The ancient Greek aphorism “Know Thyself” has a special resonance for those of us who define ourselves as “Creole”. Understanding and appreciating the real meaning of the word and with it the richness of our own identities and heritage has not always been a clear-cut thing.
In colonial societies in earlier times, definitions of “Creole” seemed to be based more on what the word did not include rather than what it did. Given the nature of these plantation societies this was in many ways inevitable as those who were the “masters” clearly wished to delineate themselves from their “slaves”. But as we at this magazine continue to assert, cosy, cut-and-dried, limiting and exclusive definitions of “Creole” have no place in the modern world, and indeed as history shows over time have evolved into a more, broader inclusive definition.
Kreol Magazine’s role
In International Kreol Magazine we have sought to get to the heart of a truly authentic and meaningful definition by asking our valued contributors their thoughts on this most intriguing of words. The insights we received were heart-warming, inspirational, and immensely edifying to say the least and we hope you enjoy reading them.
Our research treached across the Creole world from Louisiana to the Seychelles and we hope you’ll find what we discovered as highly informative and fascinating as we did. In the words of gifted Creole actor and producer, Marcus Brown, “Being a Creole is defined as much by having an “appreciation” of those things that define the term as by anything else”. In that spirit, we thought we would take a brief walk through time and take stock of what some of the history books have to say on the matter.
Earliest use of “Creole”
We found that the term Creole was first used in the sixteenth century to identify descendants of French, Spanish or Portuguese settlers living in the West Indies and Latin America. Most Historians seem to agree that the term “Creole” derives from the Portuguese word crioulo, meaning a slave born in the master’s house. In the early days a single definition sufficed but as Creole populations diversified due to political, economic and social factors different meanings came into existence. In the West Indies the term refers to a descendent of any European settler, but some who are of African descent also apply the term to themselves.
The French Creoles
In Louisiana the history of the Creoles is inextricably linked with French-speaking populations of both French and Spanish descent. They were often the descendants of upper class French plantation owners, who left behind them glittering estates and opulent chateaux in their colonial motherland. With them they brought their language, (essentially aristocratic) customs and government. In stark contrast to their bourgeoisie countrymen (who displayed increasingly an anti-clerical tendencies during the French Revolution which erupted in 1789) they were devoutly Catholic.
That same revolution would change the lives of many Creoles forever, when the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity spread like wildfire among the slaves of the nearby colony of St. Domingue (present day Haiti) then France’s most profitable colony. Under the visionary leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture (an ex-slave himself and arguably one of the most inspiring and brilliant Creole leaders of all time) the slaves were able to cast off the chains of their former colonial masters to establish the world’s first independent black Creole republic in the western hemisphere-the newly renamed Haiti, in 1804. In recognition of its revolutionary French heritage the National Constitution of the country to this day declares that the National Motto is Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
The effects of the Haitian revolution
As a result of this seismic shift and reversal in the colonial order, some 11,000 Haitian refugees arrived in New Orleans by 1815 bringing with them an enormous influx of Creole vitality and culture. Not that “The Crescent City” wasn’t already highly cosmopolitan, even by today’s standards. One English observer commented on this incredible mix, particularly noting the profusion of colourful Choctaw Indians who would regularly camp in the front gardens of wealthy Creoles in return for fresh herbs, natural remedies and other delicious produce from the bayous.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s policy
Having failed in his attempt to subdue the Haitian revolutionaries, these “guilded Africans” as he labelled them, following the defeat of a French expeditionary army sent to restore slavery to Haiti, the newly crowned Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was forced to divest France of her colonial interests in the New World.
In truth, Louisiana had never been as profitable for the French as St. Domingue, hence the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 in which France sold 828,000 square miles of its North American territory to the United States. Inevitability this led to a further influx of Anglo-Americans into New Orleans, and to the eventual decline and disappearance of the French –speaking Creole elite by the late twentieth century. For their part these Creoles invariably looked down on “les Americains” as Godless Protestant interlopers (who to borrow a quotation from Oscar Wilde “knew the price of everything and the value of nothing”.) They were only too pleased to define themselves as “Creoles” both as a badge of honor, and to distance themselves from these unwanted “invaders”, who in return viewed them with an equal measure of disdain!
The French Caste system
It’s interesting to note that in contrast to the British colonial system the French system recognized three distinct categories: Whites, Blacks and the gens-decouleur libres (who were neither black nor white). These were freemen who were also known as “Mulattoes.” On account of their European blood it was inconceivable to the French that these individuals should ever work as slaves, and they were accorded certain rights and privileges. Many owned slaves themselves, could also own property and were recognized in the courts. However, they could not marry white persons. Their legal status had been confirmed as early as in 1724 in the Code Noir (Black Code). They were to become both in New Orleans and Haiti, a hugely successful vibrant economic and cultural elite. This has remained true right up until today.
A shift in the definition of “Creole”
It was against this tumultuous backdrop of sharp social change in Louisiana that the term “Creole” began to be applied to children of black or racially mixed parents in addition to children of French or Spanish descent with no racial mixing. It is a term that carries with it, to this day, a certain fluid quality and indeed Fred B Kniffin, the prominent Louisiana historian states, in “Louisiana, its Land and its People” the word Creole “has been loosely extended to include people of mixed blood, a dialect of French, a breed of ponies, a distinctive way of cooking, a type of house and many other things. It is therefore no precise term and should not be defined as such.”
One thing, however, remains certain. Throughout its history the term “Creole” has been the subject of hot debates regarding the inclusion of African ancestry. In 1886 in a lecture at Tulane University, Charles Gayarre (author of “Creoles of History” and “Creoles of Romance”) argued that Louisiana Creoles had, “not a particle of African blood in their veins.” Prominent intellectuals Lyle Saxon, Robert Tallant, and Edward Dreyer reiterated this opinion in 1945 by stating that “No true Creole ever had colored blood.” Tallant interestingly wrote a book entitled “Voodoo in New Orleans” which included a fascinating if sensationalized account of the religion. However, according to Sister Dorothea Olga McCants, translator of Rodolphe Lucien Desdune’s “Our People and Our History” the free decouleur libres in New Orleans started describing themselves as, “Creole of color”, to distinguish themselves from American blacks. Certainly this term has a long recorded history and as early as 1859 The New Orleans Times Picayune used it when praising the group for its industrious, unique and exemplary qualities.
The modern definition of Creole
Today the decision to designate one-self a Creole is very much a question of personal preference. Currently the term is under some pressure as many young Creoles of color prefer to designate themselves as African Americans.
Kreol magazine has, and always, will strive to reflect the broadest, most inclusive definition of “Creole.” For us the term is less concerned with the inclusion or absence of any one part or thing, but rather should be based on that glorious special and unique assimilation of parts, which is surely the essence of what makes us all Creoles. We count ourselves as surely the most fortunate of all people on this earth, since the vision that Dr. Martin Luther King shared with the world in his, “I have a dream”, speech is for us already a reality. That great joyful, harmonious dance of different races and heritages is for us a dance that is taking place right now in our blood! And a dance surely implies a celebration.
Creole: defined through cuisine
Perhaps the most critical element in truly defining the term is linked with our cuisine – and after all, what is Creole food but a celebration? From the bold, unforgettable flavours of a Jambalaya, to an earthy bowl of red beans and rice, the procession of distinctive culinary pleasures stretches as long as the meandering swampy waterways that have richly bestowed so many of the key ingredients upon our cuisine-shrimp, crayfish, oysters, crab and of course the ubiquitous catfish. It was the First Nation Americans who gave us file (the ground powder of the sassafras leaf), the key element in any delicious Creole gumbo.
Still in the party spirit, weren’t we the first to transform plain hard liquor into the sophisticated cocktail, first served with characteristic Creole savoir-faire in The Big Easy-where else? The same holds true for the humble cup of coffee, soon elevated to new heights as the café Brulot, a sweet potent concoction with cinnamon, cloves and lemon peel flambéed with cognac. One thing is for sure in the ultra-creative ever-flexible world of the Creole cook the word “plain” has no dominion, whatsoever!
Jambalaya or Jambalaia
Sometimes the origins of our dishes are as colourful and as complicated as their ingredients. Take the Jambalaya, for instance. Was it created by the first Spanish settlers in Louisiana when they tried to concoct a New World Paella (lacking their favourite ingredient of saffron) or is it really a trans-Atlantic cousin of the French dish jambalaia from Provence in Southern France (a tasty combination of rice, chicken and saffron?)
Do you know the difference between Creole “Red” Jambalaya and Rural “Brown” Jambalaya? Both contain the trinity of celery, red bell peppers and onions together with chicken and smoked sausage (such as andouille) with assorted seafood. However, Rural Jambalaya does not contain tomatoes, the reason being that these were historically harder to come by outside of New Orleans. Also in a Rural Jambalaya the meat is browned giving it its distinctive colour, hence the name. It seems our dishes draw inspiration not just from our Creole identities, but from our immediate surroundings.
Indeed our very cuisine is a shining monument to the living principle upon which our Creole identities are founded, namely that special and unique assimilation of different ingredients to create a perfect original whole. What’s more, studies show that for the most part we Creoles are loyal to our cuisine. Take good old New Orleans. There are at least somewhere between 40-50 Creole restaurants in The Crescent City, but in the rest of the major cities of the US the number is pitifully low. To enjoy delicious, authentic Creole food served in a restaurant it seems you must first have Creoles!
Creole: defined through music
Another feature which specifies us is the Creole passion for music. Historically in New Orleans this centred on the French Opera House which from 1859 to 1919 was a glittering hub of Creole society with its lavish galas and receptions. The building itself reflected the Creole taste for sumptuous architecture drenched in an insouciant distinctly aristocratic style of elegance with its graceful curved, balconies and open boxes.
On the whole Creoles in those days liked their operas big, ultra-passionate and mostly Italian. An example of this can be seen by the fact that in the building preceding the French Opera House, The Theatre d’Orleans, no fewer than four of Rossini’s operas (including The Italian Girl in Algiers) received their US premiers. At the French Opera House itself many of Verdi’s operas were staged (some for the first time in the US) and the performances of the gifted Spanish tenor Adelina Patti (only 17 at the time) were much admired-particularly for her moving performance in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
Interestingly, with the increasing influx of Anglo-Americans into the city a distinct cultural division opened up between the Creoles who went to the opera, and the new “Americains” who preferred the theatre. Only the occupation of New Orleans by Federal troops in 1862 could dampen the bursting cultural life of the City. The stultifying effect on Creole culture and society following the newly imposed regime of segregation imposed by the invading Northerners cannot be over-emphasised. In any case it wasn’t long after the end of the occupation that the Creole cultural grandees were plotting to restore the city’s operatic fortunes to its former glory. Their noble efforts though could have formed the basis of a tragic opera in itself!
A ship called The Evening Star carrying members of the operatic company recruited in Europe for The French Opera Houses’ Autumn season was lost in a raging hurricane at sea on October 3rd 1866 off Tybee Island, Georgia. A French opera impresario, Charles Althaija, perished with the doomed passengers. Despite this seeming ill-omen, the operatic splendour of New Orleans was soon revived.
Creole: defined through death!
Returning again to the subject of death it can certainly be said that just like its approach to opera, the Creole attitude was far from lukewarm! Without fail when someone died each post in the Creole section of town would bear a black bordered announcement informing the public of the time and place of the funeral. These notices were also placed at St. Louis Cathedral on a death notice blackboard.
Funeral services were held in the home and the wearing of mourning dress was a rigorous requirement. The deceased’s immediate family put on grand deuil (full mourning). Throughout the 6 month mourning period it was an unforgiveable offence to wear jewellery, or any clothing with white or colours. Men wore a black crepe band on their hat and often a black armband.
A great send off: The Jazz Funeral
Slave or black Creole funeral processions lasted an hour and covered a distance of one-third of a mile. These often took the form of one of the most enduring traditions of New Orleans culture- the Jazz Funeral. Those who have never visited The Crescent City may have first glimpsed a depiction of one of these early on in the James Bond movie “Live and Let Die.”
As far back as 1819 Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe noted that New Orleans jazz funerals were “peculiar to New Orleans alone among all American cities.” In his fascinating book “Bourbon Black Street” Danny Barker, the gifted jazz man wrote, “The roots of the jazz funeral date back to Africa. Four centuries ago, the Dahomeans of Benin and the Yoruba of Nigeria, West Africa were laying the foundation for one of today’s most novel social practices on the North American Continent, the jazz funeral.” Danny Baker contends that the secret societies of the Dahomeans and Yoruba people would guarantee their members that a proper burial would take place at the time of death. To ensure that this guarantee was honoured resources were pooled from what many have defined as a very early form of insurance. The practIce-Travelled with the slaves to the New World, and central to the tradition of a “proper burial” is the notion that music should accompany the proceedings. Eileen Southern in The Music of Black American wrote, “On the way to the cemetery it was customary to play very slowly and mournfully a dirge, or an ‘old Negro spiritual’ such as ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ but on the return from the cemetery, the band would strike up a rousing, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ or a ragtime song such as ‘Didn’t He Ramble.'”
Creole: defined by its cemeteries
In keeping with this expressive approach to the subject of death Creole cemeteries continue to this day to be major places of Creole life and activity. It was considered a great transgression not to visit the family tomb on All Saint’s Day (November 1st.) Indeed New Orleans is home to some of the most picturesque cemeteries in the whole world. Perhaps the most stunning is Metairie Cemetery with its huge tombs (like small villas) and its niches filled with life-like statues of slumbering angels, crusading saints, and even contemplating sphinxes.
It is said in Haiti that, “the houses of the dead are often larger than the houses of the living”, so the Creole practice of building lavish tombs is by no means specific to New Orleans. In The Crescent City , however, the practice also has a pragmatic purpose. Due to its boggy soil, during rainy periods the dead would often rise to the surface making it seem, at least to the more superstitious that the dead were rising out of their graves, which in a literal sense they were! That’s why Creoles decided the best and only place for their deceased was safely inside tombs.
Creole: defined through religion
When it comes to the subject of religion there can be no doubt whatsoever that Creoles are rich in faith. Overwhelmingly Catholic in composition, we place less emphasis on the primacy of the written Word in our spiritual life, the way many Protestant denominations do, and much more on our own direct emotional connection with The Blessed Virgin and the heavenly army of intercessory saints and angels, who are forever poised to come to our rescue. This is one of the major reasons why Creoles are rarely surprised when miracles occur, “that’s because we see them every day, both large and small!”
St Jude (the patron and of lost causes), St. Peter (who opens the gates of Heaven) and St. Anthony (who protects children and helps to locate lost articles) are some of our most highly revered intercessories but the one who is most specific to New Orleans is St. Expedite. Unknown anywhere else in the Catholic World, St Expedite is usually portrayed as a Roman Centurion with a plumed helmet and a golden breast plate. He represents not just any centurion, but the Centurion who stood at the feet of Christ during the Crucifixion. Those who pray to him believe that he can assist them to overcome obstacles very quickly. The origins of the Saint are shrouded in mystery but in the Crescent City at least he is by no means short of devotees. In some ways this practice is similar to that of the Coptic Christians in Ethiopia who revere Pontius Pilate as a saint.
In taking this walk through time, in an attempt to define the key characteristics of what it truly means to be “Creole” we are mindful that we have only really briefly surveyed the world of New Orleans and to a lesser extent Haiti. Over the coming issues we shall be devoting ourselves to a further investigation of the meaning of the word, in its broadest sense, to include the Mestizos of Latin America, and the creolization of Africa as a result of the Portuguese colonisation of the continent. We will also be focusing on the Creoles of North Africa, whose origins lay in the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.
We invite you to share your thoughts regarding any of the points raised, as above all we see ourselves as a platform for discussion, debate and positive social change. You can do this either through our website, our blog, or through Twitter/ Facebook.