Pinnen on Miller, 'The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade'

Author: 
Christopher L. Miller
Reviewer: 
Christian Pinnen

Christopher L. Miller. The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. xvi + 571 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-4127-7; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-4151-2.

Reviewed by Christian Pinnen (The University of Southern Mississippi)
Published on H-French-Colonial (February, 2012)
Commissioned by Jyoti Mohan

Creating a French Atlantic: Memory and Reality of the French Slave Trade

In The French Atlantic Triangle Christopher Miller attempts to recreate the French Atlantic by fusing literary analysis and historical inquiry. French historians, contends the author, have failed to reconstruct their country’s history of slavery and the slave trade. Miller seems intent on promoting penance more than historical understanding. Forced to rely on the artistic and moral sensibilities of French intellectuals rather than on “hard evidence,” Miller cannot escape a certain vagueness that vitiates his noble but ultimately vain quest. He examines a multitude of French literary and artistic works ranging from literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to modern-day film adaptations.

Throughout the book, Miller employs a wide variety of historiography on abolition, slavery, the slave trade, and the Atlantic world. Interspersed with his skillful literary critique and the critical reading of French authors and his interpretation of plays and movies, the author is able to recreate a French Atlantic that has been absent from the literature of slavery and the slave trade. His literary critique serves him well to tease out the most nuanced interpretations of French history and its involvement with the slave trade. It shows how lacking the French were--and are--in addressing the issue.

An introductory summary of the historiography of the Atlantic world reveals a disappointing scarcity of primary accounts of the slave-based Atlantic triangle created by French merchants of the colonial era. To provide for French colonial slavery what David Brion Davis and other historians have accomplished for its American counterpart, Miller must resort to alternate sources.[1] The transition from historical synthesis to literary analysis is smooth and logical, since French primary accounts of the slave trade are rare. He explains that the few extant French accounts include those of travelers and slave traders but not captive Africans; there is no “francophone Equiano” (p. 33). Miller also utilizes works of historical memory, expanding on work done by Haitian historian Michel Trouillot and American Lauren Dubois, who also chide the French for turning a blind eye to this part of their national history.[2]

Miller first scrutinizes the French writers of the Enlightenment. Authors like Rousseau and Voltaire characterized the French Atlantic in their works, but their critique of slavery is ambivalent and would remain so among French intellectuals, Miller notes, until the French Revolution. Although the leading literary figures of the eighteenth century sidestep the bigger question of the slave trade and sometimes were even involved in it as silent partners, Miller teases out an increasing number of short accounts that do link the French Atlantic to slavery. Such ambivalence mirrors that of Thomas Jefferson, who also nursed reservations about slavery but never embraced abolitionism. Yet by demonstrating the reluctance of the leading Enlightenment writers to critique the slave trade, Miller is able to show how entangled the French were with their overseas empire and how financial interest trumped humanitarian ideas. Nevertheless, the French Revolution marked a transition that culminated in the creation of the Société des Amis des Noirs in 1788.

The first abolitionist authors in France were predominantly women, paralleling the close link between women’s rights and abolition of slavery that also appeared in the United States in the nineteenth century. French women led the way in writing fictional stories criticizing first the slave trade and then slavery. However, much of their fiction was based on translated British pamphlets, exemplifying the dearth of knowledge about the slave trade in France. A public debate as in Great Britain over the abolition of the slave trade did not occur. Miller observes that this transfer of the written word mirrors the transfer of African slaves to the colonies of the French empire. He illustrates the altered definition of words in the French and English languages to signify how changes in the Atlantic economy influenced the meaning of words--sometimes altering it to include traits specific to the slave trade--and to highlight their use in the literature of revolutionary France and beyond. However, no author in the French revolutionary period could disentangle him- or herself from the distinction between slavery as a political analogy for the oppression of the French people and the actual enslavement of Africans. Some came close, yet could not overcome the pressures of the Atlantic world, which still fueled the French economy.

Along with a less gendered literary tradition emerged a strong abolitionist sentiment at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Miller finds a transition to a somewhat critical approach, but the slave trade never became a topical issue beyond the works of fiction in France. All authors and moviemakers that Miller introduces deal with the slave trade and its evil on some level, but only recently has the French academic community taken up the critical call to investigate French involvement thoroughly. The general public and politics, however, are still disinclined to learn about the trade, chastises Miller. Therefore, this book closes a gap in the historiography on the slave trade, and in many ways poses new questions about the French involvement with the trade, that will hopefully fall on open ears in Paris, Bordeaux, or Nantes.

Notes

[1]. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[2]. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995); and Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

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Citation: Christian Pinnen. Review of Miller, Christopher L., The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade. H-French-Colonial, H-Net Reviews. February, 2012.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=32482

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