The city of New Orleans, which owes its names to the Regent Philippe d’Orléans, was founded in 1718 but was not elevated to the rank of the capital of Louisiana until 1722. In 1717, the trading monopoly of the colony was entrusted to the Compagnie d’Occident, which took the name Compagnie des Indes two years later. This company was part of the scheme set up by the Scottish financier John Law with a view to transforming France into a major commercial power and reducing its debt after the wars of Louis XIV. There were great expectations for the development of Louisiana.
The company decided to shift its colonial efforts from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi and to construct a commercial storehouse near its mouth. The river was to become the backbone for the colonization of the greater Louisiana territory from the sea to the Great Lakes. As to the new city, it was to maintain relations with the metropole, support trade with the neighboring Spanish colonies, and control the colonial settlements established upstream, along the river and its tributaries, to produce tobacco and indigo. The site chosen by Commander Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, with the assistance of Indigenous advisors, on a Mississippi riverbend extended to the sea but allowed for double access via the delta and lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne. Nearby were villages of allied First Nations who could help with its provisioning and defense.
Engineers employed by the company designed a grid plan covering 88 hectares with a main square at the edge opening on to the river. But the construction of the town was long and difficult. The first wooden buildings were destroyed by a hurricane in 1722. To protect against the Mississippie’s spring floods, the river’s natural embankments had to be raised and reinforced. These earthen levees were completed in 1724. The soil remained marshy, so canals were dug out along the streets and small wooden bridges set up at crossroads. By the end of the 1730s, the main square was bordered at one end by the parish church, flanked by the convent of the Capuchins and the jail with its guard house, and on its sides by brick barracks. At the end of French rule, building lots remained irregular and the initial grid was not yet completely constructed.
The city’s population grew slowly. Its first inhabitants were soldiers, indentured servants and European prisoners, as well as enslaved Africans charged with its construction. Holders of concessions along the river also owned townhouses without residing there permanently. But the concession system collapsed after the downfall of Law’s scheme and the Scottish financier’s flight in 1722. White workers who completed their terms of indentured servitude established themselves in the city and a system of free work grew up alongside the exploitation of enslaved Africans, whose numbers increased as the slave trade flourished. Between 1729 and 1731 the Natchez Wars led to an influx of colonists seeking refuge in New Orleans. At the conclusion of the conflict, the Compagnie des Indes decided to turn over its commercial monopoly to the Crown and to stop transporting enslaved people from Africa; the majority of the people it enslaved would henceforth be brought from the Antilles. In the 1740s and 1750s the city, which was primarily powered by commerce, nonetheless continued to grow. A new population surge occurred after the colony was ceded to Great Britain and Spain in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War. In 1766, New Orleans had a population of about 3,000 inhabitants, of whom more than 44% were enslaved people of African descent.
In time, a zone of tobacco and indigo plantations emerged upstream and downstream from the city. If French Louisiana had never developed an export economy, neither did it have a system of plantation slavery on the model of the colonies in the Antilles that preceded it and with which it maintained close ties. New Orleans controlled the relocation of enslaved people who were brought to Louisiana and played an important role in the surveillance and discipline of slave labor on the plantations. Its urban society was itself characterized by the development of a system of racial slavery influenced by Saint-Domingue. Thus New Orleans might be considered more of a Caribbean city than a North American one. To protest against the imposition by the Spanish of an exclusionary system (the obligation to trade within the borders of the empire) and the rupture of commercial relations with the French Antilles that, in 1768, the inhabitants of the Louisiana capital, organized into militias and led by the Superior Council, revolted against the first Spanish governor. The Spanish Crown did not succeed in imposing its sovereignty until 1769.


Published in may 2021