Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity
16 December 2017
Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity
Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a distance of around 120km, there was once 1000 grand houses. There are now 5-10 of them. We visited two today.
Laura Plantation was a Creole House. Now ‘Creole’ is a word with a meaning that is difficult to pin down. Our house tour guide, Pam, made it definitive for us by saying you had to be born here, speak French and be Catholic. Our driver and overall guide, Muriel, added that Creole was usually a case of a Spanish father with a French mother. Today it seems ‘Creole’ is used to label the French or French speaking and in a broader sense it is sometimes used as a substitute for the word ‘other’, as in not-white American.
Currently, the term ‘Cajun’ is generally interchangeable in use with Creole but historically they are quite different. The Acadians were French people exiled by the British from western France to various colonies. Some made their way to Louisiana where over time the word Acadian truncated and corrupted down to Cadian to Cadan to Cajun, or something like that.
Laura Plantation was operated like a corporation - “family is business and business is family”, uttered Pam repeatedly. The family lived and worked there for nine months of the year, running the business, mainly sugar, but expanded into quite a diverse range of goods and services. From Christmas to Easter, roughly, the family split into their more nuclear family lots in townhouses in New Orleans and lived it up. All their displays of richness was in New Orleans with the house in the country focused on business.
There were a lot of changes to Louisiana over time but it seems the biggest was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson secured a deal with Napoleon Bonaparte to buy Louisiana from France. Napoleon needed the money for his costly wars and the Americans needed access to the Mississippi River. The Creoles hated the Protestant Americans with a passion and I believe the feeling was mutual. As the Americans increasingly dominated life in New Orleans and the Bayou, many of the Creoles adopted their style and language. For instance, once colourful houses were painted white.
The house at Oak Alley Plantation was painted white and a more elegant and larger house than the Laura Plantation one. As you can imagine by its name, there were magnificent oak trees creating an avenue from the river to the house, the avenue creating a corridor of cool air for the hot summers. It was just what you expected of the wealthy over the top excesses. For example, there was a shoo-fly fan over the dining table that was a pulley system operated by a slave boy sitting in a rocking chair from the moment the first person sat down for a meal until the last person left (on extra hot days a block of ice sat on the table under the fan). By the way, this was the house where they filmed a lot of Interview With a Vampire.
The house was built by a 30-something year old man for his 13 year old wife. She lived there for a while with him and bore him six children in seven years. It was said she rode horses to escape the house and many horses died from exhaustion due to her treatment of them. After some time she and the four children who survived infancy returned to New Orleans and lived a life of parties and fun, leaving her husband to take care of the sugar cane business at the plantation. They were separated like this for several years and then he died, leaving his fortune to his brother instead of his wife, putting her on a tight budget which she constantly exceeded. Her brother-in-law eventually handed over the estate to her anyway, so he didn’t have to deal with her, but still she spent the family into financial ruin.
The Laura Plantation did not go into financial ruin. It thrived under the maternal rule of Nanette and then her daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth had married a Frenchman and dreamed of running his wine business in the Bordeaux but due to the early demise of her brothers and husband, she was the only one left to prevent the plantation falling into the hands of the dreaded Americans. She had a son and a daughter. She considered her son to be overly sensitive and banished him to Europe to toughen up for over twenty years. Meanwhile she indulged her daughter and grandchildren into thinking they would inherit the plantation. But lo and behold, the son married late and after his wife had three miscarriages, they successfully gave birth to three children, including Laura, who ended up inheriting the place. Unlike her father who had wanted to become a lawyer and come to some agreement with the Americans but caved to his mother’s wishes, Laura was given the freedom to make her own choices and upon her father’s death sold everything and lived the life of a wealthy socialite American, basically turning her back on the Creole culture. She came back for a visit when she was 70 years old which prompted her to write her memoirs, which I bought today.
Now, so far, I haven’t really mentioned slaves. Both these houses started with 10-20 slaves but expanded this number very rapidly to over 100 slaves during the initial years of establishment. Pam told the story of slaves and a family line at Laura Plantation but it was at the end of the tour and sped over much quicker than the Creole family of the main house so I was confused and unfortunately failed to retain the information. The Civil War technically ended slavery but nothing much changed. For instance, at the Laura Plantation, post civil war servants were paid in coupons that could only be redeemed at the plantation itself, worthless elsewhere, and not enough to leave and start a better living elsewhere. Still trapped.
Earlier in the day we had the Torres Cajun Swamp Tour, a chilly boat ride along the bayou (Indian word for slow moving steam of water), spotting red-wing blackbirds, egrets and herons along the way. The colours of the leaves in the winter trees were simply beautiful and failed to be captured to their full extent by our little iPhone cameras. The alligators were in hibernation in the mud beneath the water. Apparently they slow their hearts to just three beats a minute and surface for air once every 24 hours. Thus, there was no chance of seeing them today. Thankfully the snakes were also in hibernation. There are four types of poisonous snakes in the area. They tend to be small and swim with their whole bodies on the surface of the water, whereas the non-poisonous snakes just hold their heads up on the water. The snakes hibernate amongst the reeds on the side of the river and will wake if disturbed during hibernation. I was duly warned.
We learnt a lot about hunting and fishing rules in Louisiana and some other home truths from Mr Torres, our guide. He has a low opinion of the press who dramatise the poverty of Louisiana and the severity of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters in the area. His father was a Creole, in the traditional sense, and the whole family are well established in the town, Kraemer. So they were a Spanish family, speaking French in a German named town in America. That’s Louisiana for you.
Lunch was one of my favourite moments of today. Most of our little tour group were sitting with us at our lunch table. We discussed our lives and our travels but funny, we didn’t share our names:
- A couple from Tampa, Florida. He was born in Zimbabwe, grew up in South India (where his family was from) and now, after many years of study, is a Doctor of Hospital Medicine and absolutely loves his job. She is a nurse who stayed five days at Tampa General Hospital during the storms caused by Hurricane Irma.
- A couple who independently grew up in Lithuania but met in London who have travelled extensively and particularly like nature focused trips. They stay at AirBNBs and rent out their own place while they’re away, practically funding their travel.
- A couple from Moldova. She walked in on me sitting on the toilet (the lock was a weak hook and eye system) and he had the thickest and longest dreadlocks I’d ever seen on a white guy.
- Martina from Hamburg, Germany. She couldn’t believe we chose to go to Dusseldorf during our European travels because tourists normally go for the fairy castles. And why would you go to Wolfsburg? It just has factories! Car factories, we replied.
- Our host, Muriel, often says, “the locals will tell you…”, disassociating herself from them even though she came to New Orleans 23 years ago as a French teacher. She had a lot to say as we headed out on our tour, all of it interesting, but allowed us to nap on the return journey.
We were last to arrive at the round table and due to the people already seated, I ended up sitting opposite Griffin and John. John made some crack about splitting from me so I didn’t nick his dessert. Someone else said something about with age comes wisdom. Ouch!
After the nine hour outing and a brief rest back at our hotel, we went out to dinner at a local favourite, Mother’s. It provides a menu of relatively cheap traditional New Orleans fare. We had to queue outside, then inside, but not for terribly long. You ordered at the counter, bought your drinks, and sat down at plastic tables and chairs to wait for your dinner to arrive. We had what Griffin called LFC (Louisiana Fried Chicken) and Jambalaya with some sides, including grits. We then sent Griffin to his room while John and I had cocktails at the hotel bar (this time with a wider range of clientele):I will sleep well tonight.
- Grey Skies in London (gin, rosemary, lime, violette)
- Affogato (think of all the spirits