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Caroline Oudin-Bastide et Philippe Steiner, Calcul et morale : Coûts de l’esclavage et valeur de l’émancipation (XVIIIe-XIXe siècle)

Lawrence C. Jennings
p. 431-434
Référence(s) :

Caroline Oudin-Bastide et Philippe Steiner, Calcul et morale : Coûts de l’esclavage et valeur de l’émancipation (XVIIIe-XIXe siècle), Éditions Albin Michel. 2015, 298 pp. ISBN 978-222625381-1.

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Calcul et Morale: Coûts de l'esclavage et valeur de l'émancipation (XVIIIe-XIXe siècle)Afficher l’image
Crédits : Editions Albin Michel

1The title of this book might seem to signify a cliometric study on the profitability of French slavery during the latter part of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. However, Caroline Oudin-Bastide and Philippe Steiner clearly point out in their introduction that this is not the case. In reading this work it becomes apparent that there is in fact inadequate statistical evidence for a cliometric approach to slavery in the French colonial context. Indeed, one is surprised to discover that few French abolitionists or planters made serious mathematical calculations of any kind when expounding on the slavery question. The real intention of Oudin-Bastide and Steiner is to take into consideration the weight of economic calculations, estimations and arguments in the long debate over French slavery between 1770 and 1848. This scenario revolves to a large extent around the relative cost of free versus slave labour. But the authors go beyond this issue by showing how many of those individuals involved in the slavery debate took into consideration the economic interests of the slaves, planters and the nation when arguing their points. In sum, Oudin-Bastide and Steiner propose to refresh our approach to the French debate over colonial slavery by reminding us of the economic perspectives surrounding what is usually viewed as a moral question.

2The authors approach their topic by examining only the works of those abolitionists or colonial spokesmen who had a penchant for economics. Moreover, they cite only once the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, even though these holdings are replete with references to economic issues by French abolitionists, administrators, and colonial spokesmen. Instead, they have based their analysis upon a large variety of published primary sources: the writings of abolitionists or planter spokesmen, along with government reports. Many of the individuals cited are the leading French thinkers of the time with an economic orientation who were engaged in the slavery debate. The names of Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Antoine Nicolas de Condorcet, Simonde de Sismondi, Jean Baptiste Say, and Alexis de Tocqueville reappear constantly in the different thematic chapters of this work, as do a whole series of lesser known planter spokesmen. While there was relatively little variance in planter discourse over time, one of the most fascinating elements of this book is its treatment of the debate among abolitionists, such as Du Pont and Condorcet, over the economic factors relative to slavery.

3The authors cite Du Pont as a seminal figure, for he is referred to repeatedly as the instigator of a new approach to the anti-slavery debate within France. Indeed, this volume ends with an annex containing two of Du Pont’s articles dating from 1771. According to Oudin-Bastide and Steiner, moral issues dominated the slavery question until his time. Then in his article, “Observations importantes sur l’esclavage des Nègres,” Du Pont introduced the concept of calcul, or calculating numbers, weighing alternatives, and attempting to define the essential economic interests of individuals and the government concerning slavery. Du Pont stressed moral issues too, but he was one of the few individuals in France who actually used figures in an attempt to show that salaried labour was preferable to the servile variety. He concluded that the planters were ignoring their own economic interests as well as infringing upon the human interests of the slaves, thus tying together economics and morality. The authors argue that this calculating of economic elements would be taken up by other abolitionists, and by colonial defenders of bondage, from now until the final emancipation of the slaves in 1848, thus remaining a constant in the French slavery debate.

4The rhétorique calculatoire (51) introduced by Du Pont was elaborated upon by other eighteenth century abolitionists and criticized by the colonial establishment. For example, Laffon de Ladebat and Sigismond Frossart endorsed Du Pont’s conclusions, while Turgot and Condorcet questioned the superiority of free labour but denounced slavery as immoral. Planters made rough calculations based on their own agricultural holdings to insist that costly free labour would ruin them and the colonies, while also depriving France of colonial staples and an important source of wealth. Then, in the early nineteenth century the tendency to employ calculations in the slavery debate waned. Circumstances had changed with the passing of the Physiocratic thinkers, the abolition of slavery by the first French Republic, the revolution in Saint-Domingue, the reintroduction of slavery by Napoleon, and the conservatism of the Restoration governments after 1815. In the 1820s the noted economist Say even wavered at first, suggesting that bound labour might be more productive, before rallying to the abolitionist position that questions of humanity superseded those of productivity. Beginning in the 1830s calculations did reappear in the publications of the different parliamentary commissions examining the colonies and slavery; and once again these reports were interpreted differently by abolitionist proponents of free labour and colonial supporters of coercion. Oudin-Bastide and Steiner admit, though, that the paucity of statistics even in these reports rendered accurate calculations of the issue of productivity impossible. As a result, with the likelihood of emancipation approaching, abolitionists increasingly took up the argument that basic human interests and the desire for self-amelioration would prove to be important motivational factors for maintaining colonial production once slavery ceased.

5Already in the eighteenth century Du Pont, Condorcet, and Denis Diderot held that slaves, once freed, would work. In the nineteenth century Charles Comte, Sismondi and Victor Schoelcher posited that after liberation Blacks would be encouraged to improve themselves through labour. The abolitionists Pierre Armand Dufau and Agénor de Gasparin agreed with Schoelcher that white immigration to the colonies would also spur the Blacks to compete by tilling the soil on plantations. Dufau and Schoelcher agreed with colonials that slaves had little motivation to toil under slavery, but they believed that the work ethic could be stimulated by allocating slaves a certain percentage of plantation profits; other abolitionists like Sismondi advocated turning slaves into sharecroppers. The colons continued to insist, for their part, that slavery was the only effective means of guaranteeing staple production. Leading colonial spokesmen like Charles Dupin and Granier de Cassagnac justified bondage by maintaining that slaves were better off than European peasants and workers, even contending that no slave ever died of hunger. They added that the greater interests of the colonies and of France must prevail over the personal interest of the slave. Throughout their book the authors clearly demonstrate that many figures on both sides of the slavery issue mixed economics and morality in pleading their cause.

6Calcul et morale reminds us once again of the importance of economic arguments in the slavery debate. Still, it must be remembered that the issues of economics and morality did not hold equal weight either in the minds of many of the most significant French abolitionists, or in influencing the series of events leading to the final elimination of slavery in the French colonies. The new breed of more radical French abolitionists who emerged in the late 1830s and grew stronger in the 1840s, men such as François Isambert, Guillaume de Félice, or the Black abolitionist Cyrille Bissette—none of whom are mentioned in this volume—had little interest in economic questions and were inspired by the British example of demanding immediate emancipation on the grounds that bondage was a moral abomination that must cease. Their idea of the moral imperative was the leading factor paving the way for the abolition of French colonial slavery by the newly founded Second Republic in early 1848. In both the British and French cases morality trumped economics in the battle against slavery. Still, Oudin-Bastide and Steiner have written an engrossing book that allows us to trace the economic element and its interaction with humanitarianism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century French colonial slavery question.

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Lawrence C. Jennings, « Caroline Oudin-Bastide et Philippe Steiner, Calcul et morale : Coûts de l’esclavage et valeur de l’émancipation (XVIIIe-XIXe siècle) », Œconomia, 5-3 | 2015, 431-434.

Référence électronique

Lawrence C. Jennings, « Caroline Oudin-Bastide et Philippe Steiner, Calcul et morale : Coûts de l’esclavage et valeur de l’émancipation (XVIIIe-XIXe siècle) », Œconomia [En ligne], 5-3 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2015, consulté le 15 janvier 2018. URL :

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Lawrence C. Jennings

Emeritus, University of Ottawa, Canada.

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