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Les marchands français de Cadix et la crise de la Carrera de Indias (1778-1828)

Arnaud Bartolomei



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1What is it that guides economic agents in the crucial choices they have to make in the course of their lives? The “profit motive” only? Or more complex motives, combining political, social and cultural considerations? This is an age-old question, but one that is still relevant, as much in social sciences as in general public debate. Here it is addressed from the peculiar standpoint of the 500-odd French merchants who were settled in Cádiz in the 18th century to take advantage of the port’s exceptional commercial privileges—being at that time the bridgehead of the Carrera de Indias, Spain’s main colonial trade route. Indeed, over the last decades of the century they saw all the favourable conditions that had brought them to set up business in Andalusia crumble one by one: first, the monopoly on colonial trade that Cádiz had enjoyed was dismantled in 1778 under free trade reforms which opened up Spain’s colonies to all the major ports of the Peninsula; then the port was sidelined in transatlantic trade following Spain’s naval defeats at the hands of the British (Cape St. Vincent 1796 and Trafalgar 1805) and the colonial emancipation process that swept the American colonies from 1810 on; and finally, the French-Spanish alliance which throughout the 18th century had created a propitious political climate to the benefit of the “French nation” in Cádiz, gave way during the revolutionary period to far more difficult relations between the two states, including confrontations, particularly at the time of the War of the Convention (1793-1795) and the War of Independence (1808-1813). Yet despite this generalised deterioration of their situation, the French merchants in Cádiz remained firmly attached to the city and only abandoned it when forced to do so at the time of the French-Spanish wars, and many returned whenever they could, in 1796 and in 1815. Why was this? How to explain their attachment to a city that no longer offered any of the conditions that had brought them there in the first place? That is the central question that this book attempts to answer by means of a systematic construction of the careers followed by the French merchants of Cádiz in the troubled times of the revolutionary wars, the Napoleonic wars and the emancipation of the Spanish colonies.

2To that end the book proposes five chapters to clarify both the evolution of the general aspect and conditions of the city and the exceptional history of the French colony. The first chapter provides the setting and deals only with Cádiz, from beginning to end of the period, and also beyond, as it looks too at the decades that followed the battle of Ayacucho (1824) and the abolition of free trade (1828), to take in the ephemeral recovery at the time of the port franchise (1829-1831) and the rather more enduring one that allowed it to grow in the central decades of the 19th century. It thus goes some way to making up for the lack of a convenient synthesis, bringing together in a single movement the history of the city at the apogee of the Carrera de Indias followed by its decline and second revival in the 19th century. The next two chapters retrace the history of the French colony during that long transitional period between the modern and contemporary ages. Chapter ii starts by examining the foundations underpinning the power and prosperity of the colony on the eve of the French Revolution. It highlights the resistance the colony had put up to the attacks of the Spanish reformers, but also its extreme dependence on a Spanish colonial trade that it helped to link up to the rest of the European world economy, and which was its core source of revenue. Chapter iii describes the inexorable decline of this powerful community, which lost at once the privileged position it had enjoyed in the Atlantic system and the bulk of its members. It shows that while the city long succeeded in reinventing itself as a major centre of Spanish business in the 19th century, the French colony as such was not so successful and eventually disappeared. It does nonetheless point to the peculiar chronology of this decline, which was not linear and was emphasised by the great political breaks of 1793 and 1808, much more so than by the British blockade or the final collapse of the Carrera de Indias. The colony undoubtedly hung on for as long as it could, and its members only abandoned the city when forced to do so. And indeed, it is this attachment to Cádiz in persons assumed to be rational and ready to move with their interests that is examined in the last two chapters. The fourth looks in detail at the strategies resorted to by the French merchants of the city to adapt to and circumvent the British maritime blockade between 1796 and 1808 and offers a critical appraisal of their success. It shows that while French businessmen became corsair shipowners, money-changers or landowners to compensate the losses they sustained in other activities, these were never more than stop-gap activities which at best could only defer the loss of status they suffered through the crisis of the Carrera de Indias. Finally, the last chapter looks at the local roots of the French merchants and the degree to which they were integrated in Andalusian society, and speculates as to whether their choice to stay was not ultimately determined by their attachment to the life they had made for themselves there. In so doing, it suggests a fresh view of the relationship that these businessmen had with their milieu—the city—offering a vital clue to help understand the choices made by the hundreds of French merchants who hung on in Cádiz despite everything.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2017

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