Monday, April 9, 2012

French Slave Trade from Nantes


The New York Times article, "Nantes Journal; Unhappily, a Port Confronts Its Past: Slave Trade," by Marlise Simons, on 17 December 1993-- Along the quays of the Loire, fine mansions speak of the time when Nantes was a great port that loomed large in France's colonial history.

Behind the pilasters and wrought-iron balconies lived the shipbuilders and sea captains who, local lore has it, bravely crossed the Atlantic and returned with precious produce from French possessions in the Americas. But few people here knew -- or chose to remember -- why exactly Nantes became so rich.


Breaking a taboo, the city has mounted an exhibition showing that its past wealth came largely from running slaves from Africa to the New World. So proficient was its fleet that Nantes became France's largest port and chief slave trader.

In the 18th century and well into the 19th, Nantes alone launched some 1,800 expeditions to buy African captives, hauling more than 500,000 men and women to the Americas. Slave ships from this port frequently sold their human cargo in Haiti, where plantation owners were often from Nantes, but they also dropped anchor elsewhere in the Caribbean and on the Louisiana coast.


Facing this painful past has not been easy for Nantes. "This exhibit had a hard time starting," said Marie Helene Juzeau, its present curator. "It seemed too sensitive, too difficult." 200,000 See Exhibit

From 1984, plans were blocked by a conservative Mayor and prominent local families, including descendants of the slavers, who said the exhibition would stir no interest and only give the city a bad name. But three years ago a new Socialist Mayor agreed to finance the project.


Nearly 200,000 people have already come to the castle of the Dukes of Brittany where the exhibit opened a year ago. Now the city has decided to extend it until May 29.

Several other European cities are confronting their slavers' past, which schoolbooks have commonly glossed over. Le Havre, France, and Liege, Belgium, had exhibits on slave trading -- though modest ones -- in 1986 and 1989 respectively. In Britain, Liverpool, which became Europe's dominant slave-trading city in the 18th century, is preparing a large permanent exhibit on slavery to open next year. A Triangular Trade.

Each May 10 since 2006, Nantes commemorating the abolition of slavery in France with official events and "walking of the slaves." Here, the march of 2011.
At Nantes, documents, drawings and objects convey how the slave business operated here and how this and many other European cities profited from what became known as "the triangular trade." (The same ships carried European goods to Africa, exchanged them for slaves, took the slaves to the Americas and returned to Europe loaded with sugar, tobacco, coffee, cacao and other tropical produce.)

The exhibit explains how a Nantes shipowner, to spread his risks, would often sell shares in a "slaving expedition." The money raised would finance the crew, food needed on board and cargo destined for the tribal rulers of Africa's west coast who sold the slaves to the traders.

Records of the African-bound cargo are ample and typically include guns, alcohol, beads and textiles, to be bartered for slaves. Some documents include "useful tips," like what gifts were expected by African kings before they would even agree to discuss business.


Sometimes transactions are recorded in great detail, like those between a Nantes trader and King Pepel of Bany in the Niger delta. On May 20, 1790, the trader, for example, bought a female slave from the King for many items, including 2 cloths, 3 guns, 20 knives, a bowl, 4 hats, 4 chains.


Some documents also hint at the cruelty of the operation. One notes that plenty of drinking water was needed on board to preserve the lives of the human cargo. But once the hold of a slave ship was full and it set off across the ocean, documents note, conditions were often so bad that 10 to 20 percent of the 300 or more slaves might die on the journey. Upon arrival, the trader could get up to five times the price he paid for a captive in Africa. Trade Spawns Own Economy

In Nantes and elsewhere in Europe, the slave trade spawned its own economy. From 1707 to 1847, records show, 3,829 slaving "expeditions" left from France alone. They generated vast business for shipyards, timber merchants, rope and sail makers. Glassmakers in Bohemia and Venice sold masses of beads and other trinkets destined for barter. Smiths made chains, shackles, spiked collars and other instruments to control the slaves. Manufacturers produced guns and ammunition for the traders and for barter in Africa.


Textiles to pay for slaves became so important, the exhibit notes, that in 1780 Nantes had more than 10 textile mills, employing 4,500 workers.

One ship of slaves could yield up to three or four shiploads of coffee, sugar, indigo, cacao, cotton -- produced by slave labor. Back in Nantes, as elsewhere in Europe, this cargo spawned sugar, chocolate, textile mills. Because of this economic web, Nantes kept trading slaves clandestinely for almost 20 years after France banned it in 1817. Yet a 12-volume history of Nantes published in 1843 devotes just one page to slavery.

A number of African officials have visited the Nantes show and asked for it to travel to West Africa. But when Nantes asked if it would interest Bordeaux, another important slave-trading city, it was given short shrift. More interested in its links with wine, Bordeaux said: no thanks. (source: The New York Times, 1993)

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