Jérôme Jambu | BNF, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques – A monetary economy among French West Indies slaves?

The initial question aims at a historiographic blank: did slaves access money? And if, which? If not, why?

  When colonized, the French West Indies were not conceived as a monetarized territory, in compliance with mercantilist ideas: only transatlantic barter trade was authorized. Also, sugar stepped in a as substitute for local exchanges, but paper notes and promissory bills had an even larger role

  Coins being in a high demand in local exchange and for daily wage payments, this led to limited authorizations during the 17th and 18th c., especially for paying troops. French soldiers in the West Indies were paid half in silver coins and half in victuals, both being mostly imported from France. These imported coins were billons, i.e. 80% copper and 20% silver coins, making the colonies an outlet to the French bad currencies.

  Nevertheless, the dearth of small change for daily exchanges being scathing during both centuries, people had to fund ways around, for example smuggling coins from neighbouring Portuguese and Spanish American colonies. But these were mostly large silver and gold coins, that even cut in fractions remained far too expensive for daily trades.

  At the same time, slaves represented the majority of the population, but were deprived, according to the successive Black Codes (BC), from almost any property. Nevertheless, art. 29 of the 1685 BC entitled them to hold a nest-egg if authorized, either in bulk or money, and to trade with these goods. These provisions were re-enacted in the 1725 C.

  Besides, most slaves hold small tilling spaces, in order to attach them to the land and prevent their marooning. But these small gardens opened a potential for trade and revenues: a 1664 decision allows slaves to go and sell on the market if authorized. The 1685 BC, even if in a very restrictive manner, refers to the “nigger markets” – the market they can access, as separated spaces in market places.

  Consequently, can slaves earn money in coins? Spend it? Sources are scarce, but a witness states that the reduction of the value of the smallest coins would aggravate the slaves’ misery, by reducing their gains, which they use mainly for buying garment textiles, which cost their masters could not bear. This bears witness of the possibility for slaves to earn money by participating in the market and to make purchases with this money.

  But what money was that? Not silver, but small change. An attempt by French authorities to introduce copper coins in the free population 1763 failed – they would be accepted only in 1793. Only slaves accepted copper and low silver content billon, as shown by a few archeologic discoveries in two sugar plantations.

  Another hint is given by the 1803 reformation that imposed a “G” mark on all gold coins in order to control Portuguese monies. Astonishingly, this same G mark were also struck on French copper coins and even on bad copper coins including a Roman one!

  Why thus mark copper coins, at the time of slavery re-establishment? To avoid marooning by preventing slaves to leave Guadeloupe with monetary resources.

Questions

Jérôme Blanc: Were there contacts and monetary exchanges between slaves and non-slaves?

A.: tilling slaves could access only the “nigger market” and exchanges only between themselves. But house slaves, notably washerwomen could work for other people and thus get paid.

Jan Lucassen: Are there some evidence from probate inventories from free persons that some slaves are indebted to free people?

A: the probate inventories are inly for free persons, but there is not one evidence of a claim upon a slave: it was forbidden to lend money or sell land to a slave.

Duran: How important were the exchanges through notes and without money?

A: They were considerable among free people, but not with slaves: notaries were barred from registering deeds with slaves. And slaves did not let any written record.

Sophie Laligant: Was there some form of land appropriation linked to small coins?

A: Small gardens were not appropriated by slaves. The questions of how space and property are defined are very sensitive questions.

Frédérique Duyrat: Is there evidence of monetary hoards?

A: No monetary hoard has been yet found in French-American colonial territories.

Jan Lucassen: Does small change included beads?

A: No, despite their high number in public collections.

Maria Stella – how French merchants were selling to slaves? Through wholesalers?

A: The trade between France and the West Indies was operated by wholesalers, and it’s only in the islands that the products entered retail trade. Colonial free men must have smuggled small coins to feed the local economy.


Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
Organization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021


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