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The slave streets of Le Havre

Memorial to those lost in WW1 from Le Havre and is by Pierre-Marie Poisson in 1922
Memorial to those lost in WW1 from Le Havre by Pierre-Marie Poisson in 1922
Memorial to those lost in WW1 from Le Havre by Pierre-Marie Poisson in 1922

There are two very different memorials in Le Havre; one for lives lost, the other for lives taken, for France.

Our postcard shows a glorious memorial to the 6000 people of Le Havre who died in WW1.  They gave their lives for their country in conditions so awful we cannot imagine them. It is right they are not forgotten and this statue from 1922 by Pierre-Marie Poisson stands at the end of the Bassin du Commerce in the centre of town.

A second memorial in Le Havre remembers others who lost everything for France, thousands of people who were made to suffer unspeakable torment and endure lives of infinite sadness.

The slaves memorial

Their memorial lies flat in the corner of a grass lawn between the Malraux art museum and the entrance to Le Havre port.  Just across a path from a basketball court, it is not much bigger than a paving slab. This plaque is how the town has chosen to remember the 90,000 slaves, trafficked by Le Havre ships, from Africa to the plantations and factories of the French colonies.  Slaves who were used to build fortunes that still enrich the lives of families who would rather not discuss it.

There are other reminders in Le Havre if you know where to look. Five streets; Masurier, Begouen, Boulongne, Eyriès and Massieu are all named for civic worthies whose money and success helped shape Le Havre.  Each families fortune benefited from trafficking slaves.

From fish to men

This murky chapter in Le Havre’s history began when cod fishing declined in the latter half of the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIV.  Historians suspect it had been going on for some time before then.

Slavery received official approval in Le Havre with the setting up of Compagnie du Sénégal in 1678, created to take over the slave trade from the Dutch West India Company who they helped kick out of Senegal.

The profits of trafficking

A slave trading voyage would be a huge investment for Le Havre ship-owners.  Each journey took over a year and required a higher number of sailors than usual, to keep control of their cargo.  But this was balanced by astronomical returns.

Records show that from 1713 to 1792, 68 “Honourable” shipping houses of Le Havre engaged in trafficking people from Africa. Ships followed a route around a triangle of countries; France, Africa and the West Indies making a profit at every stop. Profits made by ship-owners and investors in the triangular trade towards the end of the 18th century were close to 46%.

Illustration of a slave ship from 'The cry of the African against the Europeans their oppressors' 1822
Illustration of a slave ship from ‘The cry of the African against the Europeans their oppressors’ 1822

Triangular trade

Ships were first loaded in Le Havre and Honfleur with goods from Normandy’s Pays de Caux: agricultural products, metals, guns, textiles. These cargoes were then sailed to the African coast particularly Guinea, Senegal and Angola, to be traded for slaves.  The slaves were then shipped to French colonies, mainly the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue where many Havrais ran plantations and sugar factories.  Sugar, cotton, coffee, spices were then sailed back to Le Havre.

Le Havre’s ship-owners and investors chose which African ports their ships would visit following intelligence on tribal wars from spies and returning ships’ captains. Slaves purchased were more often the losers in battles than the victims of abduction.

It could take from ten days to three months to find enough captives to fill a ship. Slaves would be restrained by the neck in groups of five to be loaded on board at night. In the ship they were kept in chains with each person trafficked allotted the space of one barrel. Perhaps rather less for the children.

On average eight to ten percent of captives died. A cold figure that fails to reflect months shut up in a small dark, dirty space in pain, underfed, terrified while dysentery and infection spread between them.  There are records of slaves taken up on deck for a rare moment of fresh air throwing themselves overboard rather than continue their evil journey.

Illustration of a slave ship from 'The cry of the African against the Europeans their oppressors' 1822
Illustration of a slave ship from ‘The cry of the African against the Europeans their oppressors’ 1822

The short life of a slave, and a sailor

Once the survivors reached their destination life expectancy was on average seven years, but this did depend on the industry they were put into.  Death rates were so high in the sugar factories new slaves were needed constantly.

Survival for the crew on a triangular voyage was no better. Eleven percent of officers and sailors were killed during the circuit, or around one in nine men. The majority of deaths were from malaria which infested the African coast. Other crew deaths were due to accidents at sea during manoeuvres on tired rigging or when their captives managed to revolt.

Unlike English crews, the sailors of Le Havre slave ships were not press-ganged into service.  Men would be encouraged to build up a debt in the taverns of Le Havre then be offered just one way to pay it off. It was rare for a sailor to volunteer for the triangular voyages.

Only war with England (which made the seas infinitely more dangerous) slowed the slave trade from Le Havre. Then in 1791 the French plantation owners of Saint-Domingue made a catastrophic error.

Inspection and sale of a slave from Twenty Years of an African Slaver by Brantz Mayer
Inspection and sale of a slave from Twenty Years of an African Slaver by Brantz Mayer

Slaves rebel

Half a million slaves were being controlled on the westerly French region of Saint-Domingue by just thirty two thousand people. To keep order they used torture for the slightest insurrection.  Henri Christophe an ex slave would later recall:

“Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? … Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss?

On 22 August 1791 at 11pm the slaves revolted. It would take years of fighting (Napoleon shipped over thousands of soldiers) but in 1804 they achieved independence. The newly freed people called their land Haiti.

Illustration showing the massacre of whites and the burning of Cap-Français on Saint-Domingue in 1792, printed in Paris 1815
Illustration showing the massacre of whites and burning of Cap-Français on Saint-Domingue in 1792, printed in Paris 1815

Revolution ends slavery, for a while

The revolt cost the ship-owners of Le Havre millions. They were furious and campaigned for the French government to re-establish power on Saint-Dominique. But their days were numbered.

Slavery was abolished in 1794 by the government of the First Republic, shortly after the French revolution.  But Napoleon was successfully lobbied (Josephine’s family were slaveholders) to re-establish it, at least in the colonies, in 1802. Increasingly unpopular in a country touting liberté, égalité, fraternité, slavery was completely abolished by France 1848. By then 399 official slave trade expeditions had sailed from Le Havre.

After the Abolition of slavery, the French government compensated slave owners, the released slaves received nothing.

Number of slave shipments from Le Havre in the 18th century. Source J Mettas
Number of slave shipments from Le Havre in the 18th century. Source J Mettas

Illegal trade continues, from Le Havre

The law of 1848 should be the end of the story of slavery and Le Havre, but the money to be made was too much for some investors to give up.

On official papers a cargo listed as ‘ebony’ ‘mules’ or ‘bales’ disguised the old trade. The risks associated with illegal trafficking were higher, but the benefits increased accordingly. Le Havre protected their own but one case was taken to court, all because of insurance.

The bogus case of Jules Masurier

Jules Masurier was from a ship-owning family and known as ‘Masurier le Jeune’, the younger. He was hugely successful, building a vast fortune with the triangular trade, owning 29 ships in 1860 and 40 by 1870.

When his ship the Don Juan was wrecked near Havana in 1860 he tried to claim compensation.  The insurers were suspicious and sent investigators who uncovered an entirely different story.

The voyage of the Don Juan started in Le Havre then went to Guinea where it took on board 850 slaves at a cost of 140,000 francs. They sailed across the Atlantic throwing 243 dead overboard, an unusually high number probably due to trafficking conditions being even worse for slaves now the trade was illegal.

The surviving slaves were unloaded in Cuba and sold for around 2,000,000 francs but the authorities in the area became suspicious.  Concerned the ship would be searched and their real cargo revealed, the captain burned and scuttled it.  Once the true story of the Don Juan was uncovered Masurier was dragged in front of the Rouen Assizes.  He was acquitted, but forced to stand down from his position as member of the Chamber of Commerce.

Le Havre was content to soon forgive and quietly forget this misdemeanour, cheerfully voting Jules Masurier mayor of their town between 1873 and 1878.  Masurier died in Paris in 1888 leaving one million francs, equivalent to around one hundred and twenty million pounds.

An uncomfortable walk

Today Le Havre is a vibrant, multi-cultural town, a tough survivor of WW2.  All but one of the slave trader’s opulent mansions was flattened in 1944, to be replaced by architect Perret’s stark modernist vision. The surviving mansion, built for Pierre-Martin Foache, is now a museum that does touch on it’s owner’s unpalatable history.

France has decreed 10th May a national day to remember the horrors of the slave trade and to celebrate abolition.  In Le Havre white flowers are laid on the plaque by the sea and words spoken before a crowd wearing white in remembrance. Many of them will then go home through streets named for Masurier, Begouen, Boulongne, Eyriès and Massieu. It is an uncomfortable walk.

1700-1793, number of French slave ships (official figures)
1700-1793, number of French slave ships (official figures)

The streets

Rue Jules Masurier: Jules Masurier, mayor of Le Havre, continued trading in slaves for many years after it was legally abolished.

Rue Begouen: Jacques-François Begouën was a statesman, the owner of Abbey du Valasse and a slave trader. He campaigned to maintain the slave trade proclaiming slavery necessary for the economy. His name was given to a street in the Félix-Faure district by Mayor Jules Ancel, the grandson of slave trader.

Rue Jean Baptiste Eyries: The shipping family of the artist and writer Jean-Baptiste Eyriès was involved in trafficking slaves.

Rue Lestorey de Boulongne: The sons of ship-owner Lestorey de Boulongne, alderman of Le Havre, were extensive slave traders.

Rue Massieu de Clerval: Massieu de Clerval was a slave trader.

Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, c.1833 (oil on canvas) by Francois Auguste Biard
Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, c.1833 by Francois Auguste Biard

Some sources

Négociants et traite des Noirs au Havre au XVIIIe siècle by Edouard Delobette

Ouest France article on the history of Le Havre slave trade and associated street names

Honfleur and the slave trade in the 19th century by Jean Mettas

La traite des noirs et l’esclavage dans les ports normands, Eric Saunier

Le cri des Africains contre les européens leurs oppresseurs, ou Coup d’oeil sur le commerce homicide appelé traite des noirs, 1822

One thought on “The slave streets of Le Havre

  1. Great historical piece. That painting kept me occupied for some time, trying to figure out the roles of all the parties.

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