The French involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade is thought to have begun with small traders in the 1540s bringing enslaved Africans to the Spanish colonies, but increased dramatically with the development of France's own colonies in Saint Domingue (today's Haiti) Martinique, and Guadeloupe in the 1660s through to the 1680s. In 1700 there were roughly 30,000 slaves in the French colonies, compared to 100,000 in the British, but in the years that followed the trade escalated, partly due to competition between the two Empires. Experiments with white indentured labour were rapidly overtaken by slave imports, and correspondingly French colonial trade boomed. In an 80 year period in the 18th century 1.25 million slaves were taken from Africa by over 3000 French ships, and sold largely in the Caribbean islands. By 1789 30-50% of all French trade was with its colonies, with 12% of the French workforce making a living in trades connected with slavery. 1789 brought revolution to France, which disrupted slavery in Haiti, and left the Republicans to vacillate over final abolition. Napoleon reversed much of the progress made by the First Republic, but the principles of the Revolution remained and spread during his reign, providing a new vocabulary of individual liberty, which helped enormously to undermine the foundations of slavery. The conservative Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1815, but was unwilling to follow Britain's demand to work towards gradual abolition of slavery by 1818. 500 ships illicitly sailed to Africa before further revolutionary disturbances in 1831 ended the slave trade, and slavery itself was abolished in 1848 throughout the French colonies with arrival of the Second Republic.

Nantes, on the Atlantic coast of France was the country's major slaving port, with over 1,400 voyages leaving for Africa during the 18th Century, 357 of them belonging to a single trading family, the Montaudoins. In 1754 the ship Saint-Phillipe, owned by the Nantes based Jogue brothers crossed the middle passage with 462 slaves in 25 days, whereas vessels earlier in the century would often take up to nine months. Nantes remained the principal slave port until the 1780s. Even after the official end of the slave trade in 1818, the trade continued. Over the next 13 years, 305 expeditions are recorded as having left from Nantes docks for the African coast.

The port of Lorient in Brittany was founded in 1664, and by 1719 the French West India company - the Compagnie des Indes - had established it as its principal base for ship building and supplies to the Caribbean colonies. The company held a monopoly on slave trading until 1725, but then adopted a new system that proved successful for decades. The Company traded heavily in the Indian ocean for textiles and Cowry shells, which they knew were used as currency in West Africa. The shells were returned to the port and sold on to private traders who then exchanged them for slaves in Africa, who in turn were carried to the Caribbean and Americas and traded for sugar. Given the profits, Lorient dispatched ships direct to the Caribbean to pick up the sugar that the slavers (slave ships) alone could not carry. By developing a system that linked together the triangular trade, with Asian trade and the direct trade across the Atlantic, Lorient helped turn slavery into a truly exploitative global business. Although heavily bombed in World War Two, the dock's Citadelle de Port Louis still stands as testament to the sophistication of this system (see below).

Citadelle de Port Louis

La Rochelle

From the 16th Century La Rochelle expanded rapidly due to its trade with the colonies. In 1594 the ship L'Espérance (meaning 'hope') which was registered at this port, became the first French ship to be identified as participating in the slave trade. By the late 18th Century slavers made up a full third of the traffic which passed between the medieval towers of the Old Port.

the Old Port Towers la Rochelle

The slave trade greatly contributed to the town's immense commercial power, and prompted lavish projects to expand and luxuriously develop the town. Modern tourist sites like l'hotel de la Bourse and La Grosse Horloge (shown below), still dominate the port's skyline, and owe much of their splendour to the huge profits drawn from enslaving Africans.

la Grosse Horloge
Code Noir

The Code Noir was signed by Louis XIV in 1685 to provide formal regulations for slavery, and became the template for ruling slavery in other French colonies like Louisiana (in the US). It defined slaves as 'portable property', and laid out an extremely harsh and rigid system of discipline and restrictions. It did however include certain humanitarian provisions, in part to control the slave mutilation that was so widespread in the French Caribbean. It enforced Catholic worship, provided religious holidays and instruction, tolerated intermarriage, attempted to preserve families and offered a modicum of protection for slaves. It was a brutal system, punishing even minor crimes with branding and flogging, and importantly gave the human trade a legitimate legal status. It was briefly abolished during the revolution, but restored by Napoleon. King Louis Phillipe gradually dismantled the system over the 1830s.

cover of Code Noir

The Diamant

Shipboard revolts took place on many slave voyages and most, it is said, happened within site of the African coast. Many were put down, but a successful demonstration of resistance took place in September 1774 on board the French vessel Diamant, where revolt led to the Captain and crew being forced to abandon ship off the coast of Corisco, an island near Gabon.

The French Revolution

King Louis XVI called the Estates-General' in 1789 to help restore his finances after France's costly intervention in the American War of Independence. It went much further, and by 1791 it had turned itself into a National Assembly, formed a constitution, and issued the Declaration on the Rights of Man. The revolutionary values of 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' inevitably led to a discussion on slavery. The abolitionist group Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks) petitioned the Estates-General in 1789 to abolish slavery and the Slave Trade. Moderates were only willing to extend the Declaration on the Rights on Man to free blacks, but soon retracted the policy under pressure from white planters.

Julian Raymond and Jacques Vincent Ogé, two mulatto planters, travelled to Paris to request citizenship for free blacks in Saint Domingue, and the right to be seated as colonial delegates. Both pleas were refused. As risings around France precipitated the fall of the monarchy and the increasing radicalisation of the new French Republic, abolition was given more serious consideration. The Jacobins, led by Maximilian Robespierre took control in 1793, and in 1794 abolished the Code Noir and emancipated slaves throughout the French colonies. The spirit of the revolution, that "men are born and remain free and equal in rights", shaped the future discourse on slavery throughout Europe and its colonies. These ideas, passed by word of mouth and pamphlets smuggled into Saint Domingue, inspired a radical generation of 'Black Jacobins' and paved the way towards revolution. This led to independence and renaming of the country Haiti.

The Phrygian Cap

The Phrygian cap, or 'Liberty Cap', dates from Roman times and was popular among the French in the early days of the revolution. It became a public symbol of patriotism and revolutionary fervour and as an icon of both revolution and freedom from slavery, it was appropriated by the Haitian resistance movement and still features on the top of the Haitian national coat of arms.

The Phrygian Cap

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon's rise to power saw a general reversal in France's experiment in abolition. Napoleon did not appear to have a strong line on slavery, but did appear to have sympathy with the revolutionary abolitionists of the early Republic. His policy did however seem more concerned with the practical demands of French overseas policy. As consul, his first pronouncement on slavery was to grant freedom to the slaves of Saint Domingue, in the face of massive unrest in the colony. But His attempts in 1801-2 to re-establish the French overseas Empire saw the reinstitution of much of the Code Noir, and a failed military expedition to retake the colony. He was forced to abdicate in 1814 after military defeats in Europe, but returned from exile in Elba for a brief attempt to return to power that ended at the Battle of Waterloo. Again, he chose expedience, and abolished the trade in an attempt to break Britain from the European alliance set against him, a liberal gesture that could never be enforced. Curiously, the restored King Louis XVII was pressured by Britain to honour Napoleon's promise, but the trade continued unabated until the 1830s. Part of his lasting impact on the trade was the sale of the mainland colonies of Louisiana to the US in 1803, and the decision to finally give up on Haiti. Slavers would shift to focus their efforts on the remaining colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Cayenne. In this now ironic piece of propaganda, Napoleon is presented as the saviour of France from the figure of 'revolutionary fanaticism', a savage bringing the chains of slavery and the torch of discord.

Napoleon Bonaparte saving France

Mauritius and Réunion

Although most French slaves were taken from West Africa for the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a limited trade existed in the Indian Ocean. 50,000 people were abducted from Madagascar and Mozambique to work the sugar plantations of Bourbon (now Réunion) and Ile de France (Mauritius). The trade reached a peak in the islands under Napoleonic rule (1803-1815), due to reforms of commerce and the profits drawn from captured English ships.

Victor Schoelcher

Schoelcher was born into a family of porcelain manufacturers in Paris in 1804. The family business led him to travel to America and the Caribbean islands, where the reality of African slavery turned him into a prolific abolitionist writer. He became a regular writer of pamphlets and books on the injustices he saw first hand in the Deep South, Mexico, Cuba and the French colonies, and became the first western abolitionist to visit independent Haiti. A life long republican, he was appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies after the 1848 revolution created the Second Republic, and he granted citizenship to all slaves in the French colonies on 27 April that year. The 1852 coup by Napoleon's nephew, Louis Napoleon, forced Schoelcher into exile, but he continued to write about the persistence of clandestine forms of slavery until his death in 1893. He became the mythic figure in the French colonies, drawing the new citizens of Guadeloupe and Martinique into a republican political movement.

portrait of Victor Schoelcher
© The National library of France, Paris