Years ago, I came across a bit of information that made Louisiana seem bigger and more mysterious for it: far out in the low marsh of Southeastern Louisiana the first Asian community in what is now the United States could be found at one time, possibly even as early as the late eighteenth century. However, I would be remiss to begin to write about the inhabitants of St. Malo without delving into the village’s namesake, Juan San Malo, the leader of Louisiana’s most famous (or infamous) band of runaway slaves. Therefore, I will be presenting this post on St. Malo in two parts: San Malo’s Maroons and Manilamen in Louisiana.
San Malo’s Maroons
As readers no doubt have noticed, I’m continually amazed by the capacity of New Orleans to hold secrets. Maybe my use of secrets is misleading (as most events that have become shrouded in either legend or neglect were of course well known to their participants), but the feeling of discovery, in each new inquiry, remains. This feeling of having many stones yet to un-turn is palpable in dense, cosmopolitan New Orleans, but it also carries over into the surrounding rural areas, marshes, and swamps; perhaps especially the marshes and swamps. With a vast maze of waterways still mostly uninhabited in the present, it is easy, at least for me, to let my imagination run with the accounts and myths of pirates, explorers, and Indians. While there is no shortage of legends, the purpose of this post is to highlight two groups of people who eked out a living in this wilderness, and in both I hope you will find the feeling being let in on something little-known, something that just makes the world feel bigger and more mysterious, just as I did when I discovered these groups myself. First, a little background is needed to understand the role of Juan San Malo.
The vast wilderness of Louisiana, along with the chronically underfunded and undermanned nature of the French colonial government and the quickly growing slave population, created surprising differences in one important aspect of the institution of slavery: marronnage. All New World slave societies grappled with, attempted to prevent, and feared the prospect of runaway slave communities, but in Louisiana the labyrinth of back-swamps made escape much easier than recapture. In his 2012 book, The Accidental City, Lawrence N. Powell notes that among smaller slave holders, the practice of petit marronnage was widely tolerated for practical reasons. In petit marronnage, slaves would leave the plantation they were bound to during slack times for an indiscriminate amount of time. While gone, they might have visited relatives or initiated relationships at other plantations, worked for hire under false pretenses, or worked in one of the temporary lumber or fishing camps operated by mobile bands of fellow runaways, or maroons. While petit maroons would consistently return to their owners in time for replanting or harvest (the voluntary return of slaves was one important reason why short periods of absence were overlooked), grand marronnage was what slave owners feared most. The glaring difference between grand and petit marronnage is that grands had no plans on returning. Fortunately for them, the demands of the growing colony created niches for them to make a living even as fugitives; sawmills in particular were notable for overlooking the fugitive status of their suppliers. Trade was also consistently carried on between maroon communities and slaves living on the plantations, including trade in food, game, and firearms. The known existence of these, albeit clandestine, maroon communities on the edges of Louisiana plantation society kept certain pressures on the slave owners. The first was the near constant fear losing slaves to grand marronnage, or worse, the open rebellion of slaves inspired by maroons to be free. The slaves knew this too, and were sometimes able to use this knowledge as a bargaining device in asking their owners for allowances, including travel privileges, additional garden space, or other supplies.
Little is known of Juan San Malo (or Jean Saint Malo) before he became the leader of a band of escaped slaves sometime after 1768. We do know that San Malo was last owned by Karl Friedrich D’Arensbourg, a Swiss-born colonial official along the German Coast of the Mississippi River who was exiled by Spanish Governor Alejandro O’Reilly. The name, Malo, has been ascribed several meanings, from the name of a French port, to the Spanish “bad,” to historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s plausible and interesting explanation that Malo was a word of Bambara origin meaning shame, or one whose actions bring shame to others. Juan San Malo’s band of maroons became famous between 1773 and 1784, when it began to clash with outsiders. At that time, while San Malo apparently continued to visit the backswamps of the German Coast, he claimed the land from the Rigolets to the Ville Gaillarde (the land between Lake Borgne and the Mississippi River), as well as the south shore of Lake Borgne, as his sovereign territory, forbidding any and all whites from entry.
In 1782 San Malo’s band killed two Americans near Bay St. Louis. The Americans, in addition to trespassing on Spanish territory, had run afoul of San Malo by not only entering his territory, but also attempting to kidnap some maroons for sale as runaways. Four English trespassers met the same fate. An Indian trade summit called away Governor Esteban Miró in the spring of 1784, leaving as acting governor Francisco Bouligny, a militia commander and large slave-owner who had been frustrated by the Cabildo’s lack of enthusiasm when it came to capturing maroons in the Bas du Fleuve (“down-river” area) since at least 1776. When information about the location of San Malo’s band of maroons reached Bouligny by way of the network of plantation slaves, Bouligny ordered the first expedition to capture San Malo at Ville Gaillard. The first attack was successful in capturing some of San Malo’s camp, but San Malo took the opportunity to counter attack, recapturing all but one of the prisoners. A second expedition, based on intelligence gathered from a spy within San Malo’s band, was successful in locating and capturing San Malo, along with forty to sixty maroons (some of the maroons in San Malo’s band were able to escape, and either remained in the Bas du Fleuve or relocated to Barataria). San Malo was tried at the Cabildo, and was quickly convicted and hung in front of the St. Louis Cathedral. The other captured maroons, while their lives were technically spared, were submitted to tortures, including lashings and brandings, which bordered on the edge of human endurance.
Cases of both petit and grand marronnage no doubt continued in Louisiana, even through changes in the institution of slavery slowly implemented after the state joined the United States. But never again was there a band of runaway slaves as large, as notorious, or as defiant as San Malo’s. Remnants of San Malo’s extensive territory can be found in the place names of St. Malo, Marron Lake, Bayou Marron, and Bayou Saint-Malo in St. Bernard Parish.
Erin Elizabeth Voisin, “Saint Maló Remembered,” MA Thesis, LSU, 2008:
Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2012.