Part 1. The decline of the La Rochelle region following the loss of Canada
During the eighteenth century, France took full advantage of the expanding economic relations between Africa, America, and Europe. The « French Atlantic » trade was based on the African slave trade and slave exploitation in the French Islands (West Indies and Mascarenes), which peaked before the Saint-Domingue slave revolt in August 1791 and sharply declined following the outbreak of a maritime war with Great Britain in February 1793. The former Poitou-Charente region, roughly comprising the provinces of Poitou, Aunis, Saintonge and Angoumois (PASA) under the Old Regime, had a long-established history of maritime activity and was ideally situated to benefit from this phase of prosperity.
However, upon examination, the international and colonial sea trade of the La Rochelle customs region presents a somewhat limited growth. The slight increase in trade occurred at a slower pace than at other major ports of the kingdom. This is largely explained by La Rochelle and its region’s preference for trading with Canada, which simply could not match the success of West Indian trade.
This factor negatively impacted on the region’s growth in the first half of the eighteenth century. Further, following British victory in the Battle of Quebec in 1759 the Seven Years’ War came to an end in 1763 when France’s Canadian territories were ceded to Great Britain.
This severe loss led to a very clear trade decline in the region’s colonial trade. The contrast between trade developments in the La Rochelle region with those in Bordeaux and Nantes in the second half of the century are notable. Bordeaux, for example, was much more dynamic than La Rochelle and its share in French trade continued to increase until 1789.
After an exceptional year in 1747, due largely to the organization of transatlantic convoys departing from La Rochelle and escorted by the French Navy, in an effort to avoid merchant ships being plundered by the British, the La Rochelle region was responsible for 4.6% of total French trade in 1750. In 1789, its share dropped to 2.2%.
La Rochelle’s decline was not solely due to the quantity of trade. Data on foreign and colonial trade duties collected by the La Rochelle customs office, reveals that in 1750 this part of the territory handled 21% of the commodities traded by France (645 out of 3,055 after standardizing product spelling variations). In 1789, it only traded 7% (248 out of 3,565). This sharp reduction in commodity types applies both to exports and imports. If these commodities are further combined in the 150 fields used in the « Revolution and Empire » classification used by the ANR Toflit18 program, the La Rochelle region traded in 121 of these fields in 1750, but in only 88 in 1789.
Exports took a much more diversified form in 1750 than in 1789 with a concentration index (Herfindhal) of 0.1 in 1750 and 0.24 in 1789. Exports were dominated in 1789 by a product for which there was not much national competition (brandy) and two re-exported colonial goods (coffee and sugar). Cotton cloth, often re-exported to Africa, came in fourth place, followed by salt (the value of salt was low compared to its tonnage, as it is a bulky, cheap product). In 1750, haberdashery and woollen fabrics were among the five main exports (along with indigo, brandy and sugar; salt was in 14th position).
The La Rochelle customs region thus specialized in agricultural products and the re-export of colonial goods, at the expense of goods manufactured in the region. However, this seemingly negative consequence is balanced out by the capital intensity of brandy production, which approximated that of manufactured goods. When comparing the La Rochelle customs region with the national average, the importance and specialization of this export product clearly stands out.
We do not know where colonial re-exports ended up in 1789. By excluding them, we can see that market concentration in the La Rochelle customs region was the same in 1750 and in 1789 (between 0.41 and 0.44), but that « England » (a category designating Great Britain in French trade statistics) had replaced « America » (a term that in 1789 essentially referred to the French West Indies). This is confirmed by the tonnage distribution of vessels departing from the PASA region to foreign countries in 1789, which shows that a very large share went to Great Britain.
In brief, the La Rochelle customs region largely ceased exporting differentiated goods to Canada and mainly sent brandy to British ports. From a navigation perspective, the tonnage devoted to this type of trade was smaller than the tonnage mobilized for exporting salt to the North and Baltic seas.
The collected navigation data does not allow for further analysis of the trade decline in the region. First, we only have details of departures for the end of the Old Regime and this makes diachronic analysis impossible. Second, the data collected for 1789 only provide limited information regarding the products transported: the La Rochelle clearance tax records, for example, do not mention the nature of the cargo and customs agents in the region’s other ports often only recorded the cargo’s main product. However, the clearance tax records indicate the destination of each departed ship and this shows a relative fragmentation of the markets in the region.
Although we cannot substantiate that it was a new development, the region’s incapacity to handle its own flows towards the end of the Old Regime confirms that it became marginalized. Vessels under foreign flag or vessels from outside the region accounted for 90% of international maritime trade. They were mostly British and North European. La Rochelle was the only port in the region to maintain its position, but as explained further (part 2.1), this was related to the slave and colonial trade.
The region’s inability to supply international exports was not due to a lack of maritime activity: on the contrary, the total number of ship departures from ports within the region in 1789, all destinations included, reveals that regional vessels accounted for a considerable share of the flows, higher than the share of ships from other French ports, while foreign vessels made up a very small share. However, the share of regional vessels navigating under French flag was lower than in most of the other French provinces: in 1787, the ports of Aunis-Saintonge-Poitou supplied 51.6% of the tonnage shipped, compared to 84.3% for Brittany or 58.7% for Guyenne.
This shows that by the end of the Old Regime, the region was not very active in terms of equipping ships. This fact must not over-ride the changes that took place in the region during the second half of the 18th century, notably as a result of the development or extension of local production intended for export from ports other than La Rochelle. The next section examines the high diversification of ports in the region.