The Legend of Jean Saint Malo

June 19th was a day of remembrance in Louisiana, specifically in my home community of St. Bernard Parish, almost a century before Juneteenth. It was a day where people celebrated the life of Jean San Malo and what he came to symbolize – freedom and resistance. 

In the late eighteenth century in Spanish Louisiana, Jean San Malo and his group of maroons roamed the marshes surrounding New Orleans. The word “maroon” derives from the Spanish word cimarrón, which roughly translates to “fugitive” or “runaway.” San Malo was one of Louisiana’s fiercest and most notable maroons. Little is known about his upbringing. Prior to mutinying, he belonged to a Swiss-born colonial official with a plantation along the German Coast, a region along the Mississippi River above New Orleans. After Malo’s escape, he utilized his carpentry skills to produce furniture to accumulate weapons and gunpowder. His alarming success gained him loyal supporters throughout the maroon community. He established his main camp in Bas du Fleuve, located in modern-day St. Bernard Parish along the banks of Lake Borgne. Bas du Fleuve and surrounding regions were notorious for marronage. The majority of maroons from the area hailed from St. Bernard Parish, considering its geographical features and proximity to New Orleans paved the way for large plantations. 

The first ships carrying enslaved Africans arrived in New Orleans in 1719, and by as early as 1723, maps depict large plantations fronting the Mississippi River within the modern-day borders of St. Bernard Parish. The majority of the earliest slave ships that arrived in French Louisiana were from Senegambia, modern-day Senegal and Gambia.

The Senegambians were from a sophisticated culture skilled at ironworking, farming and various other tasks. They successfully cultivated indigo, which grew wild in both Senegal and Louisiana. It became a lucrative cash crop in early Louisiana. Some Africans fled from brutal slave conditions to the swampy environment surrounding the plantations that provided an elusive escape. Bas du Fleuve and similar places provided San Malo and other maroons a plentiful source of runaways.

Maroons living in Bas du Fleuve started out as raiders plundering to survive. However, their modus operandi shifted as they became more organized under San Malo’s leadership. According to Gwendolyn Midlo Hall in Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century:

“Although some of the maroons continued to raid plantations and kill cattle, there was a move toward production and trade for economic survival. They cultivated corn, squash, and rice and gathered and ground herbs for food. They made baskets, sifters, and other articles woven from willow and reeds. They carved indigo vats and troughs from cypress wood. And…they gathered berries, dwarf palmetto roots, and sassafras, trapped birds, hunted and fished, and went to New Orleans to trade and to gamble. Although the maroons were denounced as brigands and murderers, their violence was almost entirely defensive. The danger they posed to the colony was more profound. They surrounded the plantations. Slaves remaining with their masters were in constant contact with them.”

Stories of him reverberated throughout Spanish Louisiana and terrified the Creole elite and wealthy slave owners. San Malo was known for his harsh tactics at remaining a free person. Although San Malo and his group were typically defensive, they sometimes attacked people transporting enslaved persons to emancipate others and enlarge their coalition. According to another legend, he stabbed a tree near his encampment and claimed, “Malheur au blanc qui passera ces borners” [“Woe to the white who would pass this boundary”]. He also kept dangerous company. One of his loyal lieutenants was nicknamed “Knight of the Axe” because of his choice of weapon used to brutally split open the head of an American captor who made the unfortunate mistake of venturing his way.

The Spanish colonial government repeatedly ordered unsuccessful raids to capture the fugitive maroon San Malo. He and his maroons, usually comprising over one hundred armed men, would rather die than succumb to the brutality of slavery. The Spanish elite considered the maroon a threat that needed to be immediately eradicated. In 1784, they mounted a surprise invasion consisting of regular troops, militiamen, hunters and others who desired San Malo dead. Guided by a tip from San Malo’s captured companions, they plunged into the marshes with pirogues, flat-bottomed boats commonly used in shallow waters, full of heavily armed men. They attacked the camp and captured San Malo with sixteen other men.

San Malo was paraded around New Orleans as white citizens jeered and hurled insults. The maroons faced endless flogging, brandings of the letter “M” for maroon, shackling, and other forms of torture. During his trial, he confessed to murdering white captors. On June 19, 1784, New Orleanians of various social classes poured into Plaza de Armas (today Jackson Square) in the French Quarter to see what was at that time considered a grand spectacle: the lynching of San Malo. No clergy administered their final confessions, an atypical act for even the harshest of “criminals;” instead, they opted to watch from their balcony overlooking the plaza. San Malo unsuccessfully attempted to exonerate his two companions from the gallows. The floor of the gallows soon gave way, and three bodies dangled. 

San Malo’s ability to stand up to brute oppression was recognized among the local Black community, both enslaved and the gens de couleur libres, and throughout the South. He continued to live as a legend throughout the region for well over a century following his death. His gallantry was the subject of a popular Creole song in St. Bernard Parish, “The Dirge of San Malo,” and is documented in George Washington Cable’s 1886 work, Creole Slave Songs: 

“They asked him who his comrades were;
Poor St. Malo said not a word!

The judge his sentence read to him,
And then they raised the gallows-tree.
They drew the horse—the cart moved off—
And left St. Malo hanging there.
The sun was up an hour high
When on the Levee he was hung;
They left his body swinging there,
For carrion crows to feed upon.”

— The Dirge of San Malo 

According to Lawrence Powell in The Accidental City, the song “portrayed the maroon chieftain as biting his tongue when asked to implicate his comrades, and which could still be heard in St. Bernard Parish long after Emancipation, was not just a song of lament but a testament to the slaves’ defiance.” 

His legacy helped inspire the German Coast Uprising along the Mississippi River in 1811, the largest slave insurrection in United States history. San Malo did more than inspire hope for a life of freedom for the enslaved. Sometime between the 1820s and 1830s, a Spanish ship leaving the Spanish East Indies, present-day Philippines, docked at New Orleans. A group of Filipinos seized the opportunity to abandon ship. These Filipinos, skilled and adept at life on the water, sought refuge on the shores of Lake Borgne, in modern-day St. Bernard Parish, away from the hustle and bustle of one of the largest ports in the Americas. They named their newfound settlement Saint Malo after hearing stories of the legend. It was the first Filipino settlement in the United States. 

Image of the St. Malo community in 1883, Harper’s Weekly.

When Juneteenth celebrations made its way to Louisiana via its neighbor, many were already recognizing that day. San Malo is not mentioned in any textbooks and hardly mentioned in history books. There are no statues in his honor or street names named after him (can we change this?). There is a street named after the Governor, Esteban Rodríguez Miró, who launched the raid and oversaw the lynching of San Malo. Despite this, his martyrdom reverberates throughout Louisiana, typically in song and oral history, and his saga of resistance will never be forgotten. 

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