On 1 June 1731, the Billy brothers, Guillaume and François, waved goodbye to their ship, the Diligent, as it set sail from Brittany. It was weighed down with Indian cloth, cowry shells from the Maldives, white linen from Hamburg, guns, ammunition and smoking pipes from Holland, kegs of brandy from the Loire Valley, and with the all-important supplies for the crew: firewood and flour, dry biscuits, fava beans, hams, salt beef, cheese, white wine and water. There was one other item to be loaded: 150 slave irons with their locks and keys, manufactured by the Taquet brothers in Nantes. Each iron could restrain two slaves. The Diligent was setting off on its first slave-trading voyage.
The Africans who would wear these irons were destined for the French West Indian island of Martinique. French development of this and other islands had lagged behind the English. In 1700 there were about thirty thousand African slaves in the French colonies, compared with around a hundred thousand in the English ones, and sugar exports were correspondingly smaller, but the first decades of the 18th century would see a rapid growth in French involvement in the slave trade and in the development of their colonies. The activities of the Billy brothers were part of a more general trend, as the usually dirigiste French Crown gave a greater degree of freedom to merchants and entrepreneurs.
The 1731 voyage was the Billy brothers’ first involvement in the slave trade. It demanded a very significant investment: the cost of sending a ship on the African slave run was two or three times that of other branches of commerce. Outfitting the Diligent, including food, loading costs and two months’ salary for the crew, came to 80,000 livres – more than four times the price of the ship itself, and this before insurance. The Billy brothers were expecting big profits from the sale of Africans they would never see.
Robert Harms has based his riveting account of the ‘worlds of the slave trade’ on a journal kept by a young lieutenant on the Diligent, Robert Durand, a document sold in the 1980s to the Beinecke Library at Yale, where Harms teaches. Historians have uncovered records of more than seventeen thousand slaving voyages in the 18th century, but, as Harms points out, only a handful give us any insight into the daily life of the ship, the crew and its human cargo. Most are careful records of the ship’s passage, prices, rates of exchange, slaves’ vital statistics and deaths. As Robin Blackburn has argued, the slave trade and the slave plantation were run with an instrumental rationality, according to business principles that were ahead of their time, and produced an abundance of statistics. Durand’s journal is one of the handful of records that provides more than this, but even so it is characterised as much by its silences as by its evocative descriptions and jaunty drawings. ‘Curiously,’ Harms writes, ‘Robert Durand mentioned the African captives only twice during the entire 66 days of the middle passage, and then only to record deaths.’
Harms uses the voyage of the Diligent to take us through the ‘worlds’ of the Atlantic slave trade in the early 18th century. There are three of them in this case: France, West Africa and Martinique, with a few offshore islands thrown in. Harms’s argument is that these worlds are distinct, with their own histories and dynamics, but that during this period the slave trade was beginning to link their fates. Perhaps his most original contribution to the ever increasing scholarship on slavery, however, is his account of the French slave traders and the political and social context of early 18th-century French colonial commerce.
The ships that sailed from Brittany had their backs turned to the impoverished rural economy of the hinterland. The big players in colonial trade were Nantes and later Lorient, and though government-chartered companies had previously exercised near complete monopolies, by this time the merchants of Nantes were proving successful advocates of private enterprise. The development of the French colonies may have been dirigiste in comparison to the English, but the French King could not afford to ignore an increasingly vociferous group of private merchants pressing for reform of the now discredited system of corporate mercantilism. Still, French colonial trade, as Harms makes clear, was relatively unintegrated into the larger economy, which was still predominantly agricultural. In the 18th century, commercial cities like Nantes were a bit like the ‘free trade zones’ of the ‘Third World’ today – disconnected from the rest of the country, importing and exporting goods that most people would never own, and perhaps never see. Arriving in Nantes, with its grand merchants’ mansions and its opera house, the English traveller Arthur Young found himself in a strikingly different world from the one he had been journeying through: ‘Mon Dieu! I cried to myself, do all the wastes, the deserts, the heath, ling, furz, broom and bog that I have passed for three hundred miles lead to this spectacle? What a miracle, that all this splendour and wealth of the cities of France should be so unconnected with the country!’
The Billy brothers, like many others, wanted their share of the source of this wealth. Guillaume and François were the younger generation of an upwardly mobile merchant family from the much smaller and sleepier neighbouring port of Vannes – a conventional market town belonging to an older world, a major exporter of grain, deeply embedded in the region’s semi-feudal economy and society. Thanks to their father’s success in the grain trade, the Billy brothers were wealthy, but not wealthy enough to manoeuvre themselves into the local nobility. A major crisis in grain, and the glittering example of Nantes, encouraged them to move into the exotic world of colonial trade. In 1728, after much lobbying, the King’s Council granted the merchants of Vannes permission to participate (in a limited way) in trade with the West Indies. The brothers became minor investors in ships making the transatlantic crossing – transporting manufactured goods from France to the French West Indies and returning with cargoes of sugar and cotton. This was all very well, but no self-respecting entrepreneur could fail to notice that by adding another leg to these voyages, vastly greater profits could be made. Ships arriving in the West Indies from France could trade their load of manufactured cloth, brandy, wine and other goods for enough raw sugar to fill roughly a third of the hold. A load of African slaves, however, was worth nearly twice as much.
Although the French were relative latecomers to the Atlantic slave trade, their involvement grew rapidly in the 1700s, making them the third largest participant (after Britain and Portugal) by the end of the century. As Harms points out, in France in the first half of the century there was barely any recognition that the conduct of the slave trade might be a moral issue, though this would change in the run-up to the Revolution. So, when Harms asks rhetorically of Durand’s opening sentence ‘How could [he] outline such an evil mission in such impersonal prose?’ one suspects that he knows the answer. For investors like the Billy brothers the existence of the slaves was more virtual than real, but their decision to involve themselves more directly was nevertheless a big one: the risks were great, foremost among them disease and death, both of the human cargo and the crew. On average, slave traders in this period made returns of between 7 and 10 per cent annually – more or less in line with other branches of commerce. But the average clearly disguised huge variations, and huge expectations. The risks were high, but, if you were lucky, so were the profits.
In late 1730, then, the Billy brothers bought the Diligent, a modest grain-ship, and set about refitting and equipping it for the triangular trade. They would soon learn that it was a specialised business: in order to buy slaves on the coast of West Africa they would have to make sure they could supply the right goods to the picky African elite on whom they depended. That it was a global business is demonstrated by the inventory of goods loaded into the hold, only a fraction of which were produced in France. More than 40 per cent came from India and the Indian Ocean, and were purchased by the Billy brothers at the Company of Indies warehouse in Nantes. They included a bewildering variety of Indian cloth (fashions for which changed rapidly on the West African coast) and cowry shells, which served as currency on the slave coast. (So fundamental was the link between slaves, cowry shells and political authority that a Dahomian tradition held that when a king wanted cowry shells his henchmen would tie a rope around the neck of a slave and throw him into the ocean, where the shells would attach to his body like barnacles.) Equally crucial was the choice of a crew. They chose a captain with slaving experience, who then recruited the rest of the crew, from officers to accordion boy. This was Durand’s first slaving trip, and the journal would provide evidence of his familiarity with the trade, a valuable addition to his curriculum vitae. Crews on slave ships were well paid in compensation for the risks: four of the Diligent’s crew were to die in the course of this voyage.
Harms is a historian of Africa, and the richest section of this book concerns the complex politics of the African slave trade on the continent itself. Two months after leaving Vannes, and three weeks after leaving the ‘cultural halfway house’ of the Canary Islands, the crew spot first the Grain Coast and then the Gold Coast. The Dutch fort of Elmina on the Gold Coast had originally been built in 1482 by the Portuguese, who had used it as the base for their gold-buying operations. Durand was impressed, and drew a childish picture of the fortifications, the ‘pretty houses’, and the Dutch flag flapping in the ocean breeze. In fact, ‘Gold Coast’ was already becoming a misnomer, since Dutch interest in the area was rapidly switching from gold to slaves. Inland, imported guns were fuelling the rise of the great Asante empire and a fierce struggle for control over trade routes. Warfare produced slaves, now more likely than ever to be sold for export. Things had not always been this way, as Harms reminds us: between 1475 and 1540 more than twelve thousand slaves from the Bight of Benin and Sao Tomé had been imported to the Gold Coast by the Portuguese to be purchased by wealthy Africans, who used them as gold-field workers and porters on merchant caravans.
By the early 18th century, however, things had moved on. The sheer numbers involved in the Atlantic slave trade make this clear. In the course of the 16th century around 370,000 people were taken from Africa; in the next century this would rise to nearly two million, and in the 18th to more than six million. It has been estimated that in order to deliver the nine million slaves who arrived at the coast in the period from 1700 to 1850, around twenty-one million Africans were probably captured; five million of these would have died within a year of capture, and seven million remained in Africa as slaves. The population of certain regions of West and West Central Africa was significantly reduced.
The Diligent sailed on from Elmina, past a succession of English, Dutch and Danish forts, towards its destination: the part of the coast beyond the delta of the Volta river known as the Slave Coast. French slaving operations centred on the tiny kingdom of Whydah, which extended along forty miles of coastline and stretched twenty-five miles inland. Whydah was a trading kingdom, at that time exporting between sixteen and twenty thousand slaves a year, among whom were representatives of some thirty ethnic groups. King Huffon presided over the trade from his capital city, Savi. All the major European trading companies were represented there – the English, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese – and their compounds were built into the walls of the royal palace. At his coronation ceremony in 1725, Huffon was surrounded not only by his forty elaborately dressed wives, but also by the representatives of all the trading companies, who were seated to his right on stuffed chairs. Huffon himself sat on a gilded throne decorated with the French coat of arms.
The ostentatious wealth and sophistication of Huffon’s kingdom drew admiring descriptions from amazed foreign visitors. The dense population was fed, in part, by an intensive agricultural system based on millet, but incorporating such New World crops as maize and sweet potatoes; within the city walls, a rich variety of both European and African goods could be purchased at a number of daily markets. But by the time of the Diligent’s voyage, Whydah was in a state of war. As on the Gold Coast, trade rivalry had resulted in a new, militarised African politics. The cause of the problems in Whydah was the rise of the rival kingdom of Dahomey, some fifty miles inland. Whydah controlled access to the European trading companies and their goods, while Dahomey’s King Agaja remained frustratedly dependent on his neighbour. Agaja had ambitions for what had been a small, peaceful kingdom. He built up a formidable professional army and armed his soldiers with imported flintlock muskets rather than the traditional longbows. His fascination with the arts of war was such that he later obtained for himself a French suit of armour which, according to one visitor, made him look like Don Quixote. He used psychology as part of his military strategy, with public sacrifices of captives helping to maintain a state of terror.
In 1724, during a raid on the kingdom of Allada (which lay between Whydah and Dahomey), he had taken captive an English employee of the Royal African Company, Bulfinch Lambe. Agaja had never seen a European before, though he had heard all about them, and for the next two years, with the aid of an interpreter, he held long conversations with Lambe. Agaja was, apparently, fascinated by literacy, and even invented his own script. He wanted to know about the economics of the slave trade and, in particular, what accounted for the Europeans’ insatiable appetite for slaves. Lambe explained that they were exported to be used on Caribbean plantations to produce wealth in the form of sugar. Agaja understood immediately, and announced that he would cease to be a mere exporter of slaves and would, instead, set up his own plantations. Lambe, seeing a way out of his captivity, persuaded Agaja that such a scheme should be executed in co-operation with King George I. Agaja dictated a personal letter to the English King and Lambe was released so that he could return to England to negotiate an agreement.
In 1727, Agaja’s army attacked Whydah, driving King Huffon and Captain Assou, the main ally of the French in Savi, into exile, and taking prisoners among the crew members guarding the slave ships in port. In 1731, a state of war still prevailed. Captain Assou, infuriated at his betrayal, attacked the Europeans’ tents in an attempt to disrupt the trade, which was now in the hands of Agaja. Reluctantly, the captain of the Diligent weighed anchor, and left.
When he arrived at the port of Jakin, there were 15 slave ships in the harbour, events at Whydah having driven everyone in this direction. While the crew set about making final alterations to the ship to prepare it for its cargo, Durand set up a large sail-cloth tent on the beach, from which he would conduct negotiations and make his purchases. With competition so fierce, prices were high and he had to bargain. He also had to be sure to obtain an optimum mix of men, women and children. He was buying slaves in exchange for cotton, firearms and other goods, whose relative values could vary wildly from Vannes to Jakin, making the calculation of profit a tricky business. Durand recorded every detail of his transactions – he knew that later he would have to account for it all. But, as Harms remarks, he gives no hint of how he felt about participating in this activity. Harms’s careful historical reconstruction has provided us with a rich description of the worlds of the slave trade, but having reached Jakin we are reminded of its banality, which is simultaneously its tragedy. Gender, age and a supposed ‘ethnicity’ were recorded, the naked bodies examined for defects, and then branded. Finally, 256 slaves made the terrifying canoe ride across the surf to the waiting ship.
Durand’s silence on the subject of his human cargo frustrates Harms, who wants to know whether he felt a sadistic sense of power over these Africans, or whether perhaps he felt compassion. But such self-examination is not the purpose of Durand’s journal, even assuming that he engaged in it. In fact he tells us little about the ‘middle passage’, and Harms uses a compilation of other sources to stop the gap. We gather that from the point of view of the slave trader, the faster this part of the journey was over the better: the quicker the crossing the lower the mortality rate, and the less the likelihood of a slave revolt. It may have been the slaves who were in chains but there was a degree of mutuality in the terror evoked. While Europeans dreamed of African cannibals, many enslaved Africans believed that they were destined to be eaten by their European captors – how else to explain the appetite for slaves that King Agaja had puzzled over? Such a fear could be so overwhelming as to lead them to suicide, or to acts of violence and insurrection against the terrified crew. Diseases spread, inevitably, from the slave deck to the crew quarters. In this atmosphere of terror and despair, Noël Magré, the ship’s accordion player, would have been put to work. Slave traders knew very well that melancholy was the enemy of profit, since slaves who were prone to depression were also prone to lie down and die. It was the accordion player’s job to ‘cheer them up’ with some jolly seafaring tunes, and to animate the enforced dancing that was part of the exercise regime.
This section of Harms’s account made me uncomfortable. His technique – the use of Durand’s journal as a peg on which to hang a revealing narrative – is valid and effective, and he has scoured a multitude of archives to fill out Durand’s account. The historian’s task of reconstruction seems all the more pressing in the case of slavery, in the course of which so many lives and so many histories were lost. But another of the historian’s responsibilities is to confront us with the absences. Toni Morrison has described her reluctance to represent the abjection of the middle passage: Beloved, she says, stands in for ‘those black slaves whom we don’t know . . . I had to be dragged, I suppose by them, kicking and screaming into this book, because it is just too much.’ Perhaps, then, Harms is right to drag us reluctantly into his reconstruction of the Diligent’s hold. But a historian is not a novelist, and arguably only a novelist (or a poet) can represent the unrepresentable trauma of the middle passage.
By the time the Diligent reached the harbour of St Pierre on Martinique, nine slaves had died – a relatively low mortality rate for the time. The survivors were bathed, shaved and their skin rubbed with palm oil. Dealers boarded the ship to inspect the human merchandise. The captain named his price – 950 livres each – but no one was offering anywhere near that figure. Just as the war in Whydah had forced up the price of slaves, so recent events had depressed selling prices in Martinique. The opening of the trade to private traders had increased supply, and in addition, the economy of Martinique was in crisis, owing to a combination of the massive earthquake of 1727 and disputes between small planters and the Company of the Indies. The Diligent’s captain held out for his price, but within a month the slaves began to die in the slave warehouse of St Pierre. He was forced to sell at less than half his original asking price. Most went to a dealer called Lamy, about whom we know little, except that he was an expert in this business and had calculated the timing of his offer carefully. The rest probably went to local officials and planters. This is the last we know of them.
The Diligent returned to Brittany loaded with cotton, sugar and rocou, a plant substance used in the dyeing process. The long voyage had certainly produced a profit, but not the profit the Billy brothers had dreamed of. They sued the captain, alleging that he had been profligate with supplies and that he had twice switched one of his personally purchased slaves for another belonging to the outfitters. The holding of the trial may well account for the survival of Durand’s journal – it was used in evidence. (The verdict, however, has not survived.) No such trace remains of the 242 surviving Africans who had been left on Martinique. Harms describes the enthusiasm with which he took himself off to the archives there in pursuit of the final part of his story. I’ve been there myself on a similar pursuit. The glistening new departmental archives sit on a hill overlooking Fort-de-France and the ocean. They are meticulously catalogued and the staff are ever helpful. But they yield nothing of the lives of the Africans who survived the experience of the Diligent: no names, no baptismal records, no marriages, no deaths. No trace. This is the end of the journey for both the historian and his readers.