Los Criollos by Lafcadio Hearn
|This article I am presenting to dispel folks of the racio-ethnic notions they have for what Creole means and who is creole and are Creoles in Louisiana, racio-ethnic taxonomies placed aside.
Lafcadio Hearn is author of Gombo Zhèbes, a collection of folk sayings in Creoles from around the word that are lexically related to the French language, in which several hail from Louisiana.
a . B a r q u e
|“Los Criollos” is one of the letters Lafcadio Hearn wrote during his first months in New Orleans as a correspondent to the Cincinnati Commercial, under the nom de plume Ozias Midwinter. It is reprinted here from Inventing New Orleans : Writings of Lafcaido Hearn, ed. S. Frederick Starr (University Press of Mississippi , 2001).
Origin of the Term “Creole”—Invented by the Spaniards—Some Interesting
New Orleans, December 3, 1877.
THE COMMON ERROR of interpreting the word “Creole,” as signifying a mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon of Louisiana , and particularly of New Orleans , is far from being a local one, and dates back through centuries. It is not even confined to the uncultivated classes of the population of the Northern States , but flourishes, curiously enough, even in the South. It exists also in European countries-especially France , England , and Spain —mother-countries of West Indian colonies. Strangest of all, it actually lives in New Orleans , where the word Creole is a term of proud honor among the aristocrats of the South. There are numbers in this cosmopolitan city who have some vague idea that the more lightly-tinted half-breeds are rightfully called Creoles.
|“From the Dictionary of the Spanish Language published by the Royal Academy of Madrid in 1762, we learn that the word ‘Creole’ signifies ‘one born in either of the Indies, whether the East or the West Indies , of Spanish parents or of parents of other Nations who are not Indians.’ This word ‘Creole’ is one invented by the Spanish conquerors of America and by them made common in Spain to distinguish their European progeny, as we learn from Acosta’s History of the Indies , in the fourth book and chapter the twenty-fifth. The definition goes on to say: ‘This word creole in course of time came to apply not only to children born of European parents, but it was also extended to animals, vegetables, and fruits. Hence they had creole horses, creole pears, creole beans, and creole flour to distinguish these no doubt from those which were imported into the colonies from Spain .’
“In the profound work of Covarrubias on the Origins of the Spanish Language, from its Carthaginian sources running through the Gothic and Moorish eras, down to the period at which he wrote, we find that the word criollo, a creole, is an invention of Spanish born parents, to denote their children, begotten and born in America.’
“From the Trevoux Grand Dictionary, a work of the learned Jesuit fathers, we obtain the following definition: ‘This word, in French, was formerly written criole, as derived from the Spanish verb criar, to beget, to bring up, etc. It is now written creole, and is the appellation given to a child of European origin, born in any one of the colonies of the two Americas . This name was afterward misapplied to negroes and mulattoes, whether free born or born in slavery, either from African parents or from mixed white and black blood. It was in after years, used in speaking of animals, and even of vegetables and fruits.’”
|Mr. Dimitry next quotes from V. de Solorzano, one of the most profound jurists of Spain , a member of the “Supreme Council and the Board of Policy of Spanish-America.” In his Commentaries Solorzano says:|
|Who and what are Creoles? It is my duty, as an expounder of law—como interprete de derecho—to say something concerning those who, in the two Indies, and born of Spanish parents, because, in those countries it is the custom to call them Creoles, just as it is customary to call “Mestizos” those who are born of Spanish fathers and Indian mothers, and “mullatoes” those born of Spanish fathers and negro mothers. In so much as relates to the first—entiendo los criollos—I mean the Creoles, there can be no doubt that they are true white Spaniards, and that as such they are entitled to all the rights, honors, and privileges of their Spanish parents, granted by various charters and letters royal to the Colonies of Spain since the days of the conquest of Mexico. The reason of this is clear, because, although begotten (criados) in these remote and barbarous regions, they do not share in the accidental dwelling place; but they do in the land of their parents’ origin and birth. By virtue of this doctrine, more extensively explained in my work on the Laws of the Indies, written in the Latin language, the principle settled by the civil law has lately been consecrated by the canonical decision of the Apostolic Court in Rome . It decrees that Rev. Father Alonzo de Aguero, a Creole of the city of Lima, recently elected to the priorate of the Augustinian College, the statutes of which require that the head shall be a Spaniard, was lawfully elected to the dignity, being the son of Spanish parents, and born under the jurisdiction of Spain in one of her colonies.|
| “In order to show,” says Mr. Dimitry, “the sheer and well defined discrimination between creole and mestizo, or any other mixed generation, Solorzano quotes from Oviedo’s History of Chili, an account of a skirmish between a body of insurgents and troops of the Spanish Government, in which the following passage occurs: ‘The leader of the Government forces disarrayed, dislodged and routed fourteen files of the opposing lines, killed six creoles and wounded three mistizos.’”
The learned Professor concludes his letter with a very amusing disquisition upon other uses and abuses of the word “Creole,” which portion of the epistle I quote almost entire:
|“Go back,” he writes, “to any file of newspapers, dating even twenty years ago, and you can read as I now read in the columns of the Louisiana Courier of the 28th of February , 1830: ‘For sale-A likely young Creole negro, twenty-seven years of age; is something of a carpenter,’” etc.; ‘Runaway-A stout American negro, with a wen on his neck’; (runaway with a wen on his neck is simply delightful); ‘he is a jack-of-all-trades.’ Here, you see, we have a stout American negro in contrast with a likely Creole negro. From what admitted geography of the earth could you suppose that a stout American negro and a likely Creole negro could lawfully have come? Farther on I find: ‘Estray-a sorrel Creole horse, with a white spot on his left forefoot.’ Very well for the stray Creole horse. I read a little farther on and I find an ‘American bay horse, with a blaze on his face.’” Attracted by this newspaper zoology, and probably urged on by a slight curiosity of knowledge, I pass on with the hope of ascertaining whether I might not in this goodly company find some other respectable quadruped hemmed within the compass of a composing stick. In the columns of the paper, however, I find no advertisement for either a Creole or an American donkey. The fact compelled me to infer with inexorable logic that there were, then, no animals of the kind in Louisiana . Of other specimens of Creolism of which you daily hear we have ‘Creole cows,’ to distinguish them from the four-hoofed ladies that come from Texas or Kentucky. We have ‘Creole chickens,’ to distinguish them from the pipped and dropping brothers and sisters that travel in railroads and steamboats from St. Louis and Cincinnati . When the hens have become acclimatized and drop their eggs on Louisiana soil, they become ‘Creole eggs,’ by virtue of which the huckster-women will charge you five cents apiece for them, while they will readily give you two ‘American eggs’ for the same price. Ask, Why this difference? and the answer is ready: ‘Them’s none of yer Louisville eggs; them’s Creole eggs, laid right here in New Orleans .’ Then again, you have ‘Creole cabbage’—not so firm and white as Western; but how much more tender in leaf and sweeter in taste. Again, the savory ‘Creole onion,’ out of the grand soil of Louisiana , instead of the large, tough Connecticuts . The ‘Creole sugar-cane,’ so soft in fiber, and as slender as an asparagus stalk, pitted against the half-saccharine otaheiti, or the hard Cuban cane. The oily, yellow ‘Creole corn,’ for the hominy of the breakfast table, against the white flint of Ohio and Kentucky . The ‘Creole rice,’ which is more esculent than is the rice of the Nile of Egypt, or that of the banks of the Irawaddy, and safer to the molars than the rice from the pebble fields of South Carolina .”|
| I must not omit to observe that the Professor lays special stress upon the fact of the word having been invented by the Conquistadores “as early as the year 1520, and seven years before the period when Chaves by Imperial schedule, and under the sign-manual of Charles V. had introduced an African on the soil of America .”
The Professor’s statements as to the constant and multi-faced misapplication of the term Creole to designate anything native to the soil of Louisiana, reminds me that in the bills of fare of New Orleans restaurants, one is almost certain to behold in large type the words “Creole eggs,”—“Creole eggs fried,”“Creole eggs poached,” “Creole eggs shirred,” etc.
I think further comments upon the general history, use, or misuse of the word “Creole” would be superfluous, after having presented the reader with Professor Dimitry’s opinions and authorities upon the subject. It only remains to observe that the Creoles of New Orleans and of Louisiana (whatever right any save Spaniards may originally have had to the name), are all those native-born who can trace back their ancestry to European immigrants to or European colonists of the State, whether those were English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Russian, or Sicilian. But the term is generally understood here as applying to French residents, especially those belonging to old French families, and few others care to claim the name.
There is, however, a very select and cultivated circle of citizens in New Orleans who are especially proud of the name, and who unite all possible effort to make it an honor to those who bear it. In this Creole circle the French element indeed prevails; but the circle, nevertheless, embraces Creole citizens of Spanish and Italian, of Greek and Sicilian, of Portuguese and English, of Dutch and of Danish blood. They are the learned, the cultivated, the influential element of Louisiana society. The last remnant of the Louisiana aristocracy survives here, no longer splendid, it is true, with the shimmer of wealth, but yet maintaining loyally the old adherence to chivalrous principle, and the polished culture of the old French oligarchy. Riches in these unfortunate days fall to the portion of a few; and poverty does not exclude from this little Creole cenacle. Its atmosphere is European; its tastes are governed by European literature and the art-culture of the Old World . Something of all that was noble and true and brilliant in the almost forgotten life of the dead South lives here still. The literature, the art-lovers, the dilettanti, the thinkers of that South are here gathered together. They seldom appear in literature, because literature has been to them, as to the gentlemen of the mother-countries, a source of recreation, a means of cultivating taste and elegance of expression; but there is perhaps a wealth of genius and a power of talent amoung the Creole Society of New Orleans such as may not be found in any other city of the land. What relation this true Creole society bears to the life of the city; what share it takes, if any, in controlling the affairs of the State; what has been its history in the past, and what may be foretold of its probably brief future, these are matters which I must forego discoursing for the present. They will form interesting material for a future letter.
—While discoursing upon los criollos, I must say something further about the Creole dialects. I had the pleasure recently of meeting the gentleman who was the author of those witty and wicked satires which appeared in Le Carillon about five or six years ago, written in the Creole patois of Louisiana . He is quite a master of the dialect, and I begged him to translate into Creole for me the following pretty verses, which you know have been translated into almost every European tongue. He compiled at once, and almost offhand composed for me the accompanying metrical version of the poem in Creole:
|The night has a thousand eyes,
And the day but one;
Yet the light of a whole world dies
With the dying sun.
The mind has a thousand eyes,
|This Louisiana patois is partly comprehensible for one cognizant of the French language; and I have been able myself to make some translations of it into English from the columns of Le Carillon. In some parishes, I am told, it is more difficult to understand than others, owing perhaps to its being there more compounded with real African words than elsewhere. It is a matter of difficulty to imagine where many Creole words could possibly come from except from African dialects; but the specimens of Louisiana Creole which I have sent you are rather pure. But I have before me some specimens of West Indian Creole, which are very different. They consist of translations into Creole verse of La Fontaine’s Fables. Of all dialects in the world, the Creole is the easiest to fashion into meter and rhyming verses; and the facility with which even a New Orleans Creole can turn out stanzas in patois is astonishing. It may interest some of your French readers to compare the following fables, in West Indian Creole, with the French of La Fontaine. They were furnished me by a gentleman from Martinique . The letter “r” although written, is not pronounced in West Indian Creole:|
| LA MORT E T L E BUCHERON.
(Death and the Woodcutter.)
Yon pauve vie nhomme, les-autt-fois.
Nhomme reponne: T’en prie, sople,
|Nous pas vle alle danstour-a picturesque expression that for burial: we do not want to go into the hole”-into the grave, into the marble jaws of death! Here is the fable of the Robbers and the Ass, in Martinique Creole:|
LES VOLEURS E T L ‘ANE
Pou von bourique yo te vole,
|There are not many French readers who would readily recognize the words Bon Dieu in the Creole Bon Gue.