Judgment from the State Council of the King, September 10, 1786

In an attempt to maintain their colonies in the Caribbean, the King’s State Council often issued decrees in order to respond to current economic and living conditions abroad. In this royal decree, which modifies a similar decree issued in August 1784, the French government sought to introduce more slaves to the windward colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia, and Tobago; encourage the importation of raw Saint Lucian sugar; and provide an influx of slaves to the Southern ports of Les Cayes-Saint-Louis to make up for a lack of sufficient labor. Showing the interconnectedness and interdependence of the colonies in the French Caribbean, this pamphlet also reveals how certain regions and islands received less attention than the more economically viable regions of Saint-Domingue like Le Cap and Port-au-Prince.

While the subject of grain is not discussed in any detail in this pamphlet, it does provide an illuminating perspective on how traded goods were taxed within the French Empire; it also affords a glimpse into the economics of the Atlantic Slave Trade. In spite of the detached juridical tone of the original text, the treatment of African slaves is nonetheless horrific. The slaves sold to these “neglected” regions of the French Caribbean colonies were to be branded in certain ways to ensure that the slave ship captains would receive an elevated rate for each slave imported. Besides the physical brutality to which slaves are subjected, this pamphlet illustrates how they are catalogued along with other cargo. Even though the rhetorical violence towards enslaved Africans is not isolated to this particular document, one cannot help but note the conspicuous nonchalance of laws regarding colonial governance under the French Empire.

(Arrêt du Conseil d”état du Roi du 10 septembre 1786, qui proroge jusqu’au premier août 1789, la permission accordée par l’arrêt du 28 juin 1783, d’introduire aux Isles du Vent dans les ports d’entrepôt, les Noirs de traite étrangère, avec une diminution de droits à l’entrée)

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Article One

From the publication date of this particular Judgment, until the first of August 1789, foreign vessels of 60 tons and above will only be admitted into the cargo ports of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia, and Tobago along with the Blacks, in whatever number they may be stocked, and in whichever location they may have been loaded, to be sold in the aforementioned cargo ports in the same manner as other supplies and provisions that have been approved for importation under the Judgment of August 30th 1784.


Upon their entrance into the aforementioned ports, only thirty pounds of French silver will be taxed per Negro head[1] transported by foreign vessels to the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and only six pounds per head for those imported to Saint Lucia and Tobago.


The French ship-owners, whether from the Kingdom or from the French Islands and Colonies[2], who wish to engage in the importation of Blacks will be subjected to the same measures, regulations, and inspections as foreign ship-owners, and in the event of an infraction, French owners will submit the same penalties presented in article X of the Judgment of August 30, 1784. However, French owners will only be required to pay three pounds of silver in taxes per slave head within the four islands mentioned above.


The sum of the taxes established in the two previous articles, regarding foreign Negros, shall be transferred to Martinique’s coffers in order to pay an additional cost of one hundred and sixty pounds that His Majesty grants to French slave ship owners for each Negro – male, female, adult or child[3] ­– coming from French trade, that they will introduce to the aforementioned windward islands. This additional cost will be paid in Martinique […]


By way of the above costs, His Majesty cancels the one hundred and sixty pounds that He previously established in article III of the Judgment of October 26, 1784 for French Merchants, for each Negro head they import to the Windward Islands and Cayenne. His Majesty thus changes the arrangements for Cayenne to reflect the properties of the preceding articles, relating to Saint Lucia and Tobago, for the importation of Blacks, coming from either French trade or from foreign Trade.


In order to supply the Southern portion of Saint-Domingue, His Majesty wishes to pay French vessels that import and sell exclusively to the port of Les Cayes, the slaves coming from their direct trade on the Coasts of Africa, a cost of two hundred pounds per Negro head, rather than the one hundred as fixed by article III of the Judgment of October 26, 1784.


In order to enjoy the benefits of this bonus, the captains of the aforementioned ships, in the event that they promote the sale of the aforementioned slaves, will brand them legibly on the upper portion of the left arm with a letter S topped by an umlaut. This will be the stamp recognized on every slave by the Director of the Customs Bureau, to whom the aforementioned slaves will be presented upon their delivery. The Captain as well as the purchaser will herein sign the nominative estate with a declaration of the name and residence of the planter, as well as the status of the plantation, in the Southern region, for the service of which the Blacks will have been sold. The Director of the Customs Bureau will transcribe the following declarations in a registry dedicated to this cause, and will subsequently submit it to the Captain, after having the stamp verified and recorded, and will receive a remuneration every three months addressed from the Governor-Lieutenant-General and Intendant to the State Secretary from the department of the Marine and the Colonies […]


His Majesty prohibits the planters of the Western and Northern regions of Saint-Domingue from buying, whether directly or through an intermediary, even trading or transporting, under whatever possible pretext, any branded slaves coming from these specific importations to the port of Les Cayes while the bonus ensured by article VI is applied. A penalty of confiscation and a three thousand-pound [livres tournois][4] fine for each violator, of which half will be imparted to the informant. The Officers of the State Police and Militias, as well as the Officers of the administration and justice, are hereby ordered to carefully observe these activities, and the Governor-Lieutenant-General and Intendant must severely enforce these penalties.


His Majesty orders that the Declaration of October 12, 1739, which prohibits the transport of slaves from the Windward Islands to Saint-Domingue, or from Saint-Domingue to the Windward Islands, continue to be executed as it was originally articulated, except in particular cases where His Majesty has granted permission for slave transport to take place between the Windward and Leeward Islands according to the best interests of the planters. Such permissions will only be granted under the instruction of the Colonial Administrators of the island from which the slaves will be transported, respecting all necessary regulations and precautions.


Having noted the precarious position of the Island of Saint Lucia, and wishing to encourage the reestablishment of the sugar plantations that have been abandoned during difficult times, His Majesty hereby allows the planters of Saint Lucia to export sugar abroad.[5] […]


The Council Judgments of June 28, 1783, August 30 and October 26, 1784 shall continue to be executed as originally determined, as along with their regulations concerning embargoes, for every measure that does not contradict the articles of this particular Judgment […]

Drafted at the State Council of the King, in His Majesty’s presence, held at Versailles the tenth day of September seventeen eighty six. Signed Le Maréchal de Castries.

THE DUKE OF PENTHIEVRE, Admiral of France, Governor and Lieutenant General to the King in the Province of Brittany.

We are hereby ordered in the Judgment from the State Council of the King mentioned above and elsewhere, to call on all those over whom our power extends, to implement each of these laws following their exact form and tenor. And, to order all Admiralty Officers to register these laws in the Courts of their Posts, to read them, publish them and post them wherever need be.

Drafted in Paris the twenty-fifth of September seventeen eighty six.

Signed L. J. M. De Bourbon

And further down, By His Serene Highness. Signed Perier.

[1] In the French document, references to “tête de Noirs,” and “tête de Negres [sic]” implicitly equate African slaves with livestock, just as one might refer to “head of cattle.”

[2] This language provides a distinction between European-born and Creole-born ship-owners in terms of class.

[3] The original French text uses specific terms for adult male, adult female, boy and girl slaves, effectively demonstrating the detail of economic categories in slave societies.

[4] Silver coins minted in the central city of Tours, France.

[5] Prior to this decree, all French colonies were legally prohibited from trading with foreign entities like the United States or England under the Old Regime’s “exclusive laws.”