Spanish New Orleans and the Caribbean


July 3, 2023
by Al Dickenson Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Spanish New Orleans and the Caribbean edited by Alfred Lemmon (New Orleans, Louisiana: Historic New Orleans Collection, 2022)

For anyone interested in the Spanish Colonial period of New Orleans’ history, a recent English-Spanish bilingual anthology, Spanish New Orleans and the Caribbean, edited by Alfred Lemmon, would serve as an excellent introduction. Though there are only four listed essays in the anthology, one each by Lemmon, Light Townsend Cummins, Richard Campanella, and F. Wayne Stromeyer, M.D., in addition to multiple short essays on a variety of topics, each offers a unique perspective on an aspect of Spanish New Orleans, the surrounding area and era, and its impact on history.

Spanish New Orleans and the Caribbean was published in conjunction with the opening of an exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection, in New Orleans, Louisiana, which ran from October 2022 to January 2023. In addition to holding the four essays described below, the book includes an extensive exhibition checklist and numerous illustrations, which bring the topics of discussion to life in a way otherwise unattainable.

Alfred Lemmon begins the book with an introductory essay (“Introduction”), which, in about twenty pages, details how the Spanish came to have dominion over New Orleans. This essay places the city in the broader context of Spain’s control, bookended by the French, and, later, the new, young United States of America. Lemmon also explains the relationship the Native Americans of the area had with the colonists, as well as the impact the Catholic Church, the predominant religion of the Spanish and French, had on the city’s development (page 9). Simultaneously, Lemmon’s introductory essay highlights what the rest of the book’s content will tell readers, including providing context for the various illustrations contained herein.

The second essay, “New Orleans and the Spanish World,” comes from Light Townsend Cummins, one of the most renowned scholars on this topic and era, and details the influence that New Orleans exhibited on the rest of the Spanish Colonial world at the time. The city served as Spain’s northernmost port in the Caribbean for roughly forty years, and had direct ties to numerous other Spanish holdings, like Veracruz and Havana. Cummins illustrates how New Orleans, in this time period called Nueva Orleans in Spanish, was an outpost of the Enlightenment, with a wealthy class of individuals, businessmen, government officials, and so forth, patronizing the arts and much more (p. 44-51). In a sense, New Orleans was a beacon of the Enlightenment, forming a multicultural experience for residents (the city was the first major settlement of one colonial power to be taken over by another). As such, the city saw a combination of the two cultures in many aspects, including architecture, food, and furniture (p. 60, 113-114). This period, the post-Spanish colonization of southern Louisiana, saw a revitalization of relations with the Native peoples as well, due to Governor and Captain-General Alejando O’Reilly’s attempts to standardize communication with the local Indians (p. 55). Most impressive, however, as Cummins stresses, is that during the Spanish period, New Orleans grew from an isolated community in the Louisiana swamps to a bastion of commerce and culture, and, eventually, came to the aid of the revolutionaries during the War of Independence, and Spanish forces under the command of Bernardo de Galvez.

The urbanism of New Orleans, as the topic of the third essay in the collection (“Urbanism Comes to La Nueva Orleans”), is described best by its writer, Richard Campanella. “Paradoxes and nuances about in the historiography of Spain’s dominion over the Louisiana colony … The era began secretly in 1762, publicly in 1764, and militarily in 1769, and ended with comparable ambiguity following an 1800-3 interregnum that saw three flags fly in as many years” (p. 81). While Cummins’ piece illustrates how Spain turned New Orleans into a city of trade and intellectual thought, Campanella’s essay works concurrently to detail the urban renewal of Spain’s colonization of Nueva Orleans. Everything from colonial defenses to bridges to an enhanced street grid (first developed by two Frenchmen over the previous forty years) could be tied back to the dons’desire for a world class city (p. 83, 91). Campanella writes flawlessly, bringing the reader into the landscape of the mid-1700s and early 1800s city to imagine what sites could be seen.

Throughout the book, there are various inserted essays, most reflecting on a particular piece in the exhibit collection, but none of them are distinguishable by separate bylines and are presumably written by the editors. The exception is the final essay – it has its own author, a doctor of medicine and author on Spanish period Louisianan furniture, F. Wayne Stromeyer. Stromeyer provides a great (albeit very short, at only four pages, the shortest of the collection) introduction to the interior furnishings of note in this period of Louisiana’s history. Stromeyer covers everything from wood types, Creole, Spanish, and French influences, to interior design elements in period-homes.

Though each essay is relatively short, they provide great first glances into the topics they discuss. Thankfully, each essay is well sourced, in both footnotes and bibliography, which allows readers to delve more deeply into these topics if there is a desire. While each essay could undoubtedly be significantly longer, or even book-length in some cases, the authors also let the exhibit’s collection do much of the heavy-lifting in this finely illustrated work. Through the spotlighted items in the collection, readers see the history of the era for themselves, as this book serves not only as a companion piece for the event at the Historic New Orleans Collection, but also as a reliable companion in exploring the culture and history of a great city.

PLEASE CONSIDER PURCHASING THIS BOOK FROM AMAZON IN CLOTH(As an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)

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