Once France established New Orleans in 1718, her colonization of the territory was, as described by author Ned Sublette, “halfhearted and brief”. Only 44 years later, in the Treaty of Fontainebleu of 1762, France’s King Louis IV secretly gave New Orleans and western Louisiana to his cousin King Charles III of Spain to avoid losing the entire territory – which included all of the the Mississippi river- to Britain, to which he had already lost Canada in the Seven Years War. Those were tough times for the French community in Quebec and Nova Scotia: to give them time to move from Canada to Louisiana, France withheld public announcement of the deal for almost two years.
A separate agreement, the Treaty of Paris, signed between France and Britain the year after France gave Louisiana to Spain, ended the Seven Years War and ceded the eastern part of the Louisiana territory to Britain, making New Orleans safe from Britain. Spain agreed to transferring Florida to Britain, knowing that it would receive New Orleans and western Louisiana from France in compensation. Neither territories were that valuable and both were terribly swampy. But controlling the mouth of the Mississippi and the American heartland’s gateway to South America, New Orleans held potential.
Forty years later Spain returned the Louisiana territory to French control, but only for 20 days until Napoleon Bonaparte’s governor could sell the Louisiana territory over to the U.S. in 1803. Napoleon was devastated. France had lost Haiti, the pearl of the Antilles and its richest colony, to a slave rebellion. And now, to recoup its huge financial losses from the Haiti campaign, France would sell its vision of economic might in the Americas.
From 1762 to 1803, then, the western Louisiana territory, centered in New Orleans, was under Spanish rule, administered from Havana. During those turbulent 41 years, roughly equivalent to the amount of time during which France had originally been in charge of the territory, New Orleans was administered by Spain from Havana. Havana managed New Orleans quite well, turning it into one of North America’s major ports that connected the entire North American midwest and the great Mississippi river to Latin America. During this time Mississippi and the Gulf coast experienced their most significant economic and demographic growth, becoming the world into which Mark Twain would be born thrity years later. During this time also the the hemisphere experienced three cataclysmic events, the French, American, and Haitian Revolutions, each of which redefined North America’s economic political and social reality.
The economic importance of Havana’s management of New Orleans (and the port of New Orleans’ access to the Spanish world of Latin America), that had begun in 1762 with France’s transfer of the territory, continued to grow until the US embargo was imposed in 1961. The embargo closed a 198 year old relationship between the port of New Orleans and its most important foreign trade partner and its main portal to Latin America. After the embargo was imposed 55 years ago – about a decade longer than Spain’s control of New Orleans- both the population of New Orleans and the importance of its port began to fall, during which the Gulf’s entire economy eventually experienced a transformation from agriculture to energy.
Though the political separation between the US and Cuba widened during the 55 years from 1961 to 2016, the cultural ties between New Orleans and Cuba have remained and are clearly visible in New Orleans’ arts, architecture, and even in the different cultural attitudes the city had toward race, many of which were established when Spain’s approaches toward slavery were put into effect, over a century before US emancipation. The rapprochement between the US and Cuba may be a political issue for much of the Cuban population of Miami, but for New Orleans it is part of th city’s cultural and economic DNA.