Fragment D'un Voyage Ala Nouvelle-Orleans.
Note: 1st chapter of the article contains description of waters in and around the West Indies including Jamaica and Haiti.
Sea of the Antilles.
The sea was calm and phosphorant; at regular intervals the ship out the waves making a rumbling sound like that of an enormous cetacean. The sails filled by the breeze evenly balanced the masts and everything in creation seemed to enjoy a mysterious happiness.
I was stretched out in the long boat (skiff) above the rudder and I contemplated the stars. In this position, my being existed only to enjoy the rocking of the boat and the waves made a thrill pass thru my body; my soul itself was at its highest; nothing remained but to enjoy and breathe deeply of the fresh night air. Balanced like a hammock in the suspended long-boat, sometimes elevated twenty feet above the water, sometimes brought back almost to the surface, all around I heard the waves strike the edges of the long boat or disappear under the ships rudder with a cavernous sound. About me, the jelly fish and sea nettles threw a pale and shivery gleam, and once in a while the meeting of two luminous billows shone into my eyes like the reflection of a lightning flash.
Nearby, the sea seemed rolling in fire, whilst far away it became a vague blue light like that of burning alcohol.
I felt all the beauties of the sea without seeing them, my eyes rested on the stars and to cease contemplating them I would have had to violently tear myself away. In the midst of them, the masts leaned and lifted by the rolling seemed to write enormous circles with their points, etc.
II. The Mississippi Delta.
During the entire night our ship oscillated on a slimy nauseous bottom; but far from complaining; on the contrary, I complimented myself on feeling myself balanced on that mud which I had traveled two thousand leagues to see. From a geologic viewpoint, what could be more interesting than vast alluvials yet in the semi-liquid a tate! Torn by the slow erosion of the tides and centuries from the mountain ranges of North America, these sands and clay in the Gulf of Mexico, formed heavy layers of from two to three hundred meters of thickness which sooner or later, by the settling and influence of the heat, shall be transformed into vast layers of stumps which in turn shall serve as a base for fertile and populated regions. In their work of creation, this particular land was sifted into the sea to ceaselessly add islands, sand bars and make shores of the continent, or else, carried by the Florida currents (Gulf Stream), it is deposited a thousand leagues away on the banks of Newfoundland.
Towards daybreak, the captain thought of a way to get us out of our bed of mud and sent one of the long boats to the mouth of the river to find a pilot. Soon the long boat (skiff) disappeared in the morning fog and the noise of the oars became more and more faint, finally fading out completely in a northerly direction. We followed in vain with our eyes and ears without being able to pierce the thick fog which separated us, when all at once, upon lifting our eyes, we saw them as though apparently suspended above a curtain of clouds. After having crossed the first fog bank which lay on the sea and enclosed our horizon for a distance, the skiff had reached a clearing perfectly free of fog and appearing thus thru the fog, seemed to float in space. These zones of fog and transparent atmosphere are not rare at the mouth of the Mississippi, where currents of salt and fresh water, meet and mix at different temperatures.
Two hours of waiting passed while we pleasantly watched the porpoises which abound in these parts. These animals take their diversion in family groups, divided into groups of two or three individuals which never leave each other; all their movements are rhythmatic and conformative. When one after another, they jumped out of the water and plunged back, it looked like a vast boiling pot, and we thought we could see several rolling cog wheels under the pressure of the same gear. One group of porpoises form only one mechanism.
Finally, we saw a black dot come from the mouth of the Mississippi towards us; it was the tug which came to extract us from our mud hole. It came closer, little by little and soon I could observe its details. I had not yet seen an American steam boat and I confess this one delighted me at once with its hardy build, speed and independant air; I found it new, with a heroic gait which made me admire it as if it had lived a superior life to that of man. Leaning lightly to one side, working the heavy levers of its machinery on the bridge, like gigantic arms, throwing thick smoke up to the horizon, making heavy grumbling noises, it looked to me like the realization par excellence of strength and each turn of the wheel that brought it nearer to us made me find it more superb. Soon it was next to us, turning gracefully, catching a cable we threw and without wavering, was tied to our ship side by side.
The two sides hardly touched before a young man left the wheel and bounded on our bridge. He kept his hat on his head and more or less mumbled thru his teeth the word "captain," that could, if we wished, take for a greeting. In a moment he was on the poop deck, takes the bar of the mast and gives orders to the amazed sailors. He was not aboard thirty seconds, that under the traction of the tug, the hull of our ship began to split the mud; a veritable American, the pilot had not lost a moment for politeness. And I, filled with sympathy for this man of another race, advanced towards him; he did not see me but hearing my approaching steps, he took out of his pocket a packet of newspapers and tendered
6them without looking at me, without expecting the least thanks from me. In fact, I did not have the nerve to thank him, and I went as far away from him as I possibly could and buried myself into the New Orleans Daily Delta.
Thanks to the speed of the tug, we advanced rapidly and soon, folding my newspapers, I ceased to occupy myself with Sebastopol to observe in all its details the view of the Southeast pass, principal mouth of the Mississippi. A few miles distant before the ship, a long thin black line seemed to throw itself across the sea like an immense mole; from that somber line, we distinguished the river like a large ribbon of white silk, then came another black line parallel to the first, and farther away extended the blue waters of the sea up to the grey curve of the horizon. The Mississippi appeared to us like a canal advancing toward the high sea between two long jetties, and the forty or fifty ships, though we saw their sailing masts outlined vaguely in the sky, completed the resemblance: it is the same spectacle which will someday greet us, on a reduced scale, the Suez canal projected into the waters of the Mediterranean.
When we arrived at the mouth of the river, the tug slowed down to look around the entrance, because these passes are very dangerous and all the tides of the currents and the swamp waters make the depth vary. In ordinary times, the islands that the alluvial soil forms into elevations, are visible but in stormy weather they are hidden underwater, therefore the ships can not chance an attempt at entering except after making numerous soundings. In spite of his nerve our American himself made several soundings.
Finally we entered the river bed and we felt with joy the pressure of its current against the sides of the ship. However, we still could not see the shores of the Mississippi on which we were sailing; it seemed like a river miraculously flowing in the middle of the sea. Only, on the right and left, were thin patterns of slime stretched over the waters and marked the elevated parts of the under water banks which lie between the sweet and salt water. As we advance, these isles of
7mud become more numerous and longer; soon they nearly reach one to another, looking like solidified waves, then they unite end to end and finally become a continuous shore at the height of the current. It is in this place that the bar or alluvial soil which formed across the mouth of the river, reached its greatest height.
Until then, the water churned up by the ship's keel and stemmed back with heavy churnings into the ships wake is the clear blue transparent water of the undercurrent, which stretches under the yellow surface of the river but as soon as the keel touches the bar and the ship is retarded by the resistance of the mire, immediately the color of the undercurrent changes to a salty yellow and in the already muddy current, rise new whirlpools of mud. It is then that the pilot must hold the masts with a firm hand and follow the pass with a sure eye, because the bar is nearly a mile long and it is sufficient to deviate the ship a little to the right or left to irrevocably damage the hull. Once the hull is caught in the bottom mire it lifts by reason of its weight, sections of mire and makes them rise again towards the superficial current which carries them about whilst heavy sand accumulates around the ship, finally holding it as fast as walls of stone.
Thus a small thing decides the loss or safety of a ship. Some have been held by four feet of mire and never hesitated to cross the bar without a tug, arriving into deep water, flags flying, and sails filled. On the other hand, many ships pulled by a tug and passing the center of the channel have been caught by the current, during a moment of indecision, and pushed towards the shore. We passed, at several meters distance, a magnificent three-masted which was lost in that manner and which they had uselessly tried to set afloat again. Around it were already formed enormous sand banks like the great rafts of driftwood floating on the surface of the river.
After towing us into deep water, the pilot took his pay and left as without saying a word, without even simulating any politeness. When his steam tug left our ship in the middle of the river, he left to go out to sea after another three-masted.
We were not alone very long, soon swarms of boats loaded with oranges, liquors, sugar, and shell fish, detached themselves from shore and came to offer us their wares.
The village of Pilotsville (Pilot Town), the wooden shacks of which rise on the left bank, is generally known by the name of Balize. In reality, that name belongs to another village founded by the French colonists on the southeast pass, but since the southeast pass has become the principal mouth of the river, the pilots transported their industry and the name of their miserable hamlet. There is certainly few places in the world as sad and desolate as Balize. The narrow strip of land, on which the house are grouped, is the river's shore and also that of the sea; the salty waves meets the sweet waters in a maze of ditches, filled with a slimy, stagnant mixture; the spongy earth permits plants to take root everywhere, forming impenetrable canebrakes and briar patches. The cabins are constructed of as light a wood as possible so they will not sink in the damp sod and so that the humidity cannot penetrate thru them, they are perched on high pillars. When the stormy winds blow and the sea waves break over the reefs into the river, the houses of Balize would be carried away if they were not anchored like ships. Fevers and death are incessantly hovering around Balize. However, four hundred Americans have the courage to perch themselves in those shacks and nurse their fevers, in the hope of being able to extract a living from the passing ships.
A light wind from the South came up, and our captain wanted to profit by it to ascend the current under power of the sails, unfortunately, the detours of the river are numerous, thereby forcing the sailors to tack ceaselessly, and brail the sails. When they could not work anymore, the ship rendered them the service of becoming embedded in several feet of soft mire of the shore. The sailors did not complain of this, and I, happily, hurried to seize the suspended anchor chain, to slide and jump ashore.
One feels astrange sensation in touching solid earth, after long weeks of feeling the trembling ships underfoot, something like the dizzy feeling of the convalescent trying to walk after a long illness. Feet used to the wavering gait finally become accustomed to it and the earth by contrast becomes unstable and shaky as during a volcanic tremor. This strange sensation did not lessen the pleasure of feeling solid earth and it was with the joy of a released prisoner regaining his liberty that I went into the wild cane brakes. Hardly had I gone a few yards distance in that thick vegetation before I could no longer distinguish the ship across that immense sea of swaying stalks. Each step would crack underfoot the dried cane which covered the earth and I was nearly afraid by this crackling noise to awaken a sleeping snake wound around some root. Overhead, the canes rose to a height of twenty feet and let me see only a narrow space of sky and...... a telegraph wire.
In the solitudes of Louisiana, science does not seem to be in its element, therefore the wire which mysteriously transmitted thoughts seemed to me, more strange than ever, over the reeds, faraway from cultivated fields, between stagnant swaps and a muddy river. Such is the march of civilization in the United States, here, on a damp land that is not truly yet the continent, but only a residue of the waves, the electric telegraph is the first work of man. Before having touched the land with his hoe or plow, the American already circulates his thoughts or at least his calculations. Upon a ships arrival at Balize, that wire announces to the New Orleans merchants, the count per ton of salt, amount of emigrants, and how many bolts of cotton cloth the cargo contains. Barely does an employer come to examine and find out if the line is in order, when he does be balances himself above the came shoots, and if a speculator does not have him cut off, he transmits the news well enough. Sometimes the errant wild cattle in the thickets, upset the telegraph posts with their horns but as long as the electricity docilely follows thru the wire, they do not think of putting them up again. These wild cattle belong to the Islanders, half barbaric men, descendants of the Illinois or Canary
10Islanders so numerous in Cuba and the other Antilles.
Towards evening, a tug came and pulled our ship from its ridiculous position and we began the last lap company of the three other sailing vessels. It is a startling spectacle to see four vessels pressed one after the other, seemingly forming one gigantic ship, with twelve masts, yards, inflated sails, innumerable ropes taut, streamers and flags flying. From the center of the ships a thick smoke escapes at regular intervals, revealing the powerful tug hidden behind the high sides of the three-masters. This power in the small tug held the four ships like a vise, carrying them with it against the Mississippi's current which descends towards the sea like another moving sea, something frightening and inexorable. The tugs taking the proud names of Titan, Briaree, Hercules, Jupiter and Encelade have a definite right to them.
Thanks to the mighty machine, after an hour, we arrived at the point where the river branches out into several streams. During the last one hundred and fifty kilometers of its course, the Mississippi resembles a gigantic arm projected into the sea, extending its stretching fingers on the surface of its waters. To the west extends the Gulf of Barataria, on the east the Gulf or Lake Borgne, on the south, between each of its outlets, the sea plunges its own little gulf, leaving in its wake small strips of silt, which in turn is washed away by the waves, and incessantly renewed by the aluvial soil. In some sections the levee of earth that separates the salt water from the currents of fresh water, is so narrow that often the waves rolled into the Mississippi, and if the roots of the reeds were not solidly embedded, the high waves would carry away the roots and make a new outlet.
The only vegetation of those narrow damp beaches is the wild cane; trees are yet unable to take root. It is at only forty kilometers from the mouth that the soil was elevated enough for a willow to take root. A few hundred yards farther, two or three more hardy willows were grouped together; farther again,
11the bouquets of willows appear, mingling their foliage, forming a continuous curtain of pale green, and hiding the view of the sea from the travelers ascending the current, giving the landscape a more continental aspect.
The region of the willows is succeeded by that of the Louisiana cypress or more simply cypress. These trees require a more solid soil than the willows, although the land in which they grow is half hidden under middles of stagnant water and during the inundations completely disappears. The cupress is a superb tree, with a straight trunk, lithe and bare of branches up to a height of 20 to 25 meters; its base holds the soil with large projecting roots like a counterfort; across these puddles of water art conically shaped trees, several feet tall, resembling firs; these are truly condidates appointed to carry to the subterranean roots of the of the cypress, the air which the layer of water stops it from getting otherwise. The foliage of this tree is composed of needles much smaller than that of the pines; often the branches are so bare that it seems they were devastated by fire and have only as decoration the long floating strands of what is called Spanish moss. The extraordinary aspect of all those trees, covered with immense grey beards give the landscape a completely strange character. The Parisians can get a vague idea by going to admire the acclimated cypress' in the park of Rambouillet.
Between the cypress forests that border the Mississippi and the seashore farther up, intermittently extend large meadows which is the refuge of many birds. To make them leave their nests to shoot them on the wing, the hunters have found no better method than to set fire to the weeds; this barbaric method is prohibited, because the fire can travel across the weeds to the plantations but the hunters need not have recourse to that old way. During the day, the firy prairies throw only a reddish glare on the atmosphere, and one sees only a black smokes stretched heavily on the horizon; but, during the night, it offers a spectacle of splendid magnificence to the traveler. After a fire of several days duration, the flames finally subside, the earth is covered with a thick coat of cinders for a space of several
12several kilometers, and the marsh grasses which forms the soil of the trembling prairies have been devoured by the fire to the depth of several feet. Then the hunters have attained their end, they were able to make a fine hunt.
Above Port Jackson, a sort of bulwark of earth that the Louisiana patriots affect to regard as impregnable, are the plantations. They all look alike: built on the river of hewn tree trunks, a levee of earth to stop the waters rises; in the back a road parallel to the river, then the high fences of pickets split with an axe, fields of canes, resembling large squares of green, isolated magnolias, alleys of pecan trees and azédarachs, (seeds of the fruit used for prayer beads) houses of wood whitewashed in red and white and perched on pillars of brick, two or three feet above the humid soil, negroes huts, looking like bee hives and half hidden by the high weeds of a garden; finally, in the distance, the immense wall of cypress always running parallel to the river. This landscape eternally maintains its uniform aspect. It is emposing by its repose, its majesty, the grandeur of its lines, and not by the grace of detail. To better appreciate and understand Louisiana, one must, each night, contemplate the severe horizon of its forests, the solemn beauty of its countrysides, and the silent current of its river.
In the center of one of these plantations, situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, rises a column commemorating the honor of the battle of New Orleans. It is there that the English under General Pakenham, were routed by the celebrated Andrew Jackson. The Americans were posted in advance and utilized the land in a way so as to seemingly close themselves in a fort. They had out by a ditch, the narrow isthmus which separates the Mississippi from the impassable cypress stamps of Lake Borgne, then, made with bales of cotton, a rampart safe from balls and bullets, the able marksmen of Louisiana and Kentucky shot the English like game when they marched in parade formation across the drenched land. The true story of that battle is yet to be told; according to popular beliefs the English array lost 7,000 men, more than she counted in her ranks, although the Americans lost only 7
13combattants. Such is the proportions: one against a thousand.
We had for a while recognized the proximity of the great city by the heavy dark atmosphere which appeared on the far horizon and by the high towers vaguely outlined in the fog, when all at once, at the detour of a turn, the edifices of the metropolis of the South began to take form: each turn of the wheel, a new detail revealed itself, steeple after steeple, house after house, ship after ships finally, when the tug loft us, the city burst before us in its entirety as an immense crescent, two kilometers long. On the river, crossed the large commercial steamers, small tugs tied to large ships, making them pirouette lightly, the ferry boats traveled back and forth across the river, between the city and its suburb, Algiers, and skiffs swam around like insects in the center of all those monstrous powers. Anchored on the river were the sloops and schooners, followed by tall steamers resembling gigantic mastodons, then the three-masters ranged the length of the river like an interminable avenue. Back of that vast semi-circle of sails and yards, we saw the wooden docks laden with all sorts of merchandises, carriages and cars bounced on the pavements, finally the houses of brick, wood, and stone, the gigantic posters, the factory motors, the tumult of the streets. A beautiful bright sun shone over all that vast horizon of movement and noise.
III. New Orleans.
The plan of New Orleans is, like that of all American cities, of extreme simplicity; however, the immense curve of the Mississippi, which gave the metropolis of the South the poetic name of the Crescent City, did not permit perfectly straight street plans from one extremity of the town to the other; it was necessary to give them a trapeze form, each separated by large boulevards and turning their narrow ends towards the river. The suburbs on the west, namely Lafayette, Jefferson, and Carrollton, constructed almost on a semi-annular island of the Mississippi, begin at the river with their streets quite large, and the boulevards which border then on each side meet in a point on the edge of the forest, in the center of which the city was built. Thanks to the recent annexation of these suburbs, New Orleans has taken on a new aspect and the two graceful curves that the Mississippi shows the length of its docks, stretched out about seven miles, should give it the name of Double Crescent City.
The humidity of the land of the capital of Louisiana is proverbial, and it has often been said that the entire town, with its buildings, warehouses and boulevards, rests on an immense raft brought down to the depth of 250 meters, sufficiently proved that assertion to be erroneous; but it did show the land on which the city is built, is uniquely composed of beds of mire with alternating layers of clay and tree trunks which is being slowly transformed into peat, then oola, by the active forces always working in nature's great factory. It is only necessary to dig a few inches or, during the seasons of great drouth, a few yeards, to get muddy water; also the least rainfall inundates the streets, and when a heavy rainfall drenches the city, all the avenues and squares are changed into rivers and lagoons. Steam engines function relentlessly to drain New Orleans of its stagnant waters and carry them thru a canal to Lake Ponehartrain, about four miles north of the river.
We know that the banks of the Mississippi, like those of all streams which irrigate alluvial plains, are more elevated than the riversides. No where can this fact be better observed than in New Orleans because there is a difference of four meters between the parts situated far from the river and those which border the docks. On this side, building construction is prohibited against the sides of the Mississippi by a plank levee a hundred meters wide; on the other, the river, in its inundations, always carries an enormous quantity of sand and clay which consolidates the levee and forms a new battur (levee), on which, from the beginning, of the century, several streets have been constructed. The quarters, faraway from the Mississippi, are elevated only a few inches above sea-level. The homes of men are separated from crocodile nests by drains of stagnant water filled with water lilies. However, a certain swelling of soil, called "colline" in the country, extends between the city and Lake Pontochartrain. This swelling, unperceived by the naked eye, can be only one meter in height. One can get an idea of the plain's level, on learning that the water's stages, have only a slant of about ten inches on the total course of one hundred and eight kilometers, from the city to the Gulf of Mexico.
The oldest quarter of New Orleans, is the one called by habit, the French quarter and is still the most elegant of the city but the French are in a very small minority, and its houses have been mostly purchased by American capitalists. One finds there the post-office, principal banks, stores of Parisian articles, Cathedral and Opera. Even the name of the last mentioned building is a proof of the gradual disappearance of strange or Creole element. Other times, that theatre played only French plays, comedies or vaudeville; but, to continue to do business, it was obliged to change its advertisements and name; now, it is the American public that patronizes it. It is true that the French language disappears more and more. Of the population of New Orleans, which increases, following the seasons, from twenty thousand to two hundred thousand inhabitants, includes hardly six ten thousand French, that is to say, one-twentieth, and the same number of Creoles not yet completely Americanized.
Soon the Anglo-Saxon dialect will dominate without rival, and the native Indians, from the French and Spanish colonies, who settled in the country long before the original English emigrants, will remain only in the street names: Tohoupitoulas, Perdido, Bienville, etc. The French Market, which the strangers never miss visiting, if only to hear the confusion of languages, now resounds only with English conversations. The Germans, always ashamed of their country, try to prove they have become Yankees by well articulated curses and tavern jokes; the negroes, in the inexhaustible babel, only condescend to speak French with a sort of consideration for their interlocutors, and the rare Indian hunters, proud and sad like prisoners, answer questions in English monosyllables.
The American quarter, situated west of the French quarter, separated by the wide and beautiful Canal street, is principally inhabited by merchants and brokers; it is also the center of political life. There are found the hotels, almost as fine as those in New York, the cotton warehouses, most of the churches and theatres, the principal town house; there also is the slave market. An immense croud always gathers in Bank's Arcade, around a long counter abundantly garnished with glasses and bottles. On a stand is the auctioneer, a large, red, puffy man, with a resounding voice "Come Jim! get on the table. How much for the good negro Jim? See, he is strong; he has good teeth! Notice the muscles in his arms. Come, dance Jim! And, he makes the slave turn. This negro knows how to do everything, he is a carpenter, wheelwright, shoemaker. He is not insolent; it is never necessary to beat him. However, there are often long white scars left by the whip on black skins. Then came the turn of a negress. See this wench; she already had two "niggers", and is still young. Notice her vigorous limbs, and strong chest: Good nurse, good work negress! And the auction begins again midst laughs and vociferations. Thus pass, in turn, on that fatal table, all the negroes of Louisiana; even the children terminating their seventh year and which the law in its solicitation, judges old enough to do without its mother; young girls, offered before two thousand spectators, and sold at so much
per pound; the mothers who have just seen their children sold, and who must be gay or suffer the whip; the old people, so often put in the auction, who must appear a last time before those pale faced men, who are scornful and laugh at their white hair. The vilest and most miserable of vanities is that of being sold high, finally it becomes a fault; sold for a few dollars, they are no longer good for anything but being buried like the animals in the cypress swamps. Thus claim the slavers, also wanting it, and following them, even the cause of progress are the doctrines of our holy religion and the most sacred laws of family and propriety.
For a long time all the houses of New Orleans we're constructed of wood: they were simply shacks and the entire city, in spite of its extent, had the appearance of a vast fair; today the houses of both quarters are built of bricks and stone; they even attempted to use granite in the construction of the new Custom House. It is true that there are strong pilings, thirty meters long on which it rests, its walls have already sunken one foot into the earth.
But the principal a gent of transformation of the city is not the esthetic sense of the landlords, it is the fire. Soon I had the opportunity of believing it because I arrived in New Orleans at the heaviest part of the annual fire time. According to the poets, the month of lay is the springtime season, in the metropolis of Louisiana, it is the epoc of conflagrations. This can be understood, they say, it is then the heat begins and the wooden frames of the houses dry under the suns rays; it is also the joyous season during which one is ordinarily disinterested in their possessions. All this is true, add the gossips, but you must not forget that the month of May follows the month of April and a fire can help clear many accounts. The fact is that during the last two or three weeks in May, that a night does not pass without the alarm-bell calling the citizens with its clear deep sound. Often the reflections of four or five fires color the sky at the same time, and the firemen awakened in a jump do not know which side their presence is most necessary. It has been calculated that in the city of New York alone the flames devour each year as much property as in the whole of France. In New Orleans, a city from five to six times
18less populated than New York, the fire losses are relatively higher still, since the total loss caused by the fires are equivalent to half the loss due to other causes of the same nature in the whole extent of the French territory.
On one of the first nights of mystery in the metropolis of the South, one of those frightening disasters occurred, so frequent in the United States. Seven large steamships burned at the same time. It was a magnificent spectacle. The seven ships, anchored next one to another, formed as many distinct foyers, reunited at the base by a sea of flames; the tongues of fire, spouting out from the burning holds, gracefully curved above the galleries and revealed in all its emphemere beauty the elegant architecture of those sparkling palaces of gilt and glass; but soon the flames penetrated by the successive jets, across the planks of the galleries, and from base to summit, three floors of cabins were enveloped in the hurricane of flames; above the ships, the black chimneys, surrounded by fire, stayed immobile like ghosts, and the flags, tied to the masts extremity, appeared thru the smoke from time to time, flying joyously like on a holiday. One after another, the decks crumbled with horrible crashes, the machinery and the boilers, lost their balance, suddenly leaned, billowing the vast fire like a streamer. The decks, then the chimneys sunk and the Mississippi covered with burned debris, covered a river with fire. The facades of the city, the docks covered with merchandise, the crowd in disorder, the large ships anchored the length of the river and on the opposite bank, the houses and forests of Algiers, all lighted with a bloody glare; by contrast the sky only seemed black and the stars had disappeared. The cries that one hears long afterwards came from the ships on fire, added to the horror of that terrible scene. Forty-two persons were burned alive before a rescue could be organized, we knew that on the Mississippi, since the construction of the steamboat, more than forty thousand persons were burned to death or drowned, following all sorts of accidents, such as explosions, collisions or fires: totalling a thousand victims per year.
The night watchmen are too few to be of direct use in the prevention of fires.
The city, nearly seven miles in length, by one mile in width, has only 250 men as guards, and only 120 of those do night duty. And then they take care to warn the malefactors of their approach. The watchmen carry a large stick of fire or oak, and when they get to the corner of a street, they strike a resounding tap on the sidewalk, the incendiaries, thieves and murderers hear their enemy come, therefore they can accomplish their exploits without fear of surprise. The big criminals do not let themselves get caught because encouraged by their long successes, they have the audacity to kill in full daylight. Each year, there are hundreds of murders, complaisantly commented upon by the journalists, but rarely persecuted by the judges. However, even conducted as the overflow of iniquity is, in spite of the careless justice, there are 25,000 to 30,000 arrests per years; it is true that of this considerable amount, equal to one-tenth of the population, are counted 4,000 to 5,000 negro culprits accused of going for walks without permissions (runaways) or else sent by their masters to the executioner to be given twenty-five lashes of the whip.
More than 2500 taverns, always filled with drinkers, offers under form of whiskey and rum, a material help to violent passions. They speculate so well on the national vice of drunkenness that all basements of the larger hotels are liberally put to the public's use. In the center is a vast rotunda, sort of market where the merchants read their papers and discuss their interests, opening on the side into the gambling rooms, where the sharpers meet the dupes, elsewhere is the bar where a public table is very richly and very abundantly served. The meal is completely gratis and the first come can be seated: one must only pay for the whiskey or rum. The two-bits, (twenty-five cents) charged for each small glass, amply suffices to cover all the expenses of the public feasts. Anyway, the majority of persons entering the rooms do not touch the foods and are contented to drink, thus hundreds of drinkers unknowingly contribute the payment of a feast to a few starving poor.
Especially during election time, the taverns are not empty. The candidate must meet all those who will give him their votes, for if he does not know how to
20take a "cocktail" with elegance, he would lose his popularity and would pass for a deserter. When political adversaries meet in a bar, drunk or sober, it is not rare that insulting words are followed by dagger thrusts or revolver shots, and more than once, the victor has drunk on the cadaver of the loser. The law prohibits, it is true, concealed weapons being carried; also, during elections, the most outstanding citizens evade the law by carrying their guns openly; in general, they are content to carry a knife or pocket gun under their costs.
"Is it true that law expressively forbids the personal carrying of arms," a celebrated magistrate of Louisiana was asked.
"Certainly: we cannot too highly praise our legislators for having forbidden the carrying of concealed weapons, What then would you do if I should insult you or give you a slap? What would I do!" he said, seizing his loaded guns from his belt, he brought it down upon the head of his interlocutor.
A misanthrope could compare the vises of our European society to a hidden sore, which gnaws the individual beneath his clothes, but the vises of American society appear in the open in all their hidious brutality. The most violent hate separates parties and races; the slavery advocate abhors the abolitionist, the whites execrate the negroes, the native detests the stranger, the rich planter greatly scorns the small owner, and the rivalry of interest created even between allied families, form an insurmountable barrier of misunderstandings. It is not in that sort of society that are can be seriously cultivated. Anyway, the periodic visits of yellow fever in New Orleans renders all preoccupations impossible other than that of commerce, and no merchant desires to embellish the city which he proposes to leave when he had realized a sufficient fortune. Under pretext of art, particularly the rich, bore themselves with whitewashing with line, the tree of their gardens; this luxury has the double advantage of pleasing their eyes and being very cheap. They do not treat the public walks thus, because there is but one lone tree which exists in the interior of the city, it is a solitary date tree, planted sixty years ago by an old monk. In turn, the city raised a bronze statue
21in honor of its savior Andrew Jackson, but this statue has no other merit other than being colossal and costing a million. The artist, Clarke Mills, that made the statue, had never gone to Rome or Florence and had only studied in the studios of Washington City: that is what made his reputation with the natives, and those that advanced him his first funds and secured work, imposed the express condition that he would never leave the country. His undisputed titles of glory did not suffice however to eclipse the old world statuary. The invention consisted of brevity of a very simple fusion of metal and art to perfectly balance equestrian statues on the two back legs, without the help of a heavy tail or of a complaisant tree trunk. The city of New Orleans, ordered a statue of Washington from Mr. Mills, which will be erected in the American quarter.
As for the public buildings, they are mostly without any architectural value. The depots are ignoble hangars blackened by smoke; the theatres are for the most part, shacks at the mercy of fires; the churches, with the exception of one, a sort of mosque built by the Jesuits, are all pretentious ruins. Otherwise, there is no monuments more submissive than churches to diverse chances of fire or dilapidation. The congregations assemble, form, separate, reunite anew to disperse again like flakes of spray or whirlwinds of leaves, carried by the wind. If a young man is gifted with a strong voice, and has had a measure of success in the salons, if he makes himself noticed by a real or affected religious seal, he can issue stock for the construction of a church of which he would be absolute master. The church will be his, his capital, his business place. If the eloquence is not fruitful, he has only to claim bankruptcy, sell, demolish or burn down his church and change his sect. It is a sort of speculation that can go together well with others; nothing prevents the minister of the gospel, from being at the same time, a banker, planter or slave merchant. Americans never have determined careers; they are continuously watching the events, waiting for fortune to pass to jump aboard and have themselves carried towards the country of Eldorado. Men and things all change, everything is replaced in the United States with an inconceivable rapidity, to us who are so used to always
22follow a long routine. In Europe, each stone has its history; the church rises wherein there is no fraud or deceit, and since thirty centuries, it is in the same consecrated place that the inhabitants go to worship, Gaulois, Franks or French; we obey traditions more so than men, and we let ourselves be governed by the dead more so than by the living. In America, nothing is alike; no superstition is attached to the pass or to the native soil, and the population, always unsteady as the surface of a lake which seeks its level, is distributed under the influence of the only economical laws. In the young and growing republic, are already counted many falls as in the old empires; the present life is too active and too impetuous for the past traditions to dominate the spirit. The instinctive love of country does not exist anymore in the United States in its naive simplicity. For the masses, all sentiment is mixed more and more with pecuniary interest; for men of conscience, so rare in America like in all the countries of the world, there is no other country than that of liberty.
French trans. from book
Howard Memorial Library.
Mrs. F. Peterson,
June 19th 1939.