Between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries, France organised at least 4,220 slave-trading expeditions, a large part of which were led by the shipowners of Nantes. 

Main ports                    Number of expeditions
Nantes                            1714
Le Havre                         451
La Rochelle                    448
Bordeaux                       419
Saint-Malo                      218
Lorient                            137
Honfleur                         134
Marseille                         88
Dunkerque                     41

Other French ports were also involved in this trade, albeit to a lesser extent: Rochefort, Bayonne, Vannes, Brest, Morlaix, Dieppe, Cherbourg, Saint-Brieuc, Sète and Marans among others.

Nantes’ place in slave trading is paradoxical.

When it fitted out its first ship for slave trading in the 18th century, Nantes was two and a half centuries behind Portugal and one century behind ports such as Le Havre, Bordeaux and La Rochelle. And, when it abandoned the slave trade in 1830, it did so long before ports such as Le Havre (1847); slavery continued until 1886 in Cuba and 1888 in Brazil.

Nantes’ pre-eminence is therefore due to the density of its participation rather than the length of time it lasted. It organised 43% of French slave-trading expeditions (or a total of 5 to 6% of Europe’s Atlantic slave trade).

During the 18th century, between 10 and 33% of Nantes’ long-distance maritime trade was related directly to slave trading, whilst another part of this trade was dedicated to the plantations worked by slaves.

As historian Eric Saugera reminds us: «  »Nantes adopted in greater measure than other towns the major justification for slave-trading: the colonies are indispensable to the wealth of the nation, Africans are indispensable to making them profitable and the slave trade is essential to renew numbers.« 1

In just over a century, ships from Nantes transported more than 550,000 captive black people to the colonies.

 1- Nantes in the French slave trade 18 th – 19 th centuries, catalogue to « The Shackles of Memory » exhibition, Nantes, 1992.