The French Colonies

During the 16th-17th century, the world experienced a new process in which the most powerful countries dominated and owned people from other parts of the world. Slavery became the protagonist in the development of a new world. France undertook slavery in order to achieve higher production in the sugar plantations. The cultivation of sugar cane in the West Indies during the colonialism created the necessity to develop a new form of industrial organization. The plantation system became popular. Governments were looking for the maximization of production with the minimization of costs. Furthermore, countries like France instated slavery in the plantations as a solution to minimize cost of production.

In 1942, Europeans arrived to the Americas, enslaved the natives and put them to work in mines. Natives died due to diseases and fights against the whites. Then, labor became scarce and slavery became necessary. At the beginning, the French and the English tried to use their own citizens on plantations as indentured servants. In reality, this servants were almost slaves but under a different name with only one difference, they would be free after three years of service. Servants were called “engages” and were trying to scape the poverty that they had to face during the Old Regime in France. In 1721, people became aware of the fact that European servants could never accomplish all the expectations on labor in the plantations. Thus, the French turn to slavery. Slavery gave the French an opportunity to increase their income due to the fact that it was cheap, supply was almost endless, and morality did not play a role due to racism. (3)

The French started trading slaves in the early 16th century due to the fact that they were trying to promote plantation economies in the West Indies colonies.  Slavery was key to development for the sugar colonies of the French. The first expedition to get slaves was from 1540-1578 and included 200 ships to Sierra Leone.  In 1672, the government offered a bounty of 10 livres per slaved transported. However, in 1730, the government raised the bounty per slave to 100 livres and in 1787 to 160. This had an impact in the quantity of slaves transported. Since slavery became more profitable the number of ships increased from 21 to 56. In short, slavery became profitable for traders and the quantity of slaves increased. Additionally, The Code Noir, an article edict promulgated in March, 1685 by Louis XIV to regulate slavery in the colonies, made slavery legal in the French sugar colonies in 1685 so it became easier to trade slaves. Due to this reforms in 1767 The French surpassed the British in Sugar production. (2)

"A french artist visiting the island of Martinique around the same time as Clark showed a row of African women and men preparing the ground." Picture and citation can be found on the book "Sugar Changed the World"

Since plantations required vast amounts of slaves, the French needed to organize slave trade in the late 17th century. An increase in the demand for slaves led to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The treaty established that the slave trade was responsibility of some companies.  However, planters found slaves too few and expensive so they decided to trade with smugglers. Additionally, in Europe the wars of the latter part of Louis XIV’s reign made slave trade shipping impossible. The plantations were facing a labor shortage and new regulations were needed.  The Letters Patent established that any French person could trade slaves as long as their ships were fitted in any of the five major French ports, which were Rouen, Saint Mali, Nantes “the City of Slavers”, La Rochelle, and Bordeaux. By 1741 the trade was open to all Frenchmen. Merchants had to pay a small tax for their activities (3).

The first crop introduced in the French colonies was tobacco. Nonetheless, it was not profitable and it was replaced with sugar cane. Saint-Domingo was a colony that the French settled in 1660. By the end of the century, as a result of the reforms on slavery, the colony possessed 2,00 African slaves. In 1740, the colony had surpassed Martinique as the French empire’s largest sugar producer.  It had 117,000 slaves out of 250,000 that the French West Indies had.  Plantations became more profitable, sugar production increased as more labor was used; thus, demand for slaves kept increasing. As a result, By the end of the 18th century, Not only exports from Saint-Domingo were estimated as 2/3 of all the French West Indian exports but also they were estimated as greater than the sum of the exports of both the British and Spanish Antilles (1)(3) .

Truth is the French were smarter than many of their counterparts. In order for them to keep up with the production of sugar in the colonies, they created “permanent establishments along the Senegal River and Whydah on the Gold Coast.” Traders worked periodical camps from the Senegal to the Congo and East Africa. “The slaves they bought there went to the French Indian Ocean island colonies, which also were thriving on sugar exports.” Additionally, in the 17th century, the French started to trade slaves from Turkey. The Austrians captured these slaves. The Senegal Company worked hand in hand with The French and in 1679; it provided 227 African slaves to the French. (2)

Napoleon Bonaparte took power in France in 1799. Once he gained control over the center of North America (Louisiana) from Spain he used it to feed and supply his sugar lands. Regardless of the declaration of the Rights of Man, in 1802, Napoleon made slavery legal. In 1803 Napoleon sells Louisiana Territory to Jefferson in order to keep Saint Domingo for the French. He started beet farming and sugar mills to create beet sugar in France (2) (3).

Around 1780, French intellectuals started to condemn slavery. Abolitionism was growing and an antislavery club was formed; The Société des Amis de Noirs. Additionally, in 1789, The French Revolution began with the declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. However, slavery wasn’t abolished in all sugar colonies until 1794. The slave trade was declared illegal in France only until 1818.  However, slave trade became clandestine and only until 1830 under Louis-Philippe the slave trade became a crime and punishment was enforced (2).

Works Used:

(1) Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

(2) “French Slavery.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Web. 22 Mar. 2012. <;.

(3) Stein, Robert L. The French Sugar Business in the Eighteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Print.

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