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The Colonial Famine Plot: Slavery, Free Trade, and Empire in the French Atlantic, 1763–1791*

  • Joseph Horan (a1)

This essay examines the use of famine-plot rhetoric in the course of disputes over free trade in the French Atlantic during the late eighteenth century. Seeking to discredit officially sanctioned trade monopolies, French plantation owners frequently suggested that the control exercised by metropolitan merchants over transatlantic commerce was responsible for food shortages among the enslaved population of the colonies. In reality, the planters themselves bore primary responsibility for malnutrition in the French Caribbean, thanks to their reliance on the slave trade and support for the expansion of plantation agriculture. While proponents of the colonial famine plot accepted that plantation slavery had made it impossible for the resources available in the colonies to sustain the growing enslaved population, they remained committed to the plantation system. In advocating expanded free trade as the best means to ensure the continued growth of the colonies, French planters anticipated a response to the environmental problems caused by colonial expansion that became increasingly prevalent among proponents of European imperialism during the nineteenth century.

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1. The history of slavery in the French Caribbean is the subject of an extensive and growing body of research. For some useful general overviews, See Debien, Gabriel, Les Esclaves aux Antilles françaises, XVII–XVIII siècles (Basse-Terre, 1974); Louis Stein, Robert, The French Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century: An Old Regime Business (Madison, WI, 1979); Pluchon, Pierre, “L’Économie d’habitation a Saint-Domingue”, Revue d’Histoire Maritime, 1 (1997), pp. 198241; Geggus, David, “The French Slave Trade: An Overview”, William and Mary Quarterly, 58 (2001), pp. 119138; and Régent, Frédéric, La France et ses esclaves: De la colonisation aux abolitions (1620–1848) (Paris, 2007).

2. de Cocherel, Nicholas-Robert, Motion de M. de Cocherel, député de S.Domingue, à la séance du samedi 29 août 1789, au soir (Versailles, 1789), p. 1. All translations are by the author unless otherwise noted.

3. Kaplan, Steven L., “The Famine Plot Persuasion in Eighteenth-Century France”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 72:3 (1982), pp. 179. Historians of early modern France have agreed with Kaplan on the extent to which conspiracy theories permeated political culture. See particularly Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel, The Vanishing Children of Paris, Claudia Milleville (trans.) (Cambridge, 1991); and Campbell, Peter R., “Perceptions of Conspiracy on the Eve of the French Revolution”, in Peter R. Campbell, Thomas E. Kaiser, and Marisa Linton (eds), Conspiracy in the French Revolution (Manchester [etc.], 2007). It is also important to recognize that conspiracy rhetoric was by no means a monopoly of the political left. See McMahon, Darrin M., Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford [etc.], 2001), pp. 5765.

4. Banks, Kenneth, Chasing Empire Across the Sea: Communications and the State in the French Atlantic, 1713–1763 (Montreal [etc.], 2006).

5. For treatments of famine in the historical context of European imperialism, See Sen, Amartya, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford, 1981), pp. 5285; Arnold, David, Famine: Social Crisis and Historical Change (Oxford [etc.], 1988), pp. 119142; Crossgrove, William et al. , “Colonialism, International Trade, and the Nation-State”, in Lucile F. Newman et al. (eds), Hunger in History: Food Shortage, Poverty, and Deprivation (Cambridge [etc.], 1990), pp. 215240; Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London [etc.], 2001).

6. Mandelblatt, Bertie, “A Transatlantic Commodity: Irish Salt Beef in the French Atlantic World”, The History Workshop Journal, 63 (2007), pp. 1847.

7. The most comprehensive study of the debates over colonial trade reform in late eighteenth-century France remains Jean Tarrade, Le commerce colonial de la France à la fin de l’Ancien Régime: l’évolution du régime de “l’Exclusif” de 1763 à 1789, 2 vols (Paris, 1972). This summary is drawn from vol. I, pp. 223–338. For the two central decrees of the exclusif system, which dated from 1717 and 1727, see Recueils de Règlements, Édits, Déclarations et Arrêts Concernant le Commerce, l’Administration de la Justice, & la Police des Colonies Françaises de l’Amérique, & les Engagés avec le Code Noir et l’Addition audit Code (Paris, 1765), pp. 46–61, 221–238.

8. Tarrade, , Le commerce colonial de la France, II, pp. 493–589.

9. On conspiracy rhetoric during the early years of the Revolution, See Tackett, Timothy, “Conspiracy Obsession in a Time of Revolution: French Elites and the Origins of the Terror, 1789–1792”, The American Historical Review, 105 (2000), pp. 691713.

10. For the reports of the Saint-Domingue administrators concerning the food supply, see Marie-Charles, , marquis de Chilleau, et al. , Correspondance de M. le Marquis du Chilleau, Gouverneur-Général de Saint-Domingue, avec M. le Comte de la Luzerne, Ministre de la Marine, & M. de Marbois, Intendant de Saint-Domingue, relativement à l’introduction des farines étrangères dans cette colonie (Paris, 1789). On the efforts of the deputies to draw attention to the crisis, see Louis-Marthe de Gouy d’Arsy, Première dénonciation solennelle d’un ministre, faite à l’Assemblée nationale, en la personne du Comte de La Luzerne, ministre d’état, de la marine, et des colonies; Extrait des pièces justificatives à l’appui de la dénonciation (Paris, 1790).

11. Tarrade, Jean, “Le Révolution et le Commerce Colonial: le Régime de l’Exclusif de 1789 à 1800”, in CHEFF (eds), Etat, Finances et Economie Pendant la Révolution Française (Paris, 1991). For a concise assessment of the crisis in the French Caribbean during the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, See Patrick Geggus, David, “Slavery, War, and Revolution in the Greater Caribbean, 1789–1815”, in David Barry Gaspar and David Patrick Geggus (eds), A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean (Bloomington, IN, 1997), pp. 150.

12. On the more permissive trade policies in the Dutch Caribbean, which served as an inspiration for the reforms of the exclusif mitigé, See Klooster, Wim, Illicit Riches: Dutch Trade in the Caribbean, 1648–1795 (Leiden, 1998). On the subsistence crisis in the British colonies, See Sheridan, Richard B., “The Crisis of Slave Subsistence in the British West Indies during and after the American Revolution”, The William and Mary Quarterly, 33 (1976), pp. 615641. On the political influence of the British planters, See Beck Ryden, David, West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783–1807 (Cambridge [etc.], 2009), pp. 4082.

13. Watts, David, “Cycles of Famine in Islands of Plenty: The Case of the Colonial West Indies in the Pre-Emancipation Period”, in Bruce Currey and Graeme Hugo (eds), Famine as a Geographical Phenomenon (Dordrecht [etc.], 1984), pp. 4970.

14. Tardo-Dino, Frantz calculates that, at the very best, the average caloric value of slave diets was sufficient for four days of the week. See his Le Collier de Servitude: La condition sanitaire des esclaves aux Antilles Françaises du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (Paris, 1985), pp. 129142. For a detailed assessment of slave malnutrition in the Caribbean as a whole, See Kiple, Kenneth F., The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History (Cambridge [etc.], 1984).

15. Dutrône de la Couture, Jacques-François, Précis sur la canne et sur les moyens d’en extraire le sel essential (Paris, 1790), p. 343. On contemporary attitudes to environmental degradation in a colonial context, See Grove, Richard H., Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (Cambridge, MA, 1996), pp. 168308.

16. Ducoeurjoly, S-J, Manuel des habitants de Saint-Domingue, 2 vols (Paris, 1802), II, pp. 70–77. For an assessment of the nature of slave provisioning in the French Caribbean, See Debien, Gabriel, “La question des vivres pour les esclaves aux Antilles Françaises”, Anuario, 148 (1972), pp. 131172.

17. Labat, Jean-Baptiste, Nouveau voyage aux isles de l’Amérique: Contenant l’histoire naturelle de ces pays, l’origine, les moeurs la religion et le gouvernement des habitans anciens et modernes. Les guerres et les événements singuliers qui y sont arrivez pendant le séjour que l’auteur y a fait, 8 vols (Paris, 1742), III, p. 438; Cassan, , “Mémoire sur les cultures de l’isle de Saint-Lucie”, in Mémoires d’agriculture, d’économie rurale et domestique (Paris, 1789), pp. 6066.

18. Chambre d’Agriculture de la Martinique, “Mémoire sur la disette actuelle des vivres dans la colonie” (17 June 1776), Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, Aix-en Provence [hereafter, ANOM], Series F–3, no. 125. On the impact of hurricanes in other parts of the Caribbean, See Pérez, Louis A. Jr, Winds of Change: Hurricanes and the Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Cuba (Durham, 2001); Mulcahy, Matthew, Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624–1783 (Baltimore, MD, 2006).

19. Ducoeurjoly, , Manuel des habitants, pp. 76–77; du Tertre, Jean-Baptiste, Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par les Français, 6 vols (Paris, 1667), II, p. 513.

20. Labat, , Nouveau voyage, III, pp. 438–448.

21. Méderic-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, Loix et Constitutions des colonies françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, 6 vols (Paris, 1784–1790), V, p. 729.

22. “Très Humbles Représentations de la Chambre d’Agriculture établie à la Guadeloupe, sur l’arrêt du Conseil d’Etat du Roi du 29 Juillet 1767” (24 November 1767), ANOM, Series F–3, no. 126.

23. [Jean-Baptiste Dubuc and Pierre-Ulrich Dubuisson], Lettres Critiques et Politiques sur les colonies et le commerce des villes maritimes de France, adressées à G-T Raynal (Geneva, 1785), pp. 101108. Dubuc advanced similar accusations in another anonymous pamphlet, Le pour et le contre sur un objet de grande discorde et d’importance majeure. Convient-il à l’administration de céder part, ou de ne rien céder aux étrangers dans le commerce de la métropole avec ses colonies? (London, 1784).

24. Mémoire sur le commerce étranger avec les colonies françaises de l’Amérique présenté à la Chambre d’Agriculture du Cap, le 17 février 1784 (Paris, 1785), pp. 7–17. Although this memoir is officially dated 17 February 1784, the explicit reference to the August decree makes it clear that it was composed later.

25. Réponse succinte des Députés de S. Domingue au mémoire des commerçants des ports de mer (Versailles, 1789), p. 6, emphasis in original.

26. “Mémoire présenté par les membres de l’Agriculture de la Chambre de Commerce établie au Port-au-Prince, pour exposer au Ministre, ayant le département de la Marine, l’état de cette partie de la colonie de St Domingue” (15 June 1761), ANOM, Series F–3, no. 126.

27. “Très Humbles Représentations”, ANOM, Series F–3, no. 126.

28. “Quelques observations de la Chambre d’Agriculture de la Guadeloupe”, ANOM, Series F–3, no. 126.

29. [Dubuc and Dubuisson], Lettres Critiques et Politiques, pp. 101–108.

30. de Cocherel, Nicholas-Robert, Réflexions de M de Cocherel, député de Saint-Domingue, sur le Rapport du Comité des Six (Paris, 1789), pp. 17.

31. [Dubuc and Dubuisson], Lettres Critiques et Politiques, pp. 101–108.

32. “Observations d’un habitant de Saint-Domingue, sur le mémoire des négociants de Bordeaux”, ANOM, Series F–3, no. 84.

33. Pierre-André-François de Thébaudières, Vues générales sur les moyens de concilier l’intérêt du Commerce National avec la prospérité des Colonies (Paris, 1790), pp. 68.

34. “Mémoire présenté”, ANOM, Series F–3, no. 126.

35. “Quelques observations de la Chambre d’Agriculture de la Guadeloupe”, ANOM, Series F–3, no. 126. On the turn-of-the-century environmental transformations described by the planters, See Boucher, Philip, France and the American Tropics to 1700: Tropics of Discontent? (Baltimore, MD, 2008), pp. 235236.

36. Mémoire sur le commerce étranger, pp. 25–28.

37. [Dubuc and Dubuisson], Lettres Critiques et Politiques, pp. 89–92; Mémoire sur le commerce étranger, pp. 1–6; Reynaud de Villeverde, Jean-François, Motion de M. le comte de Reynaud, député de Saint-Domingue, a la séance du 31 Août (Versailles, 1789), pp. 16.

38. “Quelques observations de la Chambre d’Agriculture de la Guadeloupe”, ANOM, Series F–3, no. 126.

39. Mémoire sur le commerce étranger, p. 22.

40. “Mémoire de la Chambre d’Agriculture du Cap” (2 December 1768), ANOM, Series F–3, no. 125.

41. [Dubuc and Dubuisson], Lettres Critiques et Politiques, p. 83.

42. “Quelques observations de la Chambre d’Agriculture de la Guadeloupe”, ANOM, Series F–3, no. 126.

43. Mémoire sur le commerce étranger, pp. 1–6.

44. [Dubuc and Dubuisson], Lettres Critiques et Politiques, p. 124.

45. Reynaud, , Motion de M. le comte de Reynaud, pp. 1–6.

46. Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, MA, 1995), pp. 70107.

47. On the resurgence of planter influence, See Dubois, Laurent, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 (Chapel Hill, NC [etc.], 2004), pp. 277307.

* The author would like to thank Darrin M. McMahon and Frederick Davis for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this article.

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