Delphine would have grown up around slaves, and seen the dichotomy between the treatment of plantation field workers and house slaves. In general, house slaves were treated better and, more gently than field hands. After all, a cook or a maid was visibly part of the Creole household, even though she was a chattel. Healthy, well-groomed slaves were part of the household’s overall image. The life of a field slave was quite different.
Plantations grew mostly sugar in the southern areas of Louisiana, and cotton north of Louisiana. (The Louisiana Territory reached from the Gulf Coast to the border of Canada in the early 1800’s.) With huge advances in the sugar refining process in Louisiana and widespread use of the cotton gin, sugar and cotton production was increased in speed and scope. Slaves were needed more than ever. Where many people (even in the south) had considered slavery on the outs and not humane, by 1830 it was being heralded as a God given right. The wealth of these vast land owners depended on it.
Picking cotton was brutal, backbreaking work. Sugar cane was even more difficult. It took ten times the slaves to farm a plot of sugar cane as it did to farm the same size plot of cotton. The cane fields were filled with venomous snakes, cane rats, and other vermin. Sugar cane was harvested with large knives, and the canes themselves were sometimes as thick as a man’s wrist. Sugar cane leaves are razor-sharp—just maneuvering through the field was dangerous. Enslaved men and women came in from the fields bleeding each night.
The cane was cut into six foot lengths, then taken to the processing house. The processors’ jobs were, if anything, even more dangerous than the harvesters’. The lengths of cane were fed into the “grinders,” a horrible device made up of two enormous, toothed iron cylinders, kept in motion by a team of mules. To be caught in the grinders would at best cost a slave his arm; at worst, his life.
The cane was crushed in the grinders, and dropped into the first of a series of huge, boiling kettles. The fires under the kettles had to be constantly maintained, the kettles kept at the right temperature and not allowed to boil over. Shifting the boiling raw sugar from one kettle to another during the refinement process was insanely dangerous. By the time the sugar was poured into molds and cooled, it had cost many people a great deal of sweat and blood.
The mortality rate on both cotton and sugar plantations was outrageous. Inadequate food and nutrition, extreme heat and humidity, mosquito-borne illnesses, unhealthy water supplies, lack of sleep and brutal treatment taxed even the stoutest of slaves’ constitutions. A constant need for fresh workers drained the limited amount of slaves available for purchase. Pirates, privateers and shrewd businessmen provided slaves to keep the supply and demand moving at a brisk and profitable rate.
Women were expected to breed and to still carry the load of the planting or reaping time, way into the third trimester. Sometimes a pregnant slave was given an extra ration of food, but usually not. Of course, she received no medical care. Slave women were pregnant more frequently than free women, with sometimes only a month or two in between delivery and conception. Sometimes women were impregnated by their husbands, sometimes by overseers or gang bosses or even the young men of the main house. The Code Noir was generally ignored on the plantation. Punishments were brutal, and slave women were used by whites in any way they chose.
Plantation owners could not pay free men to do the grueling work that was needed, nor did they want to. They utilized the slave system to its fullest. Humans were bought and sold, used as breeding stock, worked until they dropped, and separated from their families without a thought.
The United States Congress had banned the importation of slaves from Africa in January of 1808. In the eight years before the law made the trade illegal, the United States imported about forty thousand new slaves from Africa. From 1808 until the Civil War broke out in 1861, slaves would continue to be illegally smuggled into the growing United States of America. (The law did not, of course, end slavery itself in the United States. That would not take place until the Civil War and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.)
The shortage of fit slave labor in Louisiana was devastating, especially to the sugar cane industry, which went through laborers at a horrifying rate. The temperate weather in southern Louisiana provided a nine to ten month growing period. Even among slaves, working sugar was odious. In an attempt to keep order and keep the sugar moving, slave owners created a caste type system in their slave populations, deeming some people low enough to do this grueling work. In addition, there were many more males than females needed on a sugar plantation due to the heavy nature of the work, adding the complication of producing more slaves on site.
This ban encouraged profiteers and pirates like the Lafitte brothers to illegally import and sell slaves. Some of the profiteers kept records of their imports of "Black Gold," but others did not, making the numbers difficult to assess. Some historians estimate the number of smuggled human beings to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Books like Follett’s contend that the number of slaves illegally transported after the ban was about one fifth of the number that were documented during the legal years of slave trade. Local historians, however, maintain that thousands more were imported in to replace the thousands that died or were killed each year on the plantations. It was easy, after all, to dispose of the corpses of slaves in the swamps. Slaves “disappeared,” but somehow, the plantations kept producing cotton and sugar.
Eugene Genovese uses the term “Paternalism” for slave ownership in the newly growing American south. In his book, Roll Jordan, Roll he writes:
“Southern Paternalism, like every other paternalism, had little to do with Old Massa’s ostensible benevolence, kindness, and good cheer. It grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation. It did encourage kindness and affection, but it simultaneously encouraged cruelty and hatred.”
On the plantations, slave ownership was a cold-bloodedly economic decision. In the city, slaves were retained to keep the homes of their masters and mistresses picture-perfect. In either case, slaves were considered property, and were subject to the whims of their owners, whether affectionate or violent. Many times, they were considered like children who had to be given strict guidelines, discipline and some affection.
Stories of Delphine Lalaurie handing her wine glass to a slave, murmuring that it would do him good, and the seemingly contradictory stories of whipping, torture and starvation seem to follow the Paternalistic archetype of slave owner ship. However, Madame Lalaurie was a woman.
Louisiana held onto the Code Noir even after the territory was purchased by America in 1803. Creoles took pride in their respect for law and order. They considered Americans’ treatment of their slaves to be barbaric, and their own more enlightened. In reality, the intrinsic brutality of the slave system and the perceived need by Creole masters to dominate their bondsmen sometimes resulted in vicious discipline and torture.
Richard Follett, in his book, The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820 – 1860, cites instance after instance of torture that sounded just as macabre as the Lalaurie’s treatment of their slaves. Many of Follett’s examples are quotes from former slaves, or portions of oral histories. The stories he reports sound so eerily similar to the Lalauries’ that one starts to wonder if Madame had witnessed such atrocities growing up on the various plantations owned by her family and friends. Brandings on the face, castration, and prolonged whippings were all fairly common.
Many of the sugar planters were from the finest families in New Orleans--Trepagniers, Destrahan, Forstall. But abuses on these families’ plantations, as well as on the Macartys’, were carefully ignored or justified by Creole society. It was easy to ignore the ugliness of plantation life from the glittering ballrooms of New Orleans. The plantations were a different world.
Creole society did not want to think about where their wealth came from, or how much blood was spilled to gain it. In some ways, not much has changed. Many people in the modern Western world are perfectly happy to ignore the fact that their clothes and shoes may be made in sweatshops overseas. Turning away from the pain of other people, if those people are not in your class or clan, seems to be an unfortunate but nearly universal aspect of human nature.
Brutal punishment was not often doled out by homeowners in the city, because for a small fee, they could have their slaves punished at the Cabildo. Samuel Gridley Howe wrote This may explain the difference in the public’s perception of what was “normal” abuse, and what was committed at the Lalaurie mansion. Madame brought the real, living horror of slave abuse into the sparkling parlors of the city, and the newspapers rubbed it in the face of Creole society. Some of the torments allegedly suffered by her slaves were not much different than some of those documented on the St. James plantations. Beatings, prolonged chaining, and starvation were, in reality, all too common. of seeing such a punishment inflicted upon a young slave girl in 1846:
“By her side stood a huge Negro with a long whip which he applied with dreadful power and wonderful precision. Every stroke brought away a strip of skin which clung to the lash or fell quivering on the pavement, while the blood followed after it.
“The slave girl begged for mercy but to no avail. The flogging continued until her flesh became a livid and bloody mass of raw and quivering muscle.”
As horrifying as this description is, this punishment was sanctioned by the law, and carried out in the courtyard of the prison, not in a Creole belle’s attic. For New Orleans society at the time, that made it acceptable.
Torments such as those carried out on plantations and behind the Cabildo’s walls were removed from the eyes of the city. The Lalauries brought them home.
And then there were the apparent medical experiments described in the Lalauries’ attic. If even half of what was reported was true, those were horrors that had never been paraded before by Creole society, had never been perpetrated by even the most cruel of overseers. It was easy for slave owners to justify brutal “discipline” of field hands. If their slaves did not obey, the plantation would cease to produce anything. But to wantonly destroy healthy house slaves, and in such a bizarre manner—it was too much. Creoles would have found it shameful and shocking that one of their own, one of their finest, had perpetrated such dreadful things. Americans would see it as proof that the Creole society had become decadent and depraved. To New Orleans’ slave population, it was one more reminder that slave owners were capable of anything, anything at all. Some slaves undoubtedly grew more fearful and cautious in the wake of these events. Some certainly grew angry, and joined the mob that chased Madame to Lake Pontchartrain.
It was not the first time slaves would turn to violence in an attempt to gain justice in New Orleans, nor would it be the last.
As long as there were slaves, the threat of rebellion lingered on the mind of slave owners. Real or perceived, this threat affected the psyche of the owners and their families. In 1811, the largest slave rebellion in the United States boiled over, resulting in the death of two whites and the execution of ninety-five slaves. The revolt lasted three days, until the slaves were defeated by militia men, including a wounded Colonel Manuel Andre (or Andry)—the man on whose plantation the revolt began.
Nathan A. Buman states in his thesis:
“When the Haitian Revolution erupted in the Saint Domingue in 1791, it emitted shockwaves throughout the western world as many witnessed the effects of French revolutionary ideology put into practice by black slaves. Spanish colonial authorities in Louisiana rushed to prevent these influences from reaching the shores of the territory and did so effectively.”
There are several references in the newspapers and contemporary publications, blaming uprisings and the 1811 rebellion on the influx of illegal slaves brought in from Martinique, specifically by the Lafitte Brothers. These imported slaves had seen the only successful slave revolution in history; the Haitian Revolution. The bitter, bloody conflict lasted from 1791 to 1804, when Haiti wrested control away from France and declared itself to be a free republic. There does not seem to be any evidence that this was true—slaves from Martinique gave their owners no more or no less trouble than any other enslaved human would. But this fear was instilled in the people of New Orleans, and to them their fears seemed to be justified.
The rebellion started at the André’s plantation where about a dozen slaves killed André’s son, Gilbert, and wounded Colonel André with an axe. The slaves started downriver, stopping to pick up new recruits at each plantation along the way. Some owners had been warned and sent their women and children away as word of the mob filtered down the coast toward New Orleans.
The Macarty Plantation was in the projected path of the revolutionaries. In 1811, Delphine Lalaurie was married to Jean Blanque, city councilman and alleged privateer, living in her elegant house on Royal Street or her country home along the lake. She would heard stories and read news of the slave revolt. In town, people were panicking as the slaves moved towards New Orleans. White owners were fleeing to other plantations and to their townhouses. Her family home was in jeopardy, and the last fatality was one of her relatives, François Trepagnier. The plantations of Trepagnier, Fortier, Destrahan, Andry, Macarty and Brown were burned, sacked, and looted during the uprising. Plantation family members watched as what they perceived to be their once trusted and beloved slaves marched off to kill more whites. Delphine Macarty Blanque was related to all of these families except for the Browns.
As the slaves were rounded up or escaped, fear swept through the plantation owners’ social circles and into the city of New Orleans. As an example to other would-be rebels, the slaves that were convicted by a tribunal council held at Noël Destrahan’s plantation were sentenced to horrific deaths. After they were tortured, the slaves were decapitated, and their heads posted at the entrances to their respective “home” plantations. Although the court records were explicit that no torture would take place, eye-witness accounts beg to differ.
On January 11, the militia captured Charles Deslondes, whom André considered "the principal leader of the bandits." The militia did not hold him for trial or interrogation. Samuel Hambleton described Deslonde's fate:
"Charles [Deslondes] had his Hands chopped off then shot in one thigh & then the other, until they were both broken — then shot in the Body and before he had expired was put into a bundle of straw and roasted!"
This violent culture of slave management no doubt contributed to Madame Lalaurie’s attitude toward, and treatment of, her own slaves. Watching the authority figures in her life treat slaves with both casual and calculated brutality may have started led her down this path. Her evident wish for control in all things may have pushed her farther. A desire for real power, which was not attainable by a woman in either Creole or American societies, may have driven her farther still.