Charges of Fraud: The Obstinate Rebuttal of a Banished Intendant: Concerning the Grain Shortage and Criminal Negligence

The following document is a twenty-page excerpt from a lengthy report by François Barbé de Marbois[1] refuting claims that, as the Intendant of Saint-Domingue, he personally profited from restricting trade between Saint-Domingue and the United States of America. Compiled and printed in 1790, Barbé de Marbois’ report delves into the longstanding conflicts between his offices, the governor Marquis du Chilleau, and the Colonial Deputies of Saint-Domingue, which ultimately led him to leave his post in the French Antilles.[2] The principal goal of Marbois’ report was to exonerate himself before his peers in the National Assembly by methodically refuting charges that he had been negligent towards a colony suffering from the horrors of a famine.[3]

Rejecting the idea of a famine in Saint-Domingue, Marbois believes that the Colonial Deputies want both to profit from direct trade with the United States and to import more slaves to the colony[4]. In order to achieve these two goals, the Deputies would have to rid the colony of Marbois, a staunch defender of Metropolitan French control over the Antillean colonies, by suggesting that the Intendant was seeking to profit from importing grain from his father-in-law in Philadelphia.[5] This document not only adds a political twist to the famine rumors in Saint-Domingue, but it also offers a glimpse into the complex web of colonial relationships in the Atlantic World, in this case between Saint-Domingue, France, and Philadelphia.

[1] Marbois became the Intendant of Saint-Domingue in 1785 and after leaving would go on to draft the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

[2] See The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution for a general account of the disputes between Marbois and local representatives, the ruling class of planters, and governor Chilleau in pre-revolution Saint-Domingue (pages 46-66).

[3] See the Motion From M. De Cocherel, Deputy From Saint-Domingue, to the Saturday Evening Session, August 29, 1789.

[4] In 1788, France had been forced to limit the export of grain to the colonies due to a harsh winter. Because the Metropole was unable to meet the colonial demand for grain the colonial Deputies sought to open trade with the United States, breaking the French trade monopoly known as the Exclusive. However, it remains unclear as to whether the grain famine was in fact a rhetorical tactic or an actual famine. Barbé de Marbois’s reluctance to break the Exclusive provides strong evidence that the famine was invented, but Colonial Intendants themselves, also have a history of licentious behavior. See The Black Jacobins page 61.

[5] Marbois married Elizabeth Moore, daughter of then governor William Moore.

(Chefs d’accusation. Maintenue opinâtre d’un Intendant Procrit Disette de farines, insouciance criminelle)

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[Excerpt features his rebuttal to just one of the many charges]

“We have noted that Sir Marbois had a stockpile of grain stored on his father-in-law’s estate in Philadelphia, which he had proposed to import to the Colony.”[6]

The task they have given me here would be brief if I wanted to limit myself to denying what one cannot prove, what one refrains from verifying. But this accusation relates to suspicions, near certainties, could have and would haves, faulty recollections, and observations. However, no one says, and they cannot say to whom and when, I made this proposal that would have made me guilty.

Allow me to clear the air.

If the accuser was capable of knowing that my father-in-law used to be a merchant in Philadelphia, he should not have been unaware that he left the business more than twelve years ago. At the time, he was called on by his fellow citizens to serve in office as the Vice President and later the President of Pennsylvania[7] while still living in Philadelphia. After his term expired, the list of his successors included Monsieurs [John] Dickenson, [Benjamin] Francklin [sic], and [Thomas] Mifflin, all names among which his holds a place of honor. For some years he has lived in an estate two leagues distant from the city. He would have gladly continued to work as a merchant, but his age and infirmities allowed him to take care of neither his public nor personal affaires.

Other than my brother, the king’s vice consul, I do not correspond with anyone else in Philadelphia, and the letters he wrote during my time in Saint-Domingue remain there Some which arrived after my unexpected departure were intercepted and then sent to me having been opened.[8]

Let us examine my correspondence with this city where I had, as they claim, stockpiles of grain. My brother wrote me the 9th of October 1789, saying: “In this shipment you will receive a barrel of flour and a barrel of Indian meal (Maize flour).  Buckwheat is being harvested and ground right now, and so there will be a barrel of that in ten days.”[9]

He wrote the 13th: “the Captain responsible for this letter will also give you a barrel of buckwheat flour that I had him buy at the market.” In a letter written on the 28th of October, he wrote, “I awoke in such a fine state this morning that I went to Point-no-Point. I saw Mr. Moore, who had gotten up for the first time in 7 to 8 days after a violent cold nearly had him on his deathbed […] The price of flour is dropping; they are at 28 and 29 Schillings, etc.”

I am attaching the original letters here. The fact that they were intercepted should, if it were necessary, increase their authenticity. […] These letters prove that my father-in-law no longer lives in Philadelphia. And if, profiting from the freedom to introduce foreign grain in Saint-Domingue, I have imported two barrels of grain by using my brother as an intermediary, two barrels destined for my own household use, I clearly did not have stockpiles on my father-in-law’s estate. Truthfully, you could sift through the ridiculousness of this treacherous scheme to find a minor infraction. But I avoid conviction, and I confess that I never believed the details of domestic life were beneath me, when my public service permitted me to tend to them.


You will be undoubtedly shocked by the care I have taken to combat these suspicions, these near certainties, and these faulty recollections. But I take pleasure in how easy it has been to destroy the illusions of their claims. Assuredly, if I did have stockpiles of grain at my father-in-law’s estate, and if I had proposed to have them transported to Saint-Domingue, it would have been in my best interest to prevent others from engaging in this trade and to keep the price of grain high.

[6] Marbois often cites reports signed by the governor the Marquis du Chilleau in order to directly refute official claims.

[7] The French version uses Vice President and President, which would be referred to as Lieutenant Governor and Governor today.

[8] Referring to Marbois’ departure from Saint-Domingue due to a soured relationship with its Colonial Deputies.

[9] The French word for Buckwheat is Sarrazin, and the letter includes both words, referring to the grain principally as “le Buckwheat”, which speaks to the adoption of some English-language words by French speakers in the Atlantic region.