Slavery’s Metropolis: The Place of Enslaved People in a Revolutionary Age

By Rashauna Johnson

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the shocks and aftershocks of at least four intertwined revolutions together transformed New Orleans. The French and Haitian Revolutions led to emancipation across the French Caribbean and prompted thousands of refugees to migrate from Saint-Domingue to Louisiana.[1] There they met members of another revolutionary diaspora, U.S. settlers who hoped to realize the benefits of their independence from Britain by obtaining land in the continental interior. Napoleon Bonaparte’s failure to re-impose slavery in Saint-Domingue was a key consideration in his decision to sell the entire Louisiana territory to the United States.[2] For U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, possession of New Orleans was vital to national security and commerce. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase opened an opportunity to expand the “Empire of Liberty” into the continental interior, further dispossessing indigenous peoples and providing the land that the white American citizenry demanded. Entrepreneurial planters and the merchants who financed them, backed by federal power, transformed millions of acres in the Lower Mississippi River Valley into brutal sugar and cotton plantations. Cotton and other staples flowed through the city’s port to be shipped off to England and the U.S. North, where they supplied the factories at the center of the Industrial Revolution. The relationship between slavery and each of these revolutions has long animated vibrant scholarly debates, and we are increasingly appreciating New Orleans and its pivotal role in the history of the American, French, Haitian, and Industrial Revolutions. But it has taken longer for us to appreciate the ways that slavery and these revolutions together reshaped the city itself.

A map of the West Indies and the Mexican Gulf.
Lapie, M, and P. F Tardieu. [A map of the West Indies and of the Mexican-Gulph sic]. [S.l, 1806] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed February 25, 2017.)

As I researched my recently published monograph, Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions, I realized that complementary and competing aspects of these revolutions were imprinted on the city’s landscape. Attention to the city as a text, one that enslaved persons helped to produce through their labor and resistance, revealed the politics of place in a modernizing city.[3] Specifically, the contests over the shifting literal place of people on the urban landscape and in its many passageways provide one barometer of these larger, figurative shifts. So Slavery’s Metropolis started with two basic questions: Where were enslaved people in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions? And how does attention to the circulations of the most vulnerable New Orleanians – the enslaved – through that port city’s places and passageways help to unravel the paradoxes of that city, as well as the empires and Atlantic World to which it belonged?

Drawing of an auction of slaves, artwork and goods.
Auction of slaves, artwork, and goods. William Henry Brooke, 1772-1860/Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection

One such paradox that the book takes on is the fact that one of the most radical antislavery events in world history – the Haitian Revolution – led to an equally revolutionary expansion of slavery in Louisiana, including the enslavement of some immigrants who had likely been freed with French emancipation in the Caribbean. As these immigrants of presumed African descent crossed racialized borders into the early republic, they had to fight again for free status. Those who were not successful became part of Louisiana’s enslaved population. Another paradox that the book takes on is the challenge of modern urban planning and governance in a cosmopolitan port city in which bondspersons made up about one-third of the local population. In New Orleans and its surroundings parishes, seemingly free circulation and cosmopolitan assemblage were not inherently subversive of chattel slavery; in fact, they were essential to its functioning. Rather than preclude such circulations, local elites contended over the best ways to regulate and exploit them. Enslaved persons circulated to haul and sell goods and build levees, and they congregated to amuse themselves and spectators and to labor on the public works. An 1811 runaway slave advertisement captures the ways in which the movement of enslaved persons both perpetuated and subverted local efforts at slave management:

One of our carriers, a negro man named James, ranaway [sic] yesterday from the office, and is lurking about the suburbs. We therefore request those of our subscribers who are served by him to be so good as to send to the office for their paper of this day, requesting also, should any of you see the said negro, to stop & confine him.[4]

This enslaved man’s labor as a deliveryman likely laid the groundwork for his escape. Their labor transformed the city’s infrastructure even as their presence hastened the creation of laws and customs to manage them.

This investigation is significant for several reasons. For example, it offers insight into enslaved daily life on the urban landscape, and it shows how contests over the presence and circulation of bondspersons as commoditized, racialized laborers shaped the local economy, neighborhoods, amusements, and jail. Ultimately, however, Slavery’s Metropolis offers yet another sobering reminder that, for many across the Americas, the Age of Revolutions was also an Age of Slavery, and that seemingly paradoxical relationship shaped places and the people who made them. Slaveholders and their backers defined citizenship in part as the right to enslave others. And for the enslaved, their ability – indeed, at times, requirement – to circulate across spatial and social distances was no substitute for a meaningful freedom. Sometimes they fled bondage and migrated to places where they could enjoy new rights and privileges, but not always. Then, as now, questions about diaspora and migration, nation and citizenship rested at the center of political debates. And the history of New Orleans at the turn of the nineteenth century, when ideologies of republicanism and capitalism worked together to fasten the chains on many, reminds us that meaningful “liberation is not a destination; it is a demand.”[5]

Rashauna Johnson is associate professor of history at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, 2016). She is currently at work on a family history of migration in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes.

Title image: New Orleans Painting – The City Of New Orleans, And The Mississippi River Lake Pontchartrain In Distance, Circa 1885 by Currier and Ives


[1] Paul F. Lachance, “The 1809 Immigration of Saint-Domingue Refugees to New Orleans: Reception, Integration, and Impact,” Louisiana History 29 (Spring 1988): 109-141.

[2] Laurent Dubois, “The Haitian Revolution and the Sale of Louisiana,” The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 44, no. 3 (March 2007): 18-41. See also Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012).

[3] Stephanie M.H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004).

[4] Louisiana Courier, 4 September 1811.

[5] Johnson, Slavery’s Metropolis, 202.

Further Reading

Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

Faber, Eberhard L. Building the Land of Dreams: New Orleans and the Transformation of Early America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Ferrer, Ada. Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Kelman, Ari. A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Rothman, Adam. Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Scott, Rebecca J. and Jean M. Hébrard. Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Upton, Dell. Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

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