Christopher L. Miller. the French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade

By Auerbach, Stephen | Intertexts, Spring-Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Christopher L. Miller. the French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade


Auerbach, Stephen, Intertexts


Christopher L. Miller. The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008. xvi + 571 pp.

Over the last decade scholars have shown a new interest in reconstructing the history of the French slave trade and slaveholding Atlantic. A scholarly consensus is slowly emerging around the notion that the history of French slavery and colonialism is central to any understanding of the larger themes in French and Francophone history from the seventeenth century to the present. Christopher Miller's The French Atlantic Triangle is a welcome contribution to this important subject. Miller rightly argues that France, Africa, and the Caribbean are tied together in a shared history of colonialism, slavery, and the slave trade. His goal in The French Atlantic Triangle is to reconstruct this history and illuminate its impact on modern French and Francophone cultural life.

The French Atlantic Triangle is a fascinating example of research that combines methods employed in history and Francophone literary studies in order to discuss the triangular slave trade that condemned 2 million Africans to slavery on France's Caribbean sugar islands and an untold number to their deaths during the Middle Passage. Miller's central interest here is exploring the ways in which the slave trade and its afterlife were represented in literature and in film from the eighteenth to the twentieth century in France, Africa, and the Caribbean. In the absence of any extant Francophone slave narratives, Miller persuasively argues that fiction and later film allowed writers and filmmakers to pour their "speculations and reflections" (92) into that void. French and Francophone writers separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years were united by the desire to construct slave narratives and stories that played on the reader's sense of pity and shame, or desire for adventure, or to convey a powerful longing for home. The result is an ambitious and substantive work. Miller clearly succeeds in demonstrating a legacy of slavery and the slave trade in France and Francophone literature, yet the picture that emerges is a muddled one; the reader is left to make sense of competing, diverse, and sometimes divergent claims. In the end, The French Atlantic Triangle is more suggestive than persuasive.

The book is organized into fourteen chapters, divided into four sections, arranged chronologically and geographically. Part 1 (chaps. 1-4) is largely synthesis. Drawing heavily on the work of historians of slavery and the slave trade, Miller outlines the details of the triangular trade from its inception in the mid-seventeenth century to its first abolition in 1794, and final suppression in 1848. Chapters 1 and 2 will be a review for anyone familiar with the history of this period. Chapter 3 focuses on the Enlightenment and the slave trade. Miller rightly notes that the Enlightenment coincided with the height of French slaving activity. Examining works by Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire, Miller argues that the philosophes were never much interested in the plight of African slaves, and when they did speak out on the issue it was with heavy irony or wit that only diluted their message. Miller's analysis is convincing, though he seems unjustified in suggesting that Voltaire remained mostly quiet on the issue because he was heavily invested in the slave trade. There is no evidence for that assertion.

Part 2 (chaps. 5-8) covers the period from the French Revolution to the Bourbon Restoration during which time France experienced complete upheaval from the slave rebellions in Martinique in 1789 and Saint Domingue in 1791, to the abolition of slavery in 1794 and its reimposition under Napoleon. Focusing on the writings of Olympe de Gouges, Germaine de Stael, and Claire de Duras, Miller labels the three as abolitionists because in their works they created sympathetic black characters, critiqued racial prejudice, and instilled pity in their readers. …

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