Book Review and Summary: Nantes et le Temps des Négriers

Nantes, a modest sized city in North-Western France, in what historically was Bretagne, was once during the 18th century a city intimately involved in the slave trade. Between just over a third and up to half of the total French slave trade during these years passed from this important mercantile city, as goods were exported to Western Africa, exchanged for slaves, these slaves shipped to Saint-Domingue (modern day Haïti) and other French Caribbean colonies, and then colonial products returned back to France – the infamous triangular trade. Reflecting well the contradiction of both admiring the mercantile past of Nantes (something well evidenced in the city, with its museums filled with exhibits on the relationship to the sea, its museum ships, the river which runs directly through the city leading to the ocean….) and expressing disgust at the horrors perpetrated by it through the slave trade, is Nantes et le temps des négriers, (Nantes in the time of slavers) a French-language book written by Armel de Wismes. This is a book which is principally devoted to the social history of the slave trade as centered on Nantes, by an author who has written a variety of other books about daily life in past historical epochs in France.

Chapter 1, “Le commerce triangulaire Nantes et ses grands armateurs” (The Triangular Trade: Nantes and the big ship-owners) starts with the history of the slave trade in Western civilization and then moves to Nante’s history with it. Nantes did not involve itself in the slave trade until late in the 17th century, a late-comer, but would come to be responsible for up to 1/3 of the French slave trade betzeen 1706 and 1832, moving itself 450,000 slaves in 1,300 voyages and with 40,000 sailors. It thus benefitted heavily, developping in measure to this growth, and saw nothing shameful in the trade in slaves. The big merchants made their fortunes from it, coming from all over France and from overseas, producing a new aristocracy in Nantes (and like the aristocracy, they continued to be very family based in their business and social affairs). Although they ran into troubles at times with the failure to pay debts from the colonists, revolts of slaves, foreign competition, and above all else wars by England against France, they made tremendous profits nevertheless, and in the era just before the French Revolution these sums were as high as they had ever been.

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Chapter 2, “Les hommes et les navires Nantais : ‘transporteurs de nègres'” (The men and ships of Nantes :”Transporters of Negroes’) concerns the slaving voyages undertaken, focusing on the crews of the slave ships, routes, and the social origins, training, practices, and actions of members such as the captain, lieutenants, surgeons and sailors. It also details the good and supplies brought by the ship, the conditions of slaves on the ship (and the conditions of the slavers as well), a small amount of the interaction between slaves and the slavers, the ships themselves and their voyage organization, as well as how they were fitted out and equipped.

Chapter 3, “Les opérations de traite sur les côtes de Guinée : Négriers, trafiquants, and captives” (The trade’s operation on the Guinee coasts: Slave ships, trafickers, and captives), covers the operations of the slave trade in the travel to Africa and the problems that were encountered along the way, such as the irony of the danger of being captured by the Barbary pirates and the slavers turned into slaves themselves. Upon arriving in Africa, slavers had to deal with disease, attacks, and an unknown environment, operating from small trading factories off the coast from Mauritania to Angola. Sometimes the slaves were procured by the slavers from these trading posts, but more often it was necessary to conduct mobile negotiations with African kings to procure slaves. These are described, such as the negotiators, various figures ranging from Europeans in Africa, to courtiers, to metis, and diverse other figures. When the slavers succeeded in gathering their slaves, a difficult task especially for loading them (they often preferred death to the slave trade), they left as soon as possible. Sometimes they would be overwhelmed by slave revolts, and resistance was a constant fact of life, whether it be passive through suicide or active through attacks.

Chapter 4, “Du continent noir aux îles à suicre : Les périlleuses traversées des marchands de bois d’ébène” (From the Black continent to the Sugar Islands: The perilous voyages of the slave traders), deals with the next part of the slave traders’ voyage, as they traveled from Africa to the Caribbean to sell their product of human lives. This was the hardest part of the voyage, taking in direct route normally 2 to 3 months or even more, although in exceptional cases it could be as low as 40 days. Normally however, there was an indirect course, stopping several weeks at São Tomé and Príncipe, both for replenishing the ships and recuperating the slaves (after all, it was not in the interests of the slavers for them to die). The environment on-board was a peculiar mixture of unspeakably cruelty and attempts to exercise and divert the slaves such as through dancing, to prevent them from deteriorating and so that they would sell at a good price. Revolts were a financial disaster due to the death of the valuable slaves, and the slavers often punished the revolt leaders with unspeakable cruelty and torture. When they arrived in the Caribbean, they either stopped at an island before heading directly to Saint-Domingue if the voyage had been harsh, or if they were in god state continued on. Regardless, they had to deal with the ever-present threat of pirates which infested the sea.

Chapter 5, ” Négriers, planteurs, et escalves aux îles” (Slavers, planters, and slaves at the islands), starts with the society found in the French Caribbean islands, composed of an astronomically wealthy upper elite class, the “poor whites”, such as sailors, sailors, and artisans, slaves, and free blacks whose social position varied but some were themselves very rich and wealthy, but at the same time lacking in civil rights. Slave ships bringing their slaves had to pay sometimes onerous duties (in kind – hence in slaves) during their inspections, before proceeding to do their best cosmetically to improve the appearance of their slaves for sale. Slaves were either sold on the ships or on the shore, neither under particularly pleasant conditions – in fact, onshore, mortality rates were even higher when they were held in reserve, and sales en masse where a great rush occurred to buy slaves individually, as many as one could grasp, was yet another moment of terror for the slaves. Slaves once sold were divided into skilled slaves, house slaves, and plantation slaves. Many slaves faced brutal torture from their masters, so far as death, despite this being in contradiction with French legal codes concerning the treatment of slaves, although there were “good” masters as well. The book seems to conduct a defense of slavery’s conditions in Saint-Domingue by stating that many were happy and their conditions were better than that of European common laborers. After having sold off the slaves, the slave trader captains would collect colonial products to bring back to France, as well as tacking on passengers, and conduct their lengthy three month-long voyage home.

Chapter 6, “Apogée et ruine du grand commerce Nantais” (The peak and decline of Nante’s golden age of trade), testifies to the effects of the trade on Nantes. Nantes was not simply a center of commercial activities related to the slave trade, but also in many ways became a colonial city itself, as the planters brought back vast numbers of slaves with them during their trips in France as their servants. This had been technically illegal under French law until corrected to enable them to do so. Throughout this period, the slave trade only grew in size and scope, but there were moral opponents in the form of the new French philosophes emerging who attacked the slave trade. The slave traders and the broader world of Nantes welcomed the revolution, believers in liberty, reason, and progress like others, but continues to defend the slave trade. In Saint-Domingue, the welcome was more conditional, fearing the breakdown of society and the attrition of their powers. Attempts to preseve the status quo were futile, and Saint Domingue burst into revolt, which combined with the abolition of slavery in 1792 to dampen the slave trade, while Nantes was heavily damaged during the Revolution. When slavery and the slave trade were restored under Napoleon, Nantes immediately attempted to resume its old trade, but the ongoing Napoleonic wars largely prevented this, forcing it to turn to alternate measures such as privateering.

Chapter 7, “Condamnation et survive de la traite. Les derniers négriers” (Condemnation and persistence of the trade. The last slavers), deals with how the slave trade existed after its formal abolition in 1815. The United Kingdom, which now had India and had lost the United States, had no need for the slave trade and used its abolition as a way to undercut its conventional rivals. However, this did not stop the slave trade, and the immediate plans that Nantes had for resuming it at the end of the war simply continued illegally. New ships, faster if even more inhumane, transported slaves from the old posts, outrunning European cruisers tasked with countering the trade. Their profits were even larger thanks to the illegality of the enterprise, and in many way the society of slavers changed little, operating in much the same way as before, while their counterparts on the African shores remained quite similar as well. The French sailors were even motivated by patriotic fervor, seeing it as a way to strike back against the Royal Navy’s pretense for controls over the sea. Over time however, security against the slavers strengthened (vividly demonstrated in the book by a fight between an English frigate and a group of French and Spanish slave ships), and slavery was gradually outlawed. Slave ships never really went away though; instead the name of their cargo simply changed, becoming coolies and indentured servants, free in name if not much else.

Chapter 8, “Les souvenirs historiques de la Nantes maritime et coloniale” (The historical memories of maritime and colonial Nantes) covers various architectural developments and sites hailing from this period as well as some of the historical events which happened at them. Nantes is still, and perhaps always will be, a city which has been deeply touched by its past in the slave trade, one which continues to form an enduring, if controversial, part of its legacy.

One question that one can raise at finishing such a history, is what particular category of history would one classify it in? One could call it a general history, a history of the slave trade as seen from a Nantes perspective, but I think that it best places itself as a social history, given the great availability of quotes, the description of conditions for slaves, and the discussion of the slavers and their lives, as well as their social origins. The book has excellent general statistics about the general slave trade, such as the regions slaves were taken from, and also the total numbers as part of the triangular trade, and it continues this throughout the book, in sections ranging from the medical statistics of slave trade crews both among crews and slaves to population statistics for the French colonies in the Caribbean and prices for slaves, but I still think that the social history aspect is the part which it does the best, among what is a very extensive covering of the slave trade. It also has a good selection of maps and images in the middle of the book.

This is a scholarly book, and there is little need to reiterate the immorality of the slave trade when it is already broadly known. However, sometimes I think the author is too sanguine concerning presenting some of its defenses and words. Near the beginning of the book it was declared that the French were less harsh than other Europeans and that there were some “good masters”, although it did note that these were a minority case and the vast majority were sadistic and terrible. While it may be due to language differences sometimes the text comes off with too much positivity towards certain exploits or successes of the slavers. It not deconstruct the nature of the trade and the moral aspects inherent except briefly in chapter 7, something which I think would have been fascinating to have additional material concerning the defense, opposition to, and the campaigns concerning slavery. The book has no need to constantly talk about the evils of slavery when that is broadly known and that isn’t the focus of the book, which is to place the Nante slave trade into its social historical context, but the casual treatment of it by the author can come off the wrong way at time and ignores some vital aspects for expansion and completion of the book’s scope.This is in no way to say that the author defends or approves of slavery, he clearly does not and makes it so, just he takes a conservative view which sometimes minimizes its crimes. Personally I’d prefer to read more books before forming an opinion on the slavers’ own morality at the least, and while this is a strong social history, I think some other sources would be vital.

It does however, raise an intriguing question: if men who were otherwise respected, normal, and decent, could engage in such a barbarous, cruel, evil, and horrific trade, then what does that say about the human condition? If they were themselves simply evil men, different from their counterparts, they would be easy to dismiss and to view as exceptions, and to rely upon the belief that simply being a “good person” is enough to prevent oneself from causing evil. Conversely, if they were cut from the same cloth as us, their actions become much more worrying, sinister, and dangerous, in showing that even regular people can commit the most brutal and horrible of acts and not see the evil that they commit.

Furthermore while I think the book overall is quite good as a general history of the French slave trade, more focus upon Nantes itself and the effect would in my opinion have been better. There are I am sure, quite a few histories of the slave trade. There are fewer which focus on the Nantes history of the slave trade. Much of the book could have been located in any other general book about the slave trade, without mentioning a word about Nantes. It does do this to some extent, talking about the controllers back in France, architectural developments, the initial fitting out of ships, and the slaves brought to Nantes, but more about the organization of the business in Nantes, its industrial and economic development, the interaction between slaves and the population, and particularities of a port city of such a unique maritime aspect, would have been profitable additions to the volume. At the least however, its discussion of the slave trade after 1815 seems like a topic which is otherwise neglected and is quite illuminating.

To compare this to La Première Compagnie des Indes : Apprentissages, échecs, et héritage 1664-1704, which is also a book about French colonial and mercantile trade during the same period, it provides much more information about the lives on the ships, the morality and psychological aspects of the action, the journeys, and the ships. It continues to provide a great deal of information about the origins and roles of certain Europeans, such as discussing at length the various slave ship crew members, as well as to communication and negotiations with Africans. But there is less about how communication was arranged back to Europe, the rivalry with other European powers, the state’s relationship and support, commercial and funding context and organization, and comparison to other Europeans (which in of itself is something I thought that La Première Compagnie des Indes needed more information on). These in my opinion are vital in making it into a social history, by its alternate focuses.

It makes it hard overall to judge this book; it contains a lot of fascinating information, an excellent amount of primary source documents, but it also has certain things that it lacks and I feel that its basic position and portrayal of the slave trade is rather sanguine. Regardless, of course as a slave trade history (I would suppose that this is important enough to put it into its own category), as a social history, commercial history, colonial history, and as a history of France in 18th century, it is a good if not perfect book, but also one which suffers from certain limitations which could have been better dealt with.