Response from the Deputies of Manufacturers and Commerce of France: To the Motions of MM. de Cocherel & de Reynaud, Deputies from the Isle of Saint-Domingue to the National Assembly, September 13, 1789

This response from the Deputies of Manufactures and Commerce of France to MM. de Cocherel and de Reynaud[1] offers a detailed rebuttal to the Colonial Deputies’ claims that the French government and National Commerce perpetuated famine in Saint-Domingue.[2] While the first part of this legal brief concerns the daily lives of both slave and white populations, this later section provides evidence as to how MM. de Cocherel and de Reynaud misled the French government with regards to the merchants’ commercial activity on the island. Rejecting the mortality statistics reported by the Colonial Deputies, the authors of this report claim that the slave population cannot possibly be dying of hunger.

Though this document does not speak out against slavery, it does cite the poor treatment of slaves as the main cause of death among slaves. French and British abolitionists would later cite the poor treatment of slaves as one of the reasons for the necessary end of slavery. However, it was not slavery that the Colonial Deputies wished to end, but rather metropolitan oversight.

[1] For a translation of an earlier excerpt of the document, see Issue 1.0.

[2] It is important to recognize that this “famine” was a rhetorical strategy the Colonial Deputies deployed in order to shirk metropolitan French control of colonial commerce. While there was indeed a scarcity of flour in 1788 and 1789, more generally, the provisioning was strikingly irregular and prices were extremely volatile due to a lack of coordination between distant markets. In addition, flour was primarily destined to the colonists and free people of color, not the slaves, who mainly ate rice, manioc, bananas, cod, and so forth. From this perspective, accusing the merchants of starving the slaves is indeed a rhetorical tool.

(Réponse des Députés des Manufactures et du Commerce de France : Aux Motions de MM. De Cocherel et de Reynaud, Députés de l’Isle de Saint Domingue à l’Assemblée Nationale)

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We now ask the deputies of Saint-Domingue where this permanent scarcity of food is, upheld so completely by the merchants, that led between 10 and 12 thousand blacks to die of hunger each year? When one wishes to play the celebrated and dangerous role of accuser, one must collect the facts. You must build yourself a shield of evidence that the accused cannot destroy.

In the first days of this century, we would like to be able to say that the blacks were treated with little humanity, that this severity that made a great number of them perish each year was a remainder of the barbarism of the conquerors of the New World[3] and of the brutal filibusters who founded the first establishments in Saint-Domingue.[4] This savagery gradually became milder through frequent communications from the Europeans, and we eagerly seize this opportunity to give MM. the Colonists the tribute of praise they are entitled to for the gentle and humane government they are using toward their slaves. This government is the barometer of the population. We have in front of us a record of births and deaths in 1786 and 1787 that proves that we are not far from achieving the last degree of a paternal administration in Saint-Domingue.[5]

In 1786, out of 332,847 blacks, there were 4,217 births and 5,067 deaths.

In 1787, out of 364,196 blacks, there were 3,556 births and 6,166 deaths.[6]

In the first year, the deaths surpassed the births by 1,850, and in the second, by 2,460.

The reason for the difference between these two years is that in 1787 we imported 30,000 blacks from Africa, and that the death rate of the blacks who were not acclimated must have been higher than of those who were.

We do not see this frightening death rate here, these 10 to 12 thousand blacks that the greedy miserliness of the merchants bleeds each year. On the contrary, we see that in perfecting the system of administration that began in the region of Le Cap, and that is gradually reaching the entire Colony, we can settle the level between births and deaths in a few years and not be in any more need of blacks from Africa except for the new groundwork.

There you have it, in fact, what is needed to cut down the great question of the abolition of the slave trade and of their emancipation. The gentle and wise administration, that extends over all of our colonies, prepares from afar the abolition of the slave trade and a condition to the blacks that will be one hundred times more preferable to the unfortunate liberty benefited by the working man in the majority of our countryside.

MM. the Deputies of Saint-Domingue claim that we do not need less than 150,000 barrels of flour to nourish the Colony’s whites and 400,000 barrels for the blacks. We have demonstrated that the 150,000 barrels that were imported yearly provided abundantly to all needs. If we granted MM. the Deputies their tactless demand, they would certainly take on the task of buying and paying this enormous supply of provisions. It would come to be that the Colony of Saint-Domingue would be overdrawn 150,000 barrels of fine flour each year for the whites, which, at the average price of 70 pounds per barrel, would cost…………10,500,000 livres.

And of the 400,000 barrels of flour shared with the blacks, which, at an average price of 50 pounds per barrel, would cost, here…20,000,000.

The Colony of Saint-Domingue’s annual debt toward the Metropole…………30,5000,000 pounds.

It would be at that point when we would see MM. the Deputies of Saint-Domingue rush with force to rise against the abominable tax of 30,500,000 that burdened their crops, against the merchants’ atrocious monopoly, against this new type of salt tax, and it must be admitted that this time they would be right.

MM. the Deputies of Saint-Domingue say that the rains, the hurricanes, and the droughts destroy between 3 and 4 months of their expectancies annually, and that a resident whose land would all be food, would not be lacking in the case of not having much of it for his blacks.

[3] This is a reference to the Spanish and the Portuguese, who were the first European countries to colonize the New World. The barbarism, in the Spanish case, refers to the “Black Legend”, or the eradication of indigenous peoples of the Americas through forced labor and disease. Though coined as such to demonize Spain, the destruction wreaked was no myth.

[4] The author is referencing the Island of Tortuga, a pirate outpost off the northeast coast of Saint-Domingue. This reference would be very familiar to readers at the time, notably due to L’Abbé Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes (1770), a reference work that detailed the origins of European colonization in the Caribbean, with several chapters devoted to these early stages.

[5] The results of the census of 1788 were highly debated, as the figures underestimated the white, free people of color, and slave populations all for different reasons: white, because soldiers, captains, and sailors were not taken into account; free people of color, because planters did not always want to officially recognize the emancipation of their slaves in order to avoid associated taxes; and slaves, in part for fiscal reasons and because some of them were illegally introduced by British smugglers.

[6] Footnote from original text: We cite the censuses from the offices. We do not believe them to be accurate, but these are the only documents we can get. And the precision that is lacking regarding the rate of mortalities must also be missing in births. Thus, our evidence is not weakened. In order for 10 to 12 thousand blacks to die each year of hunger alone, at least 10 thousand would have to die per year. At the end of the war of 1755, there would not be a single one left. We introduced only 11 thousand, each year, from 1763 until 1778. There was then a war for five years, and at the peace of 1783 we counted 300 thousand in Saint-Domingue. These results prove, without question, that the death rate is very moderate in Saint-Domingue.