Succinct Response from the Saint-Domingue Deputies, Regarding the Merchants of Sea Ports, Distributed in the Offices of the National Assembly, October 9, 1789

This “succinct response” from the colonial deputies of Saint-Domingue is a reaction to a report published by French merchants that establishes the amount of grain, among other foodstuffs, necessary to nourish the entire empire.[1] The colonial deputies are outraged by the high cost and the small amount of flour and grain distributed to the colony of Saint-Domingue, and in their response they express the desire to break from the French commercial monopolies in favor of stronger economic ties with the United States. This is but a tiny portion of an economic and moral dispute between the colonial deputies and the French merchants, but it is significant in the sense that it provides a moment of exchange between the two parties involved and a potential third party, the United States.

Extremely formulaic in its approach, the response begins by making three main claims that serve to render the power of the merchants illegitimate, arbitrary, and perfidious. In a very general sense, the response seeks to prove that the merchants manipulate the weight of flour barrels and also adjust the cost of bread and grain to cheat Saint-Domingue. The colonial deputies argue that due to the extreme power of the merchants, they are helping perpetuate widespread famine throughout the colony and are therefore crippling the wealth and influence of the planters.[2] The deputies point out that by adjusting the cost of grain or shorting Saint-Domingue’s supplies, the merchants are not only harming the monetary wealth of the colony, but also their property wealth, due to the rate of starvation of slave labor forces.[3]

In the second portion of the response, the deputies present and comment on the four different solutions offered by the French merchants for appropriating and distributing flour to Saint-Domingue. Key elements under consideration are taxation, access to secure ports, and the illegal exchange of commodities, like sugar and coffee for flour. In the final passage, translated below, the deputies attempt to portray the merchants as greedy businessmen who overlook the needs of Saint-Domingue in favor of their own interests. The deputies’ victimized rhetoric attempts to reveal the problematic nature of the alleged disconnect between colony and Metropole.

[1] Mémoire sur le commerce de la France et de ses colonies. Page 20

[2] All of the colonial deputies were rather wealthy planters in their own right, and were clearly arguing on the behalf of their own interests. 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] Horan notes that the deputies were trying to abdicate the responsibility for the death of slaves to the merchants because it allowed them to argue against the monopolization of French commerce. For more on the malnourishment of slaves, see James, CLR. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1963.

(Réponse succinte [sic] des députés de S. Domingue, au mémoire des commerçans [sic] des ports de mer, distribué dans les bureaux de l’Assemblée Nationale, le 9 octobre 1789)

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As to the reflection by which the Merchants conclude their report [original footnote not included in translation], that the 240,000 barrels of flour (that they estimate sufficient for the Colonies’ supply of provisions) do not sustain 26 million men for even a day and a half: this reflection, coming in support of the observations made by one of our colleagues, who demonstrated that the Metropole has no interest in doing Exclusive Commerce of grain with the Colonies.[1]

Indeed, in that France has more than it needs per year, for a day and a half of flour, this meager supply cannot nourish it, and in depriving itself of flour to maintain the prohibitive Laws, France makes the supply even more expensive for the Planters, putting them in a position where they have to pay for flour, at twice its value, and even to lack it, like in the present circumstance.

The Merchants still want to assert that this forced supply, often incomplete and never sufficient, is like a sacrifice made to the brothers, the friends, the French:  the good sacrifice! To make them pay for something of primary importance, at twice the cost they would pay for it abroad, which the Merchants provided them when desired, the necessary quantity for their subsistence and that of their slaves. Auri Sacri fames! [Accursed hunger for gold!]

For the moment, it remains for us to respond to an article from M. de la Luzerne to the Commissaries of the Committee of Agriculture and of Commerce, dating from the 24th of the current month.

This Minister always speaks of the three warehouse ports open to foreign grain as being sufficient; he even says that it will be easy to open all the ports subject to the Admiralty, if the National Assembly decides to, but he does not talk at all about the exchange of grain as Colonial commodities [original footnote not included in translation].

We previously proved that the three ports were insufficient, that remote areas were robbed by the Merchants to whom the Anglo-Americans were obligated to sell the grain that the planters near the warehouse ports could not purchase; furthermore that the Foreigners had stopped, before the end of June, their importation of grain to the Colony, because having used all of their money, they had no way to receive the product of their cargo. The bill of exchange at one year, that the Commerce proposes, is illusionary, like we already demonstrated.

The Anglo-Americans will no longer frequent the Colony’s other ports where they are subject to the Admiralty, the three warehouse ports, as long as they will not have the liberty to load up on the Colony’s commodities for the value of their grains.

With the Ordinance of May 29th, which M. de la Luzerne contends the Colony shall benefit from until the first of October, having been broken and the stoppage having been put in place the 23 of July in the public papers, the Americans will have certainly stopped arming themselves as soon as they will have been informed of this breach [original footnote not included in translation].

The Deputies of Saint-Domingue

[1] Le Commerce exclusif was a policy set in place to protect French merchants’ rights to deal flour to the colonies. According to the planters, it established monopolies and put colonial planters at the mercy of the mercantilist whims. This policy also prohibited trade with the United States and other foreign entities capable of importing and exporting goods. See Horan, 103-121.