From the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, France organized at least 4,220 slave trade expeditions, a large proportion of them by ship owners in Nantes.
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Other French ports participated in this trade, although to a lesser degree: Rochefort, Bayonne, Vannes, Brest, Morlaix, Dieppe, Cherbourg, Saint-Brieuc, Sète, Marans…
Nantes’ position in the slave trade is paradoxical.
The first slave trade expedition from Nantes in the 17th century was about 150 years behind Portugal. When Nantes withdrew from the trade in 1830, this was much earlier than other ports such as Le Havre (1847). Slavery continued in Cuba until 1886 and in Brazil until 1888.
For this reason, Nantes does not owe its position to the duration of its slave-trade activities but to their intensity: The port of Nantes was responsible for 43% of the French slave trade (in other words, for 5 to 6% of the European Atlantic trade).
During the 18th century, 10-33% of the income acquired from long-haul merchant shipping in Nantes was derived from slave ships, while another portion involved the plantation slave economy.
As the historian Eric Saugera has observed : « More than any other place, Nantes adopted the main argument in favor of the slave trade: the colonies are essential for national wealth, Africans are essential for their growth, and slavery is essential for their preservation. »1
In just over a century, ships transported over 550,000 African captives from Nantes to the colonies.
1. Nantes in the French slave trade, in the 18th and 19th centuries, exhibition catalog “The Shackles of Memory,” Nantes, 1992.