Motion from M. de Cocherel, Deputy from Saint-Domingue, to the Saturday evening Session, August 29, 1789

English English

In his official motion to the National Assembly on the evening of August 29, 1789, M. de Cocherel proclaimed that he could no longer sit idly while the Assembly ignored the famine that had besieged the colony of Saint-Domingue. Writing only a month and a half after the storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789), Cocherel respectfully acknowledged the difficulties his compatriots must have been facing in Paris as an explanation for not exporting any grain to the colonies.[1] However, the time had come for the colonial deputies of Saint-Domingue, led by Cocherel, to act on their own behalf, disregard the chain of command, and make a direct appeal to the Assembly.

At the time, the availability of grain was not only an issue in the colonies. The French Revolution shook every sector of French society, and the grain industry was no exception.[2] In France, there were strong deliberations geared toward establishing trade networks with England in order to furnish the nation with grain, due to the fact that the Revolution had put an extreme strain on domestic commerce. However, as Cocherel points out, the colonies suffered the aftershocks of the Revolution more deeply than mainland France in terms of grain imports. Although Cocherel supports his claims by citing a few documents concerning the cessation of grain exports from France, his rhetoric is utterly fatalistic and sensational. Cocherel’s motion can be read as an emotional appeal to the National Assembly for the recognition of Saint-Domingue and its wealthy inhabitants as French citizens, but also as an economic treatise against the monopolization of French commercial activity between the mainland and its colonies.

[1] This is information that Cocherel gleans indirectly from conversations with the governor of Saint-Domingue, le Marquis Marie-Charles du Chilleau.

[2] For further reading see: “Une épisode de l’approvisionnement de Paris en 1789” and prior to the Revolution, Sur la législation et le commerce des grains: quatrième édition. Paris: Chez Pissot 1776. 

(Motion de M. de Cocherel, député de S. Domingue, A la séance du samedi 29 Août 1789, au soir)

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Until now, the Deputies of Saint-Domingue have listened to your decrees in respectful silence. For, they are not permitted to interrupt you during your long and painful work. They have not abused your precious time, but today the law of necessity requires them to make themselves heard and to call on your humanity for urgent assistance, for the island of Saint-Domingue is currently being devastated by the most cruel scourge, a famine.

Le Marquis du Chilleau, General-Governor of Saint-Domingue, informed of the disastrous position of France, understanding the cessation, with reason, of its grain exports, and justly worried by a Judgment handed down by the Parliament of Bordeaux, believed that he should take it upon himself to issue a temporary Ordinance, lasting until next October, that would authorize the United States of America to import grain into all of the ports overseen by the Admiralty of the Island of Saint-Domingue, where the French cargo ships normally discharge their cargo.

Indeed! Gentlemen, this wise foresight by M. le Marquis du Chilleau has been criticized by M. le Comte de la Luzerne, the Naval Minister. This Ordinance, so precious to the Colony, has been struck down, and the virtuous Governor has just been informed.

The Deputies of Saint-Domingue have made useless presentations in this regard to the Minister of their department. In vain, they have raised warnings of the dangers of an inevitable famine. In vain, they have painted the terrifying portrait of desperation. In vain, they have requested the assistance of executive power to bring its effects to a halt. In vain, they have provoked the sanction of the King on the Ordinance of M. le Marquis du Chilleau. M. de la Luzerne[1] has closed his ears to their valid demands. He has refused the humanitarian aid imperiously called for by natural Law. He enforced the prohibitive laws that condemn the Colonies to famine above this irresistible law, even when French Commerce cannot provide the colonies with subsistence.[2]

You would tremble, Gentlemen, if time allowed you to chronicle our misfortunes, but you will not wait for them in order to save the citizens, your brothers, from the horrors of the curse that ravages them.

You will call on provisional aid – the United States offers it to us. Limit the duration of aid with your wisdom; weigh our needs, envision our misfortunes for an instant, and forget, at least in moments of calamity, the rigor of the prohibitive Laws that are always odious and always tyrannical when they focus on items of primary necessity.

Return, if you please, Gentlemen, to another moment, the discussion of the background of this important question; but decree provisionally that the importation of American grain will be allowed in all of the ports under the Admiralty of Saint-Domingue, and even in the ports of all the other French Colonies, for a period of six months, to start counting from the day the law is published and ratified in in your provisionary Decree in the sovereign Council of Saint-Domingue. (1.)

  1. […] A wish was expressed yesterday by l’Évêque de Langres, minister of charity, to not even deliberate on the worrisome position of an immense Island caught in the grips of famine before having taken the advice of the Administrator, which is to say, the advice of M. le Comte de la Luzerne, the Naval Minister, his brother.[3] This wish, I say, feels like cruel shackles on his behalf, but it will be easy for the Deputies of Saint-Domingue to demonstrate to the National Assembly that this system of administration in support of the prohibitive Laws, is nothing more than a new way to monopolize, particularly to excite greed and fuel a famine in a country with 250 leagues of coastline.


[1] Emphasis always in original

[2] The original Decree was made on March 31, 1789 to go into effect the following day on the first of April. The prohibitive laws are also referred to as “le commerce exclusif”. For more information see: Horan, Joseph. “The Colonial Famine Plot: Slavery, Free Trade, and Empire in the French Atlantic, 1763-1791.” International Review of Social History. 55 (2010): 103-121. 103-104.

[3] César-Henri de la Luzerne served as the Naval Minister to France, while his brother César-Guillaume was part of the priesthood in Langres. César-Guillaume most famously opposed the publication of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which began to unravel the Atlantic Slave Trade.