The House on Bayou Road: Atlantic Creole Networks in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The House on Bayou Road: Atlantic Creole Networks in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The Journal of American History
Volume 100, Issue 1 (June 2013)
pages 21-45
DOI: 10.1093/jahist/jat082

Pierre Force, Professor of French and History
Columbia University

n 1813 a free man of color named Charles Decoudreau living in New Orleans went to court to repossess a house on the edge of town he had sold two years before to Charles Lamerenx, a white man from Saint Domingue. Despite being on opposite sides of a racial divide, the men and their families had much in common as “Atlantic creoles.” In this study, I test the meaning and explanatory power of Ira Berlin’s concept of “Atlantic creole” by telling the story of two families, one “black” and one “white,” whose paths briefly crossed in New Orleans in 1811.

Berlin’s work on “Atlantic creoles” is a powerful intervention in this field because it begins by telling a familiar story and proceeds with a much less familiar one. The familiar story is that of Africans being forcibly taken to America and stripped of their African identities, and developing a new creole or African American culture that was the product of their experience as slaves working in the plantations. Important as this story is, it captures “only a portion of the history of black life in colonial North America, and that imperfectly.” The story as usually told begins with an unadulterated “African” identity that was somehow erased or transformed by the experience of slavery and gave way to a creole identity that was a mix of various African, European, and Native American components. Inverting this story of origins, Berlin shows that the Africans of the charter generations were always already creole: their experiences and attitudes “were more akin to that of confident, sophisticated natives than of vulnerable newcomers.” Atlantic creoles originated in the encounters between Europeans and Africans on the western coast of Africa, starting in the fifteenth century, well before Christopher Columbus sailed to America. In a few coastal enclaves, …

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