You can’t go far in the American South without coming face to face with the horrors of slavery. It’s an awful truth but the United States is the world’s richest country because of the enslavement of millions of people across 250 years. The country’s economy was built on their backs.
We had our first experience of this bloody heritage virtually straight away, in the city we have just left, New Orleans. The beautiful mansions that line the tree-lined streets of the French Quarter and beyond were often the city residences of plantation owners. These incredible properties were the homes they would live in when attending society gatherings or hosting their own lavish get-togethers. Even people who weren’t slave owners themselves benefited as the economics trickled through various industries.
Having spent the last few days in New Orleans, we were now safely on board the American Queen Steamboat Company’s beautiful paddle steamer, the American Queen, and heading to our first stop: Oak Alley.
The first day of a cruise is always the most exciting. The novelty of sailing down a new waterway, sitting on deck and exploring all of the nooks and crannies of a new ship while trying to get your bearings. It’s one of my favourite things to do on a ship and a feeling that is yet to wear off. I’m willing to bet that running through the shore excursion options and onboard entertainment while working out where you’re going to take each meal has filled many a joyous hour of other people’s holidays too.
On the morning of our first full day we awoke to one of the most spectacular sites I have ever seen from a ship. We had docked at the foot of a quarter of a mile of 300-year-old oak trees that form a long walkway up to an impressive Antebellum mansion.
Built in the early 1800s by a French sugar cane plantation owner, Oak Alley, is one of the most picturesque slave owner properties along the Mississippi river. The house itself was built by slaves, from bricks made from river bank mud. Everything about it is designed to help keep its inhabitants cool. From the alley of oaks themselves, which act as a wind tunnel to the house, to the floor to ceiling shutters that can be fully opened to ventilate the mansion during the sweltering Louisiana summers.
The house and grounds were famously featured as Brad Pitt’s home on Interview with a Vampire and while magnificent, the plantation does have an eerie air with a history that hangs heavily in the air.
The tour – which is included – was a great experience. However, what was perhaps more touching was the rebuilt slave quarters that stand to the back of the house. These small shacks really bought home the conditions that generation after generation of workers were forced to live in as they carried out the hopeless daily turmoil of their lives. On a wall of one shack there is a list of all the names of the slaves that lived at Oak Alley. It is in stark contrast to the fine oil paintings that hang on the wall of the Big House.
It’s only when you look at the opulent way in which the slave owners lived, in comparison to the shacks at the back of the house, that you can really even start to imagine what life was like during the time.
It was a very powerful day and one that will stay with me for a long time.