Copy of the Letter from M. du Chilleau to M. de la Luzerne, from March 28, 1789. Nº 35

In a letter written to the French Naval Minister, César-Henri de la Luzerne, Marie-Charles du Chilleau, Governor-General of Saint-Domingue, announces his plan to introduce an official ordinance that would allow Saint-Domingue to legally import flour from the United States of America. Trade laws that favored a nation’s merchants at the expense of its colonial planters were a long-standing grievance in the Caribbean. The French government provided some relief by establishing free ports in the 1780s but retained flour as a national monopoly. The grain crisis of 1788-89 enflamed this issue.

After a harsh winter wiped out wheat crops in France, there was not enough grain to export overseas. In order to ensure that Saint-Domingue had adequate food stores, du Chilleau, who was sympathetic to the planter class, proposed a temporary liberalization that placed him at loggerheads with the powerful Intendant, François Barbé de Marbois.

Without waiting for a reply from Luzerne in Paris, which would take at least two months, du Chilleau went ahead and published his Ordinance three days after this letter was sent to take effect on April 1. For this act, he was immediately recalled by the government.

Original
(Copie de la Lettre de M. du Chilleau à M. de la Luzerne, du 28 Mars 1789. Nº. 35)

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Translated excerpts:

From the Correspondence of M. le Marquis du Chilleau, Governor-General of St. Domingue, with M. le Comte de la Luzerne, Minister of the Navy, and M. de Marbois, Intendant of Saint-Domingue, regarding the introduction of foreign grain in this Colony.

Sent to MM. the Deputies of Saint-Domingue, from the application from M. the President of the National Assembly, dating from September 16, 1789.

[…]

My Lord,

The unsettling news that we have received, and those that arrive daily regarding the severity of the winter in France, the loss of the entire harvest, the needs of the Metropole, and the needs that we might have to face in this colony, have led me to take preventive action and to ensure our food supply until the next harvest in a way that worsens as little as possible the already unfortunate situation of the planters caused by the last hurricane.

In discussing this important subject with M. de Marbois, I informed him that my intention was to permit the introduction of foreign flour and biscuit in the colony for a period of time, both by national as well as American [carriers]. This seemed to me the most suitable course of action and the only one that could best fulfill my intentions. M. de Marbois agreed with me on certain matters. He wanted to get assistance from New England, but the means that he proposed for bringing it here were not the same as mine.

At first he wanted to send three frigates to North America to take on cargoes of flour and biscuits that, on their return, they would deposit in the state warehouses to be sold to individuals.

But to deprive the station of these three ships would leave our ports rather vulnerable and would guarantee the success of the contraband trade that it would have undoubtedly encouraged. Next month, in accordance with your orders, we will be sending a frigate and a dispatch boat to Newfoundland.

Apart from these reasons, the cargoes brought by the frigates would have only resulted in an importation of five to six thousand barrels of flour at most, very feeble assistance in view of our needs. Furthermore, it did not seem fitting to me that the administration should carry out the sale of barrels. It is admirable that the King should come to the aid of his subjects, and it is worthy of His Majesty that he should share with them what he has here that was destined for his own use. But if the administration has to buy grain in order to resell it, however transparent the transaction, the public would regard it with a suspicion that is best to avoid. It could lead to an infinity of abuses by officials. One could convert good grain and biscuit into very bad and sell it at the price of good merchandise, and people would not dare complain.  These sorts of sales made for the King have often produced similar results in different colonies.

Having accepted all these arguments, M. de Marbois then suggested to me giving permission to several merchants to carry out this transaction. However, as an enemy of all privileges that exclude others, I could not agree to this either.[1]

As remedies, these exclusive privileges are worse than the harm they are meant to heal. Those who receive these privileges, and those who control their bestowal, are the only people who benefit from their advantages. At first it seems that these privileges will help overcome problems, but one soon realizes that they worsen them through the abuses that they bring about.

After again acknowledging [the force of] these observations, M. de Marbois finally proposed that I wait eight days before carrying out my project, in the notion of receiving more satisfying news. I gave into his desires, making clear to him, however, that the misfortunes of the Metropole were only too certain; that those which threatened us would surely become a reality if we did not take decisive measures to prevent them; that flour sold March 1 at 70 pounds and was selling today for 140 pounds; that biscuit sold on March 1 for 60 pounds and today at 80 pounds; that the planters of the districts that suffered from last August’s hurricane lack victuals for their slaves, and that if they cannot obtain biscuit to feed them, they risk losing them.

[…]

This importation, this abundance [that I am proposing] will not harm national commerce, nor will it damage the Metropole’s production of these goods, because France itself does not have enough and it pays a bounty to encourage merchants to provide them. The merchants, therefore, cannot claim that they supply the colony as well.

It might be objected, perhaps, that the permission [I am proposing] is too extensive and that it should not have included the Americans. Quite the contrary. I have thought long and hard about their admission. My goal is to give assistance to the colony, and its needs being urgent, it seemed to me that I should adopt the most prompt and most efficient remedies. Otherwise, granting clearance to trade or allowing the importation of flour and biscuit only by merchants of Saint-Domingue would have been more or less the same thing. Three or four merchants in each part of the colony would have been able to fulfill the Government’s wishes. But it would have been too easy for them to collude, and the operation would only have been to their advantage. Therefore, in permitting the Americans to take part in this importation, it is, at the same time, to create an abundance without harming either the merchant or the consumer.

[…]

Copy, true to the original, du Chilleau.

[1] Foreshadowing the actions of the National Assembly that would transform France during the summer, du Chilleau is refusing to grant government favor to only a select few.