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Cul de Sac

Patrimony, Capitalism, and Slavery in French Saint-Domingue

Cul de Sac

Patrimony, Capitalism, and Slavery in French Saint-Domingue

In the eighteenth century, the Cul de Sac plain in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, was a vast open-air workhouse of sugar plantations. This microhistory of one plantation owned by the Ferron de la Ferronnayses, a family of Breton nobles, draws on remarkable archival finds to show that despite the wealth such plantations produced, they operated in a context of social, political, and environmental fragility that left them weak and crisis prone.

Focusing on correspondence between the Ferronnayses and their plantation managers, Cul de Sac proposes that the Caribbean plantation system, with its reliance on factory-like production processes and highly integrated markets, was a particularly modern expression of eighteenth-century capitalism. But it rested on a foundation of economic and political traditionalism that stymied growth and adaptation. The result was a system heading toward collapse as planters, facing a series of larger crises in the French empire, vainly attempted to rein in the inherent violence and instability of the slave society they had built. In recovering the lost world of the French Antillean plantation, Cul de Sac ultimately reveals how the capitalism of the plantation complex persisted not as a dynamic source of progress, but from the inertia of a degenerate system headed down an economic and ideological dead end.

264 pages | 7 halftones, 3 maps, 4 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Economics and Business: Economics--Agriculture and Natural Resources

History: European History, Latin American History


Cul de Sac is written with extraordinary clarity and dexterity. The movements between micro-analysis and wider political economic and social forces, between culture and capitalism and between metropole and colony are ambitious and exemplary. It is elegantly constructed, beautifully written, and persuasively argued. It will no doubt serve as a model for further study. . . Cheney’s portrait, which draws on an extraordinarily wide range of contextual scholarship, is finely calibrated, ambitiously capacious and thoroughly illuminating. His analysis links clearly the internal operations of the Ferronnays sugar estate—over time—to the global structuring contexts of French imperial policy, colonial empire, fluctuating world markets, the international division of labour and, ultimately, the dramatic upheavals of the Haitian Revolution. . .a meticulously researched and detailed account.”

French History

"The strength of Cheney's book lies in its in-depth insight into the affairs of the Saint-Domingue plantation aristocracy and their associates. The reader gets tantalizing glimpses of the lives and voices of the enslaved Africans whose labor underpinned the whole fragile edifice."

American Historical Review

"Providing great historical detail, Cheney discusses how international conflicts; the struggles among metropolitan elites, Creole elites, and the French crown; and the ethical tensions between humaneness and business interests in the treatment of slaves contributed to the fragility and ultimate unsustainability of plantation capitalism. . . the text is well-written and organized, and the details help illustrate and reflect the complex layers of plantation capitalism in colonial France."


“One of the most important books on colonial and revolutionary Haiti (Saint-Domingue) of the past several decades. . . . Subtle and creative . . . . This book not only fills a gap in the literature of Haitian history but also aims to revise our understanding of early modern North Atlantic capitalism by demonstrating its reliance on unstable but persistent patrimonial alliances. In that objective, Cul de Sac succeeds magnificently, giving us a more revealing and finely drawn portrait of the economic and social relationships in which the Caribbean sugar plantation was embedded than we have previously known. . . . No one can come away from this book with anything less than a sense of gratitude and awe for the great achievement that it represents.”

Journal of Modern History

“Until now, we had very few detailed accounts of plantations and how they operated. This book takes an especially rich set of records on a large absentee-owned plantation in Cul de Sac, a major sugar-planting region near Port-au-Prince, and creates a compelling account of slavery, capitalism, and family in this interesting society. Entertaining as well as informative, Cul de Sac will make a signal contribution to the scholarship of slavery and capitalism in the Atlantic World.”

Trevor Burnard, author of Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820

Cul de Sac takes us deep within the global center of one of the most brutal forms of capitalism in history. Masterfully reconstructing plantation life from newly discovered sources, Cheney exposes the fragility of a family enterprise riven by racial and ideological tensions as it confronted war and revolution. This is a must-read for students of Caribbean, Atlantic, and French history.”

Michael Kwass, author of Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground

“This deeply researched and richly detailed study of one plantation reconstructs and illuminates the complex world of colonial Saint-Domingue. Through the story of the Cul de Sac plain, Cheney offers a layered and insightful analysis of the relationship between slavery, trade, and policy in the eighteenth-century French Atlantic.”

Laurent Dubois, author of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution

"The study...helps to contribute to a more complex and nuanced picture of warfare, the state, and the development of colonial or global capitalism in the eighteenth century, which emphasizes the potential for warfare to retard as well as promote progress...On the basis of the evidence that Cheney presents, it is hard to disagree with this judicious and nuanced assessment."

Aaron Graham | Economic History Review

Table of Contents

Introduction. The Colonial Cul de Sac

1. Province and Colony
2. Production and Investment
3. Humanity and Interest
4. War and Profit
5. Husband and Wife
6. Revolution and Cultivation
7. Evacuation and Indemnity

Sources and Abbreviations


Society for French Historical Studies: Gilbert Chinard Prize

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