Slavery has existed since ancient times throughout the world, but criticism as a violation of people’s fundamental rights has been recent and only among a small minority.
At the time of the transatlantic trade, between the 16th and the 19th centuries, the overwhelming opinion, even in the religious community, was that African slaves were moveable assets, somewhat akin to beasts of burden. Intellectuals, including Montesquieu, believed that this trafficking was indispensable for the economy of the colonies.
However, from the beginning of the Atlantic trade, there were voices that opposed human trafficking and slavery. Among early opponents were clergymen breaking with the Church’s official position, French Enlightenment philosophers, English abolitionists and even economists who thought that slavery was counterproductive.
But it was only in the late 18th century that a true abolitionist movement emerged in North America, followed by England and France.
The most active opponents to-slavery were long the slaves themselves. Through passive resistance—including suicide and abortions as well as sabotage, revolts and escapes (marooning), they fought continuously against a crippling system, making it fragile and ultimately unviable.
In France, the Revolution and slave insurrections in the West Indies, particularly in Saint-Domingue, led to a first attempt to abolish slavery on February 4, 1794; Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1802. Victor Schœlcher and the Second Republic permanently abolished slavery in France and the colonies on April 27, 1848.
With a strong involvement in the slave trade and in colonial commerce, Nantes was not at the forefront of the abolitionist struggle.
Despite the abolition of slavery by the English in 1807 and increasing pressure from the French government, Nantes continued to equip ships for the slave trade, even after it was outlawed, until the final abolition of slavery in 1848.