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 ?

  • 4
    What can you say to people who support such claims? Ask them for evidence. They probably know it only from hear-say. Some people will believe anything because they want it to be true.
    – Jeroen K
    Jan 7 '14 at 22:20
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    The claim is ironic because Muslims were involved in slave trade since the dawn of Islam, and in some Muslim African countries slavery was legal until very recently and essentially continues up to this day. The claim seems to be a typical projection on one's most hated deeds on the opponent; such projections are happening quite often in a variety of social settings.
    – Michael
    Jan 8 '14 at 1:45
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    @Xoff Could I suggest you replace the sentence "Some black man converted to Islam" by something more neutral? For instance: "someone", or maybe "a comedian". The fact that the person in question is black and/or converted to Islam seems quite immaterial to the historical question. Besides, the assertion that he is converted to Islam is factually dubious.
    – Olivier
    Jan 8 '14 at 10:32
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    @Olivier I did not intend to be offensive. But I'm used to the math.se where you need to give some context to your question, to explain why your question is of some interest and where it comes from. The fact that he is black is directly linked to this claim that he made, and he described himself as a fighter of Islam, of Hezbollah and Hamas in some videos on youtube. I was just giving some context to the question.
    – Xoff
    Jan 8 '14 at 11:25
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    @LennartRegebro: I thought this site didn't condone conspiracy theories. No-one organized the triangular trade, it simply happened by virtue of economics and a free market. Jan 8 '14 at 13:58

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:


Gradis family

Portuguese Jews in the Bordeaux area

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    The notion that someone or something somehow organized the triangular trade is a conspiracy theory - and off-topic for the site. Jan 8 '14 at 14:52
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    @PieterGeerkens Dear Peter, the question who were the traders who organized the triangular slave trade? heavily suggests that user Xof does not have in mind some world conspiracy, but rather who were the person taking parts in, preparing for and contributing to the slave trade. There is no hint of a conspiracy in his question. If you see one in my answer, please flesh out your criticism.
    – Olivier
    Jan 8 '14 at 15:09
  • That question is trivially answered by a Google search; still off-topic. Jan 8 '14 at 15:10
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    @PieterGeerkens Sorry, but I disagree. I don't think a trivial Google search will show how, why and to what extent the French jewish community was involved in slave trade. As I amply documented in my answer, this question is not trivial.
    – Olivier
    Jan 8 '14 at 15:16
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    You have presented some good research here; however your answer remains focussed as the debunking of a conspiracy theory. If you can refocus it I would gladly upvote it. Jan 8 '14 at 15:30

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 Niger-Congo1 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.

enter image description here

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 Niger-Congo 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.

enter image description here

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 - Niger-Congo is technically a linguistic designation, although it is often used as an ethnic one as well.

  • 4
    +1 For actually condensing this vast topic into a reasonable sized answer. Jan 8 '14 at 15:24
  • -1 for lack of hand-drawn circles. +2 for good answer.
    – DVK
    Jan 10 '14 at 17:22
  • @DVK - lol. Well, that image is linked directly from a Wikipedia picture, so you are free to go to the source and improve it yourself.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 10 '14 at 18:58
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    +1 for debunking the PC mantra that "evil white Europeans" were all there was to slavery.
    – jwenting
    Apr 25 '14 at 13:49
  • @T.E.D. : "Where I'm coming from is that there are essentially 5 distinguishable races historically native to Africa, ..." : Huh, what ? Where is it that you come from then, where people still believe in human taxonomy ? ( I am all the more surprised because your answers are always knowledgeable, balanced and interesting...)
    – Evargalo
    Aug 19 '19 at 14:11

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).

  • 1
    In fact, as you can see in my answer, this is not quite correct with respect to the French trade. Because of the historical contingency of a large (for the time) jewish community in Bordeaux, Jews were represented in the French slave trade, just because they were represented in trade in general.
    – Olivier
    Jan 8 '14 at 15:11

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