- The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade
In The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade, Christopher Miller, the Frederick Clifford Ford Professor of French, African, and Afro-American Studies at Yale University, explores in great detail how the French slave trade—responsible for at least one million Africans being captured and bonded into slavery—took hold of French culture. Remarkable in its chronological scope, Miller's tome is truly inspiring for its depth of research and complex argument. Incorporating literature published from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, Miller places the slave trade at the center of the French Atlantic, arguing successfully that the moment France became involved in the vile exchange of Africans, the empire entered a new world, where the "infamous, slave-based 'triangular trade' created a powerful sweep of forces moving around the Atlantic and that traces of those forces have survived abolitions, independences, and 'departmentalizations'" (p. 4). And so we are launched into a dazzling journey through the psyche of French men and women as they are shaped and molded by their connections to the transatlantic slave trade.
Backed by 135 pages of notes, The French Atlantic Triangle is thorough and comprehensive in its approach, including material on Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Unlike so many studies that claim an Atlantic orientation, page after page of Miller's work examines how French participation in the Atlantic—both as a geographical and intellectual space—expanded and evolved over time. A case in point: The eighteenth-century dichotomy of the slave trade and Enlightenment notions of liberty illustrated the multilayered reality of life in the Atlantic world. French Enlightenment thinkers either invested in or largely ignored the issue of slavery, even when considering the trade inhumane, by creating a physical, intellectual, and social division between themselves and enslaved Africans. One could revel in the ideas of liberté and egalité when the very antithesis labored some three thousand miles across a vast ocean.
Buried in this analysis is one of Miller's more important points: the slave trade and not slavery was integral to the formation of French culture from the seventeenth century onward. Wealth, leisure, and the propagation of literature and ideas were made possible through the buying and selling of human souls and the resulting networks of trade that linked ports across the Atlantic. It was in this setting that French society grappled with the immorality of slavery, witnessing the [End Page 515] fits and starts of an abolition movement that did not see an end to slavery until 1848. "Abolition," as Miller explains, "veered and lurched its way toward an outcome" that "was less than perfect" (pp. 84–85). One consequence of France's unwillingness to face the trade directly, however, was the creation of a vast body of literature that reveals much about the nature of French culture and identity.
Notably, Miller considers Africa and Africans as the motivating force propelling the creation of the French Atlantic. Though not an Afro-centric text, Miller convinces the reader that French society and culture were irrevocably changed by the slave trade. An especially original and fascinating component of the book is Miller's reading of "The Triangle from 'Below'" (p. 324). The lament of so many scholars working in African, African American, or Atlantic histories is the difficulty in finding sources authored or created by persons of African descent. Miller confronts this absence of documents—of mammoth proportions in the French Atlantic—by delicately reading modern sources created by descendants of Africans in the slave trade. Inevitably "implicating the history of the slave trade" by "rethinking … linkages to Africa," modern authors, artists, and filmmakers do not reconstruct the African perspective from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, but they do allow insight into the lasting impact of the slave trade on Francophone Africans and French society as a whole (p. 325). Miller will, undoubtedly, ruffle some scholarly feathers with his use of twentieth-century fiction...