The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade

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The French slave trade forced more than one million Africans across the Atlantic to the islands of the Caribbean. It enabled France to establish Saint-Domingue, the single richest colony on earth, and it connected France, Africa, and the Caribbean permanently. Yet the impact of the slave trade on the cultures of France and its colonies has received surprisingly little attention. Until recently, France had not publicly acknowledged its history as a major slave-trading power. The distinguished scholar Christopher L. Miller proposes a thorough assessment of the French slave trade and its cultural ramifications, in a broad, circum-Atlantic inquiry. This magisterial work is the first comprehensive examination of the French Atlantic slave trade and its consequences as represented in the history, literature, and film of France and its former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.

Miller offers a historical introduction to the cultural and economic dynamics of the French slave trade, and he shows how Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu and Voltaire mused about the enslavement of Africans, while Rousseau ignored it. He follows the twists and turns of attitude regarding the slave trade through the works of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century French writers, including Olympe de Gouges, Madame de Staël, Madame de Duras, Prosper Mérimée, and Eugène Sue. For these authors, the slave trade was variously an object of sentiment, a moral conundrum, or an entertaining high-seas “adventure.” Turning to twentieth-century literature and film, Miller describes how artists from Africa and the Caribbean—including the writers Aimé Césaire, Maryse Condé, and Edouard Glissant, and the filmmakers Ousmane Sembene, Guy Deslauriers, and Roger Gnoan M’Bala—have confronted the aftermath of France’s slave trade, attempting to bridge the gaps between silence and disclosure, forgetfulness and memory.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The French Atlantic Triangle will stand as a landmark in both the study of slavery and its very particular manifestations in the French Atlantic world.” - Martin Munro, Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

“Miller’s The French Atlantic Triangle is an original and highly readable book that makes a significant contribution to scholarship on Atlantic slavery and its role in shaping the modern world. . . . [T]he book’s detailed examination of France’s long-neglected involvement in the slave trade makes it a necessary read for anyone seeking to understand the cultural echoes of the Middle Passage in the Francophone world and beyond.” - Andrew Optiz, African American Review

"Thoroughly researched and thought-provoking, this well-written book will be accessible even to readers unfamiliar with the primary texts Miller discusses. . . . It will interest not only those studying French and Francophone literature but also those pursuing work in African and black studies. Highly recommended. Lower division undergraduates through faculty."
- D. L. Boudreau, Choice

“This is a book of encyclopedic reach and vast dimensions. . . . The French Atlantic Triangle is meticulously researched, almost comprehensive in its treatment of the literary corpus, and makes diligent use of historical scholarship. It offers an astonishing web of circuits of reception, rereadings and intertextual relations between key texts . . . and thus fills a troubling gap in French literary and cultural history. . . . The French Atlantic Triangle is a tremendous achievement that is possible only on the basis of decades of committed research and teaching. Most importantly, it is an important rectification of a reprehensible cultural narrative. Perhaps the day will come when French literary history can no longer be written without mentioning the slave trade and the slave colonies that subtended the motherland of liberty.” - Sibylle Fischer, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History

“Miller’s project is unusual not only in its broad historical scope but also in its attempt to trace links between 18th and 19th-century French literature and 20th-century works by writers from France’s former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.” - Brent Hayes Edwards, London Review of Books

The French Atlantic Triangle is a tremendous achievement. Meticulously researched and lucidly written, it is an introduction to a neglected water world, without knowledge of which our encounter with continental history and literature is doomed to perpetuate biases and omissions.”—Deborah Jenson, author of Trauma and Its Representations: The Social Life of Mimesis in Post-Revolutionary France

The French Atlantic Triangle is an extremely impressive, compelling, and necessary book. Christopher L. Miller provides a magisterial examination of how the history of slavery, which profoundly shaped the culture of France, has haunted and animated the work of generations of writers and artists. In the process he offers us a new way of defining and seeing the French Atlantic.”—Laurent Dubois, author of A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804

“Revealing a remarkable breadth of knowledge, Christopher L. Miller combines conceptual sophistication, an authoritative analysis of Francophone texts, and a compelling discussion of the ways that the French Atlantic triangle emerged and put a lasting imprint on French imagination and politics. This is a significant contribution to an understanding of the world slavery built. It is a truly great book; it should be read by anyone who cares about race, memory, literature, and citizenship.”—Françoise Vergès, author of Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Métissage

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341512
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 982,875
  • Product dimensions: 6.49 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher L. Miller is Frederick Clifford Ford Professor of African American Studies and French at Yale University. He is the author of Nationalists and Nomads: Essays on Francophone African Literature and Culture; Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa; and Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French.

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Read an Excerpt


Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade
By Christopher L. Miller

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4151-2

Chapter One



Examine the situations of all the peoples of the universe. They are set up in such a way that they appear to depend on nothing, yet they depend on everything. Everything is a cog, a pulley, a cord, a spring in this immense machine. In the physical universe it is the same. A wind that blows from the depths of Africa and from the southern seas brings with it a part of the African atmosphere, which falls as rain in the valleys of the Alps; those rains enrich our lands; and our northern wind in its turn sends our vapors to the Negroes. We do good to Guinea, and Guinea does good to us. The chain stretches from one end of the universe to the other. -VOLTAIRE, "Chaîne ou génération des événements" (1764)

Man is born free, yet everywhere lives in chains. -ROUSSEAU, Du Contrat social (1762)


The Atlantic triangle was invented by a system of trades, following a certain pattern. The French version of the Atlantic, perhaps more than any other, was triangular in its configuration. The Atlantic triangle was traced onto the earth and into world culture by men and women and ships, moving goods to Africa, captive Africans to the New World, and colonial products back to the mother countries. The forced migration of more than eleven million Africans to the New World presents a tremendous challenge to memory-but not only to memory: to ethics, politics, and, most of all, justice. The effects of the triangle are inscribed on the ground of Gorée Island in Senegal, in the remains of the plantations of Martinique and Haiti, on the luxurious facades of Nantes and Bordeaux-and in the economic inequities of the postcolonial world. The impact of the slave trade remains with us today in more ways than one can count, for it truly created a "new world."

My goal in this book is to think about what I will call the French Atlantic: France, parts of Africa, and the French islands of the Caribbean, with occasional references beyond, to Louisiana and to the Indian Ocean. I want to think of this as a whole in which the various parts are interpreted in relation to each other: France in relation to Africa, Africa in relation to the Caribbean, and so on. These multiple relations are reflected and refracted in literary texts, images, films, and a variety of other documents ranging from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. My hypothesis is that the infamous, slave-based "triangular trade" created a powerful sweep of forces moving around the Atlantic and that traces of those forces have survived abolitions, independences, and "departmentalizations." At the same time, the figure of the triangle is not all-encompassing: as a mercantilist plan it could not be fully enforced over time and space, and as a projection of the French nation-state it invited resistance from within, below, and outside. So considerable attention is due to the individuals, groups, modes of thought, and political forces that escaped the logic of the triangle and the state-or tried to. Through a reading of numerous texts, emanating from different points of the French (and Francophone) Atlantic, I hope to shed light both on the reality of the triangular system and on modes and moments of its undoing.

* * *

That the official French slave trade was predominantly triangular is a matter of both historical record and geographical inevitability. Any vessel leaving France to move slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, once it returned home, would have traced a rough triangle spanning the Atlantic from north to south, from east to west, and then back. We will see that the mercantilist doctrine of the Exclusif established by Colbert, banning trade with other empires, solidified the triangle and made it the only legitimate pattern of trade. Herbert S. Klein warns against the "myth" of the triangular trade, but what he dismisses is the idea that each slave-trading vessel completed the full triangle in economic terms, perfectly balancing its books and possibly turning a profit. That is indeed a myth. But the triangle, we will see, remains both a fact on the ground (on the ocean) and an internalized cultural logic. There were other triangles (Newport-West Africa-Barbados; the cod-fish triangle France-Newfoundland-Mediterranean) and other polygons (as when the Atlantic triangle was illegally made into a quadrilateral by trade between the French planters of the Caribbean and British North America). The Atlantic could be constructed according to other, multidirectional or "crosshatched," logics, in which meanings might "circulat[e] promiscuously"; the French Atlantic in the time of the slave trade did not tend to be one of those. It will be important here to pay attention to various mitigations of the triangle but equally important to recognize its forms of predominance. The phrase commerce triangulaire (or trafic triangulaire), referring to the Atlantic economy based on the slave trade, is commonplace in French.

The triangle will therefore be not only the dominant figure here but, perhaps inevitably, a figure of dominance itself. The triangle is a sign of power-and of the direct contestation of power; it is the shape both of the slave trade and-to take a leap that cannot be avoided-of the Oedipus complex. It suggests a logic of ineluctable, "eternal" relationships: father, mother, offspring-terms that in the cultural logic of colonialism translate into Europe, Africa, and the New World. The history of colonialism is rife with metaphors casting Europe in the role of father, Africa as mother (an idea supported by the ideology of Negritude), and the new creole (from Spanish criar, to breed, to raise) colonies as children. Aimé Césaire wrote of the West Indian as "the bastard of Europe and Africa, torn between this father who denies him and this mother he denies." That triangulated family romance-set up by the slave trade-is at the heart of our concerns here.

But the very persistence of the triangle has incited certain artists to think outside its lines and to seek other logics. In a text that informs the basis of this project, Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land), the triangle is plainly evident-the inescapable armature of thought about relations between Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean in the wake of the slave trade and slavery. The "negritude" that Césaire invented in that poem-an idea that is often misrepresented these days as a simplistic vision of a lost African paradise-was partially (but not entirely) an attempt to renegotiate a triangle that appeared to be so powerful that it could never be imagined out of existence. Césaire sought to renavigate the triangle according to a logic of indirect return (to Africa, but via France, its institutions, its language, and its literature). That reinvented triangle-Caribbean, France, Africa-is often represented as an ideological formula, a prescription on Césaire's part, and certain passages of the Cahier seem to support this. Yet there is another logic at work in the poem: the thought of a spiral that spins and rises above the triangle, culminating in the final word of the poem, verrition. A neologism rooted in the Latin verri or vertere, to sweep, to spin or (most relevantly) to scan, veerition (as it has been translated) encapsulates the logic of escape, of the marooned slave who finds refuge in the forest. Yet this word also conjures thoughts of sweeping away the triangle and of escaping into a wholly different logic, free from the violently imposed relationships of the triangle. Vertere also means to overturn, overthrow, destroy, so it is in a sense an act of veerition when the captives in the hold of the slave ship, at the dramatic climax of the poem, rise up in revolt and free themselves. "Veerition" might be that other logic: a spiral rising above the triangle, leaving it behind. As we will see later in this study, that would be consistent with Césaire's reinvention of Mérimée's "Tamango," a key tale of revolt on a slave ship.

Too bad that Césaire only offers the possibility of escape within a mind-boggling oxymoron: it is not simply "veerition" that he gives us at the very end of the Cahier-sweeping us into redemption-but "immobile veerition." He leaves us to wonder if there is any real escape from the triangle, whether there is any viable alternative. It may turn out that the logic of the triangle and that of "veerition" are implicit in each other. Later in this study, the task of my chapter on the Cahier will be to read Césaire's interpretations of the inherited logic of the slave trade and to explore his mixed feelings about the possibility of escape.

* * *

At its most basic, this book is concerned with interpretations of space as they have evolved through time. Apprehensions of geographical space both help to explain history and affect what is done to create history. European powers created the Atlantic system, putting in place what was in effect a vast triangular machine in which slave labor played an essential role. Their ability to shape the Atlantic came from their prowess as mariners, and it allowed them to see what they wanted to see. This selective vision in turn made it thinkable to base their new Atlantic economy on servitude and slavery-even as some within the European seats of power began to undermine philosophically the basis of slavery. My epigraphs from Voltaire and Rousseau illustrate this tension. These two thinkers loom large over any attempt to understand how the French eighteenth century could be, on the one hand, so deeply involved in the slave trade and, on the other, so productive of the ideas that would later abolish that trade, produce revolutions, and enable, as Giovanni Arrighi puts it, "a thorough transformation of ruler-subject relations throughout the Americas and in most of Europe"-and later, less thoroughly, lead to decolonization in Africa. It was during the eighteenth century that the majority of slaves were exported from Africa. Slavery and servitude had always been a part of the social order in both Europe and Africa in one form or another. It was in fact one of those "wheels, pulleys, ropes, and springs"-in Voltaire's words-that held the world together. In "Chaîne ou génération des événements" Voltaire celebrates what we might now call globalization: the amazing interdependence of far-flung elements. Voltaire's cheerful invocation of Africa as a place that is linked to France is very strange, and I don't believe he was really thinking of the weather. He knew perfectly well that it was not the weather but the slave trade that was the "pulley" bringing Africa and Europe together in an "immense machine." His metaphor, a chain, to suggest the links between peoples throughout the world, is a singularly unhappy choice. For in Voltaire's times (and, for a time, with his investments) some were more enchained than others. In his enthusiasm for global connectedness Voltaire shows his ability to ignore the inconvenient fact of African servitude. He is typical of his era: the idea of a "Great Chain of Beings" was commonplace in the eighteenth century, while great chains were being applied to hundreds of thousands of Africans. Rousseau, in the epigraph, sounds like he recognizes the evil of slavery in this famous opening of the Social Contract, yet he too ignores the Atlantic slave trade, as he does throughout his vast writings, with one tiny exception. He makes slavery a metaphor for the condition of man in modern (which means European) society. This gesture dominates the Enlightenment's treatment of the theme of slavery, and the technique of "making-metaphorical" will require further examination. Those who are literally enchained do not enter his thinking here. Both Voltaire and Rousseau, even as they struggled to think their way out of various forms of oppressive dogma, were, each in his own way, barely interested in African slavery. Their indifference must be considered representative of one of the conditions that allowed for the turning of the machine of enslavement around and around the Atlantic in their times. Perhaps, to follow Orlando Patterson's general theory about slavery and freedom, the enslavement of Africans by Europeans was not simply a blind spot in the minds of the philosophes; perhaps "the joint rise of slavery [for Africans] and cultivation of freedom [for Europeans] was no accident." What I will call an economy held slavery and freedom together in a compromising tangle of relationships. Rousseau himself puzzled over this in the Social Contract: "Could it be that freedom is only maintained through the support of servitude? Perhaps. The two extremes meet."

* * *

Among the methodological hunches that I am making about the French Atlantic is the idea of following the money. As we will see, it was rarely cash that flowed around the ocean, but exchanges of valued objects-of everything from cloths and cowry shells to human beings-created the Atlantic. To follow the flow of those values is to see the emergence of a vast system that defied all borders. What were the boundaries of the slave trade? Where did its reach end? Trade goods produced in Europe were exchanged for captives in Africa. Cowries-the "shell money of the slave trade"-were taken from the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean to Europe as ballast, then shipped to Africa and used as currency for buying slaves; circulated widely in Africa and incorporated into ritual practices, some of those shells now adorn African art, which itself now circulates throughout the world. If, as Patrick Manning asserts, "all of African society, not just a privileged elite, was compromised in the slave trade"-because everyone relied on the various forms of currency or trade goods that the trade brought in-and if, as Boubacar Barry writes, "The entire [Senegambian] society was intimately involved in the slave holding system," does the same model of general permeability not apply to European society, and American? If those statements are true, then the Atlantic triangle looks like a conspiracy in which the elites of Europe, Africa, and the Americas collaborated (unequally) to exploit the labor of enslaved Africans.

The Atlantic slave trade was connected to the Arab or "Oriental" slave trade (both across the Sahara and east to the Indian Ocean), and both exporting systems fed on the trade in slaves that took place among sub-Saharan Africans themselves. Ships plying the direct route back and forth between France and the Caribbean on the commerce en droiture, although they were not carrying slaves, were part of an economy that was wholly dependent on slavery, and those ships, as I will explain, were necessary to recuperate the full value of the slaves brought to the New World. This was a "world system."


Excerpted from THE FRENCH ATLANTIC TRIANGLE by Christopher L. Miller Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface     ix
Abbreviations     xv
The French Atlantic
Introduction     3
Around the Triangle     40
The Slave Trade in the Enlightenment     62
The Veeritions of History     83
French Women Writers: Revolution, Abolitionist Translation, Sentiment (1783-1823)
Gendering Abolitionism     99
Olympe de Gouges, "Earwitness to the Ills of America"     109
Madame de Stael, Mirza, and Pauline: Atlantic Memories     141
Duras and Her Ourika, "The Ultimate House Slave"     158
Conclusion to Part Two     174
French Male Writers: Restoration, Abolition, Entertainment
Tamango around the Atlantic: Concatenations of Revolt     179
Forget Haiti: Baron Roger and the New Africa     246
Homosociality, Reckoning, and Recognition in Eugene Sue's Atar-Gull     274
Edouard Corbiere, "Mating," and Maritime Adventure     300
The Triangle From "Below"
Cesaire, Glissant, Conde: Reimagining the Atlantic     325
African "Silence"     364
Conclusion: Reckoning, Reparation, and the Value of Fictions     385
Notes     391
Selected Bibliography     527
Index     547
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