Multiscale trade in eighteenth-century La Rochelle region

A case study from the PORTIC interdisciplinary research program


Eighteenth-century France was known for its vibrant Atlantic coast ports and their hinterlands, thriving on West Indian trade as well as the increasing European demand for consumer goods. As a result of the French Revolutionary wars - beginning in 1793 and lasting over twenty years – Saint-Domingue was lost in 1804, followed by Isle de France (Mauritius) in 1815, marking the end of this dynamic period and moving the center of gravity of the French economy to the interior.

This case study focuses on seafaring and maritime trade along the Poitou and Charente coasts on the eve of the Revolution. The area encompassed the La Rochelle customs region, corresponding to the Poitou, Aunis, and Saintonge maritime provinces and their hinterland, the Angoumois (hereafter « PASA » region), representing a dense network of ports, numbering around forty active ports. Some ports were limited to micro-local coastal trade, others were open to more distant cabotage, while yet others also engaged in long-distance navigation. The region therefore is particularly suited to a study of the connections between the various kinds of maritime trade practiced on the eve of the Revolution.

Our reconstruction of the maritime and trade history of the PASA region is based on two historical sources. Firstly, we have relied on the administrative records listing departure fees imposed on maritime shipping during the Old Regime. Clearance (i.e. permission to leave) records provide lists of vessels departing from a port and the amount of duty they owed, usually reflecting the ships’ tonnage and destination. These records compiled by officials of the local Amirauté were digitized and organized in a database called Navigocorpus. The records for 1787 include more than 32,000 clearances for all French ports, and a further 6,900 in 1789 for the Poitou and Charente coast.

These records allow us to identify vessel departure dates and reveal other information regarding the purpose of its voyage, its tonnage, its captain, etc. However, these data are not entirely trustworthy as a ship’s tonnage was sometimes overestimated in some ports, as will be explained below. In the context of this study, we also took into account the itinerary declared by vessel captains at the time of departure, albeit that the declaration was not necessarily reflective of the actual trip. Clearance documents present a good overview of traffic in the La Rochelle region, including on a very small scale, but must nevertheless by used with caution given the uncertainty of tonnages and declared destinations.

The second source-base is the PASA region trade records. The Toflit18 database contains the digitized documents of the Balance of Trade Department (Bureau de la Balance du Commerce) from 1716 to 1821. These documents were produced by local customs offices which recorded the export and import figures of international and colonial trade goods. Over 550,000 import or export flows (a « flow » being defined in this context as the record of the import or export of one item from/to a given country in a given year) were documented in the Toflit18 database. The La Rochelle customs region (‘direction de La Rochelle’) represented the PASA region’s maritime activities.

The Toflit18 data enabled us to list exports and imports between the seven different customs offices (‘bureaux’) of the PASA region and their foreign trade partners. The information extracted from this dataset includes, for example, the name of the product exchanged, its quantity and value, the trade partner, and the administrative entity that recorded the transaction at the local level. In 1789, these lists also specified the origin of the traded product (French city or province, or foreign state), except in the case of re-exported colonial commodities. This information therefore complements the information provided by the navigation sources.

The combination of data from navigation clearance taxes and from the Balance of Trade Department provided by the Toflit18 and Navigocorpus databases allows us to better understand local, national, and international trade, to more precisely define the transactions and their value in terms of international trade, and to explore the relations and links between the various trade activities of this region.

This case study presents the history of the PASA region on the eve of the French Revolution in three stages. First, we note how the loss of Canada during the Seven Years’ War led subsequently to a reduction in importance and commercial diversity in the region. Next, we offer a detailed analysis of the region’s restructuring following that loss as we examine specialized sectors linking particular ports with the trade of specific products. Finally, we demonstrate that by 1789 the port of La Rochelle, although still dominant in the region, no longer served as a trade hub in the region, which had by then greatly diversified its networks.