In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery in the French Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Medieval and Mediterranean
  • Origins in the 17th Century
  • The Slave Trade
  • African Contexts
  • Mainland North America
  • Pre-revolutionary Caribbean
  • Slavery and the Idea of Race
  • Saint-Domingue and the Haitian Revolution
  • Slavery in the 19th Century
  • Abolition, Legacies, Memory

Atlantic History Slavery in the French Atlantic World
Brett Rushforth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0270


For more than two centuries, French settlements in Africa and the Americas relied on enslaved laborers to produce colonial commodities and perform domestic service. Between the 1620s and the 1840s, more than one million Africans—and thousands of Amerindians— lived as slaves in France’s American colonies. By the time of the Haitian Revolution, about 500,000 enslaved people lived in Saint-Domingue alone, and another 150,000 labored in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Although concentrated in the Caribbean, enslaved people lived in all of France’s Atlantic colonies under widely varying conditions. From the infamous “Code Noir” to the Haitian Revolution, slavery, resistance, and emancipation in French settlements played a significant role in the larger history of slavery in the Atlantic world. The literature on French slavery in the Americas is vast but uneven. A rich and growing body of scholarship is available on the second half of the 18th century, especially on Louisiana, the slave trade, and Saint-Domingue just before and during the Haitian Revolution. But many subjects remain less fully explored, particularly in English-language works.

General Overviews

No English-language overview of slavery in the French Atlantic world is available, and most French-language syntheses are either dated or have large temporal or geographic gaps. Remarkably, Peytraud 1897 remains the most comprehensive history, although Debien 1974 and Régent 2007 offer more persuasive and up-to-date interpretations. Blackburn 1997, Butel 2002, and Pritchard 2004 offer valuable economic and political context, while Gautier 2010 and Moitt 2001 highlight the importance of gender.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern. London: Verso, 1997.

    An important analysis of the rise of plantation slavery in the Early Modern period, with French material scattered throughout. The one chapter dedicated to the rise of the French plantation system is especially strong on political and intellectual history.

  • Butel, Paul. Histoire des Antilles françaises, XVIIe–XXe siècle. Paris: Perrin, 2002.

    The best one-volume history of the French Caribbean, with significant treatment of slavery throughout. Strong on the rise of the plantation economy, French planter culture, and demographics, but not as strong on the social or cultural history of the enslaved. Butel’s comparisons between Saint-Domingue and the Lesser Antilles are especially valuable.

  • Debien, Gabriel. Les esclaves aux Antilles françaises, XVIIe–XVIIIe siècles. Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, and Fort-de-France, Martinique: Société d’histoire de la Guadeloupe et Société d’histoire de la Martinique, 1974.

    Deeply researched but episodic in its coverage, Debien’s text was the first to explore private papers in depth to reconstruct the daily workings of slavery in the French Caribbean. Reminiscent of Kenneth Stampp’s, The Peculiar Institution (New York: Knopf, 1956), Debien’s study provides insights into daily work, religious life, material conditions, demographics, resistance and punishment, and manumission of slaves.

  • Gautier, Arlette. Les soeurs de solitude: Femmes et esclavage aux Antilles du XVIIe au XIXe siècle. Rennes, France: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1985, 2010.

    The first and still the most comprehensive treatment of women and slavery in the French Caribbean. Emphasizes the diversity of enslaved women’s experiences and offers a rich discussion of interracial sexuality. Draws parallels between African gender norms and those that French slaveholders tried (but often failed) to enforce. Originally published in 1985.

  • Moitt, Bernard. Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635–1848. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

    A wide-ranging social and cultural history of women’s experience in French Caribbean slavery. Argues for the importance of understanding gendered labor divisions, including women’s reproductive labor and associated sexual violence.

  • Peytraud, Lucien. L’esclavage aux Antilles françaises avant 1789, d’après des documents inédits des archives coloniales. Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1897.

    The first and in many respects still the most comprehensive treatment of slavery in the French Caribbean prior to the Haitian Revolution. Peytraud’s interpretations are predictably dated and often offensive, but this remains an indispensable text.

  • Pritchard, James. In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670–1730. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511808555

    A synthetic history of French colonialism in the Americas, including a substantial focus on Louisiana and the Caribbean. Chapters on staple production and Atlantic trade provide a good entry point into the economics of slavery in the French islands and Louisiana. Population tables in appendixes 1 and 2 provide important demographic information.

  • Régent, Frédéric. La France et ses esclaves: De la colonisation aux abolitions, 1620–1848. Paris: Grasset, 2007.

    The most complete modern survey of French slavery from the foundations of Caribbean colonization through abolition, albeit with a very light treatment of the 17th century, Louisiana, and cultural history.

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