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Part III: Bordeaux and the slave trade - The story and what we learn in school

by Alexandra in WMass Mon Jun 19th, 2006 at 03:41:47 AM EST

(links to Part I and Part II)

This diary includes: A slave ship's journey * Who sent the ships * The colony plantations * Blacks in 18th century Bordeaux * The end of the Trade * The contemporary curriculum * Food for thought

The slave ship’s journey

In a fascinating book which retraces the voyage of, the diligent, a French slave ship from Vannes, historian Robert Harms makes the compelling argument that

a voyage that spanned three continents was largely shaped by local events and local rivalries originating in widely scattered parts of the Atlantic world. […] In France it had transformed the economy of Nantes and turned the heads of the leading citizens of Vannes. In West Africa, it undergirded the rise of new militarized states such as Asante and Dahomey. In the Caribbean, the sugar islands became totally dependent on a constant influx of new slaves. What made the Atlantic slave trade so sinister was that it could appeal to widely divergent local interests in a wide variety of places 1.


The time spent trading for slaves on the African coast was the main determinant of a slave trade expedition's duration. It took about a month to get from Bordeaux to the Senegalese coast or the French fort of Gorée. In 1684 the St. Jean made the trip in 35 days. From there ships could get to the Caribbean or French Guyana in 2 to 3 weeks under favorable conditions.  It would then take them another six to eight weeks to make the return trip to France. However, most Bordeaux traders went further south on the African coast and many passed the horn of Africa to trade on the Indian Ocean coast in Mozambique, about a 3 month journey from Bordeaux. Overall, triangular trade voyages from Bordeaux took 12 to 18 months.

La Licorne is one of the Bordeaux ships that traded in Mozambique. An article by Yvan Matagon in Historia retraces the ship's voyage based on it's captain's detailed diary. The article describes the complexities and sheer inhumanity of this trade in human beings. (Bad English translation by babel fish with some minor adjustments by me - if you can read the French version)

Le 18 janvier 1787, par vent favorable, le trois-mâts La Licorne appareille de Bordeaux [...] chargé par le bureau des Fermes de Bordeaux [la douane] de lettres patentes l'autorisant « à se rendre sur la côte Mozambique en passant par l'îsle de France (l'île Maurice) pour y chercher 500 nègres et les transporter dans les colonies françaises de l'Amérique, particulièrement dans l'isle et côte de Saint-Domingue ». [...]

January 18, 1787, by favorable wind, the three-masted ship La Licorne sails from Bordeaux [... ] charged by the office of the Farms of Bordeaux [ customs ] of letters patent authorizing it "to go on the Mozambique coast while passing by the îsle of France (Mauritius) to get 500 negros and to transport them in the French colonies of America, particularly in the isle and coast of Saint-Domingue". [... ]

Après avoir perdu le mât de misaine dans un violent coup de vent, le navire mouille le 6 juin 1787 en rade de Port Louis, après une traversée de cent cinquante-huit jours, « tout l'équipage étant en bon état, aucun malade pendant la traversée, ni même aucune attaque ni symptôme de scorbut ».[...]

After having lost the foremast in a violent strong gale, the ship stops on June 6, 1787 in the harbor of Port Louis, after a one hundred fifty-eight days crossing, "all the crew being in good condition, none fell ill during the crossing, not even an attack nor symptom of scurvy".[...]

De nombreux concurrents étant déjà arrivés, il faut les devancer, et éventuellement leur souffler leur cargaison. [...] Le Modeste , de Lorient, qui vient de passer six mois en Mozambique, n'a pu acheter que 200 Noirs, alors qu'il en demandait 300. Et il n'en ramène qu'une centaine, la moitié ayant succombé à la maladie.[...]

Many competitors having already arrived, they must be preceded, and possibly get to their cargo first [... ] the Modeste, of Lorient, which has just spent six months in Mozambique, could buy only 200 Blacks, whereas it wanted 300 of them. And it's bringing back only one hundred, half having succumbed to desease.[... ]

Le 13 septembre, La Licorne mouille dans le port de Lombo, comptoir portugais. Trois navires s'y trouvent déjà [...] En rade de Mozambique, Brugevin trouve cinq navires cette fois, dont Le Breton , de Nantes. Son capitaine, Gendron, cherche un chargement de 1000 Noirs. Sur les 650 réunis, il en a déjà perdu 60 pour cause de maladie ou de révolte. Cette fois, Brugevin [capitaine de La Licorne] trouve plus gros que lui. Il décide donc d'attendre sagement le départ de ce concurrent gourmand.[...]

Le 4 décembre, Le Breton ayant disposé de toutes ses ressources cède enfin la place à ses concurrents. Il emporte 820 têtes, reste des 1 020 de tout âge et sexe réunis après un séjour de cinq mois, le reliquat étant mort.[...]

September 13, La Licorne sets ancor in the port of Lombo, Portuguese trading counter. Three ships are there already [... ] Near Mozambique, Brugevin finds five ships this time, of which the Breton, of Nantes. Its captain, Gendron, is seeking a load of 1000 Blacks. Of the 650 on board, he already lost 60 due to disease or revolt. This time, Brugevin [ captain of La Licorne] finds larger than him. He thus decides to wisely await the departure of this hungry competitor.[... ]

December 4, the Breton having used up all its resources finally yields the space to its competitors. It carries 820 heads, what remains of the 1 020 of all ages and sex gathered together after a five months stay, the remainder having died.[... ]

Le 15 janvier, après s'en être procuré encore 31, désespérant d'obtenir son compte (450 [ésclaves]), elle [La Licorne] s'apprête à lever l'ancre quand un concurrent qui mouille au large propose à Brugevin d'abandonner ses 25 Noirs, à raison de 75 piastres la tête, si ce dernier lui cède ses droits de traite pour la fin de la saison - ainsi, il se débarrasse de La Licorne et peut continuer la traite plus longtemps pour remplir ses cales. Ayant déjà perdu 10 têtes de maladie, Brugevin transporte à présent 456 Noirs, tous à peu près bien portant. Ils se répartissent à une vingtaine près comme suit : 281 nègres adultes, 70 négresses adultes, 58 négrillons au-dessous de seize ans, 28 négrilles au-dessous de quatorze ans. Brugevin reprend la mer le 20 janvier 1788, un an et deux jours après avoir quitté les eaux de la Gironde.[...]

1784 Slave ship Aurore from La Rochelle

January 15, after having gotten another 31 more, despairing about obtaining its account (450 [ slaves]), it [La Licorne]] is on the point of lifting the anchor when a competitor which is ancored at sea proposes to Brugevin to give up its 25 Blacks, at a rate of 75 piastres per head, if he gives them his rights to trade for the rest of the season - thus getting rid of La Licorne and now able to continue the trade longer to fill its hulls. Having already lost 10 heads to disease, Brugevin transports now 456 Blacks, all in pretty good health. They are distributed as follows: 281 adult male negros, 70 adult Female negros, 58 male negro children under sixteen years old, 28 female negro children under fourteen years old. Brugevin sets sail again on January 20, 1788, one year and two days after having left the waters of the Gironde.[... ]

Ayant bien nourri ses Noirs, les faisant profiter du grand air régulièrement, respectant les conditions d'hygiène élémentaires et ne s'étant pas trop surchargé, Brugevin réussit à ne perdre que fort peu d'éléments dans l'océan Indien. Mais malgré - ou peut-être à cause - de ces bonnes conditions relatives, une révolte éclate le 23 janvier 1788. Seuls les Macoux se sont révoltés. Heureusement ! Brugevin ne cache pas que si tous les Noirs s'étaient unis, il n'aurait pas donné cher des 10 % de Blancs qui peuplent La Licorne.[...]

Having nourished its Blacks well, making them benefit from fresh air regularly, observing basic hygiene and having not overloaded, Brugevin succeeds in losing only very few individuals in the Indian Ocean. But in spite of - or perhaps because - of these relatively good conditions, a revolt bursts out on January 23, 1788. Only the Macoux revolted. Fortunately! Brugevin does not hide the fact that if all the Blacks had been unified, they would have easily overtaken the 10 % of Whites on La Licorne.[...]

Le 22 avril enfin, on atteint la rade de Cap-Français à Saint-Domingue, cent cinquante-neuf jours après avoir quitté le Mozambique. Le 23, après l'aval des autorités sanitaires, des représentants de la colonie procèdent au recensement de la cargaison. Sur les 456 Noirs que Brugevin a rassemblés, il ne lui en reste que 390. En exceptant la vingtaine vendue à Table Bay, Brugevin n'a donc à en déplorer que 46, c'est-à-dire 10 % de sa cargaison. Le résultat est exceptionnel. Peu de capitaines s'enorgueillissent de si bons résultats.

April 22 finally, the ship reaches Cap-Français in Saint-Domingue, a hundred and fifty nine days after leaving Mozambique. The 23, after the approval of the medical authorities, the representatives of the colony proceed to the census of the cargo. Of the 456 Blacks that Brugevin gathered, there remain only 390. Without counting those sold in Table Bay, Brugevin has thus only lost 46 of them, i.e. 10 % of its cargo. The result is exceptional. Few captains were could pride themselves of such good results.

Slave ship at Cap Francais, Saint Domingue. Shows purchase of slaves on deck of ship. (click on image to enlarge)

La vente a lieu le 25 avril, aux conditions habituelles : un tiers au comptant, deux tiers en traites, dont moitié payable dans un an, soit en avril 1789, et l'autre en avril 1790. Les gains rapportent un total de 739 000 livres, soit un bénéfice de 353 % [sur le prix d'achat des esclaves]! [...]

Brugevin est un capitaine qui rapporte des gains conséquents à ses armateurs, il faut insister sur cet aspect exceptionnel. Qu'en est-il du bénéfice du Breton qui a jeté à l'eau près de 200 de ces Noirs sur 850 avant même d'être entré dans l'Atlantique ?[...]

The sale takes place on April 25, under the usual conditions: a third the cash, two thirds in trades, half payable in one year, thus in April 1789, and the other in April 1790. In total the profits are of 739 000 pounds, that is to say a benefit of 353 % [ on the purchase price of the slaves ]! [... ]

Brugevin is a captain who brings in sugnificant profits to his ship-owners, One must insist on this exceptional aspect. What happened to the benefits of the Breton  which threw overboard nearly 200 its 850 Blacks before it even entered the Atlantic?[...]

Le 23 juin, La Licornereprend la mer, non sans que Brugevin n'ait converti les 240 000 livres du comptant reçu en fret.[...]

Le Trésor royal s'en tire lui aussi à bon compte : Brugevin a payé 19 109 livres de droits pour marchandises exportées à destination de l'Europe. Le 13 août, La Licorne est de retour à Bordeaux, après une absence de dix-huit mois et quatre jours.

On June 23, La Licorne sets sails again, not without Brugevin converting the 240 000 pounds of the cash received into fret.[... ]

The royal Treasury draws benefits as well: Brugevin paid 19 109 pounds of rights for goods exported bound for Europe. August 13, La Licorne is back in Bordeaux, after an eighteen months and four days absence

Who sent the ships

Saugera identified 186 ship-owner firms that were involved in the Bordeaux slave trade from 1685 to 1826. Most only sent one or two ships and 7 firms account for 20.8% of the slave ships each with 10 or more expeditions. The largest of these firms are the Couturier family with 14 expeditions form 1739 to 1768, the Laffon de Ladébat with 15 from 1764 to 1792 and the Nairac with 25 from 1740 to 1792, by far the largest and most regular slave trading family in Bordeaux. They are responsible for almost 30% of all salve trading expeditions from the city after 1750. All of these families were also involved in trade with the colonies 2.

The colony plantations:

In Saint Domingue, later Haiti, alone there were 749 sugar plantations many of which belonged to Bordeaux aristocrats and merchants 3. Some later returned to Bordeaux at the end of their life.

Slave Sale, French West Indies, early 19th cent.

View of a Sugar Plantation, French West Indies, 1762

Sugar Mill with Vertical Rollers, French West Indies, 1665

Manioc/Cassava Preparation, French West Indies, 1667

More information provided by Afew:

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):

Monsieur,
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:
Sir,
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:

le sol est beau et bon
elle rend de 300 à 340 milliers de beau sucre
elle commence à manquer de force
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>
il faudrait 300 têtes de nègres sur cette habitation, ceux qu'il y a sont en assez bon état mais pas assez nombreux.

the soil is fine and good
[the plantation] yields 300 to 340 "milliers" of high-quality sugar
[the plantation] is beginning to lack strength [labour]
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>
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.

Blacks in Bordeaux

Saugera estimates that in the 18th century about 4000 Black and Métis came to Guyenne, the region around Bordeaux. In his book on the Bordeaux's slave trade he includes an interesting chapter on "The Blacks of Guyenne". Some were freed slaves, others came with their owners or were sent by them to Bordeaux to learn a trade before returning to the colonies and, in at least one know case, an African never enslaved came to study a trade in Bordeaux before returning to his family in Africa.

In 1746, a 15 year old boy was declared at the Bordeaux Amiralty under the name of Martin: his father, the second king of the river Grand Jong (Junk, south of the Cap Mesurano) had put him in the care of Jean Delzolliès - maybe on the voyage of the Aimable-Flore that the captain made to the Guinea coast in 1742. For the African kings, sending a child was a way to have closer ties with Europe in view of improving and reinforcing the exchanges. After a few years of training with the white merchants, the young African was taken back home as was the case for Martin in 1748, by the same captain. 2

However, this case was the exception. The 1777 census of the general Bordeaux area reported 208 Black slaves, 160 of them men, and 94 free Blacks, 49 of whom were men. On analyzing the census Saugera found that 87% of Black slaves were domestics, cooks, and wig makers, and 37% of free Blacks held these occupations. Among the free Blacks there was also a house renter, an innkeeper, two solders, and a seamstress 2.

The end of the trade

On  March 27th 1848 slavery was legally abolished in France and its colonies, one month after the revolution of 1848 brought the second republic to power. It took several more months for it to be applied in the colonies where 73,500 slaves were freed in Martinique, 87,000 in Guadeloupe, 12,500 in French Guyana, 62,000 at La Reunion and 7,000 in Sénégal. At the same time the coolie trade expands transporting labourers from India, China and some from Africa to the French colonies. The last coolie ship arrives in Guadeloupe in 1889 with 600 Indians who boarded in Pondichéry. The ship is called the Nante et Bordeaux.
On Mai 21st 2001 the French parliament passed a law recognising the slave trade as a crime against humanity. Three years later a committee for the memory of slavery is established by parliament to, among other tasks, propose changes to the national school curriculum and encourage further research on the slave trade and slavery.

At the local level in Bordeaux, after years of pressure from local groups, including Diverscites which held an annual memorial event for the past 9 years,  a commitee was formed by the city to come up with proposals on how it could remember its slave trade past. The committee's report was issued on the occasion of the first national commemoration of the abolition of slavery on Mai 10th 2006. Their first porposal was implemented that same day with the inauguration of a commemorative plaque on the Bordeaux riverbank.

The contemporary curriculum:

France's school curriculum has long been a national curriculum developed by the ministry of education which then provides guidelines for textbook publishers and teachers. French students, for the most part, have the same curriculum regardless of what school they are in. In the French colonies for many years students in whether they were in Senegal or Algeria or elsewhere were all taught about "Nos ancêtres les Gaulois", our Gallic ancestors. In 2000 a special authorization was issued so that schools in the Department D'Outre Mer (DOM), French Overseas Departments such as Guadelope, Martinique, French Guyna and La Reunion were allowed to have an adjusted curriculum at every school level so the teaching of history and geography in these regions could be adapted to their geographic situation and local cultural heritage. Today students in the DOMs usually learn more about the slave trade and slavery than those in other regions of France. Special regional textbooks have been published for elementary, lower secondary and high schools.

In 2004 the Comité pour la Mémoire de l'Esclavage (CPME) reviewed both the ministry of education's curriculum requirements and school textbooks. They found differences between the national curriculum and textbooks and between the DOMs and metropole France. High school textbooks had more information on the slave trade than was required by the national curriculum, in lower secondary schools, teaching 11 to 14 year olds, both the curriculum and textbooks where lacking whereas the national elementary school programs were more detailed than textbooks with regard to the slave trade and slavery.  The committee also argued, and I would agree, that the DOMs more in depth curriculum is a positive development but that the history of slavery should not been seen as a regional history but rather an integral part of the France's economic and colonial history which all students should study.

There is a wealth of resources that teachers can use which the CPME report highlights. In Nantes a very active local organization, L'Association Les Anneaux de la Memoire, even put together an educational suitcase they lend to schools. In the reunion one school developed their own web site on the history of slavery.

A 2006 thesis prize was established by the CPME to reward students who have written a thesis that contributes to a greater understanding of the slave trade, slavery and it's abolition.

Food for thought

What do you think students should learn in school? Have you had experience trying to teach students about slavery and the slave trade? What did you learn in school and has the curriculum changed since then? What section(s) of this diary series did you find most interesting?

Sources:


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The British and French involvement in slavery seems fairly similar. Things happened at slightly different times and places but the general approach seems to be the same.

I am struck by the high mortality rate involved in the transport process. The example you give of a more "enlightened" than average Captain who kept more of his slaves alive to be sold than other skippers, seems to make good business sense. It is strange that others preferred to treat the slaves worse, when it was really in the slavers own interest to do better.

It is an extreme example of amoral, short termist capitalism. The supply of new slaves seems to have been regarded as endless, so it was considered simpler to acquire new people than to treat the existing ones better.

Education about slavery in this period should combine examples of the stories of slavers and individual slaves with more systematic explanations of the economic and social consequences in each of the three legs of the triangle.

The inhumanity of the system should emerge clearly from the material, without the need for too much heavy handed moralising. I presume it is more effective to have schoolchildren come to their own conclusions, on the basis of the evidence,  rather than just be told what they should think.

I suppose a full examination of the topic would need to expand it to examine slavery in other eras and cultures. The status of a slave in the Roman Empire was rather different than the sort of slavery examined in these three diaries (scope for a compare and contrast question to see if the pupil had been paying attention to this course of study).

You have done a superb job of assembling information from different sources beating on different aspects of the subject. By starting with one port you have been able to give a useful summary of a complex topic, in three comparatively brief essays.

by Gary J on Fri Jun 16th, 2006 at 07:54:09 AM EST
Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

As I discovered there is a lot of interesting studies being done on the slave trade. Including several on mortality rates of both slaves and crew. Some health care advances are linked in part to attempts to decrease mortality rates, as you mention more for economic then humanitarian reasons.

One article I found interesting is:
New Evidence on the Causes of Slave and Crew Mortality in the Atlantic Slave Trade by Richard Steckel and Richard Jensen published in the Journal of Economic History of March 1986 but much more has been written since then.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Fri Jun 16th, 2006 at 04:18:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
a lot.

I would love to see slavery discussed more in our classes.

After all, slavery is a very western concept...we created it... I think we should be the one fighting it..since we can still see the same symbolic universe applied to some western jobs...And actually, slavery in prostitution and manufacturing is still very widespread.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Sat Jun 17th, 2006 at 07:39:05 AM EST
slavery is a very western concept...we created it...

It is not Western-only. Don't forget the Eastern route to Arabian countries, for example.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Jun 17th, 2006 at 07:46:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Indeed, not western-only...but the connotations of this series are indeed completely western.

Actually, there are also other cases in the Amazonia..a s far as I think I remember (I am not sure, in a word). Or int he ancient world with different connotations.

But, very relevant point, a general notion of slavery can be found in other places and time frames.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Sat Jun 17th, 2006 at 08:27:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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