Tidbits of Colonial Mobile’s Economic and Legal History Through a 19th century Jewish Lens
The rare book “A History of the Jews of Mobile,” a brief monograph published by Springhill Avenue Temple rabbi Alfred Geiger Moses in 1876 on the Jewish history of my hometown Mobile, AL, and now available online, records some fascinating facts. I’ll get into the super weird history of Mobile Jews serving in the Twelfth Alabama for the CSA in the Civil War in a future post. In this post I’ll go over the most interesting bits of history I was able to glean of the legal and regulatory system early Mobile had in place (when it was considered part of French Louisiana, then British West Florida, then Spanish West Florida).
Mobile was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville on his brother Pierre de Iberville’s advice. Both young explorers had sailed from their birthplace, Quebec, in search of advantageous spots to put trading posts to cash in on trade with the Indians. The earliest decades of Mobile’s existence saw sparse settlement and several relocations of the colony due to flooding and swamp epidemics. Everything was in flux, and often, like the Dutch,¹ the French only supplied enough money and people to support the bare necessities for trading. But slowly, the Louisiana colonies eventually added settlers.
New colonial societies can’t function or generate sustainable populations (and are totally depressing) without women. Bienville wrote of the sex ratio emergency to his royal backers in France, and in 1704, Mobile was the first port to see “casquette girls” arrive to be the colony’s first official wives. Bienville went on to found New Orleans, Natchez and New Biloxi after Iberville founded Old Biloxi near what is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi. “Consignments” of casquette girls reached Biloxi in 1719, and New Orleans in 1728, and to this day a mythos surrounds the casquette girls as the most virtuous religious women of France, like Virgin Marys founded the old Louisiana families. To claim descent from one of them is to gain auto-nobility in the Louisiana context. Like most lore, the legend that the casquette girls were nuns and Joans of Arc is mostly false. But the dynamic honors founding mothers and mostly omits founding fathers, a notable reversal.
Jews, being strictly banned in the “Code Noir,” weren’t much of a presence in Mobile’s early years. Alfred Geiger Moses noted:
The first two articles of the code read as follows: “Article I: Decrees the expulsion of the Jews from the colony. Article II: Permits the exercise of the Roman Catholic worship only. Every other code of worship is prohibited.” Strange to say, the rest of the code deals with laws regulating the sale and conduct of negro slaves. Gayarre finds the reference to the Jews irrelevant to the general subject-matter of the code. My own explanation of the anti-Jewish laws, which is supported by a good authority, is that they were merely a repetition of the similar legislation current in France at the time of Louis XIV. Drastic as the law appears, it was probably never enforced, because there are no further references to it in Louisiana records. The expulsion of the Jews from America would have been in the sixteenth century an event worthy of the chronicler’s notice.
The Code Noir was developed in France and strictly regulated every corner of economic life that related to the (highly active) slave trade, all activities of the enslaved and freed black population, in enormous detail. And of course a perfunctory ban on all Jews, though Jewish settlement nonetheless accelerated, especially during the subsequent periods of British and Spanish quasi-control.
The main point of controlling Mobile was its lucrative port, so imports and exports were heavily regulated and taxed for the crown’s benefit, and if you didn’t interfere with that imperial extraction process you were relatively free, hence “quasi-control.”
Non-paying the right amount of tribute/taxes, though, could imperil your ability to operate within that colony, and if you were seen as thieving, speculating or profiteering to the detriment of the power people’s loot, you could be imprisoned or death-penaltied.
Rabbi Alfred G. Moses explains:
In the British epoch of Mobile’s colonial history, which extended from 1763 to 1780, an interesting reference to a Jew is citable: Major Robert Farmer, the British commandant of Mobile, was accused, among other charges, of selling flour belonging to the King to New Orleans, or selling or attempting to sell it there by means of “Pallachio, a Jew.” The Major was afterwards acquitted of the charges.
What became of poor Pallachio isn’t known, but it was quite possibly a noir fate.
The concept of “the King’s flour” is really hard to grasp in the 21st century but I think of it as explicitly royalist mercantilism.
Mercantilism meaning “2: an economic system developing during the decay of feudalism to unify and increase the power and especially the monetary wealth of a nation by a strict governmental regulation of the entire national economy usually through policies designed to secure an accumulation of bullion, a favorable balance of trade, the development of agriculture and manufactures, and the establishment of foreign trading monopolies” (see Merriam-Webster dictionary definition)
The “foreign trading monopolies” were the point of colonization, and more purely about royalist monopolies for the French, being less encumbered by entrenched notions of self-sufficient land-ownership meaning individual freedom and citizenship.
North America has centuries of royalist mercantilism baked into its historical crust! It is deeply enmeshed in our laws, customs, folkways and collective subconscious. When the UK’s imperial-aristocratic profiteering off the tea monopoly became intolerable, you ended up with destruction of corporate tea property at Boston Harbor and shots fired at Lexington and Concord. But British mercantilism was replaced with mercantilism for the republic, pro-American trade policy.
Political rants invoking a bygone golden age of “the free market” and no regulation are misinforming the people. “The American Way” is another term for the American System, the tariff-heavy economic plan that predominated in the 19th century, mercantilism in reality. The next time a buffoon is waxing nostalgic about an economic past completely unlike anything we had in North America, remember Pallachio and remember royalist mercantilism.
1. the Dutch were so focused on trade, city design revolved around cramming as many lots as possible as close to trade corridors as possible, which meant tiny lots and mini-buildings. For a fascinating look at New Netherlanders’ use of space, see
Merwick, Donna. “Dutch Townsmen and Land Use: A Spatial Perspective on Seventeenth-Century Albany, New York.” The William and Mary Quarterly 37 (1980), http://www.jstor.org/stable/1920969