The return to the plantation effected in this “global microhistory” centered on Saint-Domingue in the boom years of the ancien régime foregrounds the transatlantic family relationships at the book’s heart. They are unveiled through the extensive correspondence between two families between 1773, when Jean-Baptiste Corbier left France for the Caribbean to manage the sugar plantation newly acquired by his employer, Étienne-Louis Ferron de la Ferronnays, and 1838, when Corbier’s daughter-in-law died amid ongoing public and private negotiations over the 150-million-franc indemnity demanded in recognition of Haitian independence. Paul Cheney’s work in unearthing and piecing together private family archives with existing state-held correspondence to create a narrative arc spanning six and a half of the most tumultuous decades in French and Atlantic World history makes Cul de Sac: Patrimony, Capitalism, and Slavery in French Saint-Domingue an important contribution to a burgeoning field that includes Jennifer L. Palmer’s recent Intimate Bonds: Family and Slavery in the French Atlantic (2016) and Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus’s The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (2016). The book’s title refers to a place, the Cul de Sac sugar plain in Western Saint-Domingue, which was second in commercial importance only to the Northern Plain, site of the outbreak of revolution in August 1791. It also refers more allusively to the economic situation of the entire colony. The fabled wealth of the planters was precarious and largely built on credit. Already vulnerable to “normal” fluctuations, was an early modern system of Atlantic capitalism that might otherwise have reached a “dead end” instead destroyed in spectacular fashion by the impact of successive eighteenth-century wars and the upheaval of the Age of Revolutions? Chapter 1 begins with the Ferronnayses’ Breton origins, exploring how far the French nobility was drawn into the eighteenth-century transatlantic commerce founded on the traffic in enslaved Africans. Younger sons of rich provincial families are good examples of the driving force behind this entrepreneurialism, yet as Cheney notes, a very small minority of the aristocracy was engaged in trade. Chapters 2 and 3 reveal the Caribbean sugar plantation as a fundamentally inefficient and “ephemeral” enterprise (68), and that managers sought to impose as much “efficiency” as possible in its short lifespan given constraints of finances, space, and labor. The focus on plantation economics during the boom period of the 1770s and 1780s reflects the preoccupations of Corbier and his employer, yet is jarring at times, especially and inevitably when Cheney is writing about the violence of slavery. The text’s sole illustration, from Jean-Baptiste Debret’s Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil; ou, Séjour d’un artiste français au Brésil, depuis 1816 jusqu’en 1831 (1834), depicts three enslaved Africans in a Brazilian plantation hospital restrained in leg stocks. While intended by Cheney to illustrate the French Enlightenment drive “to realign humanity with interest,” the horror of this extreme economic rationalization of all aspects of the plantation, even extended to enforced healing, is rather understated, as is the ensuing moment when a spike in mortality figures on the Ferronnays plantation in 1783 is explained in terms of short-term economic “opportunities” (89–91). The impact of the Creole marriage connections of the French nobility is foregrounded in chapter 5, entitled “Husband and Wife.” Channeling Corbier’s voice, Cheney lets the condemnation of “decadent” plantation culture emerge in a vividly recounted meeting between the manager and his employer’s estranged Creole-born wife, the Marquise Ferron de la Ferronnays, in which she called him a “bon blanc,” asking him to kiss her illegitimate child (146). Reporting this incident as evidence of the irredeemable licentiousness of Saint-Domingue, Corbier refused to recognize the responsibility of planters and estate managers like himself for creating the society in which they lived. Chapters 6 and 7 span the remaining period, from 1789 to 1838. The impact of the Haitian Revolution on the colony is described through the eyes of the white planter class, fixed in horror on the planters’ losses. Initially complacent, like most plantation managers, about the risk of revolutionary ideas spreading to the enslaved in the cane fields, the letters of Corbier fils from 1791 onward increasingly convey the magnitude of his error. “I believe that we can reduce the slaves, but we will never get rid of this spirit of revolt,” he wrote in 1794 (177). By spring 1802, with the final stage of Haiti’s war of independence looming, like many of the remaining planters he was calling for “terror” as the only solution (189). Throughout Cul de Sac, the world of colonial Saint-Domingue is revealed through a myriad of small details, from wig-powder shortages in wartime to the literary pretensions of Corbier, whose code name for the errant Marquise is “Julie” (after the heroine of Rousseau’s 1761 Julie; ou, La nouvelle Héloïse). The strength of Cheney’s book lies, then, in its in-depth insight into the affairs of the Saint-Domingue plantation aristocracy and their associates. The reader gets tantalizing glimpses of the lives and voices of the enslaved Africans whose labor underpinned the whole fragile edifice, yet these are finally elusive. In contrast to recent work like Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hébrard’s Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (2012) where archives are painstakingly read against the grain, Cul de Sac is a work in which the voices that dominate are those of the French-born plantation owners and managers. Yet the reader is eventually drawn briefly back to the stories of the enslaved, as the book ends on a question mark. The rich surviving transatlantic documentation of Saint-Domingue family and business connections among the elite contrasts sharply with the lack of “freedom papers” that tore apart formerly enslaved families. By 1838, Jenny de la Ferronnays, an enslaved Creole woman from Cul de Sac brought to New Orleans by Corbier’s daughter-in-law, had already deposited “an immense sum” toward her own manumission and that of her five-year-old son (219); yet her freedom was blocked by the web of debts and obligations linking the Ferronnayses and the Corbiers, and her fate remains unknown. Cheney’s epilogue tentatively raises further questions regarding the impact of this kind of archival work on the ongoing debates surrounding the memory and heritage of slavery in France and its former colonies, and particularly on the politically charged question of reparations. The “tense” atmosphere at the site of the former Cul de Sac plantations in Haiti today, and the enduring tranquility of “old money” at the Ferronnayses’ French chateau are profoundly entwined at the roots (224). The issue, like the familial relationships built in the eighteenth century on the Cul de Sac plain, remains unresolved. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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