French traders were heavily involved in the slave trade. From 1721-30, French ships took 85,000 enslaved Africans to the plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. In the 1730s, they carried more than 100,000. Altogether, about 1,250,000 enslaved Africans were taken by French ships. Even after France abolished the trade, 500 French ships continued slave trading illegally between 1818 and 1831.
Nantes, on the west coast of France, was the major slaving port. Over 1,400 slaving voyages left this west coast port for Africa during the 18th century. One trading family alone, the Montaudoins, sent 357 ships. After the end of slavery in 1818, Nantes still sent out 305 voyages up to 1831. Local vested interests protected and continued the trade. Other French ports were close behind Nantes. In the 1730s, Bordeaux, on the west coast, sent out only one slave trading voyage a year. But by 1780, the port was close to overtaking Nantes as the main French slaving port.
In the late 18th century, slaving voyages made up one third of the ships leaving the port of La Rochelle, on the west coast. The merchants of Marseilles, on France’s southern Mediterranean coast, sent out over 100 slaving voyages during the 18th century.
From 1713 to 1741, the slave trade in France was limited to five ports, which made it easier to regulate the taxation of slave cargoes. Saint-Malo, on the North Brittany coast, was one of the five, sending out over 100 voyages during the 18th century.
Traders in L’Orient, on the west coast of Brittany, equipped over 100 slaving ships voyages during the 18th century. Honfleur, on the north coast of Brittany, sent out over 100 slaving voyages in the 18th century, 72 of them in the 15 years between 1777 and 1792.
Le Havre, close to Honfleur at the mouth of the River Seine, sent out over 100 slaving voyages in the 18th century. Like many French ports, this did not stop with Abolition (the end of the slave trade) in 1818. In the next 13 years the traders here sent out 46 ships for Africa.
Many things could affect the success of a country’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, or in trade generally. From the 16th century to the 18th, there were many wars between countries. Such wars could threaten the slave trade. Pictured here is a view of The close of the Battle of the Saints of 1782. The Saints are small islands off the north of the Caribbean island of Dominica. The sea battle here was part of the American War of Independence fought against the British. France, Spain and Holland had joined America against Britain for their own advantage. The French navy had taken the Caribbean island of St Kitts from the British, and was threatening the nearby islands of Nevis and Jamaica, also owned by them. Trade with the islands, both the ‘triangular trade’ and the two-way trade between the Caribbean islands and Britain, was disrupted. The Battle of the Saints was a major victory for the British navy, and Britain recovered almost all of her Caribbean islands from the French in the peace agreement of 1783.