Here in Louisiana, it seems as if we’ve only just begun to taste autumn and already October is nearly over. Luckily, Halloween is just around the corner to bid October a proper farewell. As much fun as costumes, scary movies and copious amounts of candy consumption can be, this is a holiday that hasn’t gone without hiccups. Last year, we discussed how easy it is not to be racist on Halloween. (Hint: don’t paint your skin color darker than it is, and just don’t go as a marginalized identity for Halloween.)
Tourism is a massive part of Louisiana’s economy, and elements of the supernatural have drawn crowds for countless decades. People can’t seem to get enough of the prospect of the power of Marie Laveau’s grave or the potential to stumble upon lingering soul on some midnight cemetery tour. Somehow it is entertaining to imagine the fantastical powers that lay in the murky waters of our swamps. All this accomplishes is erasing the reality of the history of this land. It is haunted — the remnants of atrocities against human beings linger today in our laws, our religions, and our culture.
In an effort to acknowledge this, I’d like to urge everyone to avoid visiting haunted plantations this Halloween. There’s no harm in having a little bit of spooky fun, but that can be accomplished without minimizing the very real experiences of enslaved people and the role of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Louisiana.
The inhumane treatment of the enslaved pushed the enslaved population of Saint Domingue (later Haiti) to its limit. In August of 1791, a revolution began. Though the fight dragged on until November of 1803, it was all worth it. Upon winning their freedom, the black Haitians abolished slavery, declared racism illegal and were now the victors of the first successful anti-imperial revolution in the history of the Atlantic. Seeing no point in continuing with his Louisiana colony, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803.
After the revolution, Louisiana stepped in to fulfill the high demand for sugar. Unbeknownst to the French slave owners, they were creating the exact conditions that allowed the Haitian revolution to take place. Louisiana was becoming known for its particularly brutal conditions. Slaves worked longer hours, faced more brutal punishments, and lived shorter lives than any other slave society in North America. By 1810, slaves made up 75% of the total population and close to 90% of households owned slaves.
Every aspect of life on Louisiana plantations was difficult for slaves. They lived in small, two-room brick cabins, with each house holding an entire family. They only ate stew or jambalaya — just enough to survive and work. The process of growing sugar cane started in chilly January, with planting completed by February. Slaves were assigned to tend to the crops, weed and irrigate and guard against insects and other dangers. During the hot summer months, mosquitoes spread deadly tropical diseases and the slaves turned their attention to other plantation tasks such as repairing levees, making bricks and preparing for the fall harvest.
The most brutal part of the crop cycle was the fall grinding season. During this season, it was a race against time to harvest the entire crop before the first frost. Once the harvest began, slaves worked sixteen or more hours per day, seven days a week. According to the historians of the Whitney Plantation, 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.
A first punishment would be imprisonment, and the next would be the whip. For more serious offenses, whipping turned into a public display of abhorrent cruelty and power. This torture served to remind slaves of their inferior position, and their less-than-human status. For the worst offenders, the French planters designed torture devices that would remind the offender of their actions, such as collars and metal masks. The ultimate price to pay on the plantation was death. This level of cruelty later lead to the largest uprising in American history.
There are plenty of other ways to get your fear-fix. Not too far from Lafayette, you can find The Fright Trail.
There’s also The 13th Gate in Baton Rouge, widely regarded as one of the top haunted houses in the country. If none of those strike your fancy and you’re hell-bent on going to a plantation, visit the Whitney Plantation — one of the only ones in the country that focus the narrative on those that were enslaved.
As you reflect on lonesome ghouls and restless spirits hiding just beyond the cypress trees, take a moment to consider their humanity and honor them. Suddenly, they aren’t so scary.