Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire: France in the Americas and Africa, c. 1750-1802

By Pernille Røge

When France’s old-regime colonial empire collapsed during the French and Haitian Revolutions, it brought to fruition what Jean-Antoine Riqueti de Mirabeau had predicted as governor of Guadeloupe in 1754. Mirabeau did not need the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the American Revolution, or the uprising of the enslaved on Saint-Domingue in 1791, to tell him that France, along with many of its European counterparts, was entering an age of imperial crisis. During his two years in the Lesser Antilles, he repeatedly notified his superiors of the crown’s feeble hold on its American colonies and offered ways to improve matters. Policy makers at Versailles, however, shrugged off his warnings. Instead, Mirabeau found an attentive listener in his older brother, the political economist, Victor Riqueti, Marquis de Mirabeau. Between 1753 and 1755, the two corresponded across the Atlantic, debating the horrors of racial slavery, the ill-feelings generated by monopoly trade, the recalcitrance of white colonial planters, and the likelihood of colonial secession. Later, the imprints of their conversations blended into the political economic recipe for empire that the Marquis de Mirabeau and his fellow economistes – also known as the Physiocrats – promoted after the Seven Years’ War.

9781108483131_largeWhen I first leafed through the Mirabeau brothers’ private letters at the Musée Paul Arbaud in Aix-en-Provence, I was in the midst of my doctoral research, tracing the interconnections between political economic theory and French imperial innovation in the second half of the eighteenth century – a project that eventually became my monograph. I was particularly interested in the Physiocrats, whose theories on free trade and agricultural development were well-known in the scholarship on domestic France but less so in the context of colonial empire. Given their theories on colonies, slavery, and economic development, I had a feeling that their ideas were far more central to the efforts to reinvent France’s colonial system after the debacle of the Seven Years’ War and to the formulation of a republican imperial agenda during the French Revolution than was visible in the existing literature.

The Physiocrats, who besides the Marquis de Mirabeau included economists such as François Quesnay, Du Pont de Nemours, Le Mercier de la Rivière, Nicolas Baudeau, and Abbé Roubaud, were a group of prominent economic thinkers who circulated the upper echelons of Versailles and Paris in the 1750s-1770s. Concerned by the deplorable state of the crown’s finances, they started attacking the French colonial system during the Seven Years War, finding it ill-suited to the general interests of the monarchy. In their view, the crown should shift to a system of free labor and free trade and integrate the colonies into the metropole as overseas provinces with rights equal to those of domestic provinces. Several among them also proposed relocating the cultivation of sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton to Africa, believing the African continent abounded with cheap labor and fertile land. Setting up agricultural colonies in Africa, they argued, and having free local laborers cultivate cash crops there under European guidance, would help spread “civilization” (a concept Mirabeau coined) and secure mutual riches for Africa and Europe.

These suggestions were quickly taken up by philosophes, such as Denis Diderot and the Abbé Raynal in their Histoire des deux Indes. Later, the Société des amis des noirs, France’s first abolitionist society, expressed similar views. They were, however, a far cry from the approach the crown chose to follow once colonial losses in North America and India forced it to redress its colonial system. When the Seven Years’ War ended, the government doubled down on the French Caribbean plantation complex. Sugar, coffee, cotton, and indigo production in Saint-Domingue, Martinique, and Guadeloupe generated enormous riches for France’s maritime centers and provided the crown with a reliable source of fiscal revenue. By offering new premiums on the French transatlantic slave trade and slightly relaxing its prohibitive commercial policies, the government hoped that it could further increase the availability of enslaved labor in the colonies and enhance its colonial economy.

Despite the evident hegemony of the French plantation complex between 1763 and 1789, I was curious to find out if the vision the Physiocrats promoted had resonances in the regions about which they wrote. Did people on the ground engage in debates about the precarious nature of the plantation complex? Did they set out to change official policy or experiment with alternative forms of empire? I found my answers in documents and reports by planters, governors, merchants, and clerks that communicated with the Ministries of the Marine and of Foreign Affairs, and many of whom were enmeshed in efforts of imperial regeneration in their own right. Owners of sugar and coffee plantations on the island of Martinique, for instance, eclectically appropriate political economic theory when it served their interests. Through the new institutional organ of the Chamber of Agriculture, they rehearsed a creole political economic discourse for reform, which they subsequently marshaled in their fight for representation and free trade during the French Revolution. Similarly, in Senegambia, colonial governors, directors of commercial companies, and private entrepreneurs echoed concerns about a pending loss of colonial empire in the Americas. Alongside their participation in the transatlantic slave trade, some therefore set out to experiment with cash crop cultivation on plots of land leased from African rulers, often describing their activities in a language of free labor, civilization, and progress.

Attention to these secluded experiments and inter-imperial debates highlight how, in the shadows of the plantation complex and following distinct logics and rhythms of change, an alternative mode of colonial empire unfolded during the last decades of the Ancien Régime. Though hard to detect in a period dominated by a booming French sugar business, these processes of imperial innovation would prove crucial to the continuation of French colonial empire once thousands of enslaved men and women rebelled in the French Caribbean. As the First Republic scrambled to develop a new imperial agenda upon the heels of the abolition of slavery in 1794, it integrated the old-regime colonies into the French republican polity as overseas departments and reoriented imperial interests towards Africa. Senegambia was one area in which they hoped to create new agricultural colonies, Egypt was another. Both ambitions were fueled by a discourse of progress and civilization. Though Napoleon Bonaparte pulled the breaks on republican imperialism with the restoration of slavery in 1802, he only succeeded temporarily. In the nineteenth century, France embarked on various missions to “civilize” Africa, while integration and departmentalization condition French relations with the Caribbean even today.

These resurgences of old-regime innovations in later periods tell a story about French colonial empire that is not easily captured in a historiography that remains too wedded to the narrative of a ‘first’ colonial empire that collapsed during the French and Haitian Revolutions and a ‘second’ colonial empire that rose in the nineteenth century. They expose the ways in which different modes of colonial empire intersected across time and help reveal a nonlinear history of French colonial empire we are still only beginning to recognize.


Pernille Røge is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Her book, Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire: France in the Americas and Africa, c. 1750-1802, was recently published by Cambridge University Press (2019).

Title image: An allegory of Africa and America. Unsigned. Oil on paper. 

Further readings: For an introduction to the Physiocrats, see Liana Vardi, They Physiocrats and the World of the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). On political economists and old-regime French imperial reform see Michèle Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières (Second edition. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995) and Jean Tarrade, Le commerce colonial de la France à la fin de l’ancien régime: l’évolution du régime de “l’Exclusif” de 1763 à 1789 2 vols. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972). On political economy and imperial reform in a broader European context, see Richard Drayton, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), Jeremy Adelman, Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), and Gabrial B. Paquette, Enlightenment, Governance, and Reform in Spain and its Empire, 1759-1808) (Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). On the Société des amis des Noirs, see Marcel Dorigny and Bernard Gainot, La société des amis des noirs, 1788-1799: Contribution à l’histoire de l’abolition de l’esclavage (Paris: UNESCO, 1998). On old-regime colonial continuities into the French Revolution see Malick Ghachem, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). On imperial transition and a nonlinear history of French colonial empire, see David Todd, ‘A French Imperial Meridian, 1814-1870’, Past & Present, 210, 1 (2011), 155-186.

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