Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Cover: Painting by George Whiting Flagg
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 4/25/2005
Summary: Must read. The evolution of 18th century slavery and the mystery of a German girl.
This reviewer has only been on a roller-coaster once. Having read THE LOST GERMAN SLAVE GIRL, the experience will be counted as a second ride. If the harrowing saga of the people this book writes about does not grab you and suck you into a vortex of competing emotions, then the search for an elusive truth will. This little book has all the trappings of a film du noire, though the only crimes are slavery, a couple of lies and the requisite beautiful dame.
Author John Bailey has managed to write history that reads like a suspense novel. Just as you think you have things “figured out”, up pops a little tidbit at the beginning of the story that helps to resolve everything.
The story of the lost German slave girl is, as Bailey points out, not new. It has been rehashed in New Orleans since the 1840s. Baily relies upon those earlier works and the court records to retell the story. What he does that is apparently new is to put a nail in the elementary mystery. There was a lost German girl. What Baily does not resolve is why she became the lost German slave girl. This is a rather cryptic assessment, but it allows you to enjoy the unraveling of the story for yourself.
Baily hints at the supposition that up until the invention of the cotton gin and the freedom of the capitalistic system, slavery was a rather straightforward economic affair. Native Americans were the first slaves in America. Indentured slaves came over (not necessarily brought over by coercion) from England, Germany and anyplace else they could be found. Pure economics. But then, a region of the country, the South, developed an economy that could not function without salves. The old justifications for slavery that the slave was from a vanquished enemy and deserved a status of servitude took on a new significance. By the 1840s, the notion that a German girl or any white person could be a slave was a conceptual impossibility. Slavery was evolving under various pressures from being an odious economic institution to an odious cultural institution based upon the “science” of race. The story of the LOST GERMAN SLAVE GIRL takes place on the cusps of this ideological transition.
Slavery, economics, the plight of immigrants flooding into New Orleans are all backdrops for the story of the book. The author re-creates the atmosphere that was the old New Orleans of the early 1800s. His efforts are not a point and describe travelogue, but an airbrush stream of place, color and tone that places you in the mostly muddy, sometimes dusty streets. Known as the most dangerous city in America at the time because of the risk of cholera, yellow fever, and smallpox, the growth of New Orleans was amazing. In Baily’s detailed tracing of the route of one boatload of Germans from Europe to the city, you get a real sense of the spiritual force driving America toward the behemoth-economic and cultural–it was to become. Simply under the pressure of European immigration, slavery as an economic institution was doomed. The triage attempt to savage slavery by developing a science of race in which there were superior and inferior races was both too early and too late.
Less than twenty years after the lost German slave girl case was resolved through the courts, America would be plunged into the bloodiest war in its history. This fact alone demonstrates the extraordinary lengths to which ego can trump common sense. The story of THE LOST GERMAN SLAVE GIRL provides the same lesson on a lesser scale. This is a must read book.