European empires in the Americas reveal more complex processes. Armed piracy and predation were characteristic forms of overseas “exchange” beginning in the sixteenth century, though their forms would evolve. From the 1660s to the late eighteenth century, the endpoint that concerns us here, French rulers linked regulations on overseas trade and production with the assertion of overseas sovereignty. Commercial companies
, a favored instrument of expansion, were endowed not just with national trade monopolies, but were often granted regalian powers enabling them to exercise aspects of rule. Against the backdrop of French claims to sovereignty over Indigenous North America, rival expectations concerning gratuity and obligation played out in cross-cultural exchanges that were anything but impersonal or apolitical. Ubiquitous guns and brandy added volatility to the mix, upsetting intra-Indigenous power balances. On the eve of the French revolution, the most lucrative, dynamic sectors of an increasingly globalized French economy depended, ultimately, on the purchase, trade, and ownership of racialized human beings viewed as liquid capital and disciplined with torture. Caribbean plantation societies were among the most unequal societies on earth. As for the French Revolution itself, it was among other things, precipitated by a public debt crisis linked to the protection costs of empire. Debates over the liberalization of trade were also central.
The North Atlantic fisheries were among the earliest and most significant French economic activities in the Americas. They were also a notable exception to the widespread pattern of creating overseas commercial monopolies that began with the Spanish empire. The Grand Banks off Newfoundland and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence formed part of a North Atlantic boreal ecological zone familiar to European fishermen facing the depletion of freshwater stocks from the late middle ages onward. Rouen archives show traces of expeditions to Newfoundland in 1510. By mid-century, Norman, Breton, and Basque cod fishermen
and whalers dominated a growing, migratory international fishery. Shorelines, where processing facilities were rebuilt every season, were treated as a commons, to which access was regulated by ship captains without formal interference from metropolitan states. In 1578, the English navigator Anthony Parkhurst estimated that some 500 French vessels and 12,000 men sailed for the Newfoundland region, compared to 100 or so Spanish, 50 Portuguese, 30-50 English. At this time, the Spanish Caribbean fleet had half the vessels and tonnage of the Newfoundland fishing fleet. Valued by the state as potential recruits for naval forces, men sailing for Newfoundland constituted one of the largest fishing labor forces in the world, employed within an early form of capitalist enterprise. Only by the late 1720s would the volume of French Caribbean trade exceed that of the fisheries. By this time, a French resident fishery based at Ile Royale had also developed. Protected by heavy tariffs against foreign imports, codfish would come to surpass herring and hake in French consumption, penetrating well beyond fishing ports such as Rouen or Saint Malo, deep into the interior, especially in salted form. Graded into different qualities, it fed a wide range of people, from peasants and the sick to courtiers, and including the enslaved in the Caribbean. Christian abstinence contributed to the growth of cod consumption, but some argue that cod’s appeal lay in its distant, American origins, continually exoticized, and marking French overseas possession. French overseas migratory fisheries would continue long after the loss of New France.
On the North American continent, Europeans insinuated themselves into long-standing Indigenous networks of trade. Over time, they transformed physical and social landscapes in ways that could prove profoundly disruptive. Fishermen were among the first to trade with coastal Indigenous communities, exchanging items such as copper pots, glass beads, and metal objects for fur pelts. The desire for fur led to permanent settlements and drove French expansion deep into the continent. During the seventeenth century, beaver was the main export from the Canadian colony, hunted by Algonquian (and some Iroquoian) men. By the late seventeenth century, independent French traders outfitted by Montreal merchants increasingly gave way to a salaried labor force (engagés) who brought pelts back to Montreal from the Great Lakes’ region. The right to export beaver was typically granted as an exclusive privilege to corporate or tax-farm entities (such as the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales or the Domaine d’Occident). Transformed into hats by Parisian artisans, given mercantilist constraints on colonial manufacturing, fur remained a luxury item in Europe. Following a beaver glut at the turn of the eighteenth century, fur exports diversified. Exports from Canada also included wood, grain, and livestock, some of which reached the Antilles. These cargoes were often surpassed in value by dry cod exports from Ile Royale, which could be as much as three times as valuable. From the vantage point of the colonial state, the costs of cultivating Indigenous alliances, through gift-giving rituals, for example, always exceeded the fiscal returns from trade reported in local treasuries. To French authorities, such costs were an annoying reminder of the limits of imperial power. From the late seventeenth century onward, perhaps as many as 10,000 Indigenous captives from hundreds of communities became French commodities, their legal status as property officially consecrated by New France’s intendant in a terse 1709 ordinance, their life expectancies cut brutally short. The largest concentrations were at Montreal and Detroit. They were domestic servants, did laundry, rowed canoes; some labored in fields. Some were shipped to the Caribbean. The French-Indigenous “fur trade
” was never just about “fur” or “trade,” in the sense of autonomous individuals reaching an agreed-upon price for inanimate objects. As food, alcohol, guns, beads, clothing or medicine changed hands, and especially when people did, social boundaries and relationships were tested and transformed, sometimes violently.
Within the Canadian settler colony, roughly coeval with seigneurial land tenure in the Saint Lawrence Valley, the vast majority of households farmed. Within Indigenous enclaves such as Kahnawake, maize, beans, and squash were tended by women. Men sought game across much larger hunting territories. As early as the seventeenth century, French seigneurs claiming shore rights had dispossessed the Innu of important eel fishing sites such as at Kâ Mihkwâwahkâšič (“Where the sand is red,” renamed Sillery by the French). French peasant households produced European grains for their own consumption, selling any surplus available once seigneurial dues and tithes had been paid, and seed grain set aside. With a good harvest, Canada could feed its urban consumers, its army, its local fisheries and fur traders with a modest surplus for exports to Ile Royale or even the West Indies. In times of war (especially from the 1740s onward), peasant grain and labor were heavily requisitioned. During the Seven Years war, British blockades, militia service and new troop arrivals strained food supplies to the point of starvation. Prices skyrocketed both because of scarcity, and because few believed that the mass of circulating paper debt that funded the war would ever be reimbursed.
Further south, French merchants and ships captains had traded with Indigenous peoples and Iberians since the turn of the sixteenth century. In what is now Brazil, dyewood was particularly valued. Apart from two failed colonization attempts (Brazil, Florida), French merchants concentrated on the lucrative predation of Iberian shipping in the Caribbean. By the 1530s, Jean Ango of Dieppe had outfitted more than 30 vessels for such purposes. Communities of buccaneers and privateers in the Greater Antilles slowly turned into permanent settlements. French claims to possession in the Lesser Antilles began in 1625, and the cultivation of market crops soon followed. Tobacco, indigo, and cotton grown by a combined workforce of indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans
would give way to crops grown exclusively by an exploited, enslaved labor force: sugarcane, beginning in the mid seventeenth century, to which coffee would be added especially during the 1730s and 1740s. During the years of debt crisis following the death of Louis XIV, French authorities saw monopolized global trade and paper money as the path of salvation. Via the Compagnie des Indes that had engrossed much of the state’s fiscal apparatus and the privileges of most overseas trade monopolies, vast sums would be spent on trying to turn Louisiana into a plantation economy based on tobacco and indigo. Slaves soon outnumbered the small settler population, but Louisiana’s exports remained modest, especially compared to the sums spent negotiating a French presence in Indigenous territory, in competition also Spaniards and British colonists.
Plantation-based production of export crops transformed the Caribbean region into the economic heart of the French Atlantic Empire, further marginalizing local Indigenous populations, and shoring up a racialized, profoundly unequal social structure. Coffee plantations had an average enslaved labor force of around 50, and could be set up in hilly regions with relatively modest amounts of capital. Integrated sugar plantations, that grew sugar cane and produced sugar crystals, relied on more infrastructure and larger labor forces, organized into gangs (ateliers) of similar stamina, working according to rigid schedules. Among the enslaved, work conditions and status varied
: domestics, skilled workers in mills or refineries, lived different lives from those working in gardens or in the fields. The planter class had its own hierarchies. Among those who could raise the significant capital sums required by sugar plantations, weather the risks of war and interrupted trade, and fund necessary irrigation projects, were not just the so-called grand blancs, but also Jesuits, who viewed their economic activity as a means of financing missions. In 1736, Jesuits produced half of Guyana’s coffee and cacao. At its height, the Jesuit Habitation de Loyola in that mainland colony relied on some 500 slaves. By contrast, in 1770s Saint-Domingue, the average enslaved workforce on a sugar plantation was around 160. Many planters, in turn, were heavily indebted to metropolitan merchants. From the outset, they were hostile to the regulatory regime known as the Exclusif, that precluded inter-imperial trade, and even limited trade between French colonies. They were particularly hostile to the Compagnie des Indes’ monopoly power in the early 1720s. By 1767, planter pressures resulted in the slave trade being opened to all French merchants, not just those in major port cities as had been the case in earlier regulations of 1717 and 1727. Protectionist regulations were loosened in another sense after the Seven Years’ War and again after the War of American independence: as part of the so-called exclusif mitigé, a few colonial ports were opened to foreign merchants trading in select goods other than sugar, indigo, and coffee.
By the 1750s, French trade with the Caribbean was roughly twenty-five times greater than that with New France. Together with indigo, sugar and coffee from the French West Indies would eventually account for 90% of the region’s exports. Saint-Domingue would become the world’s largest producer of sugar and coffee, remaining so until the Haitian revolution. Despite laws that confined trade to national spheres, the French Caribbean plantation “machine” also depended on the influx of food, wood, and specie from the Spanish and British Americas. Illicit trade, including the import of human beings, was an integral part of the French Caribbean economy, though it is hard to quantify or document. By virtue of the importance of trade (and also the difficulties of intra-island transport), French Caribbean islands were more urbanized than the continental French empire. In towns such as Saint-Pierre in Martinique or Cap Français, in the French portion of Saint-Domingue, slaves were still in the majority (working as masons, dockers, carpenters, porters, and a variety of other jobs) but an important free population of color emerged. Among them were a majority of female shopkeepers and property owners, but also tradesmen, and the rare overseas merchant (négociant) or factor (commissionnaire). Cap Français was the largest city in French America in the 1780s.
Planters worked their slaves to early deaths and relied on a constant influx of new arrivals. Though it entered the transatlantic slave trade relatively late, France was the third most important player, carrying roughly 13% of all captives over three centuries beginning in the mid fifteen hundreds. Portugal and Britain’s share were respectively 49%, and 26%. The trade was at its most rapid in the years following the American Revolutionary war, protected by naval forces that were maintained at wartime levels. Slave traders outfitted mainly from Nantes, but Bordeaux, with its rich hinterland, was also heavily involved, especially after the Seven Years’ war. French merchants concentrated on Senegambia and the Bight of Benin in late seventeenth century, moving into West Central Africa in the early eighteenth century, and relying more heavily on the Congo region towards the end of the century. By 1700, the enslaved black African population in the French Caribbean (27,000) well surpassed the number of white settlers (21,000), whose migration had slowed to a trickle. By 1790, the enslaved population, both creole and African-born, outnumbered the white European population by more than 10 to one. Saint-Domingue, in particular, has been likened to a series of capital-intensive open-air factories.
Historians debate the degree to which European growth and industrialization were fueled by profits from the slave trade. What is clear for France is that foreign trade was the most dynamic sector of the French economy in the eighteenth century: between 1716-1720 and 1784-1788, it quintupled in real terms. Profits appear to have been highest (at some 6%) in this sector compared to others, and without it, rates of growth in France would have been 8 to 15% slower. According to Guillaume Gaudin, it was at the heart of French growth. Goods from the colonies represented a third of all imports. Though a substantial portion would be re-exported to northern Europe, addictive goods such as sugar, tobacco and coffee began to transform French consumption habits. Enlightenment treatises extolled rational production techniques and machinery, while silencing the presence and exploitation of enslaved workers. Plantation wealth transformed urban real estate markets in Paris as well as in slaving ports like Nantes and Bordeaux. Exports to colonial markets, meanwhile, drew production from well beyond port cities and their vicinities. Even in ostensibly isolated locations in France, like Angoulême, many were embedded in long-distance networks of people, information, and credit.