation. Hence from the islands of Hispanola and Cuba, to Florida and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, from Texas to Veracruz, Mexico a "technical-racial diffusion took place in the 18th and 19th centuries." (3)

By recognizing this circum-Caribbean connection and its historical importance in the transference of commodities, as well as of people and culture, we can gain insight into another important aspect of the African migratory experience. The emergence of diverse class and cultural interrelationships between and among the descendants of these "New World Africans" has often been relegated to unimportance, or worse, ignored. In particular, it is often difficult for contemporary African Americans to acknowledge that people of African descent sometimes owned and enslaved other Africans. This paper will explore the activities and interactions of these individuals, while focusing particular attention on a group of free Blacks, often referred to as free people of color (FPOC), (or sometimes as gens de colour libre or even "Creoles of Color"). Depending on their circumstances they sometimes left their homes, at times voluntarily, other times involuntarily, and traveled throughout the circum-Caribbean--in search of security, property or simply a better life for themselves and their families. We will focus on the ambiguities surrounding this group and the multiple layers of contradiction and representations that arose as they moved in and out of these different--yet interconnected circum-Caribbean societies.

The "Americanization" of Blacks and Europeans in Louisiana

The end of the 18th century ushered in a period of dramatic change in Louisiana, which affected all territorial residence, in particular people of African ancestry. Beginning with the decline of Spanish mercantilism in the late 1780's and the simultaneous introduction of a hybrid type of sugar cane into Louisiana, thus, the area's economy experienced an unparalleled expansion. (4) Prior to this time, the economy was primarily based on small-scale production of indigo, flax, hemp, cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco, mixed with cattle raising. (5) From the 1790 onward, sugar production dominated the economy once the hybrid sugar cane prospered in the demanding soil and climate of southern Louisiana. (6)

Within a few years land values rose dramatically and those who had taken advantage of Spanish land grant system were positioned to profit tremendously from the "white gold" of sugar, facilitating and accelerating their rise in the class hierarchy. The "invasion" of Anglo-Americans into the Mississippi valley region became an unforeseen consequence of this boom. In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte was able to coerce the Spanish crown into returning Louisiana to French control. Bonaparte, in need of money to fight his various wars (in particular the Haitian Revolution) was convinced by U.S. ambassador Robert R. Livingston to sell the province of Louisiana to the United States government. Shortly thereafter Anglo-American immigration began in earnest. (7)

The economic prosperity and rapid population shift after the United States purchase of the territory in 1803 changed the power dynamic among the various classes and groups that comprised Louisiana. The French-speaking Saint Domingue refugees, Spanish-speaking Canary Islanders (Islenos), as well as Germans and Irish immigrants expanded the ethnic mix of the region. (8) Not surprisingly antagonisms grew, especially as the number of poorer working class Anglo-American migrated into the region. This situation also alienated a large number of French and Spanish planter families who, in the wake of Louisiana statehood in 1812, opted to leave the area for the Caribbean, especially Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico. In 1816, for example, over eighty settlers left Louisiana and moved to Puerto Rico with their enslaved, equipment and capital. (9) Among those who left for Mexico and the West Indies were a score of gens de couleur libre who hoped to continue their livelihood without being victimized by American chauvinism. (10)

In 1804, in the aftermath of Haitian independence, another significant connection occurred: the transformation set in motion population movements involving the entire Caribbean region. This movement of peoples and cultures had significant implications as southern Louisiana inherited many of social and cultural elements drawn directly from its circum-Caribbean connections including religious and linguistic syncretism and the development of a population of free people of color within an Africanized culture. (11)

When shiploads of the Saint Domingue refugees began to arrive in New Orleans, over 10,000 in all, they joined Frenchmen, Creoles, Cajuns, freemen, enslaved Blacks and earlier refugees already residing in the Crescent City. (12) Many of the refugee families lived in small communities in and around New Orleans and, to a degree, maintained their cultural, linguistic and racial distinctiveness. Many of the males of the group kept their commercial ties to the circum-Caribbean (Cuba and Haiti) by seeking employment in the City's Trading Houses. (13) It is also quite possible that these emigres had known each other before their arrival in New Orleans, or became acquainted soon thereafter. In later years these connections were to have an important impact on the trade and commerce of the entire region.

While the majority of these refugees remained in New Orleans, about 40% migrated to the Prairie regions of southwest Louisiana, in particular St. Martin Parish (containing present-day Lafayette and Vermilion parishes), St. Mary Parish and St. Landry, while about 48% settling in the River Parishes (Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Iberville, Pointe Coupee and St. James Parishes). (14) These communities remained fairly small, primarily White, and mostly poor. However, between 1803 and 1850, the gender and racial make-up of the community changed as the number of women and gens de couleur libre (free persons of color, mostly people of mixed parentage) increased. (15) The refugees, both Black and White, tended to "blend into" (or crossed over into) their new surroundings and primarily worked as farmers, day-laborers and/or craftsmen in the agricultural sector. (16)

However some, including free Blacks and gens de couleur libre, became planters in the prairie region and a few accumulated significant wealth in land, cattle and Black chattel. Though their numbers were small, they had a noticeable impact on the commercial, cultural and racial developments of Louisiana.

Not surprisingly evidence abounds that many people of African ancestry "crossed-over" the racial and class divide--what is commonly referred to as "passing." As Legal Historian Cheryl Harris has noted "Passing.is a feature of race subordination in all societies structured on white supremacy." (17) The historical evolution of this phenomenon is directly tied to patterns of "White racial domination and economic exploitation that has given passing a certain logic ... [and] valorization ... as treasured property in a society structured on racial caste"--this was the case in Saint Domingue, Louisiana and, I argue, Mexico. (18)

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries gens de couleur libre slowly developed their economic position (often benefiting from their white fathers) as well as a distinct group consciousness. As Fiehrer has shown, this situation was almost identical to the affranchis in Saint-Domingue, who tended to marry within their class and formed extended "clans tracing descent from a single European ancestor." (19) These divisions were reinforced and exacerbated by periodic Spanish, French and later U.S. laws that discouraged social and economic interaction between the groups. Such legal impediments had as their aim the creation of barriers between the groups to...

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