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The Secret History 

This is one for the history books -- but not exclusively. The Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC) may be the leading independent archive of documents and artifacts relevant to New Orleans history, but its shows usually have some aesthetic interest as well. It's current expo, Common Routes: St. Domingue -- Louisiana, builds on that tradition. An exploration of the profound influence a country called Haiti had on the culture of New Orleans, it's embellished with a wide array of art and artifacts on loan from all over the world.

Haiti was known as St. Domingue back in the days when it was a French territory and Louisiana's sister colony in the lucrative sugar trade. It occupies part of the island that Columbus dubbed Hispaniola after stumbling upon it while trying to get to India by sailing west. Not one to take no for an answer, he called the natives Indians, a goofy misnomer that has haunted Native Americans ever since. After the French came along and developed its sugar industry, St. Domingue generated tremendous wealth, and here we see detailed views of buildings, plantations and tools of the trade that anyone with any knowledge of Louisiana history might find familiar. Unfortunately, the wealth stayed in the hands of the few, and it all came to a bloody end in a slave rebellion that ironically turned French Revolutionary ideals against the French. Throw in an incendiary helping of homegrown fanaticism flavored with lots of voodoo and even more machetes, and the French had some serious trouble on their hands. Napoleon brought it on himself with his bombastic tactics, but he never dreamed his 50,000-man army would end up being routed by a force of ragtag field hands led by a brilliant ex-slave named Toussaint Louverture. It was Napoleon's own Vietnam, an experience so disturbing that he began to have nightmares about it spreading to Louisiana, which helped trigger his decision to sell it to Jefferson for a song, relatively speaking. But that is another story.

In the HNOC's main gallery, an exhibition of Jacob Lawrence's series of screen prints depicts Toussaint Louverture's life story in a sequence of images that corresponds with the events leading up to the founding of Haiti as the first black republic in 1804. More typical are the period pieces such as an 1802 color engraving of Louverture by an artist known simply as Jean, as well as Louis Philippe Crepin's painting, Combat de la Poursuivante Contre L'Hercuule, an 1819 seascape depicting a French frigate with cannons blazing at British warships trying to capitalize on Napoleon's St. Domingue woes -- a grand, Cecil B. DeMille sort of spectacle.

As the slaves severed their chains, their former owners, as well as the free black professional class, became unwitting symbols of the old regime. This was not a healthy situation, and so began their mass migration, first to nearby places such as Cuba, then to North America and especially New Orleans. By 1820, they had increased the population of this city by half again its former size, and helped to reinforce Creole French culture against the pushy Americans who were multiplying on the uptown side of Canal Street.

Bringing the point home are a number of paintings and other items from local families of St. Domingue heritage, a lineage that includes the likes of banker and philanthropist Julian Poydras, namesake of the busy CBD street and the Poydras Home. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the most internationally-acclaimed American composer of the 19th century, was a New Orleanian born to a St. Domingue ŽmigrŽ family, as was Paul Morphy, the greatest international chess champion of his day. Likewise, the Faget clan produced medical investigators who cracked the secrets of yellow fever in the 19th century, and gave us noted jewelry designer, Mignon Faget, in our own time. And, of course, one the most famous 19th century American painters of all was a St. Domingue native and part-time New Orleanian named John James Audubon. Add to that stellar group the legions of master craftsmen who helped make this city the architectural gem that it is, and you have the makings of an extraordinary, if little known, legacy. Thanks to this long-overdue show, some of New Orleans' most fascinating secrets have finally been revealed.

click to enlarge Toussaint Louverture, a circa 1802 color engraving - by an artist known simply as Jean, depicts the Haitian - general whose brilliance on the battlefield profoundly - influenced developments in New Orleans and Louisiana.
  • Toussaint Louverture, a circa 1802 color engraving by an artist known simply as Jean, depicts the Haitian general whose brilliance on the battlefield profoundly influenced developments in New Orleans and Louisiana.
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