“The Lousiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, is situated on the lush land of a plantation of that name founded by a slave trader.” This detail can be found in the chapter of Solnit and Snedeker’s Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas entitled “Of Levees and Prisons.” The statement is steeped in layers of history and competing narratives: a great place to slow down for some thorough examination.
Histories of the Angola prison, such as the one available here, highlight the irony of a plantation turned penitentiary, but can gloss over the dubious origin of the place’s name. The Angola Museum’s website mentions only that “In 1880, Major James purchased an 8,000-acre plantation in West Feliciana Parish called Angola (named after the area in Africa where the former slaves came from).” However these histories lack context for what the nation of Angola is, and what the effects of its imitation in the New World might mean. What kind of a gesture is naming a plantation after the lost homeland of enslaved Africans?
Angola was the name given to land in West Africa first formally colonized by the Portuguese in 1576. The name is a Portuguese adaptation of “ngola,” meaning king in the regional language of the Ndogo kingdom. The name and territory alike are fabrications of colonialism, as the region called Angola by the colonizers expanded beyond the rule of the Ndogo and into the neighboring kingdoms of Kongo and Matamba. Commercial slave trade soon followed. The Portuguese acquired slaves who were captured in war and conquest from the Imbangala and Mbundu tribes in exchange for firearms. These slaves were then put on ships in port cities such as the Portuguese colony’s capital at Luanda and sent to plantations across the Atlantic. A majority of slave ships that arrived in the United States came from Angolan ports. All of that history and much more is available here.
A careful observer will note several problematic aspects in this history as it relates to the Angola of Louisiana. Calling Angola “the area in Africa where the former slaves came from,” as the Angola Museum website does, neglects the independent histories and autonomy of the only loosely related tribes and kingdoms that had inhabited the region for centuries. It presses a multitude of ethnicities, cultures, and ruling systems into one mythic lump with an allochthonous name. It is not probable that a war prisoner of the Imbangala tribe sold to the Portuguese would recognize “Angola” as the place where he or she “came from.” This throws out the possibility that referring to the Louisiana plantation as “Angola” can be interpreted simply as some kind of housewarming gift to the newly arrived Africans. Instead, the name suggests a darker purpose.
To give the name “Angola” to a plantation in Louisiana is a balancing act of remembering and forgetting. Like effigies of performance which Roach discusses in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Travel, the invocation of a name of an African colony is an action that holds open “a place in memory in which many people may step according to circumstances and occasions.” Enslaved people who worked the Angola plantation in Louisiana stepped into a performance of colonized and subjugated natives, even though they were thousands of miles–and perhaps several generations–removed from their place of origin. Slave masters, though in a land which had been “theirs” (albeit through force) for decades, were permitted to act as colonizers in their own backyards, undertaking a conquest of spirit through the systematic breaking of will of their slaves. Each generation of people at this new Angola reenacted performances mirrored across the Atlantic in the old Angola, and throughout history in the dynamic of colonization. This cyclical game of pretend allowed the colonist mindset of Americans descended from European colonizers to persist, demonstrative of Roach’s claim that performed effigies “provide communities with method of perpetuating themselves through specially nominated mediums or surrogates.” Histories of these two Angolas may forever be inextricably linked, both haunted by unforgivable conscriptions into servitude and domination.