Part 2 Highly specialized ports: the trade in slaves, salt, and brandy


The PASA region contained a high density of ports that maintained fairly extensive and rather frequent trade relations with the rest of France and the world. The number and the aggregated tonnage of ships departing from these ports did not directly correlate with the value of the goods transported. The two dominant custom offices, in terms of export value, were those of La Rochelle, with its strong ties to the colonial and slave trades, and of Tonnay-Charente, which specialized in the export of brandy, mainly to Great Britain. The port of Marennes (a salt exporter to the North Sea and the Baltic), in contrast, represented the region’s highest tonnage levels albeit at low export value. Imports to the region were dominated by the customs region of La Rochelle (namely, La Rochelle itself) due to the high value of colonial products. The deficit of exports versus imports at Rochefort, which imported naval raw materials, was severe and exports were negligible at this port

Even though our analyses have shown that the tonnages recorded at Marennes were probably overestimated by 20%, sometimes even by 50% in 10% of the worst cases, the port’s supremacy remained undisputed. The map, which shows the tonnage shipped in 1789 based on the port’s clearance records, all destinations combined, also highlights the high part of foreign shipping in ports engaged in the international salt (Noirmoutier and the island de Ré) and brandy (Tonnay-Charente) trades. Additionally, there was a high proportion of foreign ships in Rochefort, transporting naval stores from the North to the French royal shipyard. These vessels handled almost all foreign trade (excluding the slave trade) in the PASA region. As we will see in part 3, La Rochelle no longer played a central role among the region’s ports as other ports engaged in foreign trade as well as with French markets, selling local products without going through La Rochelle.

This section provides a comparative study of three ports in the region at the end of the Old Regime, showing the variety of products they traded and of their markets. Due to its exclusive relationship with the colonies, and especially its participation in the slave trade, La Rochelle deserves a separate study. Its considerable imports of colonial goods, most of which were re-exported to Northern Europe, gave the port a unique role. As for the brandy trade, the port of Tonnay-Charente serves as a case study. Since brandy was rarely mentioned as a cargo in the clearance records, we first examined the Balance of Trade sources and then refined the data by analyzing ship clearances.

Finally, several other ports in the region dedicated themselves primarily to the export of salt, as can be seen in the diagram. In 1789, the salt trade fleets at Ars-en-Ré, Noirmoutier, and especially Marennes, exceeded 10,000 French tonneaux (1 French tonneau = 1.44 cubic meters). Here we will focus in detail on Marennes, the chief salt-exporting port, which mainly concentrated on supplying the national market.

2.1. La Rochelle and the triangular trade

In the eighteenth century, the West Indian colonies considerably expanded their production of sugar, coffee, indigo, and dye products to meet the increased European demand. Production growth required ever more plantations, in turn massively reliant on slave labor sourced by the hundreds of thousands from Africa. The transatlantic trade of human beings purchased on the coasts of Africa by European slave traders began in the fifteenth century, and reached its peak in the eighteenth century, when six million Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas. Half of them were sold in the West Indies. It is estimated that one million Africans were shipped to the French colonies in the eighteenth century. Their main destination was the colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) which, on the eve of the great revolt of 1791, had a slave population of half a million, more than half of them African-born. Although the share of slave shipping in most French slave-trade ports was significantly lower than direct shipping to the West Indies, this was not the case for La Rochelle: out of 15 departures from its port in 1789 supplying slaves or products to the West Indies, 12 were slave ships headed initially for the African coast in a triangular circuit. The transatlantic traffic of La Rochelle, like that of Honfleur, was clearly specialized in the slave trade. In 1789, all 12 slave ships that departed from La Rochelle were outfitted by La Rochelle merchants. Three additional slave ships left from Rochefort.

The slave trade was handled by private shipowners who expected to make a profit by reselling the captives in the West Indies. Even though Nantes was the main French slave port, La Rochelle still played a significant role, especially during the 1730s and the 1740s. Between 1713 and 1744, La Rochelle supplied 15% of French slaving expeditions. Its share decreased to 11% after Canada was lost. While La Rochelle was the second most important slave port in France before 1763, it later dropped to fourth position.

Despite a relative decline, La Rochelle’s slave trade increased in absolute terms: 4.3 slave ships per year were outfitted by La Rochelle shipowners in the 1713 to 1744 period, and this number increased to 12.5 ships per year in the decade from 1783 to 1793. During the latter decade, slave trade truly became the main, if not almost exclusive, activity of La Rochelle shipowners: in 1789, out of a total of 200 ship departures from La Rochelle outfitted by local merchants, over half of the tonnage went to Africa, to the West Indian colonies or the Mascarene islands, with Africa accounting for 42% of the total. The rest was divided between Newfoundland and Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon (9.2%). The share of shipping to foreign countries was insignificant (0.2%), and shipping beyond neighboring ports (Aunis, Poitou, and Saintonge) did not exceed 5%. Three-quarters of the roughly 30 La Rochelle ships with a capacity exceeding 50 tonneaux (the largest holding 827 tonneaux) that left the port of La Rochelle in 1789 were engaged in the transatlantic and slave trade.

If we ignore the scattered coastal traffic, the importance of African destinations and colonies becomes clear in this diagram, which shows the destinations of ships departing La Rochelle in 1789, all home ports combined. Further, all the ships heading for the Americas, the West Indies, or the Indian Ocean except one were outfitted by shipowners from La Rochelle.

In total, during the final years of the Old Regime, each year a dozen ships returned to La Rochelle from the colonies, either in direct line or (most often) returning from a slaving expedition after a stopover in the West Indies. The Balance of Trade data confirm the centrality of the colonial and slave trade: in 1789, exports to Africa represented 23% of the total exports of the La Rochelle customs office, while 73% were re-exports of colonial goods. The value of the products shipped back to La Rochelle was estimated in 1789 at 7.1 million French livres, of which 5.1 million were re-exported abroad. La Rochelle merchants seem to have carved out a strong position in the coffee market, due to their almost exclusive ties with Saint Domingue where several prominent families of La Rochelle (Belin, Garesché, and Poupet Rasteau) were very well established. Saint Domingue supplied almost all the coffee imported into France from the West Indies.

Although the Balance of Trade data does not allow us to determine the destinations of La Rochelle colonial re-exports, the destinations of the ships that departed from the port in 1789 do give us an approximate indication. The Austrian Low Countries (now Belgium), the United Provinces (now the Netherlands), Bremen, Hamburg, and the Baltic ports each received ships with a total capacity of 500 to 550 tonneaux from La Rochelle. Of the other European destinations of ships leaving from La Rochelle, it was probably only Great Britain (1,048 tonneaux) that did not take in colonial products, because it was supplied by its own colonies.

Unsurprisingly, issues relating to colonial and slave trade were a predominant concern of La Rochelle merchants, as is clearly evident in the topics raised in the La Rochelle Chamber of Commerce. A contemporary hand-written index to these deliberations of the Chamber of Commerce was written in the margins of the registers, revealing that in the year 1789 alone, trade with Africa was discussed some 30 times, the topic of the colonies was raised close to 50 times, and trade with India 9 times. By way of comparison, trade with foreign countries was discussed just 11 times, and fishing (more specifically the question of authorizing American competition, much debated that year in France) 17 times. Among the products indexed in the margins of the registers of deliberations, foodstuffs were mentioned 16 times – which is hardly surprising considering the importance of cereal crops in these crisis years – while brandy and wine appear 6 times, sugars and refineries 8, and coal 3 times. Just this rough tabulation is enough to show that the members of the Chamber of Commerce clearly had their eyes glued to the colonies and the slave trade.

The issue of the slave trade may be largely absent from the 1789 lists of grievances (cahiers de doléances) prepared for the General Estates of the region (we analyzed a sample of 163 cahiers out of the 522 drafted in the entire PASA region), but the defense of colonial interests appears significantly in the lists of grievances of the third estate of the city of La Rochelle only. Its representatives sent to Versailles were asked to seek the revocation of the Act issued at the king’s council of August 30, 1784 which concerned foreign trade in the colonies, and the reestablishment of the provisions of the letters patent of 1717 and 1727 which the third estate of La Rochelle considered as an essential element to the progress made by French navigation and the culture of the French islands of America. The 1784 Act expanded the softened Exclusif mitigé system introduced in 1767, allowing more foreign ships under specific restrictive conditions to supply the colonies. This authorization of foreign ships in the colonies was met with protest by all the Chambers of Commerce in France involved in colonial trade, because French merchants were opposed to any foreign competition. What is interesting however is that even though this was not a document originating from the Chamber of Commerce or from a group of shipowners, the list of grievances of the third estate of La Rochelle defended French colonial trading interests and also called for laws to prohibit the re-export of raw sugars in order to protect local refineries. Finally, the deputies were to request the revocation of the decree of April 14, 1785, which created a new East India company, and of the decree that allowed foreigners into the Isles of France and Bourbon (i.e., Mauritius and Reunion), even if during the era of free trade (1769–1785), ship outfitting to the Indian Ocean or China from La Rochelle (26) was lower than from Nantes (44), Bordeaux (41), Marseille (42) or Saint-Malo (32) and of course Lorient (120).

La Rochelle was only modestly involved in navigation beyond the Cape of Good Hope at the end of the Old Regime. Records in 1789 only mention exports to India of a value of 38,060 French livres, and none to the Mascarene Islands. However, on May 9 that year the non-slaving ship Henri IV was recorded as departing for the Isle of France and the Isle of Bourbon, arriving safely in February 1790 [Toussaint, 1967, p. 291]. Perhaps its cargo originated entirely from other customs regions. In 1787, three ships left La Rochelle for the Mascarenes, which shows a certain diversification of colonial outfitting here as in Bordeaux in the 1780s when the decline in profits from the West Indian trade encouraged the search for more profitable investments.

2.2. The brandy trade

The ships’ records we can access are unfortunately of little help in identifying trade flows in brandy. The customs agent of the port of Tonnay-Charente, for example, did not usually bother to identify the cargoes (he did so only 12 times out of a total of 601 departures), which means that we have an overview of navigation but not of the type of products exported. An analysis of departures for the year 1787 nevertheless allowed us to identify the commercial flows. Out of 67 ships of an average tonnage close to 100 tonneaux departing from Tonnay-Charente, 42 went overseas (two-thirds to English ports, the rest to the Channel Islands, Ostend, and the Baltic); the remaining 25 large coasters sailed to Dunkirk. We were able to identify the European brandy fleet, which represented 22% of the outgoing tonnage in 1787. We also identified a second group, composed of a scattering of small coasters (with an average tonnage of 35 tonneaux) which nevertheless represented 30% of the total outgoing tonnage. These ships were all headed to a single destination: La Rochelle. They partly supplied the city and perhaps also the regional or national trade, but it is clear that La Rochelle had lost the role of warehouse for the international trade of brandy that it held in the 1730s. The main brandy trading houses, such as Martell, no longer had offices in La Rochelle in 1789. Their headquarters had been repatriated to Tonnay-Charente or moved to Paris. Finally, more modest vessels (25 tonneaux on average) navigating within the sea of Pertuis (from La Seudre down to Les Sables-d’Olonne) represented 23% of the tonnage shipped out of Tonnay-Charente. It should be noted that 479 of the 743 clearances issued in 1787 in that port concerned ships based in river ports navigating downstream. These ships carried brandy along with quarry stones and manufactured products from the hinterland to Tonnay-Charente, and left the port either empty or with a cargo for Rochefort, La Rochelle or the seaports of Pertuis, which provided them with return freight for their navigation up the Charente river.

Exports of Charente brandy in 1789 were much higher than the average during that century. This was in part due to the changes brought about by the Treaty of Eden of 1786, which led to an extremely large increase in brandy exports to Great Britain, notably quality brandy produced in the Cognac region, and a decrease in lower quality ones. The total exports of French brandy to Great Britain rose from 10–15 million French livres in the years 1760–1770 to 40 million in 1787–89.

La Rochelle dominated exports of French brandy in 1750, but was overtaken by Bordeaux in 1770, which competed with the La Rochelle customs region by exporting brandy from the Angoumois region. However, the aforenoted Eden-Reynald Treaty of 1787 that led to an explosion of exports to Great Britain benefited La Rochelle region much more than Bordeaux. Brandy export from Nantes was stagnating, while exports from Bayonne and Montpellier were growing.

The dominant production area was the Angoumois region, followed by the Aunis. The value of exported « double » brandy (i.e. with a higher alcohol content) was comparable to that of « simple » brandy. The « double brandy » designation first appeared in the 1788 and 1789 figures and only in data from the PASA region, perhaps indicating advanced distillation techniques in the region.

2.3. Marennes and the salt trade

Salt, a heavy commodity of low value, travelled mostly by sea. The coasts of the PASA region were major salt producers, as were those of southern Brittany. And the port of Marennes was designated as a supplier by the salt tax administration (gabelle). It supplied the salt granaries of Libourne, Honfleur, and Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme, among others. Its markets were therefore mostly national, and its demand was sustained, particularly in the Channel ports specialized in outfitting deep-sea fishing. Foreign countries (on the North Sea and around the Baltic) were less important partners in this case than for Saint-Martin-de-Ré or Noirmoutier.

The Marennes customs region was then, in terms of quantity, the main French salt exporter, if we also include shipments to French free ports. It comes in third position, behind the regions of Croisic and Saint-Martin-de-Ré, if we only consider markets outside the kingdom.

The values involved were not high compared to the trade flows of La Rochelle and Tonnay-Charente mentioned above. The salt exported from Marennes, including to French free ports, amounted to around 360,000 French livres in 1789 (including 141,000 to foreign countries). Nevertheless, the salt trade contributed to extremely intense port activity, making Marennes the main port in our region of interest in terms of the number of departing ships and their tonnage. Its maritime trade represented an important activity, both because of the local production that it supported, and because of the activity induced by its transportation (shipbuilding and maritime employment). As seen above (part 1), the vessels did not originate from Marennes itself, and the trade therefore benefitted both the coastal ports in the region and those on the French Atlantic coast.

Shipping data can be used to understand the commercial geography of exported salt, but it does not reveal the quantities exported. Starting from the reign of Louis XIV, however, salt tax laws required the captain to sail with a full cargo. The tonnage of vessels loaded with salt is therefore a fairly good indication of the quantities exported. The clearance documents confirm that, among the exporting ports of our region of interest, Marennes unquestionably comes in first place. In 1787, the cumulative tonnage of ships transporting salt departing from Marennes was more than twice the tonnage shipped from Ars-en-Ré, the second largest exporter in the region. Even after noting the ship tonnage overvaluation in Marennes, which we observed by comparing it with the tonnage of the same ships recorded in other ports, Marennes remains the main salt supplier of France.

Salt export is almost the exclusive activity of Marennes: out of 1,174 ship departures in 1787, 990 had a salt load. In 1789, it rose to 1,301 out of 1,481 ships.

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