A Commercial (Neo)Colony? The Role of the Merchant Lobby in France’s Recognition of Haitian Independence

By Mary D. Lewis

On May 20, 2022, the New York Times published an important series of articles on the impact of the “ransom” Haiti paid to former French planters for their losses during the Haitian Revolution.[1] As the Times made clear, the indemnity demanded in exchange for formal recognition by France of Haitian independence in 1825 – initially 150 million French francs, later reduced to 90 million – was unpayable from the start, forcing Haiti to borrow money, creating a “double debt” and a cycle of sovereign indebtedness that has constrained the Haitian state for generations.[2]

What gets left out of this story is why French leaders entertained the notion of recognizing the Haitian state in the first place. To be sure, recognition was not on French policymakers’ agenda in 1804, when Haiti first declared independence, or even in 1814. With the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy, the deeply reactionary settler lobby pushed to “restore Saint-Domingue,” complete with the slavery and violence that was the basis of their previous wealth.[3] “Plans of reconquest [and] redevelopment programmes cropped up everywhere,” according to Gabriel Debien, and the former colonists of Saint-Domingue emerged as “more pro-slavery in 1814 than they were in 1789.”[4] At the same time, however, at the close of the Napoleonic Wars, merchants who were eager to get back to business were quicker than planters to acknowledge that the Haitian Revolution was irreversible. It was they who advised French authorities to recognize Haitian independence.

The 1825 royal ordonnance “offering” Haitians the independence they had already won was thus hybrid in purpose. Its clause requiring an indemnity was backward-looking and punitive toward Haiti – an effort to compensate former planters for property they’d never occupy again and, indirectly, for the enslaved laborers who worked on that property.[5] But the first article of the ordonnance was about the future, more specifically, about a promising future of trade between the two countries that French merchants and shippers imagined was possible once commercial relations were normalized. Viewed this way, the indemnity was the sop to French planter interests that allowed merchants and shippers to push through trade normalization, which in turn required formal recognition of independence. Recognition, in the end, would occur on French terms, as Charles X’s envoy to Haiti Ange René Armand, Baron de Mackau, presented the king’s non-negotiable ordonnance to Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer in July 1825 accompanied by a squadron of 14 warships, leaving Boyer and his tiny navy no real option to refuse.[6]

The stakes for French port economies were high. On the eve of the French Revolution, the colony then known as Saint-Domingue was the most profitable colony in the world, producing more sugar than all the British West Indies combined, and also serving as a major producer of coffee, cotton, indigo, and exotic woods – all of which generated vast wealth in large part because they were cultivated in grueling conditions by enslaved laborers. In 1788, according to Jean Tarrade, almost 500 ships brought more than 150,000 tons of cash crops from Saint-Domingue to the ports of France, roughly 80% of the colonial tonnage imported.[7] Those numbers plummeted when Haitians, through a series of revolts and a war of independence together now known as the Haitian Revolution, removed themselves from the slave-labor economy and formed a new nation. While post-independence Haitian leaders often sought ways to force formerly enslaved people to cultivate cash crops, coercion had its limits. As one French merchant marine captain put it, Haiti would sooner “perish than let itself be returned to slavery by whites or under the domination of the French.”[8]

In the aftermath of the revolution, Haitians continued to cultivate coffee for the international market, but many also embraced a subsistence economy or, as Johnhenry Gonzalez has termed it, “the freedom of a full stomach.”[9] In this way, Gonzalez argues, formerly enslaved persons “changed the terms of their relationship with both the world capitalist market and the island’s natural resources and ecology.”[10] Even as Haitians engaged in “strategic economic autarky,” however, Haitian elites and French port interests alike still saw potential for a vibrant cash crop economy.[11] Merchants and shippers buffeted by decades of revolution and international war emerged from the Napoleonic Wars hopeful that trade with the place they still called Saint-Domingue could, as a navy ministry report put it in 1815, provide a “new support” to the shipping industry, giving “anxious businesses” a “salutary direction and useful goal.”[12]

There was, however, a problem in realizing this goal. France had refused to recognize the independence of the “insurgent colony,” and its ships were not welcome in Haitian ports.[13] Britain and the United States, meanwhile, although also not formally recognizing either the northern kingdom of Haiti under Henry Christophe or the southern republic of Haiti under Alexandre Pétion, actively traded with the two Haitis.[14] Britain had even secured most-favored nation status with reduced customs duties – a state of affairs that infuriated French officials who still considered France the rightful preponderant power. Faced with the fact that France’s remaining Antilles colonies did not provide adequate markets or sources of colonial goods, chambers of commerce pressed the navy ministry to resurrect the Haiti trade.[15] To incentivize the trade, the ministry directed port authorities to offer a “colonial privilege” on customs duties to ships selling French goods in Haiti and returning with colonial crops such as raw sugar, coffee, or dyewoods. Since French ships were unwelcome in Haitian harbors, however, the ministry actively encouraged subterfuge, directing the shippers to “neutralize” their craft, or use foreign-registered ships. When shippers decried this process as cumbersome and expensive, the ministry agreed they could simply raise false flags when approaching Haitian harbors instead.[16] In this way, French shippers disguised as foreign ones actively traded with Haiti from 1815 and, upon return, paid the same customs duties “as if coming from French colonies.”[17] All of this was done quietly, with no published directives, on the basis of behind-the-scenes agreements between the navy ministry and port authorities in France’s seaboard cities.

The discounted customs rate based on trade using false flags posed problems, however, because it incentivized further subterfuge. Customs authorities became concerned that some of the goods introduced in this fashion were not in fact produced in Haiti, but rather were loaded there by British and Spanish traders with goods from their own colonies – a way of smuggling their products into the French market at a discount. Anxiety was high that Saint-Dominguan sugar, which “in the past,” had allegedly “arrived at a point of perfection that no other colony had attained,” was now indistinguishable from other sugars, which the customs administration attributed to the “mass of French colonists [that have] taken their industry and methods to neighboring colonies.”[18] Sugar from Jamaica, Cuba, or Puerto Rico might well be passed off as Haitian contended the navy ministry of the colonies, undermining the purpose of the privilege in the first place.

What was more, the “colonial privilege” was a credit on import duties offered by the French state for returning ships, while Britain enjoyed a 5% reduction in import and export duties from the Haitian state. When Jean-Pierre Boyer, Pétion’s successor in the south, reunified the fertile northern plains and southern Haiti into one republic following Christophe’s death in 1820, British most-favored-nation status seemed all the more galling. Chambers of Commerce in the port cities of France saw in Haiti’s reunification the potential for rebuilding, if not an economy based on slavery, at least a more lucrative trading relationship than that allowed by the clandestine commerce conducted with the southern republic since 1815. There was no time to waste, representatives in the Conseil de Commerce opined. If France acted quickly, it could impose trading conditions on Boyer in exchange for recognition of independence. If it did not, Boyer would treatise with other states instead. None other than Charles Esmangart, a former colonist and one of the emissaries Louis XVIII had sent to Haiti to try to negotiate French suzerainty in 1816, now felt it urgent to let go of French “pride” (amour-propre) and recognize Haitian independence. Nearly thirty years had passed since the insurgency, Esmangart wrote in a report shared with the Conseil de Commerce, and now “all nations trade with it as if it were an independent nation.” France, on the other hand, is reduced to trading under “foreign flags” and paying “duties from which English commerce is exempt.” For Esmangart, there was no position “more humiliating than that,” and a treaty would “at least put an end to this shameful status.”[19]

Just months after Boyer reunified the two halves of the country, the Conseil de Commerce laid out the conditions it thought France should insist upon in any treaty negotiated with Haiti. And while ultimately it would be more than four additional years before Charles X, succeeding his brother Louis XVIII, would send Baron de Mackau to Port-au-Prince with a non-negotiable ordonnance, the conditions contained in it were precisely those the Conseil de Commerce articulated in late 1820.[20] The malheureux colons (“unfortunate colonists”) as Esmangart called them, would have to be taken care of, since recognition of independence would perforce “strip them of any hope they had of return.”[21] But the planters’ concerns did not drive the process. To the contrary, they were an interest group that the merchant lobby felt had to be placated to get what they wanted: a privileged trading relationship with Haiti.

The April 17, 1825 ordonnance the Charles X sent to Haiti via Baron de Mackau reflected these priorities, putting commerce first.[22] Article 1 (figure 1) read: “The ports of the French part of Saint-Domingue will be open to all nations. The duties paid in these ports either on ships or merchandise, arriving or departing, will be equal and uniform for all flags, with the exception of the French flag, in favor of which the duties will be reduced by half.” Indemnification of the former planters, addressed in article 2, was intended to salve the colonists’ wounded pride, and to put their cause, which they had defended vociferously since exiling themselves from the former colony, to rest. The time had come, Charles X would tell parliament the following January, to “close such a painful wound” and separate definitively from the colony.[23] As I have argued elsewhere, former colonists continued to lick their wounds for generations instead.[24]

Figure 1: AN AP 156/I/20: Fonds Mackau. Ordonnance du roi du 17 avril 1825.

From the moment Mackau presented the ordonnance, Boyer decried the “demi-droit” – the 50% reduction in customs duties – as onerous: “Your stipulations in favor of French commerce … are more extensive than any we have ever heard of,” Mackau recalled Boyer saying, and will cause a “considerable loss” to the treasury.[25] If the indemnity had been the main impetus of the ordonnance, this projected loss might have given French officials pause, since the reduction in duties would, if implemented, potentially hurt Haiti’s ability to pay. But there is no evidence that such concerns influenced French calculations about the demi-droit, which were almost entirely about how to compete against British and American interests in the former colony. Indeed, in 1829, when the demi-droit was being renegotiated, French merchants complained to the consul in Le Cap Haïtien that the new treaty would “signal their ruin,” a view the consul said would be “not entirely unfounded” if the demi-droit were abandoned, since “today, even with the demi-droit, they can barely compete against foreigners.”[26] In the end, although Haiti became the largest exporter of coffee to France in the 19th century, France remained – five years after recognizing Haitian independence in exchange for commercial benefits and an indemnity – in third place behind Britain and the United States in the volume of trade it conducted with Haiti (figure 2).[27]

Figure 2: AMAE 47 CP 1bis, folio 293.

Once Haiti proved unable to pay the indemnity as originally planned, its leaders entered protracted negotiations with France to change the terms of the debt. While the debt was reduced by 60 million francs, it was still punishing and impossible to pay. French negotiators eventually abandoned the demi-droit in the interest of increasing Haitian revenue to secure payments on the indemnity. But that had not been their original vision. In 1825, French officials saw the indemnity as a bone they threw to former colonists while they pursued their commercial empire.

In maximizing the conditions for French trade at the expense of Haitian revenue, French officials not only treated Haiti as a vassal state, but they also helped it become an extractive one, as Boyer instituted a rural code designed to coerce labor to produce commodities for the international market while simultaneously imposing onerous taxes on Haitian citizens.[28] Both were necessary to pay for the indemnity and the enormous military buildup designed to protect Haiti’s independence from further French encroachment in the event of default. Meanwhile, the French were either oblivious to Haiti’s actual situation, or did not care. A correspondent for Le Moniteur universel seemed to have both Haiti and France in mind when he wrote sanguinely in August 1825 that“the commerce of our countries will flourish again.” But then he revealed who “our” referred to: “our population, our products, our merchandise will find in the most beautiful of the Antilles advantageous and sure markets.”[29] Pace Charles Esmangart, recognizing Haitian independence did not mean letting go of French amour-propre.

Mary Lewis is Robert Walton Goelet Professor of French History at Harvard University. After publishing a book on immigrant rights in interwar France and another on Tunisia, she began working on a book about the reordering of France’s overseas engagements after the sale of Louisiana and the loss of Haiti. Her most recent related publication is “Repairing Damage: The Slave Ship Marcelin and the Haiti Trade in the Age of Abolition,” American Historical Review 125, 3 (June 2020): 869-98.

Further Readings:

Brière, Jean-François. Haïti et la France, 1804-1848: Le rêve brisé. Paris: Karthala, 2012.

Gaffield, Julia. Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Gonzalez, Johnhenry. Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti. Yale Agrarian Studies Series. James C. Scott, Series Editor. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019.

Joachim, Benoît. “La reconnaissance d’Haïti par la France (1825): naissance d’un nouveau type de rapports internationaux,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine T. 22e, No. 3 (Jul.-Sep., 1975): 369-96.

Madiou, Thomas. Histoire d’Haïti, Tome VI, De 1819 à 1826. Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Imprimerie Henri Deschamps, 1988.

René, Jean Alix. Haïti après l’esclavage: Formation de l’état et culture politique populaire (1804-1846). Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Imprimerie le Natal, 2019.


[1]  This article builds on presentations given at Johns Hopkins University on April 18, 2022 and the Economic History Seminar at the Paris School of Economics on June 1, 2022. I would like to thank the participants for helping me clarify my thinking. I would also like to acknowledge the research assistance of Claire Khelfaoui, who took photos in French archives when I was unable to.

[2] Catherine Porter, Constant Méheut, Matt Apuzzo, and Selam Gebrekidan, “The Ransom: The Root of Haiti’s Misery: Reparations to Enslavers.” The New York Times Magazine, May 20, 2022.

[3] Marlene Daut, “What the French Really Owe Haiti,” The Nation 13 June 2022.

[4] Gabriel Debien, “Les projets d’un ancient planteur cotonnier de Saint-Domingue (1814),” Revue d’histoire des colonies 41, no.142 (1954), 84, 94–5.

[5] On the way in which indemnity payments for real property indirectly compensated for enslaved property, see Mary Dewhurst Lewis, “Legacies of French Slave-Ownership, Or the Long Decolonization of Saint-Domingue,” History Workshop Journal 83, 1 (April 2017), 170 n. 25.

[6] Mackau’s arrival in Port-au-Prince came after a series of unsuccessful negotiations between 1821 and 1825, including fractious in-person meetings between Haitian general Jacques Boyé and Charles Esmangart in Brussels in 1823. Thomas Madiou, Histoire d’Haïti, Tome VI, De 1819 à 1826 [1847-1848] repr. ed. (Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Imprimerie Henri Deschamps, 1988), 379-93. Madiou notes that the principle, albeit perhaps not the amount, of the indemnity was already conceded before Mackau arrived in Port-au-Prince in July 1825. Boyer received Mackau with great ceremony and announced publicly that he had come to recognize Haitian independence. Le Télégraphe XXIX (17 July 1825) reported on the fanfare. Beyond Boyer already having announced the fait accompli, the small size of the Haitian navy likely made refusal difficult. (Although the Haitian republic’s army and national guard were disproportionately large, the navy reportedly only had a few schooners.) Charles Mackenzie, Notes on Haiti, made during a residence in that republic, vol. II (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830), 198-205; Michel Placide-Justin, Histoire politique et statistique de l’ile d’Hayti (Paris: Librairie Brière, 1826), 505. On the importance of the army, see also Mimi Sheller, “Sword-Bearing Citizens: Militarism and Manhood in Nineteenth-Century Haiti.” In Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, ed., Haitian History: New Perspectives (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013): 157-79. On the 1825 ultimatum, see also Jean-François Brière, Haïti et la France, 1804-1848: Le rêve brisé (Paris: Karthala, 2012), 109;Benoît Joachim, “La reconnaissance d’Haïti par la France (1825): naissance d’un nouveau type de rapports internationaux,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine T. 22e, No. 3 (Jul.-Sep., 1975), 369-396; Marlene Daut, “What the French Really Owe Haiti;”Pooja Bhatia, “Hello, Columbus,” London Review of Books 27 May 2022.

[7] 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 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1972), table following p. 730; table on p. 733.

[8] Archives du Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, La Courneuve, France (AMAE): 47cp2: A. Montfort, Mémoire sur Haïti, 7 octobre 1819.

[9] Johnhenry Gonzalez, Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti. Yale Agrarian Studies Series. James C. Scott, Series Editor (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019),  229.

[10] Gonzalez, Maroon Nation, 205.

[11] On autarky, see Gonzalez, Maroon Nation, 202.

[12] Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France (ANOM) COL CC9c/7: Marine, Division des Colonies, Bureau d’administration, rapport, 15 Décembre 1815.

[13] The term “insurgent colony” appears in ANOM CC9c7 Commissaire General de la Marine, Auguste Bergevin au Ministère de la Marine, Division des Colonies, Bureau d’Administration, no. 263, Bordeaux 24 juin 1819.

[14] On trade with Haiti in this era, see especially Julia Gaffield, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[15] On the inadequate markets, see ANOM CC9c7: Chambre de commerce de Nantes au Ministère de la Marine, 27 avril 1816; also Pierre de Joinville, Le Réveil Économique de Bordeaux sous la Restauration: L’armateur Balguerie-Stuttenberg et son oeuvre. (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1914), 23.

[16] Neutralization required a commission named by the Commercial Court (Tribunal du Commerce) and was therefore slow and expensive. For complaints about the process, see ANOM COL CC9c/7: Commissaire General de la Marine Auguste Bergevin to Colonies, Bureau d’Administration no. 263, Bordeaux 24 juin 1819. For the concession that could fly false flags, see ANOM, COL CC9c/7 Circulaire, Ministre de la Marine aux administrateurs des ports, 26 août 1819.

[17] ANOM COL CC9c/7: Le Commissaire General Intendant de la Marine. No 17, to 3e direction, Colonies, bureau d’administration, Toulon, le 8 août 1824.

[18] ANOM COL CC9c/7: Marine Direction des colonies.  Bureau d’administration, au Conseiller d’état, Directeur des Douanes, Paris le 22 décembre 1815. The biggest competitor was, of course, nearby Cuba. Benoît Joachim notes that this subterfuge was sometimes done with the complicity of French merchant marine captains. Benoît Joachim, “Le néocolonialisme à l’essai: La France et l’indépendance d’Haïti,” La Pensée (April 1971), 48. On the relationship between Saint-Domingue’s sugar bust and Cuba’s boom, see Ada Ferrer, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[19] AMAE 47 cp2: Note sur St-Domingue, 30 Décembre 1820. Unsigned but all evidence points to Esmangart as the author.

[20] Archives Nationales de France, Pierrefitte, France (AN) F/12/524-526: Conseil Général du Commerce. 65e séance, 15 décembre 1820. 

[21] AMAE 47 cp2: Note sur St-Domingue, 30 décembre 1820.

[22] AN AP 156/I/20: Fonds Mackau. Ordonnance du roi du 17 avril 1825.

[23]  “Procès-verbal de la séance royale d’ouverture du 31 janvier 1826,” Archives Parlementaires 2e série, tome XLV (1826), 731.

[24] Lewis, “Legacies of French Slave-Ownership.”

[25] Boyer as paraphrased by Mackau in Rapport a son excellence le Ministre de la Marine et des colonies de la mission de St.-Domingue de Monsieur le Baron de Mackau, entry for July 6, 1825. AN AP 156/I/20. Mackau depicts Boyer as nonetheless conceding almost immediately after uttering this. The amount proposed for the customs duty reduction also had caused considerable friction between the two countries between 1820 and 1824. See Madiou, Histoire d’Haïti, Tome VI, 369-93.

[26] AMAE 47 CP 3, folio 374: Consulat de France au Cap Haïtien, dispatch dated 29 aout 1829.

[27] AMAE 47 CP 1bis, folio 293. Navigation de l’Ile d’Haïti en 1830.

[28] On post-independence statecraft, see Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti: State against Nation (New York: Monthly Review Press), 1990, especially ch. 3, “A Republic for the Merchants;” Jean Alix René, Haïti après l’esclavage: Formation de l’état et culture politique populaire (1804-1846) (Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Imprimerie Le Natal, 2019), esp. chs. 4-5; and Gonzalez, Maroon Nation.

[29] Dispatch from Pau dated 20 août 1825, printed in Le Moniteur universel 28 août 1825, p. 2.

One thought on “A Commercial (Neo)Colony? The Role of the Merchant Lobby in France’s Recognition of Haitian Independence

  1. Fascinating! Thank you for this great read, Professor Lewis. I am French and used to teach history to French middle schoolers. While the curriculum did include the Haitian Revolution (very briefly), this facet of the story was not included. Very few people in France even know about the Haitian Revolution, let alone the question of the 1825 reparations and recognition. I am looking forward to the book and very much hope that it will influence how French middle schoolers and the French public more generally think about Haiti and the way France’s acted toward its former colony.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s