Les tables de honte, par Schneider et Langrand - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Les tables de honte, par Schneider et Langrand - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Slavery, which had been practised worldwide from very ancient times, was not criticised an offence against human beings until very late, and then only by a small minority.

At the time of the Atlantic slave trade, between the 16th and 19th centuries, the opinion that black slaves were « possessions », little different from beasts of burden was largely dominant, including in religious circles. Intellectuals – including Montesquieu himself – recognised that this trade was indispensable to the economy of the colonies.

However, some voices did speak up against the trading of human beings and proslavery ideology from the time that Atlantic slave trading began. Among the precursors we find religious figures who disagreed with the Church’s official position, French Enlightenment philosophers, British abolitionist leaders and even economists who considered slavery to be counter-productive.

It was not until the 18th century that a real abolitionist movement began to take shape in North America and then in Britain and France.

In parallel, for a long time slaves themselves were to be the most effective in the fight against slavery. Through passive resistance, which stretched as far as suicide and abortion, sabotage, revolts and escapes (maroonnage), they continually fought against a crushing system, to the point that it became fragile and eventually hardly viable.

In France, the Revolution and the West Indian slave revolts led to an initial abolition of slavery on 4 February 1794. Slavery was reinstated by Napoleon in 1802. Not until the time of Victor Schœœlcher and the Second Republic was slavery abolished definitively in France and its colonies, on 27 April 1848.

Nantes and the abolition of slavery

Nantes, a city heavily involved in slave trading and colonial commerce, was never at the forefront of the fight for abolition.

Despite the abolition of slavery by the British in 1807 and increasing pressure on the French government, Nantes continued to equip ships for the slave trade, including during the period when this was made illegal in the run-up to the definitive abolition of slavery in 1848.

See chronology of abolitions.

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