New Orleans natives often jokingly refer to their region as a “Third World Country.” This partly stems from the fact that they’ve been indelibly influenced by Haiti, formerly Saint-Domingue. From food to architecture to religious practices, Haiti has left its stamp on the Bayou region.
The History of Haiti and New Orleans
Saint-Domingue used to have a three-tiered society, which was instated by the French and consisted of wealthy whites (grand blancs), free people of color (affranchis) and enslaved blacks (noirs). There was also a class of poor whites (petits blancs) who weren’t as wealthy as the affranchis, but they still considered themselves socially superior to them. During the Haitian Revolution, which lasted from 1791 to 1804, a surge of refugees flooded Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, taking their customs and beliefs with them. New Orleans, which had been colonized by the French, already had a similar caste system, with many free people of color who were land-owning and wealthy. Even though Napoleon signed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Haitian refugees still managed to make Louisiana a bastion of French customs and culture because of the prevalent French culture that was already there.
Haitian and New Orlean Architecture
If you walk around the French Quarter, you’ll see many iron-wrought balconies that were designed during the time Spain had dominion over New Orleans, which was 1763 to 1803. However, street names like Carondelet and Bienville are a constant reminder of French influence. One type of architecture that was derived from Haiti was the Creole cottage, with its full front porch and gabled roof. This type of house is thought to have evolved from the French and Spanish colonial forms. Another popular type of house that is Haitian influenced is the shotgun house or the “railroad” house. This design has “two houses sharing a central wall, allowing more houses to be fit into an area and includes many variations,” including the “Camelback.” While the Creole cottages and shotgun houses can be found throughout the Southern U.S., they have a significant presence in New Orleans, and are a signature left by Haitian craftsmen.
Haitian and New Orlean Cuisine
What would New Orleans be without its Creole cuisine? Most authors of books about New Orleans make it seem like the food is derived from French aristocracy, when in fact its flavors and ingredients are heavily influenced by the Haitians who migrated there, who were primarily African-born. Rice and beans are a staple of Caribbean culture and many Creole dishes include them: jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice. Commander’s Palace, Dooky Chase, and Mother’s are just a few places in the Crescent City that offer up authentic Creole fixins’.
Haiti’s Influence on Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is a popular destination for many who want to go to New Orleans. This revelry also occurs in Haiti and other regions of the African Diaspora. Most don’t know that this festive holiday is associated with Catholicism and Lent. Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is when the 40 days of Lent begins. Both Haiti and Louisiana have large Catholic communities, as well as an underlying sect who practice voodoo, which combines elements of Catholicism and West African Dahomeyan Vodun. Louisiana voodoo differs slightly from Haitian voodoo in that there’s an emphasis on gris gris, a “hoodoo talisman.” Catholicism is something that is practiced in the light of day, out in the open. Voodoo is practiced in the shadows. If you are Catholic or want to attend Catholic services in New Orleans, St. Louis Cathedral is one of the most impressive places to do so.
An Unfortunate History of Natural Disasters
It seems that both regions suffer from similar disasters, too. New Orleans had Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac in recent years and Haiti has had Hurricanes Tomas and Matthew, as well as a fatal earthquake in 2010. Disasters in both areas have lifted the veil on the poverty that’s present there, revealing harsh economic realities about these places that those who don’t live there may not be aware of. This is another reason that New Orleans locals refer to their city as a “Third World Country.” They are very aware of their poorly facilitated economic infrastructure and often feel frustrated with their conditions.
While Haiti, an island in the Caribbean, has its own distinct culture and flair, there’s no denying its influence on Louisiana. The next time you pay a visit to New Orleans and walk through the French Quarter, remember you’ll be soaking in the history of both New Orleans and Haiti.
About the Author
Sonya Alexander spent the early part of her career training to be a talent agent, working for some of the top talent agencies, including WME. After deciding that she belonged on the creative end of the spectrum, she started covering film festivals for local publications and has been writing ever since. In addition to writing about movies and music, she does academic writing, specializing in the social sciences. She also does screenwriting and is a seasoned script analyst. She currently resides in Los Angeles and is working on her first book.