Between 1551 and 1875, 1,381,404 African people were transported by force to the New World on ships flying the French flag, according to the Slave Voyages Database. With these 4,118 crossings, France was responsible for 11% of the transatlantic slave trade, which in total affected more than 12.5 million men, women, and children from the begininning of the 16th century to the end of the 19th century. Two-thirds of those enslaved were men and perhaps 27% were children. Approximately 13% perished during the “middle passage.”
The first French slave trading voyages date to the second half of the 16th century, when French merchants sought to turn a personal profit from the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Starting in the 1630s, Louis XIII began issuing letters patent to Norman, Breton, and Parisian companies to conduct business in West Africa, although he did not formally authorize the slave trade until 1642. In order to support the French Caribbean islands, three monopoly trading companies -- the West Indies Company in 1664, the Senegal Company in 1673 and the Guinea Coast Company in 1684 -- were later established under the direct patronage of the monarchy. However, between 1713 and 1721, the ports of Nantes, Rouen, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Saint-Malo, Honfleur, Le Havre and Marseille obtained the right to engage in this trade by paying a fee to the relevant monopoly company using a tiered pricing model. This relaxation of  exclusionary restrictions enabled the growth of the slave trade in the 18th century. Illegal trafficking nonetheless remained very important. Thus, the French colonies received a sizable number of enslaved people from Portuguese, Dutch and British traders.
In the 17th and18th centuries, almost all French slaving voyages embarked from metropolitan France. In contrast, during the period of the illegal slave trade in the 19th century, a growing number of ships flying the French flag sailed from the Antilles and even from Brazil. The top slaving port in France was Nantes, with 44% of the expeditions, followed by Le Havre, La Rochelle, Saint-Malo, and Honfleur. In the 18th century, investments in the French slave trade yieded a return of approximately 6%. That the slave trade and its associated colonial commerce were generally profitable, even suprassing other investments, was evident in the sumptuous homes commissioned by slave traders from Nantes and elsewhere.
In the 17th century, the majority of enslaved Africans were purchased in the Senegambia region, where the French established trading posts at Saint-Louis in Senegal and on the Island of Gorée, as well as in the Bight of Benin. In the first quarter of the 18th century, French captains also started to obtain enslaved people in central West Africa, but it was not until the second half of the 18th century that the Loango coast became the primary point of departure for French slave ships. In the 19th century, it was supplanted by the Bight of Biafra and Sierra Leone.
The 3-D reconstruction on the Slave Voyages Database website of the slave vessel L’Aurore, which completed a voyage between La Rochelle and Saint-Domingue in 1784, shows the unbearable crowding, terrible sanitary conditions and constant use of terror and violence to repress the frequent revolts. While the average voyage carried about 320 captives and took two months to reach its destination, this ship transported approximately 600 enslaved people.
Nine out of ten slave voyages had as their destinations the Antilles and Guyana, which formed the heart of the French slaving empire. Among the islands, Saint-Domingue became the primary destination starting in 1715. Three-quarters of the expeditions and 80% of the enslaved people sold were destined for this colony, which became the world’s top producer of sugar and coffee during the course of the 18th century. In 1790, the most active year of the French slave trade, 40,000 enslaved people disembarked on Saint-Domingue, including 19,000 at the port Cap Français alone. In contrast, the transatlantic slave trade to Louisana lasted only from from 1719 to 1731 and transported about 6,000 enslaved people.
Following the slave rebellion in the northern plain of Saint-Domingue in August 1791, the international slave trade and slavery were abolished by the French National Convention on February 4, 1794 before being re-established by Napoleon in his capacity as First Counsul on May 20, 1802. The principle of the permanent abolition of the slave trade was imposed by the British victors at the Congress of Vienna, but the French state, pressured by shipowners, traders, and colonists, took 17 years to take the necessary steps to make it effective. The transatlantic slave trade continued illegally until the middle of the 19th century.

Published in may 2021