Sago on Forrest (2020)

Forrest, Alan. The Death of the French Atlantic: Trade, War, and Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Oxford UP, 2020, pp. xxx + 320, 6 maps, ISBN 978-0-19-956895-6

Throughout his prolific career, Alan Forrest has written military, political, and social histories of Napoleonic and revolutionary France, including its provinces and ports. With The Death of the French Atlantic, Forrest seeks to show “that the history of France’s Atlantic ports can no longer be told in isolation from the rest of the Atlantic world” (xv). Particularly concerned with economic ties between French port cities and France’s Atlantic colonies, this book examines how “war, revolution, and moral uncertainty over the slave trade […] were the principal elements in a crisis that would destroy France’s Atlantic empire” (xvi). War is consistently portrayed as a significant interruption to trade in the latter part of the century; however, the conclusion reveals the author’s contention that revolution and anti-slavery movements ultimately had the farthest-reaching effects in the French Atlantic’s decline. Divided into three parts, The Death of the French Atlantic covers the Ancien Régime, the period of war and revolution, and the slave trade in the post-revolutionary era and its legacies in the present day. Its chapters pair surveys of historical scholarship with illustrative readings of primary sources, including private correspondence, travel narratives, and ship logs.

Part One, “Before the Storm,” contains five chapters that chart the nonlinear rise of the French Atlantic. Chapters one through three provide an overview of the economic prosperity (and its disruptions) associated with the eighteenth-century French Atlantic and detail the factors (geographical, financial, political, and cultural) that determined French ports’ varying investments in colonial trade, including the slave trade. Chapter four turns to the triangular trade, highlighting the costs and risks for French merchants associated with the infamous commercial routes connecting France, Africa, and the “New World.” Chapter five addresses topics including colonial labor systems (engagisme and slavery), nobles’ engagement in colonial enterprise, and absenteeism. The chapter’s particular attention to the development of urban centers and social clubs in Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe is consistent with the book’s more detailed treatment of the “civilised lifestyle” of colonial cities compared to life in rural areas (42).

Part Two, “War and Revolution,” comprises six chapters examining disruptions to commercial trade with France’s colonies. Chapter six surveys debates between anti- and pro-slavery factions in French Atlantic ports and identifies differences between British and French anti-slavery movements. Chapter seven focuses on how ports in France weathered the storm of the French Revolution. Chapters eight and nine center on mounting tensions in Saint-Domingue and the Haitian Revolution, touching on the divergent trade interests of colonists and French merchants, controversies over metropolitan legislation on the civil rights of free men of color, and Napoleon’s shifting ambitions in the Atlantic. Throughout Part Two, the author’s presentation of debates over slavery and politics in Saint-Domingue uses colonialist terms to refer to racialized groups without a critical acknowledgment of their degrading connotations, a practice that has been addressed by scholars, including Marlene Daut in her 2015 Tropics of Haiti. Chapter ten traces the exodus of colonists from Saint-Domingue to France, Jamaica, Cuba, and the United States. Chapter eleven focuses on general economic decline in French ports, describing how merchants faced increasing risks and costs driven up by war (echoing chapter three) during the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. The travel narratives to Bordeaux presented in this chapter provide an interesting counterpoint to those cited in chapter two, highlighting the “sense of decay” palpable in French port cities by the end of the eighteenth century (222).

Part Three, “Emerging from Crisis,” includes three chapters on the slave trade in the early nineteenth century and its legacies in the present, as well as a brief conclusion. Chapters twelve and thirteen center on the illegal slave trade following its abolition by the British (1807), the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), and its outlaw in France (1817–18), with a particular focus on Nantes as a center of the clandestine trade. Close attention to the risks, costs, and hardships faced by French merchants and crew members engaged in the illegal slave trade emphasizes their experiences over those of the captive Africans they illegally trafficked. A sometimes-confusing presentation of dates, factual inconsistencies, and slippages between slavery and the slave trade limit these chapters’ effectiveness in offering an introduction to readers unfamiliar with these issues. Chapter fourteen details how, since the late 1990s, French port cities like Bordeaux, La Rochelle, and Nantes have begun to recognize their historical role in the slave trade. The conclusion traces the uneven economic recovery of Bordeaux, Nantes, and Le Havre in the nineteenth century. The book closes by briefly characterizing Haiti as the “saddest victim of the Age of Revolutions in France’s Atlantic world” (288), evoking a fall in status from perle des Antilles to “impoverished backwater” (289).

Throughout the book, comparisons to British history and port cities may provide useful reference points for Anglophone audiences, consistent with the author’s stated goal of introducing readers to Francophone sources. While the work of historians like Serge Daget and Paul Butel is well represented, the volume does not engage with recent influential work in several fields on which it draws, including Atlantic and Haitian studies, as well as scholarship on the Haitian Revolution, the history of “race,” and French anti-slavery and abolitionist movements. Such specialists are best positioned to fill in these bibliographic gaps and note other elements omitted from its historical survey. Certain interesting claims are unaccompanied by citations, complicating their potential development by scholars. Benefitting from the author’s expertise, The Death of the French Atlantic is at its best in its treatment of French port cities. It leaves readers with a strong sense of the dramatic changes brought about by France’s trade with its Atlantic colonies in the eighteenth century, as Nantes, Bordeaux, Le Havre, and La Rochelle eclipsed the previous prominence of places like Lorient, Honfleur, or Rouen. By devoting particular attention to Bordeaux and Nantes, the book highlights key differences in the trajectories of two of France’s foremost Atlantic ports. The Death of the French Atlantic is sure to interest readers looking to situate the histories of French port cities in the long eighteenth century against the backdrop of the French Atlantic.