18th century manuscripts reveal life in Louisiana under French rule
Eighteenth century documents in French and Spanish retracing life in Louisiana have been made available online, free of charge. The Colonial Documents Collection provides a unique window into the daily life of the people – free and enslaved – who then lived in Louisiana, and brings history closer, three centuries later.
“The Council declares the negro Louis guilty as charged of stealing by day and by night and of repeated burglaries and of running away… condemns him to make a public atonement before the principal door of the Parish Church with a rope around his neck, holding in his hand a fiery torch weighing two pounds, asking in a loud voice God’s pardon… after which he will be conducted on the square… to have his arms, legs, thighs and back broken alive on a scaffold… placed on a wheel, face upturned to heaven to end his pains.”
This is an excerpt of a ruling issued on the 10th of September 1764 by the Superior Council of New Orleans.
It is one among 220 thousand documents from the 18th century, handwritten in Old French and in Spanish – when Louisiana was a colony of France, then Spain – which have been digitised by the Louisiana State Museum and are now accessible online.
Researchers, students, historians and genealogists across the world no longer need to travel to New Orleans to work on this period of history but can access the digitised records from their computers anywhere in the world and for free.
“The collection has blue-prints of the city as well as maps and even playing cards that were used for bartering or trade,” says Jennifer Long, Digital assets manager of the Louisiana State Museum.
The thousands of documents record minute details of life in New Orleans and Louisiana through notarial acts, civil and criminal court cases, ledgers of slave sales or disputes among families. The documents do not only provide an insight into American colonial history but also invaluable information about the French and Spanish colonial rule in the 18th century.
A French territory in the USA
The French ruled Louisiana from 1682 to 1762, a territory far larger than the current state of Louisiana. It was then ceded by France to Spain as a war debt and became a Spanish colony between 1763 and 1803.
“The first part of the collection ranges from 1714 to 1769 [the French Superior Council] in French and the second part of the collection ranging from 1769 to 1804 [the Spanish Judiciary] are written in Spanish,” explains Jennifer Long.
According to the Louisiana Historical Center's website:
The Superior Council was both the governing body and high court of France’s Louisiana colony. While virtually all of its administrative records were removed to France before or at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, records pertaining to the colony’s inhabitants remained in Louisiana.
Under Spanish rule, the Superior Council was replaced by a cabildo, or city council, with similar functions and authority; Spanish notaries continued the civil law practices of their French predecessors.
The slave trade
Among the manuscripts of the colonial collection is the 1724 edition of the Code Noir signed by Louis XV and promulgated in New Orleans. The articles of the Code Noir regulated the life, death, purchase, religion, and treatment of slaves by their masters in all French colonies. As a strategic port on the Mississippi river, New Orleans was a major marketplace for the slave trade.
“There are many accounts of slaves being brought to New Orleans from Africa, Havana, South-America. We have ledgers of names that can also be used for genealogy purposes. There are also many descriptions of very cruel acts against the enslaved,” says Jennifer Long.
There's a 1794 court case where an Antonio Lozada prosecuted a Pedro Guerrero for such bad treatment of a female slave, whom Lozada rented to Guerrero, that she had a miscarriage.
The records also provide valuable information for genealogists. According to the Louisiana Historical Center's website:
During the Spanish period many slaves of Indian ancestry petitioned government authorities for their freedom. These requests, usually granted upon proof of native ancestry, are also a part of the collection.
The handwritten documents can be difficult to read or illegible. Furthermore, they are written in Old French or 18th century Spanish. So, in some cases, there is a brief synopsis to explain the content, in others, academics translated them.
“We are constantly asking scholars when they translate documents to send them to us so that we may add them to the collection. The Old French is harder to read and understand. And we had to use several dictionaries to help translate the documents because the language is so different from what it is today,” says Sarah Elisabeth Gundlach, curator of the Louisiana Historical Center.
The process of indexing the documents revealed that the collection contains documents in other languages, so far in Latin, Catalan, German and English.
“The French were trading with other countries and colonists from other countries came to settle here so they brought their language with them,” explains Bryanne Schexnyder, Index manager of the Louisiana State Museum.
Over the past three centuries, the colonial period documents weathered “hurricanes, wars, floods,” which explains the various conditions in which they are. But some “are in remarkably great conditions” and are used in exhibitions.
The scanning of the documents was seven years in the making, completed in October 2016. Indexing, transcription and translation is still ongoing. Digitisation also means that the old manuscripts no longer have to be exposed to light or excessive handling.
The preservation of the manuscripts is a delicate process, explains Jennifer Long: “The documents are re-housed in acid-free papers, put into mylar polyester sleeves and folders, kept in a temperature controlled room.”
They are archived at the New Orleans Jazz Museum in rooms kept at a stable 68°F or 20°C so as not suffer from the New Orleans humidity and its flu+ctuating temperatures.
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2018 in retrospect: Science in France
2018 saw France host a landmark event in the history of science: the redefining of the kilogram. There were also Nobel-winning advances in laser technology, and we'll soon be getting a feel for Martian vibrations, as scientists land a seismometer on the red planet.
On 16 November in Versailles, the General Conference on Weights and Measures adopted a resolution to update the definitions of the International System of units based on fundamental constants of nature. This means that the kilogram, whose standard was a platinum iridium cylinder stored in a vault near Paris, will from now on be defined by Planck’s Constant.
The year also saw a French scientist winning a Nobel Prize. Professor Gerard Mourou of Ecole Polytechnique won this year’s Prize in Physics (along with Professor Arthur Ashkin and Professor Donna Strickland) for developing a special laser technique with important applications in the fields of industrial machining, ophthalmology and particle physics.
French scientists are also playing important roles in two space missions that were launched this year.
First, a magnetometer developed by researchers from the University of Orléans, which is a part of the Parker Solar Probe (launched in August) that aims to study the nature of the Sun’s atmosphere.
And Philippe Lognonné, of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, who is the principal investigator of the seismometer instrument that will measure vibrations on Mars.
The seismometer, part of the InSight mission that landed on Mars on 26 November, could reveal what lies beneath the Martian surface.
2018 in retrospect: France
France's year of blue and yellow - blue football jerseys in summer as the world's football champions. Yellow vests in winter for violent protests against government policy.
Here is a look at the main events that marked French politics and society in 2018.
France wins the FIFA World cup
On 15 July 2018, France became "champions du monde" for the second time in World Cup history.
France beat Croatia 4-2 in a match that media called one of the most exciting World Cup finals of the modern era.
French stars like Kylian Mpabbe, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Ngolo Kante and Paul Pogba became national heroes, along with the team's coach Didier Deschamps.
In July, a scandal marked the beginning of a long period of political turmoil in France.
Alexandre Benalla, a former security aide to President Emmanuel Macron was filmed manhandling protesters during a May Day rally.
Under public and media pressure, Benalla was dismissed from the Elysées Palace, while President Macron took responsibility for the incident.
A month later, in August, Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, probably the most popular minister of Macron's government, resigned on national radio.
This was followed by the resignation of Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, another key government figure.
A cabinet reshuffle followed in which former socialist MP Christophe Castaner was appointed as France's new Interior Minister.
The Yellow Vests
Political turmoil in France climaxed with the Yellow Vest Movement at the end of the year.
The phenomenon started out as a grassroots movement against a new fuel tax implemented by President Macron.
But the movement spread across other domains and protests soon turned violent.
There were unimaginable scenes in Paris for several weekends from 17 November – armoured cars, tear gas, vandalism and looting.
Macron, who initially remained aloof, was forced to intervene personally with measures like a raise in minimum salary and tax cuts for the retired.
This – or perhaps the nearing Christmas holidays – saw the movement to lose steam towards the end of the year.
Protesters turned up in fewer numbers, though the violence of some participants continued to mar a largely peaceful movement.
The movement was ongoing at the end of 2018.
Other events in France
Holocaust survivor and French politician Simone Veil became the fifth woman to find a resting place at Paris' Panthéon mausoleum.
President Emmanuel Macron welcomed some 80 world leaders in Paris to commemorate 100 years since the World War I Armistice.
Two terrorist attacks – at a supermarket in the southern town of Trebes and a Christmas market in Strasbourg left ten people dead and dozens injured.
The deaths of popular French rock star Johnny Hallyday, and of the legendary Frenco-Armenian crooner Charles Aznavour.
(Report by Arnab Béranger)
2018 in retrospect: Africa
2018 was a bustling year on the African continent filled with elections and inaugurations that marked shifts in power from Liberia to Zimbabwe but also on a more grassroot level like in Tunisia where the capital elected its first female mayor.
Moving away from years of tension also seemed to be on the menu for many countries, including Ethiopia and Eritrea, who resumed friendly exchanges after falling out two decades ago.
However, regional unrest in Cameroon, Nigeria and DRC could not be ignored. Some countries clamped down on online freedom of speech, such as Uganda where vocal opposition politicians including pop star-turned-lawmaker Bobi Wine were imprisoned and allegedly beaten by government forces.
This year also saw the international recognition of “Dr Miracle”, the Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege who has spent over twenty years carrying out reconstructive surgery on women who had been victims of rape and sexual violence. He jointly received the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, along with women’s rights campaigner Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi woman who escaped from the Islamic State armed group after being sold into sex slavery.
France also promised to return 26 pieces of art that had been take from Benin during the colonial era while Senegal inaugurated a Black heritage Museum.
Report by Marjorie Hache
2018 in retrospect: International News
2018 saw a thawing in relations between the two Koreas, women in Ireland being granted legal access to abortion and those in Saudi Arabia, the right to drive.
Meanwhile in India, homosexuality was decriminalised.
Some things did not change, such as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, gun regulations in the United States and unrest in Syria and Afghanistan. And European countries remain at loggerheads on how to deal with refugees arriving on their shores.
Wildfires in Greece, Sweden and California, and other natural disasters were further reminders that not enough is being done to take care of our environment.
Trade wars and sanctions imposed by US President Donald Trump on China and Iran threatened to cement a growing international divide, while the rise of far-right parties across the world and the United Kingdom's failure to agree on a gracious exit from EU remain a cause for concern for many.
Leaked data via social media and cyber and chemical warfare also made world headlines, and the freedom of journalists to report has also fallen squarely in the firing line – both in countries at war and in some that would call themselves democractic.
The case of Washington Post correspondent, Jamal Khashoggi, brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate, has so far not led to any serious investigation.