Unlike my last (and first) book review, this one will be more blog-like. Recently I’ve been interested in rereading some of my books from grad school, especially the ones I didn’t give full attention. This book is a perfect fit because I’m currently in a career transition and have accepted a part-time position at a historic house museum built in the location and period the book analyzes! I’m a giant nerd, I know. I felt personally connected to this book this go around. I’ve been living in the Baton Rouge community for a longer time, and it feels more like home. The book is essential about transitions and how people respond to change. I can very much relate right now.
Many of us were never taught much about the history of Spanish-held Louisiana, even though most of the French Quarter architecture is Spanish. Even living in Louisiana, this period did not get much attention in school. The territory known as West Florida changed hands multiple times in a short period. It was owned by France, Great Britain, Spain, had a brief stint of independence, and finally, the United States. This book looks closely at the relationship between the Spanish government and the mostly Anglo-American residents in West Flordia, and more specifically, in the Baton Rouge district. Andrew McMichael illuminates the ambiguity on the ever changing frontier and examines social, economic, and political life in the borderlands. I don’t really recommend this book for casual history readers. It’s short but dense with detailed information. The author expects his audience to have previous knowledge of the period and its historiography. It’s a serious monograph meant for other historians and students.
McMichael argues that as long as Spain handed out land, Anglo-Americans and French residents lived within the boundaries of Spanish law until the ease of acquiring land became restrictive enough to cause a few dissenters to spark a “revolution”. So basically, as long as things were working out for people financially, they didn’t care much about who owned the territory. McMichael presents a glimpse of and puts into perspective a community at the edge of “the social and cultural emergence of an American region within the context of Latin American, African, Caribbean, European, and American social, cultural, and political imperatives” (5).
The most interesting aspect of the book is when McMichael details the differences between American and Spanish slavery. He devotes an entire chapter to the subject. The foundation of Spanish slavery law, the Siete Partidas, lead to more freedoms for slaves compared to American, British, and French slavery, and allowed for an easier transition from slavery to freedom. The author deduces, “the slave system served less as a system of racial control than as a purely economic system that could be exploited by black, white, mulatto, or Indian, as long as the slave owner adhered to social mores and abided by the forms of the Siete Partidas” (40). In other words, slavery didn’t have the same stigma to the Spanish as it did for Anglo-Americans and being black or malatto did not automatically mean being part of the lowest social class.
Under Spanish law, slaves could testify against masters in court. McMichael demonstrates this with an extortionary case where a master accused some of his slaves of attempting to poison him and the slaves won! In the United States, the slaves would have been killed without trial. What makes this even more incredible is that the governor of French heritage administered Spanish law in an area with mostly an Anglo-American population and there isn’t any record of protest or riots after the verdict. This book is worth the read solely for the story and in-depth analyses of this case. It can be read and understood without reading the book in its entirety. The story illustrates the complex relationships among slaves, free people of color, Spanish government officials, and the white population in an area in constant flux and gives us a better understanding of life in the borderlands before the U.S. spread its “democracy” across an entire continent.
This book is packed with so much information it’s hard to summarize. It has provided me with a clearer understanding of this period in Baton Rouge history and has equipped me with a fresh perspective to start my new career adventure!