- Cul de Sac: Patrimony, Capitalism, and Slavery in French Saint-Domingue by Paul Burton Cheney
French Saint Domingue was eighteenth-century Europe's principal source of tropical produce, not just sugar but coffee, indigo, cotton, and cacao as well. In recent decades works on the Haitian Revolution that destroyed the colony have multiplied but its pre-Revolutionary history has attracted much less attention, and the contrast is particularly marked in Anglophone scholarship. The plantation study that once characterized the field has fallen from favor, as historians' interests have shifted to questions of race, gender, and subaltern politics. Paul Cheney sets out to swim against this current with an investigation of the relations between the aristocratic La Ferronays family and the two sugar estates they briefly owned in late-eighteenth-century Saint Domingue. Described as an example of "global microhistory," the book's main purpose is to situate the plantation economy within the transition to capitalism and to examine how it responded to the Enlightenment's conceptualization of "humanity and interest." Cheney debates these issues with erudition drawing on a wide swathe of literature in political economy, anthropology, eighteenth-century culture, and American slavery. As microhistory, the work has certain drawbacks, but the handling of the big picture is extremely impressive. Cheney concludes that the slave plantation belonged to the early modern world of the "industrious revolution," with its low productivity gains, rather than the later industrial revolution. Similarly, he finds that the Enlightenment's attempt to align self-interest with humane behavior generally failed in the Caribbean and did no more than add "a level of managerial refinement" on some plantations. Short-term material constraints and incentives generally trumped efforts to conserve the labor force that, because of the rising cost of enslaved Africans, were both rational and humane. These conclusions are not at all surprising, and the evidence is limited, but the discussion is rich, although it pays little attention to epidemiology.
The centerpiece of this discussion, and the book's longest and most valuable chapter, analyzes the correspondence between the absentee owner in France and his manager in the colony, who was an upwardly mobile bourgeois and former household employee. These men's letters number close to four hundred apparently, and they constitute the main source for the book. Cheney has very effectively fleshed out the principal correspondents with research on their [End Page 1399] metropolitan backgrounds in an array of French archival collections and contextual material from the abundant secondary literature on the Ancien Régime France. He discusses the contested value of such correspondence as empirical evidence of Caribbean conditions but in particular exploits its unusually introspective character couched in the language of sensibility, then fashionable but largely foreign to this milieu. Expanding on his view of the Enlightenment's shortcomings and obliquely taking issue with Lynne Hunt, Cheney's sophisticated reading treats the sensibility vogue as ultimately inconsequential rather than a seedbed of major change. The relationship between owner and manager is further fleshed out in a subsidiary chapter devoted to the scandal-prone marriage between the marquis and a creole heiress. Such marriages were common enough in Saint Domingue for the topic to be treated as a social theme, and Cheney relates the correspondent's attitudes to bourgeois and aristocratic marriage patterns. Other chapters deal with the problems of international commerce during the American Revolutionary War; the French Revolutionary crisis that ruined the Ferronays and their estates; and the indemnities they were granted in the 1820s.
For a plantation study, this book is unusual in that it reveals much about the estate manager and owner and little about the slaves and the land they worked. Only one inventory survives for each estate, and only one of these is discussed. This makes it impossible to follow the workforce through time, its demographic health, level of exploitation, etc. Although partial information on revenues is provided, production figures also seem to be missing, and the vexed question of return on capital is beyond reach. Cheney's...