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Part II: Bordeaux and the slave trade - The slow beginning***

by Alexandra in WMass Tue Jun 20th, 2006 at 07:24:10 AM EST

  • Part II: Bordeaux & the slave trade - The slow beginning (Link to Part I and Part III)
  • Bordeaux and the slow start of the local slave trade expeditions
  • The first slave ship sails from Bordeaux in 1672
  • The Code Noir and slave trade incentives

Bordeaux and the slow start of the local slave trade expeditions

The port of Bordeaux in 1804 painted by Lacour. Click on the image to enlarge.

Bordeaux's involvement in the slave trade started very slowly and reached its peak with 34 expeditions the year of the French revolution (1789). Thirteen years later, in 1802, Bordeaux had more slave trade expeditions than Nantes.

***Back from the front page ~ whataboutbob

The port was repeatedly encouraged by the French crown to participate in the slave and colonial trade. Louis XIV's minister of Finance and secretary of the navy, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1691-1683), was a strong advocate of France's colonial expansion and worked to reduce the influence of foreign governments and merchants, especially the Dutch, in the French colonies and at home. He is considered the father of the French Royal Navy and promoted policies aimed at strengthening France's merchant marine.

Today one of Colbert's namesakes, a French missile cruiser, is a museum ship permanently anchored in the Bordeaux harbor.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Colbert was disappointed with Bordeaux's initial disinterest for his agenda. He informed the Bordeaux Parliament of the king's disapproval with the lethargy of local merchants who still relied mostly on Dutch ships to export their wine and grain2. In 1670 Colbert's son, reported back from a visit to the city:

Les gens de cette villes sont fort étourdis et fort vifs. Ils n'ont aucune application pour le commerce, et il n'y a pas trois bourgeois dans Bordeaux qui aient un vaisseau a eux, quoique ce soit une des villes du monde les mieux situées et qu'il paraisse que s'ils voulaient faire construire des vaisseaux, ils feraient un profit considérable pour la raison que cela les exempterait de payer le fret aux navires estranger, ce qui se fait pour le débit des vins et autres marchandises du pays, et augmente fort la dépense. (quoted in (2))

People of this city are extremely thoughtless and extremely sharp. They have no commitment for trade, and there are not even three bourgeois in Bordeaux who own a ship, though they are one of the best situated cities in the world and it seems that if they wanted to have ships built, they would make a considerable profit as it would allow them not to pay freight to foreign ships, as is done for the trade of wines and other goods from the region, and increases the expenditures tremendously. (translation errors mine)

"Nevertheless the measures taken by the state in favor of free trade with the islands allowed Bordeaux to send thirteen ships to the [French Caribbean] islands in 1671, and to continue with that momentum."2. In 1672 the Saint-Etienne-de-Paris, one of the very first slave ships expeditions identified in France, leaves from Bordeaux. It is among 107 ships to sail from the city that year along with 72 for France, 15 for England, Spain and Italy, and 19 for North America and the Caribbean.

The first slave ship sails from Bordeaux in 1672:

The Saint-Etienne-de-Paris is equipped and loaded by Izzac Le Cordier, a thirty year old captain from Honfleur, Normandy next to le Havre, and Langier, a small boat captain from  Blaye north of Bordeaux. They are working on behalf of some of the kings counselors residing in Paris.2

It's a brand new ship with a 180 ton capacity and a 35 man crew. The average age is 25 and only three of the recruits are local, two from Bordeaux, one from Blaye. As is typical on slave ships, due to high mortality rates among the crew, essential posts are duplicated. The Saint-Etienne has two pilots, two coopers and two surgeons in addition to a foreman, a carpenter, a cargo director responsible for the commercial operations, a clerk representing the ship owners, la Compagnie des Indes occidentales, and overseeing the commercial operations and a scribe to keep records.

The ship is headed for "Guinée" with 14 cannons and 36 firearms to defend itself and a cargo of goods typically used to trade for slaves:
  • 2000 iron bars
  • 38 barrels of small white cowries shells from the Maldives islands, which served as small currency
  • 1 barrel of manillas, brass or copper bracelets and legbands used as currency.
  • 1 barrel of knives
  • 1 case of pewter basins
  • 1 case of silk and damask fabric,
  • 6 cases of hardware or taffeta fabric
  • 1 bale of hats
  • 1 bale of red and blue fabric
  • 1 bundle of earthenware
  • 5 other bundles  
  • 6 cases of beef
  • 360 casks to hold drinking water for the crew and slaves.

1612 map of Guinea (includes area from modern Guinea to Benin) printed in Purchas his Pilgrimes, 1625 London. (Click on the map to enlarge)

Source: University of Florida Africa Map collection

In contrast, ships trading directly with the Caribbean had a cargo of staples such as lard, beef, ham, flour, fish, cheese and wine as well as haberdashery, shoes, shirts, canvas, nails, boards and riffles. There is no record of whether the Saint-Etienne completed its expedition or not. "War with Holland broke out in 1672. The Dutch pirates captured most of the Bordeaux ships, resulting in the bankruptcy of many ship owners and the collapse of the [city's] new insurance company"2 which insured their ships. It's another 12 years before any slave trade expedition is recorded in Bordeaux again.

By 1729 Bordeaux ship-owners and financiers had attempted a total of 11 expeditions, very few compared to Nantes. For the period from 1707 to 1728 alone Nantes sent at least 218 slave ships to Africa while Bordeaux sent only 6.

The historian Eric Saugera argues that Bordeaux's slow beginning in the slave trade is due in part to the success of its established European trade in products from its rich backcountry: wine, grain, as well as prunes, some tobacco, sweet chestnuts, honey, linen, cork, and paper. In the 18th century Bordeaux enters the colonial markets were it finds new highly profitable products, such as sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo, to re-export to its French and European markets. "In 1743 Bordeaux is the leading French colonial port with 32% of the market versus 22% for Nantes which had twice that at the end of the 1720s"2. Given these successes and the risks and investment requirements of the slave trade, Saugera argues, most Bordeaux merchants did not see the need to participate. Loans for early Bordeaux slave trade expeditions often had interest rates of 35 to 50% because of the risk of the expeditions failing.

The Bordeaux slave trade operated in a framework of national and international competition for economic power. It was affected by wars of religion and succession in Europe, wars with and among Africans in Africa, wars among colonial empires and later wars of independence in the "new world" colonies. Nations at war or state sanctioned pirates, some of which departed from Bordeaux, would steal, capture, or expel ships, a harrowing and often deadly experience for the captive passengers. The heavy slave ships with their few guns were especially easy pays in times of war.

The Venus from Bordeaux had a hard time leaving with the English at Annamabou [coast of current day Ghana...]. They claimed that the king of Annamabou had given them the exclusive right to the trade in exchange for the payment of large trade rights: as a result the French had to leave. [...] competition had become harsher [...] the Venus suffered the consequences. On august 23rd 1737, it had to comply and leave with an incomplete trade of 378 captives. The hurried departure did not allow them to take sufficient food supplies, 180 Blacks died during the voyage to Saint Domingue [present day Haiti]. (4 p.58)

In 1803 off the Angola coast two British slave ships battled the Brave for two hours killing 8 of it's Bordeaux sailors and injuring fourteen. About fifty years later The Illustrated London News published a British naval officer's illustrated account of one of these slave ship takeovers.

H.M. Gun-boat "Teaser" capturing the slaver "Abbot Devreux" in The Illustrated London News (Sept. 19, 1857), vol. 31, p. 284. (click on the image to enlarge)

This eyewitness account, dated Aug. 6, 1857 (with accompanying sketches), describes the capture of a slaver off the coast of Whydah, in West Africa. There were 235 enslaved Africans on board, and although the nationality of the slaver is not mentioned, it had a 27 man crew of Spaniards, Americans, Portuguese, and Brazilians.

The writer describes the chase in detail and adds: "As soon as we boarded her the hatches were opened, and such a scene never was witnessed. The slaves had been battened down all day during our nine hours' chase. They were all seasick and the stench and filth are incredible; perhaps you can imagine 235 human beings shut up in a place 50 feet by 20 feet, and only 3 feet 6 inches high, just room enough to clear the top of their heads when they are in a sitting position. They cried and sang, and those who could danced with delight." The liberated Africans were sent to Sierra Leone, "the first full vessel taken to Sierra Leone for upwards of nine years".

Source: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr.

The Code Noir and slave trade incentives:

In addition to proving incentives for merchants to enter the slave trade Louis XIV's government laid out the legal framework that would govern slave ownership in the French colonies. Colbert was in fact the instigator of the infamous Code Noir, first drafted by the governor of saint Domingue then revised and signed into law in 1685 by Louis XIV and Colbert's son who succeeded him as secretary of the navy.

The Code Noir [...] provided formal regulations for slavery, and became the template for ruling slavery in other French colonies like Louisiana (in the US). It defined slaves as 'portable property', and laid out an extremely harsh and rigid system of discipline and restrictions. It did however include certain humanitarian provisions, in part to control the slave mutilation that was so widespread in the French Caribbean. It enforced Catholic worship, provided religious holidays and instruction, tolerated intermarriage, attempted to preserve families and offered a modicum of protection for slaves. It was a brutal system, punishing even minor crimes with branding and flogging, and importantly gave the human trade a legitimate legal status. It was briefly abolished during the revolution, but restored by Napoleon. King Louis Phillipe gradually dismantled the system over the 1830s.

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

For an annotated pdf copy of the Code Noir in its original French click here

In 1716, a year after the death of Louis XIV, new rules were issued to encourage private entrepreneurs to enter the slave trade.

Nous avons permis et permettons à tous les négociants de notre Royaume, de faire librement le commerce des Nègres [...] à condition qu'ils ne pourront armer ni équiper leurs vaisseaux que dans les ports de Rouen, la Rochelle, Bordeaux et Nantes.

Lettres Patentes du Roi Janvier 1716

We have allowed and will allow all merchants in our kingdom, to freely trade in negros [...] on condition that they will only be allowed to prepare and equip their vessels in the ports of Rouen, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Nantes.

Edit from the king January 1716.

Elaborating on this new Edit, historian Robert Harms, explains how

Even though the government was no longer paying a commission of thirteen livres for every slave delivered alive to the Islands, as it had done for the Guinea Company, slave trading remained a state-subsidized business. [... Exports to Africa and direct exports to the colonies were exempted from duty fees.] However, upon returning from the islands with sugar, cotton and indigo, the direct traders had to pay full tariffs, whereas the slave traders paid only half tariffs"1.

Later that year new rules were also issued to expand the reach of the code noir to France where up until then slavery had been illegal since 1315. In fact, in 1571, the year Michel Montaigne left the Bordeaux parliament to write his famous Essays, a Normandy captain sailed into the port with slaves on broad he was planning to sell. The city's Parliament issued an order for him to be expelled and the slaves to be freed.

Original text of the 1716 rules expanding the Code Noir to France (for a more detailed article in English click here):
« Edit du Roi : Concernant les Esclaves Nègres des Colonies, qui seront amenés, ou envoyés en France.  Donné a Paris au mois d'Octobre 1716.

I. Nous avons connu la nécessite qu'il y a d'y soutenir l'exécution de l'édit du mars 1685 [le Code Noir], qui en maintenant la discipline de l'Eglise Catholique, Apostolique et Romaine, pourvoit a ce qui concerne l'état et la qualité des Esclaves Nègres, qu'on entretient dans lesdites colonies pour la culture des terres; et comme nous avons été informes que plusieurs habitants de nos Isles de l'Amérique désirent envoyer en France quelques-uns de leur Esclaves pour les confirmer dans les Instructions et dans les Exercices de notre Religion, et pour leur faire apprendre en même tems quelque Art et Métier dont les colonies recevroient beaucoup d'utilité par le retour de ces Esclaves; mais que les habitans craignaient que les Esclaves ne prétendent être libres en arrivant en France, ce qui pourroit causer auxdits habitans une perte considérable, et les détourner d'un objet aussi pieux et aussi utile.

II.  Si quelques-uns des habitants de nos colonies, ou officiers employés sur l'Etat desdites colonies, veulent amener en France avec eux des Esclaves Nègres, de l'un & de l'autre sexe, en qualité de domestique ou autrement pour les fortifier davantage dans notre Religion, tant par les instructions qu'ils recevront, que par l'exemple de nos autre sujets, et pour leur faire apprendre en même tems quelque Art et Métier, dont les colonies puissent retirer de l'utilité, par le retour de ces Esclaves, lesdits propriétaires seront tenus d'en obtenir la permission des Gouverneurs Généraux, ou Commandants dans chaque Isle, laquelle permission contiendra le nom du propriétaire, celui des Esclaves, leur age & leur signalement.

Recueil de règlement, édits, déclarations, et arrêts concernant le commerce, l'administration de la justice et la police des colonies françaises de l'Amérique et les Engages avec le Code Noir et l'addition audit Code Paris 1745. Source: Copy of the original in the appendix to The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861

In 1768 the King commended Bordeaux slave traders for their work and provided additional incentives:
The King having been informed that the merchants of the port of Bordeaux, are taking part with great zeal in the slave trade [...] his majesty wanting to second the efforts the merchants are doing for this trade, [..] orders that the merchants of Bordeaux who engage in the slave trade will benefit, as do the ports of St. Malo, Le Havre and Honfleur, from an exemption to 10 livres tax per head of negro that they will take to and introduce to the French islands and colonies of America.

Source: Ministry of Education, Bordeaux Academy, History and Geography resources

The zeal of Bordeaux merchants continued to expand the city's participation in the slave trade which reached its peak between the end of the United States war of independence in 1783 and the slave revolts and ultimate independence of Haiti in 1804, formerly Saint Domingue and Bordeaux's largest slave trade destination. In addition, to the financiers and captains of slave ships local merchants were also involved by selling goods for the trade. M. Charlot's merchandiseon rue du Soleil included "chains and irons to for negros, a copper furnace, and 60 items of brandy"3.

Part III in this series will be posted in the next few days.


This continues a very important and informative series of articles.

I note that slavery was made expressly legal in metropolitan France in the 18th century.

In England there was a judicial ruling by Lord Mansfield confirming that slavery was not permitted in England (but not affecting slavery in the colonies).

Extract from the Wikipedia article on William Mirray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Murray%2C_1st_Earl_of_Mansfield

James Somerset, a slave brought to England by his master, a Mr. Stewart of Virginia, brought suit against him on 14 May 1772. Lord Mansfield rendered his verdict in favor of Somerset on 22 June 1772.

"On the part of Somerset, the case which we gave notice should be decided, this day, the Court now proceeds to give its opinion. The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it's so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged."

Mansfield concluded that there was no legal backing for slavery in England. Furthermore, the Somerset case is the origin of the following words about English common law (although Mansfield himself never said them) -- words that have been memorized by British pupils ever since.

"The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe, and so everyone who breathes it becomes free. Everyone who comes to this island is entitled to the protection of English law, whatever oppression he may have suffered and whatever may be the colour of his skin."

It seems extraordinary that European powers were so willing to permit and encourage slavery and the slave trade in colonial territories, even at times when it was prohibited by their own domestic law.

by Gary J on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 09:10:03 AM EST
As is often the case the French case is a little more complex than I presented but there is only so much I could put into a diary, even a three part Diary.

The 1716 ruling by the king which extended the code noir to the metropole of France required approval by regional parliaments. The Nantes area approved it but in Paris there was resistance and it was never fully ratified there if I'm not mistaken. According to what I read this Paris resistance was more a result of rivalries between different factions then due to the issues of human rights. The Robert Harms book I reference in the diaries has quite a bit of interesting detail on this period. As with the case you mention in England there where contestations of the slavery laws. One famous case is a Black Woman who decided to join a religious order of nuns and her "owner" objected but lost the case in a court ruling based on the technicality that the "owner" had not registered their "property" upon entry in France and thus lost their claim on the new nun.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 10:01:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It seems extraordinary that European powers were so willing to permit and encourage slavery and the slave trade in colonial territories, even at times when it was prohibited by their own domestic law.

Montesquieu, another Bordeaux area 18th century resident and parliamentarian, said something very similar in his satiricalLettres Persanes.

To add to my previous reply about the 1716 extention of the Code Noir to metropole France:
"The Parlement of Paris tried to curb the practice of slavery by 16th century colonists by enacting laws that freed slaves brought into France by their masters. However, these laws only spurred the introduction of new racist legislation such as the Edict of 1716 which afforded freedom only to non-Negro slaves. Despite the existence of new racist laws, most French courts of the time opted to free slaves regardless of their race". (Source:Race, slavery, and the law in early modern France article by Sue Peabody. Highlighted by me).

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 08:10:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Great diary!

I hyperlinked the footnotes, I hope you don't mind.

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

by DoDo on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 11:50:25 AM EST
Glad you like the diary and thanks for the hyperlinks! What's the code? I know I've seen it posted before but didn't have the patience to go hunting around to find it.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 07:20:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Never mind I can look up the code you added. Thanks again.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 07:22:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For better understanding: "id" stands for identity, e.g. that's where you name a html element so that you can refer to it with an a tag -- this can be anything that must be unique (it can be "r1-%y%m%d", it can be "Iwanttopointhere", it can be "stupidHTMLcode"...). And when you refer to some part of the page with an a tag, put a hashmark before it, e.g. < a href="#Iwanttopointhere">. If you don't want small-casing, eliminate sup tags resp. the small-casing in the div tag.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jun 16th, 2006 at 07:29:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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