Part 3. La Rochelle, a dominant port but not a regional hub

In 1789, ships departing from salt exporting ports (Marennes and Ars-en-Ré) or from Rochefort had a higher average tonnage than those departing from La Rochelle. Surprisingly, an analysis of the number of ships departing from secondary ports (Aligre, Charente, Marennes, Saint-Martin de Ré, and even Rochefort) shows that the dynamic activities at these ports were mostly unrelated to those of the dominant port, La Rochelle. This characteristic is a result of the long historical evolution of maritime trade in the PASA region.

The port of La Rochelle had cultivated a certain geographic distinctiveness until France lost its North American colonies. Like most Atlantic ports La Rochelle was involved in the West Indian and slave trade, but a considerable share of its shipments to the colonies was devoted to trade with North America (Canada, Louisiana, and Newfoundland fisheries), increasingly progressively to represent more than half of its colonial outfitting in the 1750s. This focus also influenced the nature of the products the port specialized in.

Fur trade was a La Rochelle specialty up to the early 1760s, with furs not only imported from Canada, but also from Louisiana, the main seaport for Ohio animal skins. These were for the most part re-exported in France and in Europe (mainly to the German territories and Switzerland). An important share – beaver furs notably – was not re-exported but went to the leather industry of Niort and other French towns. In return, La Rochelle supplied food, raw materials, and manufactured products to Canada and Louisiana. North America was an important and easy market for the region’s grain, low-quality local cloth, and to a lesser extent for the salt used by Newfoundland fisheries. While still modest in the 1740s, this trade provided high levels of employment in all three sectors of the regional economy and turned La Rochelle into the focal point of the regional port complex. This dominant position was compounded by the large share of La Rochelle capital invested in the Atlantic trade with North America and the West Indies. At the turn of the century La Rochelle’s superiority was reflected in the fact that Cognac companies established their headquarters in the town. However, following the crisis brought on by the end of the Law financial system in 1720, La Rochelle progressively lost its leading position and Tonnay-Charentes grew as the main port for the export of brandy produced in the region, and of Cognac more particularly.

La Rochelle overshadowed other ports in the region in the diversity of exported and imported products, and especially in its involvement in the Atlantic trade. The other regional ports largely developed their own economic activities independently, as shown by a comparison of the network of ship routes in the PASA region in 1787 with two other regions in the North (Loire-Atlantique) and South (Aquitaine). The indicators of centrality (ie the “betweenness centrality“, which is the number of shortest routes between two ports that pass through a given port, or PageRank centrality measuring the connection with other well-connected ports – see https:// en.wikipedia/wiki/Centrality) confirm La Rochelle’s comparative weakness and inability to centralize local maritime traffic when contrasted against other regions dominated by a central port (such as South-West France, the Loire-Atlantique, or Normandy). This was illustrated in part 2 above in examples relating to the slave trade and the brandy and salt trades.

La Rochelle’s weaker position within its region is probably a consequence of the loss of the North American colonies (Canada and Louisiana), which broke a positive cycle that had been established in the period after the War of the Austrian Succession. Before 1748, direct trade with the West Indies and the slave trade remained dominant within the La Rochelle customs region in terms of value, because of the limited demand from North America. But, immediately after the War of the Austrian Succession, a period of exceptional growth began in trade with North America. From 1748 to 1758, La Rochelle annually imported more than 1,300,000 French livres of North American skins, almost equal in value to West Indian sugar (1,450,000 French livres). The number of ships outfitted to sail to Canada had doubled, while the number travelling to Louisiana increased by half. Compared to the pre-war years, traffic to the West Indies fell on average by a quarter and slave trade traffic decreased by more than half now that La Rochelle was in direct competition with ports such as Bordeaux, Nantes, Rouen, and even Dunkirk and Marseille. Conversely, La Rochelle had a de facto monopoly over Louisiana, which was of little interest to larger ports, and only competed with Bordeaux in supplying Canada. These two destinations offered complementary possibilities, allowing for other types of triangular trade between La Rochelle, Canada, and West Indies to arise, based on Canadian salted cod and, more rarely, grain that could supply the sugar islands. Trade with Louisiana also provided smuggling possibilities with Spanish settlers, and this could offer rich returns in the form of Spanish silver dollars (Augeron: 2004; Mathieu: 1991).

Although this niche trade was limited in volume, it created local jobs and, in the middle of the century, gave rise to a certain dynamism which collapsed with the loss of the French North American colonies at the end of the Seven Years’ War. This loss permanently disrupted La Rochelle trade, depriving it of its distinctive markets and forcing it to relinquish its dominant position within the regional port network. By 1789, La Rochelle export trade was almost exclusively colonial: the slave trade and trade with the West Indies represented nearly 90% of its export value and the port’s activities no longer no longer framed the regional export economy which fell to neighboring customs offices. La Rochelle’s profile was similar to that of other large colonial ports, except for Bordeaux which consistently exported a share of products originating from its hinterland and became a regional hub for that trade. Le Havre and Nantes, like La Rochelle, did not mainly export products from their region. While the share of maritime traffic between La Rochelle and its region was important, its purpose was mainly to supply the city and the region rather than to serve as a warehouse for export. Thus, for example, in 1789, the port of Ribérou-Saujon alone shipped lime to La Rochelle on ships totaling 1,640 tonneaux, and the forty or so ships that sailed to La Rochelle from Marennes carried wine, brandy, wood, beans, oysters, furniture, and passengers, or sailed empty.

This information is accurately illustrated in our charts. La Rochelle’s decline, which set in on the eve of the Revolution, is displayed in the opening chart in this section. La Rochelle – despite being the PASA region’s main port – saw comparatively low traffic post-1763, resulting in other regional ports expanding their own trade activities, such as Tonnay-Charente, Marennes, Rochefort, and Ars-en-Ré. In the pre-revolutionary period (1787–1789), the flow of ships and goods thus reflected this reconfigured seafront trade. The value of the flow of goods leaving Tonnay-Charente or those entering Rochefort, which directly supported local production, now rivaled those from La Rochelle.

This trend evolved out of several adverse circumstances that compounded each other: the decline in capitalization by La Rochelle merchants, a direct consequence of the wave of bankruptcies that shook the town from the middle to the end of the Seven Years’ War; the loss of subsidized North American markets that would have allowed La Rochelle to rapidly rebound; and strong competition from other ports on West Indian markets. All that remained for La Rochelle was the slave trade. To maintain it, merchants purchased the goods needed from all over France and Europe and were only rarely supplied by their own hinterland. The port no longer served as the hinterland’s main route towards the open sea, particularly after the town’s capital weakness had driven away the trading companies specialized in Cognac: for example, Martell moved its headquarters to Tonnay-Charente and Paris. La Rochelle even faced competition in the colonial trade from other ports in the region. Rochefort gained permission to engage in the colonial trade, confirming the economic and political decline of the port of La Rochelle.

In conclusion, in 1789, La Rochelle was still a relatively dominant port in the region, particularly as regards the Atlantic trade, but this dominance declined considerably over the course of the century. In addition, the specialization of regional ports in salt (Marennes and Ars-en-Ré) and in brandy (Tonnay-Charente and, to a lesser extent, the ports of the island of Ré) meant that trade no longer revolved around La Rochelle. Colonial trade no longer relied on local networks of ports and manufacturing centers but survived on capital and goods from elsewhere.

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars subsequently demonstrated the fragility and artificiality of this situation. The British blockade and the ban on transatlantic trade put an end to the port of La Rochelle’s status as a major commercial port.

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