Two years ago, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina inspired emotional elegies to the long and colorful history of New Orleans. But until now, the story of French New Orleans has remained largely untold. Building the Devil’s Empire is the first comprehensive history of the city’s early years, tracing the town’s development from its origins in 1718 as an imperial experiment in urban planning through its revolt against Spanish rule in 1768.
Shannon Lee Dawdy’s picaresque account of New Orleans’s wild youth features a cast of strong-willed captives, thin-skinned nobles, sharp-tongued women, and carousing travelers, as well as the sounds and smells that created the texture of everyday life there. During the French period, the city earned its reputation as the devil’s town, where laws were lax and pleasures abundant. Though New Orleans’s roguish character is sometimes exaggerated, Dawdy traces its early roots in the city’s political independence, active smuggling rings, and peculiar demographics—a diverse mix of Africans, Indians, Europeans, and Creoles all involved in the contentious process of building a new society. Dawdy also widens her lens to reveal the port city’s global significance, examining its role in the French Empire and the Caribbean, and she concludes that by exemplifying a kind of rogue colonialism—where governments, outlaws, and capitalism become entwined—New Orleans should prompt us to reconsider our notions of how colonialism works.
By the end of the French period, New Orleans was one of the most modern—and most American—towns in the New World. As the city enters a new phase in its history, Building the Devil’s Empire paints a rich and thoughtful portrait of its founding.