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

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This response from the Deputies of Production and Commerce of France provides a comprehensive review of the legislation surrounding the grain dispute of 1789 in order for the Commercial Deputies, the representatives of the French agricultural companies and exporters, to defend themselves against the Colonial Deputies’ accusations that they perpetuated famines. The Response argues two main reasons why the Colonial Deputies have misrepresented the merchants’ commercial activities and motives throughout the year 1789: first, that the appropriation of grain was sufficient to maintain the relative health of the island’s inhabitants, even though 10 to 12 thousand slaves starved to death every year, and second, that the lack of provisions only affected the white population – approximately 10% of the population in total.[1]

In this legal brief, the two “propositions” are closely related. The first proposition is mostly concerned with establishing the working and living habits of the slave population in the plains, on the coast, and in the mountains, rather than documenting the lives of the white planters. Perhaps the most interesting aspect to note is how the Deputies of Commerce tried to attribute certain dietary habits to the slaves depending on location, as well as to the white planters.

[1] While we have only included reports and motions by certain Colonial Deputies, there was a collective effort by all of Saint-Domingue’s deputies to ward off economic control of French merchants and export companies.

(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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Translated excerpts:


First Proposition.

It is not true that the provision of French grain in the Colony of Saint-Domingue is insufficient, and that it is the cause of 10 to 12 thousand slaves dying of hunger each year.

It is important to first give a quick idea of the Colony of Saint-Domingue.

The Colony of Saint-Domingue was inhabited in 1787 by 24,192 whites, by 19,632 free people of color, and by 364,196 blacks. Since then, the population of blacks has increased, and we believe that at the moment we are writing the population could reach 400,000.

Of these 400,000 blacks, 140,000 operate the sugar refineries, of which we believe there are 700.

We estimate at 150,000 those who are employed in the mountains for the cultivation of coffee and foodstuffs. The rest belong to the cotton and indigo fields, and finally the cities and villages, and we believe with some reason that those who inhabit the cities and the villages equal 30 to 35 thousand. Not having the most detailed information before our eyes, we can only give approximations, but we believe that they are very close to the truth.

The 150,000 blacks who cultivate coffee and foodstuffs in the mountains enjoy an excessive abundance of provisions. This abundance is such that the smallest quantity of their excess is used to fill the markets in the cities and villages and to establish a very active commerce with the slaves of the plains, which provides them with an affluence unknown in our [the French] countryside. The dearth [of provisions] has never been felt in the mountains because the freshness of the climate, the frequency of rain, [and] the fertility of a soil that provides 5 to 6 harvests per year ensure the subsistence of these people.

The short and rare droughts that take place in the mountains only leave light traces because several species of plants resist the effects of this dryness and preserve the soil. Examples are manioc and [tayau], or Caribbean cabbage, which can keep in the soil for more than a year, the creole yam, which keeps six months out of the soil, [along with] rice, maize, [and] peas that one can use to build stores. Wild bananas grow in deep and fresh ravines; they produce less in droughts; but there is only a reduction in product.

Bread only appears in the mountains on the tables of the whites; it is always accompanied by a large quantity of foods from the countryside that the Creoles prefer more often than bread.[1] It appears sometimes during the slaves’ parties; though one only sees it there like the rare and tasteless birds [game foul] that the wealthy of our Europe often serve at their tables as a sign of their opulence and vanity. The owners distribute it in the hospitals, but this quantity is of little importance because it is hardly necessary that a plantation of 200 slaves consumes any more than four barrels of flour per year. In fact, nature has so divided up the food in this rich land that it has appropriated it to all ages, to all sexes, and to all illnesses. It has given the manioc, the potato, the yam, the root of Caribbean cabbage to the healthy and robust men; the banana to the more delicate individuals; rice, maize flour, thousands of species of peas and legumes to those whom illnesses have exhausted; [and] lastly bread mixed in with all these products offers a final means to vary food, in accordance with the diverse nuances of the illness and the forces of the subject.

One can notice from this true account, and in testimony of which we invoke those of our Judges who have lived in the Colony of Saint-Domingue, that the 150,000 Slaves who inhabit the mountains do not need to consume — and indeed do not consume — almost any European grain. In accepting four barrels per 200 slaves, the annual consumption would be 3,000 barrels of flour.

There remain 250,000 slaves, of which 30 to 35 thousand live in cities and villages: those who, as we have already observed, are supplied by the slaves of the mountains; but as in all societies, the inferior classes attempt to attain the same level as the superior classes, at least by imitation. The domestic slaves and the worker slaves sought to imitate the tastes of the whites; and we confess that the consumption of bread is more considerable than in the mountains. We will suppose that this consumption could be equivalent to that of 4,000 whites who lived only off bread.[2]


As such, the food for which the preparation is the most simple, which should be the most healthy and the most seemly, seeing as Nature, this good counselor, has given it to the tropical countries[3], it is nearly always at the same price as [food] in France.

The 215,000 Slaves who operate the sugar refineries, the cotton and indigo fields, on average one barrel of flour per 15 slaves, consume 14,333 barrels of flour per year.

There remain 19,632[4] free people of color.

These free people of color, reserved to a small number who are comfortable and who live in the cities, nourish themselves on all the country’s foodstuffs. Their tastes, their habits tie them to this wholesome food that one could not easily make them abandon. These habits are one of the regrets that they experience when they are outside of their country. Nevertheless, we want to command the elements of our calculations, and we estimate that the consumption of grain by the free people of color may be represented by 4,000 whites living only off bread.


[1] In this passage, the term Creole refers to people of European decent born in the Americas and does not necessarily imply miscegenation, but it does take into account potential cultural customs and attitudes that may not have been held by individuals of European descent.

[2] According to Moreau de Saint-Méry, depending on their origin, individual slaves had particular dietary preferences, similarly to how they may have brought different religions or customs with them to the Americas. For instance, slaves from Senegal were said to live well off of corn and rice, while the Congolese were nicknamed “Congo mangé banane” [Congo, eater of bananas] because they were said to prefer manioc and bananas. Little detail is given on the food the Creoles ate – apparently the combinations of ingredients were as obscure to Saint-Méry as the names of the dishes. However, Saint-Méry does note that Creole women were known for eating chocolate and sugar and drinking café au lait and lemonade as part of their rather unhealthy dietary habits.

[3] The slaves from the Gold Coast, which are the most robust of Africa, feed principally on rice. [Original footnote]

[4] The state of the population of Saint-Domingue in 1786 only gives 16,992 free people of color. We preferred the state of the year 1787, which gives 19,632 free people of color, because we wanted to avoid the reproach of having reduced the basis of our calculations. [Original footnote]

One response to “Response from the Deputies of Production and Commerce of France: To the Motions of MM. de Cocherel & de Reynaud, Deputies from the Isle of Saint-Domingue to the National Assembly

  1. Pingback: 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 | A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Sh·

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