New Orleans, United States: Louisiana’s ‘big easy’

New Orleans, which this year marks its 300th anniversary, offers a heady brew of Creole culture, jazz music and a diverse ethnic heritage. Adam Karlin roams Louisiana's biggest city

Brass band playing during Mardi Gras in Mew Orleans

New Orleans is often dubbed the most European city in the United States. Yet, despite its Francophonic name, this is arguably the most Caribbean city in the country, with the deepest connection to the African diaspora.

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It sits on a low bend of the Mississippi river once inhabited by the mound-building Mississippian culture. French fur trappers and traders had explored the area before Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville founded the city of Nouvelle-Orléans in 1718, just upstream from the point where North America’s longest waterway hits the Gulf of Mexico. The city became capital of French Louisiana, and was subject to the Code Noir decrees covering race, religion and slavery. White slave-owners who fathered children with slaves were required to free both mother and child. As a result, Louisiana developed a large population of gens de couleur libres (‘free people of colour’) who had a disproportionate influence on the city’s culture; many of them settled in the Treme neighbourhood near the French Quarter.

Slaves were not required to work on Sundays, when they would gather in ‘Congo Square’ – now part of Louis Armstrong Park – to trade, socialise and sing. Hence the black community of New Orleans – enslaved and free – retained a deep connection to African music and folkways forcefully repressed in other parts of North America.

In 1763, New Orleans was ceded to the Spanish empire, and the blending of Spanish and French populations led to the creation of a specific Franco-Iberian Creole demographic. In 1788 and 1794, fires destroyed many of the city’s wooden buildings, which were replaced with much of the iconic architecture of the French Quarter. Examples include the Cabildo, the Spanish city hall built from 1795, and Pitot House, a 1799 plantation mansion. Carnival and the famous Mardi Gras parades were first celebrated in the 18th century; find out more at the Presbytère, part of Louisiana State Museum.

The city was given back to the French in 1800, but in 1803 Napoleon sold it to the rapidly expanding United States of America. What followed was a period of uneasy division as Anglo, Germanic and Dutch-descended Protestants from other states moved into a city dominated by a Franco-Iberian Catholic elite. Canal Street marked the divide between the city’s ‘American sector’ and Creole faubourgs (neighbourhoods).

New Orleans became the capital of the domestic slave trade and the busiest slave port in North America. Riverboats were designed to accommodate human chattel, and postcards were sold depicting slave markets. Louisiana threw in with the Confederacy during the American Civil War, but New Orleans was quickly captured by the Union navy. Though an integrated government and police force were established after the Civil War, these were forcefully ejected by white militias. Immigrants from Ireland and Italy then arrived, the former settling in what is now called the Irish Channel, the latter in areas such as the French Quarter.

New Orleans’ black community retained a deep connection to African music and folkways

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, musicians played tunes influenced by both classical composition and the African rhythms preserved in Congo Square: ‘jazz’. Explore its heritage at the New Orleans Jazz Museum housed in the Old US Mint, dating from 1835, and jazz funeral memorabilia at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme.

New neighbourhoods created by draining swampland were inundated by water in 1965 when canals and levees failed during Hurricane Betsy. Even so, the city’s reputation for good food, music and lively bars drew increasing numbers of tourists.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, flooding 80% of the city, rebuilding New Orleans became a national cause célèbre. Despite setbacks, the city marches on towards full recovery. The contribution of its inhabitants’ varied heritage is also increasingly recognised; public statues of Confederate generals were removed in 2017, the year in which LaToya Cantrell was elected as mayor – the first female African-American to hold that office in the city’s 300 eventful, turbulent years.

New Orleans in eight sites

  • 1: Cabildo – Old Spanish judicial building housing exhibits on the history of Louisiana
  • 2: Pitot House – City’s earliest surviving example of Creole colonial architecture
  • 3: Presbytère – Museum in a late-18th-century building with displays on Carnival and Mardi Gras plus the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
  • 4: The Historic New Orleans Collection – Exhibits on city history and culture in characteristic French Quarter buildings
  • 5: Lafayette Cemetery No 1 – Oaks and vines grow around graves at this cemetery established in 1833
  • 6: New Orleans Jazz Museum – Vibrant museum and live performances in the Old US Mint, built in 1835
  • 7: St Augustine Catholic Church – United States’ oldest African-American Catholic church, founded in 1841
  • 8: Backstreet Cultural Museum – Displays on folklore and traditions of New Orleans’ African-American population

Adam Karlin is a journalist and travel guidebook writer. The latest edition of his Lonely Planet guide to New Orleans will be published in November

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This article was first published in issue 10 edition of BBC World Histories Magazine, first published in June 2018