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Bordeaux and the slave trade - Part I***

by Alexandra in WMass Mon Jun 19th, 2006 at 08:42:54 AM EST

On the occasion of France's first national day to remember the slave trade, slavery and its abolition I posted a short diary and promised a more detailed story on Bordeaux and its role in the slave trade. The result is a three part series on the topic:

Each diary is a combination of text, images and quotes from historians and historical texts. I'm including links (updated as I post the diaries) to the main sections since you may want to skip to those that seem most interesting to you. Let us know what you found most interesting, what additional stories you have and what you think students should learn in school.

Follow me below the fold for part I and links to each part as they are put online....

***Back from the front page ~ whataboutbob

A short overview:

Between 1492 and 1870, approximately eleven million [15-18 million by other estimates] black slaves were carried from Africa to the Americas. They were taken to work on sugar, coffee, cocoa, and cotton plantations, in gold and silver mines, in rice fields, or in houses as servants. The shippers were, in order of scale, the Portuguese (and Brazilians), the English, the French, the Spaniards, the Dutch and the North Americans. [To date details of some 27,000 slave voyages have been inventoried]. At the height of the traffic, in the1780s, the English and French were each carrying nearly forty thousand slaves a year. These captives were usually procured by barter with African monarchs or merchants who were established on the estuaries of nearly all the great African rivers that flow into the Atlantic. The goods exchanged for slaves were textiles, copper or iron bars, guns, drink (wine, brandy, and rum), and a vast number of miscellaneous objects such as beads, hats, shaving bowls and knives. Hundreds of thousands of Africans participated in the trade but especially the kings in Ashanti, Dahomey, Benin, Loango, Congo and Angola. Mozambique and Madagascar also contributed their thousands of prisoners to the European boats. Slavery in Africa resulted from captivity in war, from kidnappings or raids on neighbors, or sometimes from judicial decisions after crimes.

Slavery made England rich, as it made Spain and Portugal rich before her; slavery to satisfy the needs of France's Caribbean possessions made France rich and was still important enough commercially in the nineteenth century to make Napoleon sacrifice a French army to put down the [ultimately successful] slave revolt in what is now Haiti.

( source: Hugh Thomas The Slave Trade: The Story Of The Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440 - 1870)

(click the picture to enlarge)

1823 engraving of the French slaving vessel Vigilante and the leg and arm shackles probably used onboard.

Source and additional information:The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas:A Visual Record

UNESCO map of the slave trade. Click here for the more detailed and very informative pdf version

Early worldviews of Africa:

In 1380 a new, unique and beautifully illustrated World Atlas was added to France's King Charles V`s royal library. This Catalan Atlas made between 1375 and 1380 is attributed to the best Majorcan cartographer of the time, Abraham Cresques. It provides a glimpse of Europe's knowledge of the rest of the world.

Catalan Atlas (facsimile with color enhanced click on the map for a larger version - original here)

[...] the narratives of contemporary travelers were extensively used by Cresques in Africa. Here the special feature of interest on the Catalan Atlas is the inscription and picture of the vessel recording the departure of the Catalan, Jacome Ferrer, on a voyage to the 'river of gold' southwest of the new Finisterre of Bojador in 1346. This refers to the northwest coast of Africa which extends beyond Cape Bojador to a point just north of the Rio d'Oro. Here unfortunately the map ends [...] But in the allotted space the map does show some knowledge by Cresques of the gold producing region of the middle Nile and of the regional name Ginuia [Guinea], the Kingdom of Melli, and stages on the routes from Morocco to the Niger, i.e., Sigilmessa, Tebelt, Tagaza, and Tenbuch [Timbuktu] are marked. Also its treatment of the Atlantic islands: the Azores, Canary, and Madeira groups, is more complete than any representation of earlier times. (Source: Jim Siebold's monographs)

Detail of the West African coast seen in the Catalan Atlas. click on the map for a larger version.

Next to the city of Timbuktu is an illustration of Mansa (Emperor) Moussa on the throw of the Mali Empire holding a gold nugget. As the map explains "This Moorish ruler is named Musse Melly [in fact Mansa Moussa], lord of the negroes of Guinea, This king is the richest and most distinguished ruler of this whole region on account of the great quality of gold that is found in his land." European's interest in exploring Africa was only heightened by accounts of this gold.

The search for gold:

The history of the European seaborne slave trade with Africa goes back 50 years prior to Columbus' initial voyage to the Americas. [...] The first Europeans to come to Africa's West Coast to trade were funded by Prince Henry [1394-1460], the famous Portuguese patron, who hoped to bring riches to Portugal. [...]

In 1441, for the first time, Portuguese sailors obtained gold dust from traders on the western coast of Africa. The following year, Portuguese explorers returned from Africa with more gold dust and another cargo: ten Africans.

Forty years after that first human cargo travelled to Portugal, Portuguese sailors gained permission from a local African leader to build a trading outpost and storehouse on Africa's Guinea coast. (Source: PBS series)

Elmina, formerly Edina, took its name from the Portuguese word `Al Mina' meaning `the mine'.

It was given to this town because of its richness in gold. The town is situated along the Coast of the central region of Ghana, about 12 km west of Cape Coast. [...] In 1482, the desire for more gold and to spread Christianity, led Portuguese Don Diego D'Azambuja to gather about 200 soldiers, masons, carpenters and other artisans to build St George's Castle. This was meant to serve as a trading post, which would protect trade and traders from possible attacks by other European states and local people. The castle was taken over by the Dutch in 1637, who kept control for 274 years. The castle was used to `store' slaves, along with ivory and gold, while they waited for slave ships to arrive and collect them. It is estimated that at least one thousand men and women were held in the dungeons at any one time.

(Source: UNESCO Breaking the Silence Learning about the Transatlantic Slave Trade web site Ghana page).

Elmina was one of many forts set up by Europeans on the African coast in the years to follow. Just in what is now Ghana 28 coastal forts were build, representing every major slave trading county. In 1705 William De La Palma, Director of the Dutch West India Co. wrote "Concerning the trade on this Coast, we notified your Highness that nowadays the natives no longer occupy themselves with the search for gold, but rather make war on each other in order to furnish slaves. . . The Gold Coast has changed into a complete Slave Coast." Despite these early beginnings it's important to note that "85% of all slaves were transported to the new world after 1700. In statistical terms, the first 250 years of the slave trade were merely a prelude to the enormous expansion of the eighteenth century"(Source: The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade by Robert Harms).


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 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 [year of the French revolution] 30-50% of all French trade was with its colonies, with 12% of the French workforce making a living in trades connected with slavery. Source: UNESCO Breaking the Silence Learning about the Transatlantic Slave Trade web site France page.

From 1643 to 1850 a total of 4220 French slave trading expeditions, departing from at least 17 different French ports have been identified. Nantes was by far the largest and accounts for 41% of expeditions followed by Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Le Havre with about 11% each. Bordeaux is the second largest French port with approximately 500 expeditions in total. An estimated 150,000 Africans were deported by Bordeaux ships towards France's colonies in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, that's close to two thirds of the city's current day inhabitants. Nevertheless, Bordeaux remains a minor slave trade port when compared to the British goliath of Liverpool and its 5,700 slave ships expeditions. Bordeaux's slave trade represents about 4.4% of the British trade and 8.4% of Liverpool's. (source: Historians Eric Saugera and Jean Mettas)

Hooray!! You are back with another article!! Always look forward to your writings (and will now go enjoy this one!)

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Jun 14th, 2006 at 06:34:27 AM EST
Great diary, Alexandra, splendid illustrations and neither too short nor too long.

I'll be back later with a little thing I can add.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jun 14th, 2006 at 01:55:04 PM EST
it sure is humbling, to think of how much suffering went into creating the great powers of europe, and how jesus' name was brandished as easily as the superior killing machines, to add a confectionary absolution to the whole sordid business.

we have had a few centuries for people to forget our ancestors iniquity, and in the great euro wars there was an involution of all this violence..

most of recorded human history is sodden with bloody cruelty, it is truly depressing to meditate upon.

what will change us into a species with greater respect for one another?


religion sure didn't work....

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Jun 14th, 2006 at 03:10:37 PM EST
This is interesting and largely new to me. It is well to appreciate the worst aspects of our national and continental histories as well as the positive achievements.

I have some knowledge of the British version of the slave trade, based on ports like Bristol and Liverpool and trading posts on the coast of West Africa. As I recall the 'triangle trade' (between Britain, Africa and North America, with the African leg of the triangle supplying the slaves to be transported to North America) was mentioned in school but nothing was said about what the other European powers were doing.

by Gary J on Wed Jun 14th, 2006 at 03:59:41 PM EST
Here's part of an eighteenth-century letter from Bordeaux merchants Chauvet and Lafaye to a plantation-owner and would-be second plantation-buyer in St Domingue (Haïti):

Depuis notre dernière de Bordeaux le 1er Octobre qu'avons l'honneur de vous confirmer, notre Sieur Chauvet est arrivé en bonne santé. Il a de suite pris les renseignements que M. Perier père l'avait prié de prendre de l'habitation de M. le Marquis de le Chapelle à Limonade, en voici le résultat:

Since our last from Bordeaux of which we have the honour to give you confirmation, Mr Chauvet arrived in good health. He immediately sought the information Mr Perier your father had prayed him gather concerning the plantation of the Marquis de la Chapelle at Limonade, and here is the result:

  1. le sol est beau et bon
  2. elle rend de 300 à 340 milliers de beau sucre
  3. elle commence à manquer de force
  4. en y mettant 10 nègres par an jusqu'au nombre de 300 et qu'elle fut bien administrée, serait susceptible de 400 milliers de beau sucre <snip>
  5. il faudrait 300 têtes de nègres sur cette habitation, ceux qu'il y a sont en assez bon état mais pas assez nombreux.

  1. the soil is fine and good
  2. [the plantation] yields 300 to 340 "milliers" of high-quality sugar
  3. [the plantation] is beginning to lack strength [labour]
  4. by putting in 10 negroes a year up to the number of 300 and with good administration, it would be capable of yielding 400 "milliers" of high-quality sugar <snip>
  5. 300 head of negroes are needed on this plantation, those there are are in good enough condition but not numerous enough

Enfin, c'est une des plus belles habitations que nous avons aux environs du Cap et même des plus lucratives. La caze à nègres est susceptible de quelques réparations mais ce n'est pas conséquent.

Finally, it's one of the finest plantations we have around the Cape [Le Cap François, today Le Cap Haïtien, port in northern Haïti] and even one of the most lucrative. The negro cabin calls for some repairs but it is not of great importance.

The most complicated part of the letter concerns terms of payment of a plantation manager. The "300 head" of human beings don't present a problem at all. They're just commodities, handled as regularly and somewhat less feverishly than barrels of sugar.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jun 14th, 2006 at 04:53:49 PM EST
Brrr (shiver).

This picture below was in the Charlie Hebdo from a few weeks ago. It shows Sarkozy (who passed a "selective immigration" bill recently, and who immediately set course for a few African countries to explain his law to leaders) saying "Computer specialist? Good, give me one dozen".

by Alex in Toulouse on Wed Jun 14th, 2006 at 05:04:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks Afew, great addition. Were did you find this letter?
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Wed Jun 14th, 2006 at 07:07:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In Esclaves et Négriers, Jean Meyer (Découvertes Gallimard). This is a good "popular" history work with heaps of illustrations and documents. Should be easy to find in Bordeaux, or obviously on Internet.

Unfortunately they don't give dates or a bibliographical source for the letter. I have read other documents of this kind in other books, (which I now unfortunately don't have references to), and the language and tone are typical. What comes through, to me, under the straight business language, is the greed of these people. You know, sugar was like gold to them, and "les nègres" were just a means to the end of bringing in the gold dust.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 02:57:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
for Alexandra: I think http://gallica.bnf.fr could be a good place to look for stuff.
by Alex in Toulouse on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 04:57:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 06:17:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Really a great diary Alexandra!

What's more a diary about a great period of history and the greatness of France, which had great plans to make greatly inferior people useful.

by Alex in Toulouse on Wed Jun 14th, 2006 at 06:11:13 PM EST
Thanks for your work on this Alexandra. I can't say that it makes pleasant reading becuase the topic is so depressing, but it does make informative reading. And it's something we have to remember.
by gradinski chai on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 03:05:15 AM EST

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