Slavery, Colonial Economy and French
Development Choices during the
First Industrialization (1802–1840)
THE QUESTION OF slavery was not some marginal element in the economic thinking that accompanied the industrialization of France as it emerged from the Napoleonic age. Restoration of a colonial economy was symbolic of a return to the prosperity of the late eighteenth century, a component of the economic nostalgia for ‘La France atlantique’. But reconstructing an efficient colonial economy also appeared as a necessity for a whole textile industry – cotton textiles, in particular – which was at the heart of the manufacturing development of France in the first half of the nineteenth century. The problem was, however, a considerable one in so far as the very bases of colonial prosperity had been profoundly undermined by the revolutionary episode and as the cost of reconstructing a colonial empire threatened to be at the expense of the industrialization and financial recovery required of France if it was to remain a great power.
From the era of the Revolution to the episode of Napoleon, the collapse of the French colonial system and trading networks can be seen in the stark figures often mentioned in parliamentary debates at the Restoration, and accepted by the vast majority of deputies and peers. The trade of the French colonial empire had fallen from 100,000 tonnes of goods on the eve of the Revolution, to 7,000 tonnes in what remained of it in 1813. In the spring of 1814, after the defeat of Napoleon, the leaders of the new government were convinced that there would be no recovery of France without the restoration of colonial prosperity. They all still had in their minds the figures of a prosperous trade which gave France a positive overall balance and, at the end of the day, brought a net inflow of precious metal – 70 million francs’ worth, it was thought. Despite official rejection of mercantilism, this lost profit remained one of the
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Publication information: Book title: The Abolitions of Slavery: From Leger Felcite Sonthonax to Victor Schoelcher, 1793, 1794, 1848. Contributors: Marcel Dorigny - Editor. Publisher: Berghahn Books. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 237.
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