Paul Cheney’s study, Cul de Sac, offers a meticulously researched and detailed account of a Saint Dominguan sugar plantation from the time of its acquisition by a noble French family in 1773 through to the Haitian Revolution. The title registers the multi-layered approach taken. It names the precise location of the Ferron de la Ferronnays’ sugar estate northeast of Port au Prince in Saint Domingue’s Western Province, and it telegraphs the historical and analytical trajectory of the study. As the author notes, the phrase refers to the economic and ideological ‘dead end of a peculiar manifestation of early modern capitalist accumulation’. This dead end is not to be understood in terms of the inevitable demise of the Antillean plantation complex, however, but in terms of its extraordinary ability to persist as a ‘crisis prone social and economic system’ as it was both enabled and limited by mercantilist dependency, Old Regime patrimony, inter-imperial rivalry and warfare during the second half of the eighteenth century. The opening quotation, taken from one of the hundreds of letters sent to Étienne-Louis Ferron de la Ferronays by his long-serving and extremely assiduous estate manager, Jean-Baptiste Corbier, in the midst of the economic disruption caused by the American Revolution provides a prophetic metaphorical gloss on the final destination of the plantation. Corbier lamented: ‘The Cul de Sac [plain] is the deadest dead end in the entire world’. Cheney defines Cul de Sac as an example of the new ‘global microhistory’ currently shaping historical scholarship about the making of the Atlantic world but he develops the model significantly. Methodologically, the process of articulating local experiences with large-scale processes smoothly and persuasively is extremely challenging, but Cheney’s portrait, which draws on an extraordinarily wide range of contextual scholarship, is finely calibrated, ambitiously capacious and thoroughly illuminating. His analysis links clearly the internal operations of the Ferronnays sugar estate—over time—to the global structuring contexts of French imperial policy, colonial empire, fluctuating world markets, the international division of labour and, ultimately, the dramatic upheavals of the Haitian Revolution. The key primary source for the study consists in a large collection of letters—some publically available and others discovered by the author himself—that were written by the family retainer and estate manager, Jean-Baptiste Corbier, and then by his son, to the absentee employer between 1774 and 1803. These remarkable letters and associated business records provide extensive empirical information enabling a detailed account of the commercial fortunes and failures of the plantation. Cheney uses the letters to analyse the production and investment patterns of the estate, drawing out the ways in which its everyday operations were directly shaped by global forces. He shows how the instability of external markets, particularly as they responded to war and the threat of war, skewed decisions about innovation and output. Moreover, the vulnerability brought about by indebtedness prohibited the capital investment required for improved technical efficiency leading planters to focus on purchasing more enslaved peoples and pushing them harder instead. The analysis confirms that the mercantilist twinning of war and trade fostered instability and colonial resentment and supplied the structural supports for the plantation economy’s prosperity. The case study dramatizes clearly the fact that Haiti’s post-revolutionary elite were in no position to rejuvenate the sugar economy without the French state. Inevitably, plantation business was rooted in the combined but socially and economically utterly unequal destinies of the Ferronnays and Corbier families and, while the cache of letters are mined for their valuable empirical information, Cheney also addresses the sources for what they reveal about the personal and affective connections between them. The analysis of the bourgeois Corbier’s conflicted sense of his relationship with the aristocratic Ferronnays family, as well as his own increasing discomfort at Saint Domingue’s creole excesses, are nuanced and supple although, while Cheney is sensitive to the cultural value of the letters, he might have pushed the more literary aspects of his analysis even further. He certainly uses the letters to cast sharp light on the intimacies, complacencies and pathologies of stupendous French aristocratic privilege and the violence of its sustenance in the colonies as well as on the complexity of meanings of ‘race’, class and gender as they were played out in both the metropole and the colony but at times, the significance of the literary form of the letters seems understated, especially as they seem so rich. Often quotations from the letters are very brief and thus enigmatic. Moreover, there are many moments in the book where direct attention to the shifting tone, timing and volume of the correspondence might have further illuminated the dynamic unfolding of certain issues. These observations are made because the epistolary genre—its codes and conventions—powerfully sutured the eighteenth-century Atlantic world together. The letter form shaped transatlantic relationships and public and private personas. In particular, as letter-writing was a key medium for the development and dissemination of the culture of sensibility across colonial space, Cheney’s letters seem to offer substantial potential for further exploration of one of the most provocative questions associated with the period concerning how to understand the historical co-incidence of bourgeois sentimentalism and colonial enslavement. Cul de Sac contains two key chapters that probe this question and the multiple ways in which it might be posed. The chapter ‘Humanity and Interest’ discusses the plantation manager’s sentimentalized language concerning enlightened reform, efficiency and improvement on the plantations. It is also the part of the study that provides some insight into the experiences of the huge number of men and women who laboured in the fields and plantations of Saint Domingue who otherwise appear only distantly. Cheney concludes robustly that this kind of rhetoric was more or less a performative affectation that helped to gloss the visceral violence of economic instrumentalism and it speaks to the multiple ways in which colonial disavowal was practiced. The chapter on Corbier’s ‘management’ of the scandal of the failed marriage between the absentee planter and a creole heiress exposes ruthlessly the economic instrumentalism at stake in the relationship. Perhaps there is no way of knowing anything more about Marie-Elisabeth Binau but the author’s close following of Corbier’s seeringly judgmental letters about her apparent defiance of her impossible situation leave little space for rubbing the sources against the grain. Cul de Sac is written with extraordinary clarity and dexterity. The movements between micro-analysis and wider political economic and social forces, between culture and capitalism and between metropole and colony are ambitious and exemplary. It is elegantly constructed, beautifully written and persuasively argued. It will no doubt serve as a model for further study. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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