It is from the middle of the 17th century that the French started to populate their colonies with African prisoners. Authorised by Louis XIIIth in 1642, slave trade took rapidly off, reaching its peak in the 18th century. During the 18th century, French trade knew a tremendous bounce thanks to colonial impulsion. Between 1717 and 1789, exterior trade value is multiplied by 10 and colonial trade by 17! Bordeaux fulfils on its own 2/5th of national trade with the West Indies and exports 3/4th of colonial products like sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton or spices towards big harbours : Hamburg, Amsterdam, London or Rotterdam. Behind these statistics is hidden slave trade reality…
And yet, in 1571, when a ship steered by a Norman captain lands in Bordeaux to sell his slave cargo, he is sharply expelled, and his slaves are let free under the Parliament’s order. Montaigne’s influence, who dedicated his life to the writing of ‘Essais’, is still alive and his ideas find a wide echo among the middle class, very sensitive to the humanist ideas of the Renaissance. Slave trade, practised by the Portuguese since the 1400‘s is not legal in France.
But, from the middle of the 18th century to the 19th century, Bordeaux becomes the 2nd slave trade harbour, with La Rochelle, and afterwards Nantes. And slave trade was even called the superior branch of trade.Colonial economy was essentially based on this “triangular trade” (France- Africa- the West Indies). Bordeaux organised 500 expeditions embarking between 130,000 and 150,000 captives from Western coasts of Africa towards Atlantic French isles like Saint Domingue and the West Indies. 600 slaves could be packed in each ship! During the day, only women and children were allowed to go out. From time to time, they were bathed and ordered to dance, as a manner to maintain them alive. Wine trade, characteristic of this city, is completely neglected compared to slave trade.
Slave sellers on the Ivory Coast were not easily satisfied: they expected more than shoddy goods and glass jewelleries. Their taste for textiles, hardware, alcohol, weapons, gunpowder was stronger and stronger. They also wanted « cauris », those little white shellfishes which were used as money. Arriving in the West Indies, sexes management had to be very precise. By importing too many women or girls, European sellers could encourage Blacks’ reproduction in the colonies, and so competing slave trade! Arriving in the West Indies, sexes management had to be very precise. By importing too many women or girls, European sellers could encourage Blacks’ reproduction in the colonies, and so competing slave trade!
Slaves’ sale / middle of the19th century / south of the USA
Bordeaux’s wharf French slave harbours' activity Every slave ship was sent to Africa to load its slaves cargo (often war prisoners captured by African leaders) and then it discharged its human merchandise to the West Indies.
During the 7 year War (1755-1763), France was bound to cede Louisiana to Spain, to abandon Senegal, Canada to the British but it intended to keep possession of the West Indies because they provided the realm’s supplying in tropical products as the demand was increasing. Facing British naval supremacy, Bordeaux’s harbour developed a corsair activity. From 1763 to 1773, Bordeaux’s fitter-outs transported 22,220 Africans! Facing British naval supremacy, Bordeaux’s harbour developed a corsair activity. From 1763 to 1773, Bordeaux’s fitter-outs transported 22,220 Africans! And slave trade was explained by ideological rationalizations: « it is doing Blacks a favour to submit them to tyrants’ barbarity ». « Are they really human beings ? ». Even the philosopher Montesquieu, well known for his abolitionism, would have said that « almost all tropical nations live in a violent state because of the dreadful heat, so they must be converted into slaves! »
Montesquieu, born in Bordeaux Isaac PEREIRE (1806- 1880) Emile PEREIRE(1800- 1875), Both born in Bordeaux
Colonial system permitted a lot of dealers to amass considerable fortunes. The most famous examples are the Pereire brothers, the creators of theTransatlantic General Company. At the end of the 18th century, they were an influent group of pressure, a powerful brake while antislavery movements were growing. At the end of the 18th century, they were an influent group of pressure, a powerful brake while antislavery movements were growing.
After Saint-Domingue’s insurrection, the Convention abolishes slavery in 1794. It is restored by Napoleon en 1802, at the cost of a bloody repression, and the slave trade can take up again. Slave trade is condemned by Louis XVIIIth in 1814. Anyway the « coolie trade » substitutes for that. French slave ships mean to carry on their illegal business in Bordeaux, but also in Nantes. The coolies, or volunteers, were Chinese or Indians for the most part and generated huge profits. Slave trade becomes clandestine, bit by bit, while abolitionism is gaining ground. In 1833, London abolishes it. France, for its part, will put an end to this institution — definitively this time — by the decrees of the 27th of April 1848, thanks to the deputy Victor Schoelcher.
Victor Schoelcher (1804-1893), abolishes slavery during the Second Republic in April 1848 André-Daniel Laffon de Ladebat is well known for his speech about « the necessity and meanings of suppressing slavery in the colonies ». He was associated to the Blacks’ friends society.
Anecdote The justifications for slave trade were often founded on racist sterotypes and religious events, like Cham’s malediction. In fact, the Blacks were supposed to be descended from Noe’s son, cursed by his father: that’s why they were condemned to servitude!
Placards for a slaves' sale in British colonies, 1769
Slavery in Brazil Along these three centuries of intensive slave trade (from 1550 to 1850) we estimate that 20 to 100 millions of Africans were deported, and 65% to 80% of them died during the trip to America or from bad treatments.
The abolition of slavery in French colonies(27th of April 1848) Painted by François Biard, National Museum of Versailles' castle
In Bordeaux, you can find typical grotesque masks (or mascaron), last remnants of colonial time representing black people’s faces, in Fernand-Philippart street and on the quays’ façades. In architecture, a mascaron ornament is a face, usually human, sometimes frightening or chimerical whose function was originally to frighten away evil spirits so that they would not enter the building. The concept was subsequently adapted to become a purely decorative element.