In 1795, there were 19,926 enslaved Africans and 16,304 free people of color in Louisiana. The German Coast, where Whitney Plantation is located, was home to 2,797 enslaved workers. After the United States outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, many captives came to Louisiana from the Upper South through the domestic slave trade. Thousands were smuggled from Africa and the Caribbean through the illegal slave trade. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the population of free people of color in Louisiana remained relatively stable, while the population of enslaved Africans skyrocketed. Just before the Civil War in 1860, there were 331,726 enslaved people and 18,647 free people of color in Louisiana. The German Coast’s population of enslaved people had grown four times since 1795, to 8,776.
Under French rule (1699-1763), the German Coast became the main supplier of food to New Orleans. German immigrants, white indentured servants and enslaved Africans produced the land that sustained the growing city. Enslaved Africans cleared the land and planted corn, rice, and vegetables. They built levees to protect dwellings and crops. They also served as sawyers, carpenters, masons, and smiths. They raised horses, oxen, mules, cows, sheep, swine, and poultry. Enslaved people also served as cooks, handling the demanding task of hulling rice with mortars and pestles. In plantation kitchens, they preserved the foodways of Africa.
Enslaved people led a grueling life centered on labor. They worked from sunup to sundown, to make life easy and enjoyable for their enslavers. Enslaved women who served as wet-nurses had to care for their owner’s children instead of their own. Enslaved people kept a tenuous grasp on their families, frequently experiencing the loss of sale.
Because of the harsh nature of plantations – from labor to punishment – enslaved people resisted their captivity by running away. Enslaved people often escaped and became maroons in the swamps to avoid deadly work and whipping. Those who were caught suffered severe punishment such as branding with a hot iron, mutilation, and eventually the death penalty.
During the Spanish period (1763-1803), Louisiana’s plantation owners grew wealthy from the production of indigo. Indigo is a brilliant blue dye produced from a plant of the same name. This dye was important in the textile trade before the invention of synthetic dyes. It was also a trade-good used in the purchase of West African captives in the Atlantic slave trade.
Enslaved women worked in the indigo fields growing and maintaining the crop. Enslaved men typically worked to produce the dye from the plants. In order to create the dye, enslaved workers had to ferment and oxidize the indigo plants in a complicated multi-step process. To begin, enslaved workers harvested the plants and packed the leaves into a large vat called a steeper, or trempoire. Once inside the steeper, enslaved workers covered the plants with water. After soaking for several hours, the leaves would begin to ferment. This process could take up to a day and a half, and it was famously foul-smelling. Enslaved workers had to time this process carefully, because over-fermenting the leaves would ruin the product. Once fermented, the leaves dyed the water a deep blue. Enslaved workers siphoned this liquid into a second vat called a beater, or batterie. In the batterie, workers stirred the liquid continuously for several hours to stimulate oxidation.
Finally, enslaved workers transferred the fermented, oxidized liquid into the lowest vat, called the reposoir. Here, they introduced lime to hasten the process of sedimentation. In this stage, the indigo separated from the water and settled at the bottom of the tank. Once it was fully separated, enslaved workers drained the water, leaving the indigo dye behind in the tank. Enslaved workers dried this sediment and cut it into cubes or rolled it into balls to sell at market.
The indigo industry in Louisiana remained successful until the end of the eighteenth century, when it was destroyed by plant diseases and competition in the market. After enslaved workers on Etienne DeBore’s plantation successfully granulated a crop of sugar in 1795, sugar replaced indigo as the dominant crop grown by enslaved people in Louisiana. Sugar production skyrocketed after the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and a large influx of enslaved people to the territory, including thousands brought from Saint Domingue (Haiti).
The core zone of sugar production ran along the Mississippi River, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. In the 1830s and 1840s, other areas around Bayou Lafourche, Bayou Teche, Pointe Coupee, and Bayou Sara, and the northern parishes also emerged as sugar districts despite risks of frost damage. The farmers circumvented this ecological obstacle by windrowing their canes, which meant laying the harvested canes in furrows, and covering them with leaves until the next grinding or planting season. Windrowed canes were called “cannes en matelas” by the predominantly French-speaking population of the German Coast. In 1817, the introduction from Java (Indonesia) of ribbon cane, a frost-resistant variety, partially resolved the geographical limits to cane cultivation in Louisiana. The introduction of steam-powered mills in 1822 was most welcome since the tougher bark of ribbon cane was difficult to crush with animal-powered mills.
Sugar cane was planted in January and February and harvested from mid-October to December. The planting season was followed by miscellaneous tasks such as the cultivation of corn, the collection of wood, and the maintenance of levees and drainage canals. The grinding season (roulaison in French) started in early November, at the latest. According to Follett (The Sugar masters), “steam power profoundly shaped the sugar industry, but its economic success rested primarily on the mass importation of African American bondspeople to Louisiana. The seasonal nature of sugar production imposed a forbidding regime on the slaves (…), gravely affected slave women’s capacity to bear children, and it left an appalling legacy of death in its wake.” Sugar production was a dangerous process, involving the handling of boiling liquids. Sugar cane juice was heated in a series of open kettles and pans called the “Jamaica Train”. The slaves poured juice from boiler to boiler with long-handled ladles. This old dangerous method of sugar production did not end until the 1840s when Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), an African American born from a French farmer and a free woman of color, invented a sugar processing evaporator composed of multiple pans stacked inside a vacuum chamber. This machine called multiple-effect evaporation was patented in 1843. It improved the sugar refining process, saved time and money in the making of sugar, and protected lives.