Accounting Representation and the Slave Trade: The Guide Du Commerce of Gaignat De L'aulnais

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Abstract: The Guide du commerce occupies a distinctive place in the French-language literature on accounting. Passed over by most specialists in the history of maritime trade and the slave trade, the manual has never been the subject of a documented historical study. The apparent realism of the examples, the luxury of details and their precision, all bear witness to a deep concern to go beyond a simple apprenticeship in bookkeeping. Promoting itself essentially as "un guide du commerce," the volume offers strategic examples for small local businesses, as well as for those engaged in international trade. Yet, the realism also demonstrated the expertise of the author in the eyes of potential purchasers. Inspired by the work of Bottin [2001], we investigate the extent to which the manual reflects real-world practices and provides a faithful glimpse into the socio-economic context of the period. Two additional questions are discussed briefly in our conclusion. First, can the work of Gaignat constitute a source document for the history of la traite negriere? The second entails our early deliberations about the place of this volume in the history of the slave trade itself.


In spite of its very general title which undoubtedly explains its passing mention in the history of accounting, the 1771 Guide du commerce of Gaignat de l'Aulnais is likely one of the very first specialized manuals on accounting. Aside from a few paragraphs dedicated to traditional commercial matters (e.g., exchange transactions, weights and measures, bills of exchange) and a somewhat classical presentation of single- and double-entry bookkeeping, the work deals essentially with the shipping trade and, more specifically, one of its most dramatic aspects--the slave trade.

Over and above this early specialization which, as will be explained later, is not an entirely isolated example, the manual, by the distinctive nature of the trade it describes, occupies a distinctive place in the French-language literature on accounting. In fact, with the exception of Affleck's [1854] The Cotton Plantation Record and Account Book, which Heier [1988] and Fleischman [2003] have studied, the Guide du commerce probably plays a unique role in all of the accounting literature.

Research into the accounting for slavery and the slave trade has been limited. Possible reasons for this lack of attention have been outlined by Fleischman [2003] and Fleischman and Tyson [2003]. Heier [1988] examined accounting's role in slavery with the focus on Thomas Aflleck's volume. This study, as those of Fleischman and Tyson [2000, 2003], examines slavery in terms of the management of plantations and estates in Hawaii and the ante-bellum U.S. Vollmers [2003] has examined industrial slavery in the U.S., specifically the role of slave labor in the turpentine industry of the 19th century. We have only found, as a study of the slave trade itself, the article by Donoso Anes [2002], which examines the trade undertaken by the English South Sea Company on behalf of Spain in the 18th century. However, it is focused more on the conflict between the principal and his sub-contractor than with the actual accounting for the trade.

To our knowledge, the Guide du commerce is the only work to present in a detailed manner the specialized accounting treatment for slave-trade operations, specifically the diverse transactions related to the "human cargo" (la cargaison), undertaken during the course of the voyage. Seemingly passed over by most specialists in the history of maritime trade and the slave trade, with brief mentions by Rinchon [1955, 1964] and Boulle [1972], the manual has never been, as far as we can determine, the subject of a documented historical study. Yet, the book is neither unknown nor extremely rare; it is listed in Reymondin's [1909] and Hausdorfer's [1986] accounting bibliographies, and the Catalogue collectif de France (1) indicates that it is part of the holdings of several libraries in France, including the Bibliotheque Nationale, as well as the municipal libraries in Nantes, Rouen, La Rochelle, and Versailles. …