M. de Cocherel’s Reflections, Deputy of Saint-Domingue, On the Report from the Comité des Six

In his “Reflections on the Report from the Comité des Six[1],” M. de Cocherel[2] outlines a plan to import much-needed flour to Saint-Domingue while simultaneously refuting merchants’ claims that French trade would suffer if the colonies were allowed to bypass the exclusive laws.[3] Arguing that the three main ports of Saint-Domingue, le Cap, Port-au-Prince, and les Cayes, were insufficient to supply the colony with enough grain, especially under blockade scenarios, Cocherel urged the Comité to open all of Saint-Domingue’s ports to foreign trade of grain and flour. Such a maneuver would at once welcome all sorts of illegal trade, such as the unregulated exchange of slaves, while at the same time diminishing the corruption of monopoly price fixing, speculation, and hoarding of the merchants who control the incoming goods in the three ports.

On behalf of the Colonial Deputies, Cocherel is making a call for deregulation, which would officially revoke one of the strongest economic measures tying Saint-Domingue to Metropolitan France. Furthermore, Cocherel’s reflections present a prime example of a rhetorical battle pitting French port merchants and the Metropolitan government against a set of rogue Colonial Deputies and wealthy planters.

[1] The Comité des Six was a commercial and agricultural committee created to evaluate the requests and claims made by the Deputies of Saint Domingue in regards to potential famine. The findings were published in the following report by M. Gillet de la Jaqueminière. The comité was comprised of six members, of which four were merchants: the Vicomte de la Merville, [Gillet] de la Jaqueminière, Roussillon, Lasnier de Vaussenay, and Blanchard des Salines.

[2] For more context on Cocherel and his role in the Saint-Domingue grain famine, see the Motion de M. de Cocherel.

[3] The French exclusive laws required all colonies to conduct trade solely with Metropolitan France, making trade with the United States or England illegal.

(Réflexions de M. de Cocherel, député de Saint-Domingue, sur le rapport du Comité des Six)

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I shall not consequently remind you, Sirs, of the various instructive reports we gave you on the present troubled subject; I will only add a means that seems to me would be key in making your decision.

In 1778, MM. d’Argout and de Vaivre, Administrators of Saint-Domingue, issued an Ordinance that allowed the introduction of neutral ships in all the Ports of Admiralty of this island, with the ability to load themselves with colonial goods.

This Ordinance could and should have only been issued to prevent a great food shortage.

If the fear of food shortage was more justified in the current circumstances than in those of the war of 1778, such an Ordinance should have been issued in the present situation rather than in the war of 1778[4].

Yet, it is clear that the scarcity of food was greater in this circumstance than during the war of 1778.

Actually, in 1778 France did not lack grain.

In 1778, France provided grain through convoys to its colonies.

In 1789, France lacked grain; it could not consequently provide it to its colonies; hence the food shortage is greater in this instance than in 1778; hence, because in 1778 the administrators thought they should open all of the Admiralty’s ports to foreigners, even more so now when the scarcity of food is greater, the administrators ought to be authorized to open all of the Admiralty’s ports to foreigners. I do not know what else can be said about this argument.

It is thus evident, according to this, that M. le Comte de la Luzerne, Minister of the Navy, neither could have, nor should have, caused the repeal of M. Du Chilleau’s judicious Ordinance, in compliance with the one from MM. d’Argout and de Vaivre in 1778, recognized by the King; and because he did, he must account for his reasoning at the National Assembly, and I ask that he come explain himself for behavior that aims at the loss of the most flourishing, and the richest of the French Colonies.

But the port merchants move forward boldly to exonerate M. le Comte de La Luzerne, the Minister of the Navy, arguing that MM. d’Argout and de Vaivre only submitted their Ordinance in 1778 because the three large ports were blockaded by English squadrons and the island could only receive goods through the small coastal ports.

I first ask MM. the port merchants: When did they see our three large ports blocked by three English squadrons during time of war?[5]  

Our three large ports are le Cap, Port-au-Prince and les Cayes. I beg them to acknowledge these blockades and the names of these squadrons. This historical nuance is unknown to all of the residents of Saint-Domingue and to all of the officers of the French and English navies. Only the port merchants know of it; they confidently printed it in their reply to the Deputies of Saint-Domingue; it is up to them therefore to make the truth known.

I secondly ask the port merchants how it would be possible that three English squadrons could block the three principal ports of Saint-Domingue, the first of which is positioned in the north, the second in the south, and the third in the west – in other words, practically in the center of the colony – without intercepting the communication of the other small ports? I cannot, in truth, imagine that the port merchants would have wanted to seriously address the Representatives of the Nation by inundating them in a written report featuring twenty-three signatures, with such singular assertions, to say nothing further.

I thirdly ask the port merchants, how the blockade of English squadrons could have harmed neutral ships, ships that they were not at war with, and, for this very reason, the Ordinance of MM. d’Argout and de Vaivre allowed them free entrance into all of our ports.

I cannot surmise the reason; MM. the port merchants will no doubt inform you.

I will allow myself to ask them again for an explanation of this new system regarding the warehouse ports that is supposed to prevent monopolies.

I always believed, on the contrary, that it was an infallible means to stimulate and encourage it.

I assume, indeed, that Paris is lacking grain and that to supply Paris the ministry wishes to allow the foreign suppliers to introduce grain only in the ports of Marseille or Le Hâvre. It will be simple then for the merchants of these two ports to form what they call a speculation, to buy together all of the imported flour in their ports, to hide a portion, in order to create scarcity and to increase the price through this means: this operation is simple and could not take place if permission to introduce the grain was general and extended all the way to Paris, who, through this means, would then be relieved of the costs of transport, purchase, commission, etc.

Certainly, this second hypothesis offers fewer opportunities for monopolies than the first, meaning only two or three warehouse ports.

What, then, do MM. the port merchants mean, when they inform us that only the slightest idea of trade is needed to be persuaded of their principle? We flatter ourselves still that they would gladly want to develop this principle for us. We admit that we are little versed in commercial principles. We also think that they may want, consequently, to pardon us of our errors.

In conclusion, sirs, allow me to dispel the myths that the merchants have spread on the floor of the National Assembly regarding the total ruin of French commerce, if one allows, during a limited time, the introduction of ships from the United States in our Ports of Admiralty.

I have but one example to reassure them. For the five years of the past war, all the Admiralty’s ports, and others, were opened freely to all foreign ships, even for coastal navigation. Well! Did this permission, which lasted five years, devastate French trade? Did it strike like a thunderclap, to use some of the port merchants’ rhetoric! Certainly not! Why then, would a provisional permission, limited to the sale of grain necessary for the subsistence of the colony in return for colonial goods solely as a payment for the grain strike French commerce, today, with a thunderclap? Such prohibitive laws, practiced even in periods of great calamity, would thus be the only lightening rods that could protect the foundation of its commercial treasures from a bolt of lightening […]

[4] The American Revolutionary War

[5] (Note in original text redacted)