The city of Nantes became involved in the Atlantic slave trade fairly late on.
The 17th century saw the birth of the French colonies, and the first slaving expedition, which took place in 1657, heralded what would become the port's main source of economic enrichment for the following century: the Atlantic Slave Trade. Nantes became the main port for the slave trade in France in the 18th century and retained this position until 1831, when the period of the illegal French slave trade came to an end.
In 1608, the kingdom of France acquired its first colony in North America: New France. In 1625, the French settled on Saint Kitts, and 10 years later, they occupied Martinique and Guadeloupe. Their dominion extended next to Guyana, then to the western part of Hispaniola, renamed Saint-Domingue. The signing of the Peace of Ryswick in 1697 between the kingdoms of France and Spain legitimized the French occupation of the western part of Saint-Domingue. Against this background, many people from France came to live in the colonies and sold their labor for three years: these people were known as indentured. But indenture was not sufficient to meet the workforce needs of agricultural exploitation, and turning to slavery meant the colonists could manage immense sugar plantations.
The Beginnings of the Slave Trade in Nantes
The city of Nantes became involved in the slave trade quite late on. While the Portuguese opened their first trading post in 1445, off the Mauritanian coast, the first expeditions of ships from Nantes to Africa only departed in 1657. Traders Guillaume, Nicolas, and Gratien Libault engaged in a tentative trade, alongside the more righteous trade practiced directly with the American colonies.
In 1658, on the initiative of Colbert, Louis XIV signed an edict establishing the legal status of slaves in the overseas French colonies. France was thus the first European kingdom to legislate on the status of slaves, producing the Code Noir (Black Code). A slave's status was that of personal property. The living conditions in the colonies were extremely difficult. The life expectancy of slaves rarely exceeded 20 years on the plantations. For this reason, the colonists regularly bought new captives.
Exchanges all along the African Coast
The slave ships from Nantes left their home port for the coast of Africa. Once they arrived at the trading post, the captain would open talks with the representative of the African king or their ministers in charge of negotiations. Negotiations would be lengthy and the ship would travel for between three and six months along the African coast, from trading post to trading post, in order to make up its cargo. A small part of the merchandise loaded in Nantes would serve to pay for the major customs, such as the right to anchor and open up trade. The main part of the cargo would be used to pay for captives.
Alkemy, Roy de la Guinée (1675/1699) by François Gérard JOLLAINChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
In the 17th century, wars and slave raids were common in Africa. African kings and chiefs put in place a system of hunters and traffickers. The captives were then exchanged for gunpowder, weapons, brandy, textiles, utensils, glass beads, and tobacco. But as the 17th century continued, the demand for captives grew. As a consequence, the African kingdoms found themselves in a quasi-permanent state of war. Customary practices turned sentences for criminal offences into captivity, thus multiplying the number of captives. This trade led to veritable fortunes for the Europeans and African kings, although some kings refused to sell their own people. The kingdoms of Benin, Dahomey, Ashanti, and Oyo all profited from the slave trade and gained significant wealth.
One of the First Great Slaving Expeditions from Nantes: L'Hercule, 1707
In 1707, Nantes shipowner René Montaudouin outfitted L'Hercule, a one-hundred-fifty-ton ship, at the order of Samuel Morisse. Destination: Africa. The ship was intercepted at Cape Lahou, off Côte d'Ivoire, by a Dutch ship, which fired on L'Hercule, killing thirty-eight members of the crew. A new attempt at a slaving expedition was made in November 1708 by the Guinea Company, which equipped the Duc de Bretagne for Africa. The Nantes ship left Ouidah, Benin, in March 1709, with 592 captives on board. It arrived in Saint-Domingue in July 1709.
Port de Paimboeuf (1776) by Nicolas Marie OZANNE, Yves Marie LE GOUAZChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
At the beginning of the 18th century, the monopoly held by the large French trading companies was ended, putting national companies and private enterprises in competition. The slave trade was booming, and in 1709, nine ships left Nantes for the coasts of Africa. Between 1707 and 1711, 75% of French slaving expeditions left from Nantes and its outports. The port's dominance was little contested in the 18th century, although the European political context was not always favorable. Other ports still tried to compete with Nantes, including Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Lorient, Saint-Malo, and Le Havre.
A Flourishing Trade in Nantes
Throughout the 18th century, Nantes maintained its rank as foremost port for the French slave trade, totaling 43% of the country's slaving expeditions. To increase profits, some captains decided to transport more slaves in their ship's tweendeck and thus increase their tonnage. For example, in November 1783, La Joséphine, a Nantes vessel with a tonnage of 250, transported 650 captives to the Antilles. Another Nantes ship of 150, La Marie Séraphique, transported 312 captives to Cap-Français in 1769. The watercolor of the plan, profile, and distribution of La Marie Séraphique shows the situation of the captives on board. This document, signed by participants in the slave trade, is an original, unique document.
The crossing was far from easy. Lasting around two months, captains feared for the health of their "cargo." The health of the captives was checked every day. They were washed, shaved, and forced to clean the deck and tweendeck where they were transported. Once they arrived at Saint-Domingue, they were presented for sale, either on land or still on board the ship on which they had arrived. This trade enriched not only the port of Nantes and elite merchants, but also attracted a large community of foreign traders.
The Indienne Trade
In 1759, Louis XV put an end to the ban on importing and producing printed fabric in France. This caused a revolution in the national and local industrial landscape. Printed fabric in the Indian style, known as indienne, fascinated Europeans. The protective measure, dating back to 1686, aimed to protect the domestic market in Lyon silks and the manufacture of woolen cloth, which were in direct competition with indienne fabric. Until 1759, cargos destined for the African trade posts included printed fabric acquired in large quantities on the Indian market as well as weapons, gunpowder, and metal. After this date, the production of fabric became in part domestic. Subsidiaries of indienne manufacturers set up in Nantes and Bordeaux with the aim of selling a part of their merchandise in these ports.
Dessin des indiennes de traite, Favre, Petitpierre et Compagnie, à Nantes (1800/1825) by FAVRE PETITPIERREChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
In Nantes, Protestant families from Switzerland, such as the Petitpierre family, moved in. They developed their trade after having opened large factories in their countries of origin. The first workshops to open in Nantes in 1759 were those of Louis Langevin, a trader from Nantes, and Pierre Gorgerat, a wood engraver for indienne presses. From this date, the city developed an intrinsic link between the slave trade and the production of printed textiles. The economy of the slave trade was not only based on the remote, but also on local production. Participants in the slave trade in Nantes were thus far more numerous than we could imagine.
Slaves in Nantes
In August 1777, Louis XVI published a declaration on the law on Black people. Motivated by fears of "Black people, people of mixed-race and people of color" developing a sentiment of "independence and indocility," he forbade them entry to French territory. However, that same year, 700 people of color were counted in Nantes. Their presence is known thanks to the “registre des écrous”, a registry that recorded each individual entry into French territory, indicating their age, landlord, and the reason for their presence in the city. Some are recorded as passing through, while others had come to learn a trade. Many of them worked as domestic servants for the bourgeois tradespeople. The portraits of Dominique and Marguerite Deurbroucq, in which they are each accompanied by a servant of color, serve as proof.
Although we have no information about the individuals in the background of the portraits of the Deurbroucq couple, their presence in these paintings is evidence of a population of people of color on French soil—specifically, in Nantes—in the 18th century. The depiction of Marguerite Deurbroucq is more complex than that of Dominique. The different elements of the painting highlight the slave trade and the attention paid to the depiction of the slave's features prove it to be an original.
The Living Conditions of Slaves on the Plantations
The death rate of slaves on the plantations required the enslaved workforce to be regularly replaced. The most sought-after captives were men 20 to 25 years, strong and in good health, to work on the sugar plantations. This was the most difficult work, which had a very high death rate for slaves and a short life expectancy. Other types of large plantations, known in French as habitations, employed slaves to work the land and process harvests of indigo and coffee.
Adolescent slaves would be trained for roles vital to the functioning of the plantations, such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and locksmiths, and women would be trained for small repairs or domestic chores. Once they were accustomed to plantation life, some would become "workshop" slaves and be put in charge of the functioning of parts of the plantation infrastructure, such as the mill, the boiling house, and the curing house. Rest days were rare and could be cancelled. Life in the colonies was particularly difficult for women. Masters would sometimes have non-consensual sex with their slaves. These rapes and forced concubinages resulted in children who were referred to at the time by the word "mulatto," and whose status was set down in the Code Noir and depended on that of the mother. Anyone who tried to run away from the plantations was pursued by slave hunters, who were charged with either bringing them back to the plantation so they could be punished by mutilation, or with killing them. These escapes were known as "maroonage." The life of a slave in the Antilles was one of work, punishment, malnutrition, and sickness. Many engravings on this theme were published by abolitionists from the end of the 18th century, in order to depict the inhuman treatment of slaves in the colonies.
An Anti-abolitionist City
A large part of the wealth of Nantes in the 18th century was founded on the slave trade. When the question of the abolition of slavery was raised by the revolutionaries at the end of the 18th century, the Nantes' elite reacted quickly. The day after the first abolition, the municipal councilors of the city sent trade representatives to the National Convention to argue in favor of the slave trade. The revolutions in Saint-Domingue starting in 1791 and the abolition of slavery in the French part of the island in 1794 rocked Nantes. The traders feared for their economic and financial interests as well as for the general activity of the port. Slavery was abolished in France on Pluvoise 16, year II of the Revolutionary calendar—February 4, 1794—but it only applied in part in the colonies. However, the independence of Haiti in 1804 meant the emancipation of 455,000 slaves.
Scène de traite sur la côte d'Afrique (1820/1849) by Edouard DUNCANChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
The abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain in 1807 only increased the growing pressure of the French government on slave ship owners. Despite everything, they continued to outfit ships for the slave trade, even when this became illegal following a series of laws (1818, 1827, 1831). Between 1818 and 1831, 100,000 men, women and children were deported on board slave ships that originated in Nantes. The definitive abolition of the slave trade in 1831 transformed the economic landscape of the city. Several years later, in 1848, the decree on the abolition of slavery in France was passed. This put a definitive end not only to the slave trade, but also to the activity of Nantes' indienne producers, who manufactured indienne fabric for export to Africa.
Between the second half of the 16th century and the end of the 19th, the slave trade had affected more than 13 million African men, women and children, who had been deported to European colonies in America. In Nantes, one of the cities most involved in this traffic, it was decided in the 1980s that something should be done to ensure this part of the city's history was not forgotten. In the Museum of the History of Nantes, several rooms were dedicated to this tragic aspect of the city's past. The major aspects of the slave trade in Nantes are presented there, such as the Atlantic crossing, the sale of slaves in the colonies, and life on a plantation. These rooms, which opened in 2007, represent a step toward acceptance of this part of Nantes' history on the part of the local population.
In the city itself, a memorial to the abolition of slavery was raised in 2012 by Krzysztof Wodiczko and Julian Bonder on the Quai de la Fosse dock, aiming to create a route of reflection centered around this history of slave trading. Two thousand glass plaques record the names of the 1710 ships and the departure dates of the Nantes slaving expeditions. There is also a city route intended to help people understand the place of the slave trade in the port of Nantes.
This exhibition was created by the teams of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany – Nantes History Museum.