A Black Sugar Planter in the Old South

A review of Andrew Durnford, A Black Sugar Planter in the Antebellum South by David O. Whitten, (Transaction Publishers, 1995).

I

In the year 1800 the Viceroyalty of New Spain was still intact, and Louisiana still part of the Spanish Empire. So, too, was Mexico, Texas, all the Southwest of today’s America, north to Kansas and clear to the West Coast up to present-day Washington. In 1801 Spain in the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso ceded the portion of these lands comprising the later Louisiana Purchase to France but continued to administer them. In 1803 Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase lands from France. In 1812 Louisiana became a sovereign State within the United States. A border dispute rose between Louisiana and Tejas (Texas), the Spanish Empire’s province adjacent to Louisiana. With the Treaty of Adams-Onis in 1819, Spain and the United States agreed the Sabine River would be the border.

Before and after the treaty, the peoples of Louisiana and its major port of New Orleans continued living in a constant enthusiasm of cultures, languages, trade and social norms particular to them. Included was the unique institution of Plaçage, a commonplace custom in both French and Spanish colonies.

Plaçage was a contractual arrangement whereby white men and free women of color, whether of African, Native American or mixed-race descent, lived together as a family. The children of these unions took the legal status of their mother, that is, they were free children of color. The Plaçage contract could not be “placed aside” should the man later marry a white woman. He was held to the commitments of the contract.

In 1800 while Louisiana was still a colony of Spain, a young child of a placée named Rosaline Mercer was born in New Orleans. His name was Andrew Durnford. His father, Thomas Durnford, was an Englishman. The intimate, familial relationship between Rosaline and Thomas endured many years till Thomas’s death on May 3, 1826. Rosaline always signed her name adding “f.w.c.” (free woman of color) and Andrew always signed his with “f.m.c.” (free man of color).

Andrew would live till July 1859 when his death was announced in the New Orleans Bee, “Died on his plantation in the Parish of Plaquemines 12th instant (July 12, 1859), at 41/2 o’clock, A.M., Dr. A. Durnford, aged 60 years.” Whitten at 94. Dr. Durnford was not an MD but was so learned in the arts and science of medicine that he held that reputation. He was a man of respect and wealth, a black slave owner whose sugar plantation was named after St. Rosalie’s bend in the southern Mississippi River.

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Andrew’s father, Thomas Durnford emigrated from England at age 14 in 1776. He arrived in Pensacola, Florida, tethered to his cousin, Colonel Elias Durnford, the British lieutenant governor of British West Florida. Thomas lived in his cousin’s official home and was employed in his office. There he received the business training and made the social and commercial contacts useful to a young man taking steps into the world of enterprise.

Then in 1781 the Spanish drove the British from West Florida. But they could not eliminate the British commerce so vital to the continued existence of the population. So Thomas continued to learn and cultivate his business acumen.

Eventually, near the century’s end, Thomas left for New Orleans, also under Spanish rule, to continue his success there. But not before fathering Joseph Durnford, a free child of color, by a free woman of color, whose name we do not know. Nor do we know how the relationship ended except it appears it ended with her death. Joseph did not go to New Orleans with his father but the father kept in touch with his son. In later adult years, Joseph visited his half-brother, Andrew, on several occasions in Louisiana.

In New Orleans Thomas Durnford would make fast friends with an extraordinary man, John McDonogh, described as “perhaps one of the most colorful characters in New Orleans history” – which is saying a good and a great deal. Whitten at 11 McDonogh had been born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1779, and moved to New Orleans in 1800, the year of Andrew’s birth.

A perceptive and knowledgeable investor, businessman and planter, McDonogh was also seen as an enlightened owner of slaves. At his plantation outside New Orleans, he taught his slaves to read and write and gave them religious and vocational training. He developed a system for them to purchase their freedom after working for him for 15 years. “McDonogh, recognizing freedom as the ultimate goal of a slave, employed a mechanism for maximizing the motivation of his capitalized labor force. He stated his demands from his slaves in terms of hours per week due him, their owner, ruled out Sunday as a work day, and offered (additional) credit to the account of the individual slave any time worked over and above the amount stated as the property of the owner. When the slave accumulated a credit sufficient to permit McDonogh to buy a replacement laborer, McDonogh would purchase the replacement, free the original slave and establish him in Africa.” Whitten 13 -14

A member of the American Colonization Society, he was able to return 85 of his freed slaves to Liberia in the 1840’s. After his death in 1850, aged 71, the substance of his estate went to the cities of Baltimore and New Orleans to establish public schools for poor white and free children of color. Then he did more. In his Will he emancipated all his slaves except those recently purchased. They were to work for 15 years and then be emancipated. His estate would cover the emancipation cost and the transfer of each to the care of the Colonization Society including their journey to Liberia. His estate was also to pay for new tools and provisions while providing each with money to begin anew. The Louisiana Supreme Court would later order the payment of $84,000 from his estate to the Colonization Society as reimbursement for their services caring for McDonogh’s emancipated slaves.

Andrew Durnford would be influenced in the humane treatment of his own slaves by McDonogh while not endorsing his entire program

(McDonogh’s program for his slaves is rooted in the Spanish Black Code (Código Negro). New Orleans was ruled by Spain from 1763 to 1803, and before then, by the French. The Spanish Code, heavily influenced by Catholicism, was more lenient, more humane than either the French or British Codes. The British Code had the least concern with a slave’s welfare. If the reader wishes, a comparison of the three Codes can be read in For the Glory of God, by Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press, 1st Paperback Printing, 2004, pp. 309 – 312.)

McDonogh was close personal and business friends with Thomas Durnford. Also his principal creditor. Upon Thomas’s death in 1826, McDonogh became so with Andrew Durnford. It was to be a lifelong relationship for both men. It is to McDonogh’s passion to retain all correspondence that we know so much of Andrew’s life. When Andrew married Marie Charlotte Remy f.w.c., they named their first son Thomas McDonogh Durnford after him, and McDonogh was the young child’s godfather. Andrew and Marie Charlotte (whom he affectionately called ‘Remi’) would have two additional children, daughters, one of which, Rosella, appears not to have survived infancy. The other, Rosema, lived to a gathering age beyond the death of her father in 1859.

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Reading this book, you meet an engaging humanity in the multifaceted Louisiana lives spread along the careful documentation the author provides for Andrew’s life. The volume is but 133 pages. Yet every page tells of a story, an incident, a law or a practice or some human act or societal custom that intrigues your mind. The time is 1828 to 1859, Andrew’s adult and thriving years when he himself became famous in New Orleans and gathered wealth sufficient to propel his dreams. By 1810, 23 per cent of the population of Orleans Parish (New Orleans) was free black. The percentage fell to 17 by the census of 1820 but reached a pre-Civil War high of almost 24 percent in 1830. This sizable element of New Orleans represented a society and a series of subcultures within the larger subculture itself. Whitten at 4 Andrew Durnford benefited from this recognized population’s strength and customs of life. It helped him attain the social status of a Louisiana sugar planter, an elite group of people around Southern Louisiana.

By age 26, in the year of his father’s death, Andrew earning his way to become a prosperous landowner and businessman. From his father and later his mother, he inherited land within the city of New Orleans. In 1828, he bought the first of four parcels of acreage to create a plantation from McDonough whose own lands were adjacent to Andrew’s. When all purchases were completed, the land became St. Rosalie’s Plantation. The acreage was part of St. Rosalie’s bend in the southern Mississippi, 33 miles south of New Orleans. The river captains who plied the river with commerce knew all the bends of the river by their name. By purchasing land at so well known a location, Andrew insured ease of delivery and transportation of products, stocks and mail.

Andrew hadn’t purchased a going concern but a wilderness that needed taming and restructuring for sugar growing. The land needed grooming and ‘ditching’ to be suitable for sugar. Too much and too little water would always be troublesome. His first mortgage of $32,000 included the cost of the initial acres and the cost of the first 14 slaves to help him work the land. Three years later in 1831, he turned out his first saleable crop. In 1832 he made his final purchase of land for St. Rosalie’s. He would work his plantation till he left this world. When he did in 1859, he held 77 slaves with a market value of $71,550.00. Though his land had a high value of $82,800 in 1850, it had dropped to $52,288 in 1859. Perhaps from soil exhaustion.

II

“The Sugar planter serves a demanding and unpredictable god. If the first freeze arrives early, much of the cane is lost for grinding. If the last freeze of the spring arrives very late, the new cane growth may be killed.” Whitten at 38

He was an elite black businessman among elite white businessmen – the presiding group of slave owners who were propelled by the commerce of growing, manufacturing and selling sugar. Sugar isn’t a crop akin to cotton. You can’t harvest and take it to market. It must be “manufactured” from cane as soon as possible or lost. At least, four separate needs distinguish sugar growing:

One, it can only grow under exacting conditions and the best are in the frost-free West Indies where year round planting and harvesting are possible. Southern Louisiana is not a close second, but it is the best on mainland America. Louisiana sugar planters were all in southern Louisiana and were fortunate if they had 9 months of frost-free weather. They were considered an elite group of industrious people. They had taken on the perils of sugar growing where “The planter needs to harvest the cane as soon as possible yet let it grow as long as possible”. Whitten at 19

Two, the land must be specially cultivated, drained and “diked and ditched”, with levees built where needed, to avoid water spoiling the crops. The work is laborious and hindered by severe rainfall, harsh winds and hurricanes. “Ditching” must be re-done as needed and it was never either a quick or easy task.

Three, sugar is much more lucrative if you can grown multiple harvests over the years from rattoon. Rattoon is a crop grown from already established cane. It is not seed cane. In the West Indies a planter could get 12 years of rattoon crops. In Southern Louisiana the planter was fortunate if he got 2 years.

Four, the sugar harvest must be “manufactured” into marketable sugar within very short time limits or the harvest ruins. So a sugar planter does better an best if he sets up a manufacturing operation of his own. It is the equivalent of a cotton grower required to build and operate its own looms to make cotton into marketable cloth, an affliction that never touched a cotton planter. Andrew did set up his own manufacturing operation and at one time considered a new invention of Norbert Rillieux to improve the process. Rillieux, also a free man of color and successful in his own right, was a close friend.

To sustain St. Rosalie’s, Andrew worked a composite and changing body of people: slaves, hired slaves, free black and white. The white were usually German immigrants whom he appears to have favored among white workers. But sugar planting was such a difficult task to manage and some of the work so laborious that a runaway slave or a walkaway hire was not uncommon. Men did not care to do some tasks, e.g. “ditching” more than once. Some were not common laborers but people with specific talents and occupations. Sugar was a far more onerous enterprise than cotton. There was no market for raw cut cane.

III

“As to that part of my disposition respecting the class to whom I belong to, I hope a day will come that I will be able to do better for them. He who sees the remotest part of a man’s heart knows that I mean well.” Andrew Durnford in Letter to McDonogh, 22 November 1833, concerning himself, a free black man, owning and working slaves.

Andrew was no pie-in-the-sky man. As he said in a later communication (December 24, 1843) to McDonogh, “When white men are starving can the slaves prosper.” He knew the realities of slavery but also understood the mandatory practicalities of staying alive, of forging a life to go on. Nor was he clueless about human nature. He was not an ideologue. When McDonogh published his plan for slave emancipation, consisting of 15 years labor credited toward the slave’s freedom and then to Liberia, he sent a copy to Andrew who answered without fear: “It is a question that a man will not be forced into except he has a natural disposition to benevolence. World men will not work on the plan. …. Self-interest is too strongly rooted in the bosom of all that breathes the American atmosphere. Self-interest is a la mode.” He should have well stated self-interest is ‘a la mode’ all over the world beginning with the chieftains in Africa who began the slave trade long before Europeans and Arabs found Africa to be a near unlimited source for human merchandise.

For many modern readers the pages on Andrew and his treatment of slavery will be the heart of the book. Andrew Durnford deconstructs the flimflam about slavery propelled by today’s court historians.

He was not alone remembering the humanity in the slaves. He refused to use corporal punishment. We know of only one case in the voluminous papers on St. Rosalie’s where he flogged a slave and that was after the slave brandished a knife. He placed slaves in trusted positions including “huntsman” for St. Rosalie’s population. Washington, the huntsman, went about caring for and carrying guns to kill game for everyone’s nourishment. Durnford taught, as he saw the need, slaves to read and write and trusted them in their assigned tasks whether delivering payment and correspondence to other businesses or enterprises in the neighborhood or to go to New Orleans, several hours away, to purchase items for the plantation.

He is not talking down or against Black people being free. He merely points to the obvious lack of education and need for worldly-wise customs to handle your own life day to day. Addressing slaves faced with purchasing their own liberty on McDonogh’s plan and leaving for Liberia with some “pecuniary means”, he claims very few will. “There is not one in a hundred that could save money. They have not the moral courage to deprive themselves of luxuries. … Will a master that owns a good slave part from him (using your plan). I doubt it. There are slaves that are particularly situated that will and can make money. …. But can they save it and resist luxuries. I doubt if one in a hundred can do it.”

Andrew Durnford was always his own man. Though we are uncertain he received formal education, we are certain of his organizational, business and communication skills, perhaps, in particular, his writing talent in both French and English (Remi, his wife, could not read English but could French. His letters to his son, Thomas, away at school, were in French). Andrew Durnford’s corpus of letters is replete and enormous – over decades. Not merely his business letters and calculations but his personal letters to family and friends. Including former slaves who he knew now living in Liberia. The new Liberians wrote to him and to McDonogh providing news of their activities and asking how they both were doing. And when he could, Andrew supported the efforts of slaves needing financing for their legal fight for freedom.

Oddly, but perhaps not, in his Will Andrew freed only one slave: Albert, his son by one of his slave women, his mistress named Wainy. In 1857, two years before his death, Andrew and his wife, Remi, made certain the security of Wainy by giving her and her daughter, Merceline, to their own child, Rosema. Wainy and Merceline were bought in Richmond, Virginia in 1835. Merceline was near the same age as Rosema so it’s more than likely they grew up together as playmates with Wainy as their caretaker.

With slavery today unlawful, this sort of social contortion is not experienced. But this sort of ‘thing’ was not unusual. All 6 people are black. 3 of them – Andrew, Remi and Rosema – are free and have been all their lives. Plus, they are comfortably well off. They are people of high social standing. A fourth, Albert, will be free after his father’s death while his mother and half-sister will remain enslaved but protected by Merceline’s childhood playmate.

The pages on Andrew Durnford and his views of people and slavery can be puzzling to an idealist who would quickly condemn him for submitting to the labor culture of the times. But for Andrew Durnford while black people were as much human as white people, while both races were of a divine creation, “The practical workaday world forced him to make use of man and beast as speculative business investments.” Whitten at 67 As every other man in the wide world, he needed to feed his family, run his plow and shelter and raise his children.

Andrew believed slavery wrong yet abolition impossible in his lifetime. He would take a trip in 1835 to Virginia to buy slaves (with his black body servant, Barba), speaking with abolitionists along the journey about that most existential human drama of their times. By staying the course he did, he increased the livelihood of his family, friends and society in general. He humanely treated his slaves. Until the markets and morality (always intertwined) of his culture would change, he did the best he could without causing greater harm.

IV

“The neighborhood dependence on Durnford for medical treatment apparently became a relatively permanent situation. … In fact, St. Rosalie became somewhat of a hospital and nursing home as Andrew Durnford, the physician, became a medical fixture among the neighbors and fellow practitioners.” Whitten at 100

He was apparently a self-taught physician. We have no evidence of his receiving a medical degree. But that hardly mattered in his lifetime. Though most people today would not think of Louisiana as a frontier State, it still was during Andrew’s lifetime. Medicine itself was not very complicated … somehow with personal care, what knowledge of herbs and medicines worked and what you learned through experience, we could help one another. Some of us became “doctors” by default of other’s experience with our care. Andrew Durnford was obviously highly respected for his medical knowledge and the quality of his care.

It appears Andrew’s interest in medicine transferred to his son Thomas. Though Andrew did not sign his name with M.D., Thomas did. He did receive a B.A. degree in 1846 from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania (paid for by his father). But we have no record of Thomas continuing for an M.D. Most likely he studied medicine under his father and received the same local acclamation for his healing expertise. The difficulty in determining what exactly happened with Thomas is that John McDonogh, his godfather, passed on in 1850 and so the record of Andrew’s family nearly stops. For our knowledge of the Durnfords comes predominantly from McDonogh’s estate and his practical penchant for keeping all papers he received. We do know that the 1879 biographical catalogue published by Lafayette College states Thomas as ‘a gentleman of leisure; interested in literary pursuits, and divides his time between New Orleans and Paris.’ Whitten at 118

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So how do we say good-bye to Andrew? This book is competently written and interesting page to page. Maybe because first written in 1981 (enlarged in 1995) the author when speaking of the South generally shows the prejudice blinding many academics then and still today. For example, he writes on p. 119, “In a South characterized by ignorance and illiteracy …” That description is unworthy of the rest of the book. Perhaps, Whitten hadn’t read Michael O’Brien or even Eugene D. Genovese. Be that as it may, this book is of an American man who stands tall in all times, all ages. In his lifetime there were black men in Louisiana with greater wealth and greater prestige. But Andrew Durnford had every cause to be proud. He lived and died his own man. He created from scratch a great sugar plantation. He grappled with his times and won. His son went to college as likely he did not. His faults were human faults, not reactions to prejudice or ill treatment. He gripped life and throttled it to become everything he could. That makes him a paradigmatic example for black and white and red and brown and yellow and olive people – all shades of the Red, White and Blue. We should never say ‘good-bye’ to him.

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