- The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade
On March 4, 1820, the French schooner La Jeune Estelle of Martinique was pursued and captured by a British frigate. The French vessel was suspected of slave trading, which the British Empire had outlawed in 1807, but when the ship was boarded the British authorities could not find its cargo of African captives. As the master of the captured ship protested the unfair charges leveled against him, a wandering sailor overhead whimpering noises coming for a cask in the Frenchman's hold. Opening it, he discovered two African girls no more than twelve or fourteen years of age sealed inside an airtight barrel. Many more such casks had already been thrown overboard in the chase that led to the arrest of La Jeune Estelle. To conceal his illicit slave trading, Captain Olympe Sanguines had coldly murdered his captives by forcing chained human beings into barrels and drowning them in the waters of the Atlantic. As punishment for this atrocity, Captain Sanguines was pushed into early retirement. Although slave trading was officially forbidden by the French government of the Bourbon Restoration, enforcement of the law was lax and penalties were light. An 1821 report on the foreign slave trade to the House of Commons reveals that Sanguines, when confronted by the British, even sought to diminish the severity of his crime by declaring that his actions were commonplace among French traders operating between the Caribbean and Africa.
It would be easy to count the incident of La Jeune Estelle as simply one more horrible crime in the long and bloody history of the triangular trade that linked Europe, Africa, and the Americas between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. However, as Christopher L. Miller points out in his compelling new book, The French Atlantic Triangle:Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade, the affair of La Jeune Estelle must not be ignored both because it calls attention to a human tragedy worthy of remembrance and because it brings into focus France's complex and generally under-examined place in the history of transatlantic slavery. Recent years have produced a wealth of innovative scholarship on the slave trade and its role in the creation of the modern world. Works such as Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic (1993), Robin Blackburn's The Making of New World Slavery (1997), Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007) have helped us to recognize that the economic order that shapes so much of our twenty-first-century world was built upon and fueled by the Atlantic slave trade and the capitalist plantation economies it sustained. The insurance industry, the credit industry and global banking in general all have historical ties to a slave trade that was so lucrative that it forced investors and governments to develop new financial and legal institutions to process and protect their profits. Despite the globalizing influence of Atlantic slavery, however, most of the writing on the subject has focused primarily on the British slave trade and the Anglophone Atlantic. The Francophone world has been far more reluctant to revisit its slave trading past in scholarship and literature. Miller's The French Atlantic Triangle aims to shed light on this unfortunate blind spot.
Of the roughly 11,062,000 Africans forced to cross the Atlantic, Miller estimates that at least 1,456,400 of these men, women and children were carried in French ships (31). This is no small number. However, Miller observes that the French trade never inspired a metropolitan abolition movement to equal those in England and [End Page 503] North America; absent also are compelling slave narratives to rival English writers such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano. With the notable exception of Édouard Glissant's novel Sartorius, the French tradition also lacks more recent literary engagements with slavery comparable to Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger or Fred D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts. How can we account for this silence?
Enlightenment writers such as...