There is currently a big polemic in French news media about antisemitism. A French comedian is accused to propagate antisemitic ideas in France. I have no intention to propagate this polemic on this forum but one of his claims is that triangular trade and black people slavery was organized (at least in France) by Jewish ship owners. He repeated this claim several times in the media so I was curious to do some fact checking, as I know almost nothing about that difficult event in French history.
I found nothing real to support those claims (as I was expecting), but I'm not sure where to search real information about that specific fact. So I'm asking this question to know more about who were the traders who organized the triangular slave trade. And what can I say to people who support such claims ?
As surprising as this may seem, there is some truth in these allegations, but of course this does not change in any way their antisemitic character.
Why there is some truth
The French Triangular Trade was conducted primarily from the harbor of Nantes, from where departed almost as many slave-carrying ships as from all the other French harbors combined. Nevertheless, hundred of slave ships departed from the harbor of Bordeaux, deporting in the 1750-1850 an estimate of 130 000 African slaves (mostly to the French Antilles). The slave trade, or more accurately the global trade with the French Antilles in which it took place, contributed in a significant way to the prosperity of the city Bordeaux.
As it turned out, Bordeaux was also where a significant number of Jews expelled from Castile and Aragon by the Edict of Expulsion of 1492 had found refuge, where they became known as Nouveaux chrétiens (new christians) or Chrétiens portugais (Portuguese christians) because most of them had transited through Portugal before being expelled again in 1497 and because most of them had pretended to have converted to save their lives. For two and half centuries, they were subjected to the usual discriminations inflicted on Jews in Western Europe at the time, but they nevertheless prospered, contributing significantly to the economic and medical development of the region. Finally, in 1723, they gained (of course moyennant finance, as we say in France) official recognition of their citizenship and the right to practice their religion.
Among this Jewish community was a family called the Gradis, whose members were Atlantic traders, specialized in sugar and trade with Canada. They became extremely prosperous in the first half of the XVIIIth century, gaining a quasi-monopoly of French trade with numerous colonial and quasi-colonial French possessions in Africa and the Americas. As their preeminent status as Atlantic traders in the relevant period, it is thus true that this family organized a significant part of and profited from the slave trade out of Bordeaux; as it organized a significant part of the trade out of Bordeaux more generally. Because their continued prosperity and high-standing during the XVIIIth and XIXth century, several members of this family reached official positions in the French state, and several of them also occupied various leadership positions among the French jewish community.
Based on this family alone (and actually many more had comparable though less successful trajectories), there is thus some truth in the assertion "The French slave trade was organized and conducted by official leaders of the jewish French community."
Why even a rapid examination of the facts show that presenting it in this way is antisemitic
Most of the French slave trade was conducted from Nantes, which was entirely devoid of a jewish presence. Singling out jewish involvement is therefore dishonest. Slave trade was always a small part of the Gradis business: nothing suggests that they were proportionally more involved in the slave trade than any other Atlantic trader of the time (in France at least, there never existed dedicated slave ships: slave trade was considered a part of normal trade and conducted by the same crews with the same ships). Besides, even a quick perusal of the relevant facts establish quite clearly that the involvement of preeminent members of the French jewish community was a side-effect of several contingent facts: 1) the presence of a jewish community in the Bordeaux region, itself a legacy of much persecution and discrimination 2) the success of this city in Atlantic trade 3) the peculiar success of a handful families in Atlantic trade in precisely the period in which Bordeaux was involved in slave trade.
And what can I say to people who support such claims ?
You can tell them that an honest assessment of the historical facts is: "After centuries of persecution and discrimination, a jewish community became prosperous in the Bordeaux area, especially by investing in Atlantic trade. Preeminent members of this community came to a dominant position in Atlantic trade out of Bordeaux from 1730 to the end of the XIXth century. They participated in all aspects of this trade, including slave trade in the period 1750-1815. They were never the main slave traders in France (these were in Nantes) nor is there any suggestion that their religion played any role in their involvement."
History of the jewish community of Bordeaux:
Slave trade from Bordeaux:
I'm not into proscribing a lot of collective guilt onto modern peoples for acts of their cultural ancestors. In fact, its damn silly. However, if someone else is trying to do this publicly, they should be really careful, because when it comes to slavery almost no culture on earth has clean hands. This includes Muslim society, and local Negro1 cultures.
Slavery is of course recorded as far back as history itself, so it would be silly to argue over who "started" it. However, it is a fact that the Islamic society in the Middle Ages built, ran, and maintained the first large-scale sub-Saharan African international slave trade.
How Europeans got involved was that the Portuguese, during the process of their exploration and circumnavigation of Africa, discovered a fairly lucrative existing slave trade in west Africa (with "raw material" supplied by negro tribes raiding nearby villagers), and decided to simply take it over for themselves.
When the New World was discovered, ships were then able to make their entire round trip paying, as they could deliver the slaves to plantations in the New World, and then take the raw materials back to Europe. Then they could take enough finished European goods back to Africa to trade with the coastal negro tribes for more slaves.
Now, given Christian usury laws in Europe, any large commercial venture you will often find relied on Jewish bankers. So to finance these expensive voyages, Jewish bankers were naturally involved. Sometimes they even took it a step further and acted as the slavers themselves. However, Muslims have similar usury rules, so Jews often had this role even under Muslim rule. But that doesn't change the fact that Christians and Muslims were also directly involved.
Anybody who is claiming there's only one society that all of sub-saharan slavery can be blamed on is not basing their claims on actual history.
1 - I'm using "negro" here as a term of art to refer to the racially related peoples of sub-Saharan west Africa, and the bantu areas. I know it has other less detached meanings in later American society, which might confuse some readers, and hereby request forbearance.
The "European" version of the Triangular Trade had European countries ship manufactured goods to Africa, in exchange for slaves, which they sold to Caribbean planters in exchange for sugar or molasses to make rum destined for Europe. (The American version substitutes New England for Europe.)
Western Europe had very few Jews at this time (16th to 19th century). Thus, they were not heavily represented, if at all, and the trade was carried on by Europeans (British, French, and others).