The French Atlantic Triangle

Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade

The French Atlantic Triangle

Book Pages: 592 Illustrations: 15 illustrations, 1 table, 2 figures Published: January 2008

Caribbean Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

The French slave trade forced more than one million Africans across the Atlantic to the islands of the Caribbean. It enabled France to establish Saint-Domingue, the single richest colony on earth, and it connected France, Africa, and the Caribbean permanently. Yet the impact of the slave trade on the cultures of France and its colonies has received surprisingly little attention. Until recently, France had not publicly acknowledged its history as a major slave-trading power. The distinguished scholar Christopher L. Miller proposes a thorough assessment of the French slave trade and its cultural ramifications, in a broad, circum-Atlantic inquiry. This magisterial work is the first comprehensive examination of the French Atlantic slave trade and its consequences as represented in the history, literature, and film of France and its former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.

Miller offers a historical introduction to the cultural and economic dynamics of the French slave trade, and he shows how Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu and Voltaire mused about the enslavement of Africans, while Rousseau ignored it. He follows the twists and turns of attitude regarding the slave trade through the works of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century French writers, including Olympe de Gouges, Madame de Staël, Madame de Duras, Prosper Mérimée, and Eugène Sue. For these authors, the slave trade was variously an object of sentiment, a moral conundrum, or an entertaining high-seas “adventure.” Turning to twentieth-century literature and film, Miller describes how artists from Africa and the Caribbean—including the writers Aimé Césaire, Maryse Condé, and Edouard Glissant, and the filmmakers Ousmane Sembene, Guy Deslauriers, and Roger Gnoan M’Bala—have confronted the aftermath of France’s slave trade, attempting to bridge the gaps between silence and disclosure, forgetfulness and memory.


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. . . . The French Atlantic Triangle expands our understanding of the impact of slavery and the slave trade on French and Francophone culture. It is well written, never dull, and deserves a wide audience. It will most likely have great appeal to scholars of Francophone literature and postcolonial studies.” — Stephen Auerbach, Intertexts

The French Atlantic Triangle offers a timely and important contribution to these ongoing ‘memory wars’ by shedding light on ‘France’s most significant lieu d’oubli’ (p. 387).” — Nicki Frith, International of Francophone Studies

The French Atlantic Triangle thus enriches the historical record on slave-trading with provocative and compelling new perspectives. . . . A masterpiece of historicist literary criticism, it uses history to tell us what we are seeing in a wide variety of cultural texts, including the ‘postmodern funhouse refractions of the horrors of earlier times,’ (p. 91) while employing literature to articulate why we should care. . . . This elegant, groundbreaking book will surely incite a dialogue between voices on all sides of the triangle as it inspires writers of fiction, criticism, and history for years to come.” — Carolyn Vellenga Berman, H-France, H-Net Reviews

“[A] massive, and massively researched, contribution to studies of the French slave trade. . . . [A]n invaluable resource for other scholars.” — Celia Britton, French Studies

“[A] monumental study of a period that France is only beginning to recognize as part of its past. . . . With its 611 pages, including the front matter, the large number of notes, an extensive bibliography, and a detailed index, the volume appears at first to be a daunting, scholarly tome that the reader picks up with some trepidation. But one of the great virtues of this study, as well as others by Miller, is that his clear and reader-friendly style draws his audience to the subject. One feels that both author and reader are examining together a topic of common interest. The French Atlantic Triangle is a landmark study that will shape future research on the literature and history of France, Africa, and the Caribbean.” — Thomas A. Hale, Comparative Literature Studies

“[A] sweeping examination of how the slave trade has been (mis)understood and (mis)represented from the eighteenth century to the present in what Miller calls the French Atlantic triangle, i.e., France, the Caribbean, and Africa.” — Paul E. Lovejoy, American Historical Review

“[A] very useful study of the impact of the slave trade on the cultures of France, from the eighteenth century to the present. . . . Miller is an excellent writer. He uses words like an artist and describes the imaginative world that he analyses as an impressionist painter could portray landscapes, by progressive, cumulative, and interrelated touches.” — Olivier Petre-Grenouilleau, Journal of African History

“[A]n impressive and groundbreaking introduction to a new field. . . . Miller’s The French Atlantic Triangle functions as a daring icebreaker in this nascent field, paving the way for others who will write histories of the Dutch, Spanish, Danish and Swedish Atlantic in years to come.” — Roberto Strongman-Congiu, Postcolonial Studies

“[A]n impressive volume, magisterial in scope and weight. . . . The French Atlantic Triangle is a wide-ranging text, meticulous in its research and ambitious in its breadth and leaving no doubt as to the connivance and profiteering of a knowing public. Miller’s book deserves a prominent place on every academic and library bookshelf.”
— H. Adlai Murdoch, SubStance

“[I]nvigorate[s] the Atlantic as a category of literary and cultural study in the West. . . . . [C]ontinue[s] important dialogues on racial politics and, most importantly, on how these exchanges intellectually anchor as well as allow us to understand Atlantic modernity in new ways.” — Christopher C. Freeburg, American Literature

“[T]his is a work which should interest historians, or, at the very least, teachers of history who need to know how the slave trade appeared in literary works. . . . In fact, the highest compliment one can pay Miller from this side of the academic corridor is to recognize how useful it would be to have an equivalent of his book for the English-speaking Atlantic triangle, to say nothing of the Brazilian-Portuguese one.” — Ralph A. Austen, International History Review

“Although a book of this length and of such importance deserves a more exhaustive review to do justice to Miller’s ingenuity and meticulousness in weaving together a study that spanned almost a decade in the making, suffice it to say that The French Atlantic Triangle casts new light on a topic that previously had not received as much attention as it deserves in both scholarly and public discourses on the Atlantic slave trade. As such, scholars from various disciplines, policymakers, human rights activists and general readers who follow France’s relationship with its former colonies will derive a lot from Miller’s insights and depth of knowledge about the francophone world and its history, literature, culture and politics.” — Tamba E. M’bayo, Interventions

“By means of a very traditional mode of literary analysis, the etymological survey, Miller makes a convincing case for the extractive nature of the first three centuries of the slave trade.” — Lloyd Pratt, Novel

“Christopher L. Miller’s The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade is a path-breaking work that charts the contours of the history and experience of the Middle Passage in the French slave trade. Miller’s study brings to fruition the promise of Atlantic Studies inaugurated by Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic (1993), standing as a comprehensive investigation and elucidation of the francophone dimension of Atlantic slavery. Spanning some four centuries, Miller’s encyclopedic study manages to combine a compendious grasp with an attention to literary detail and interpretive insight that place the work in a class of its own.” — Nick Nesbitt, H-France, H-Net Reviews

“Christopher Miller has written a cultural history that traces the movement of bodies, ideas, and products in the post-Revolutionary French Atlantic world. The book is a significant contribution to numerous fields, including postcolonial studies, Francophone studies, and gender and cultural studies. . . . While topical and written in an engaging style, the detailed analysis will appeal particularly to specialists who will savor the many insights. The one hundred and thirty pages of notes alone are a valuable resource for scholars. This most recent work by Miller is destined to be yet another notable reference.” — Jonathan Gosnell, African Studies Review

“Given that factual and creative texts on slavery are taught and researched by historians and literary specialists in ways that increasingly aim to encompass different methodologies, Miller’s book is timely. Its significance extends beyond the francophone context of the enforced African diaspora to the Americas. To appreciate the book fully, one would need to read the fictional texts beforehand, but, as it stands, The French Atlantic Triangle is a helpful guide for historians seeking a rich study of cultural representations of the slave trade and memorials to slavery.” — Kenneth Morgan, History

“In short, in addition to being ‘dazzling, authoritative, and meticulously researched,’ as noted at the start, Miller's book is provocative. It deserves a place on the book shelf of every reader of Nineteenth-Century French Studies.” — Doris Y. Kadish, Nineteenth-Century French Studies

“Miller’s ambitious book, like Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, is an ‘Atlantic’ study in that it takes French maritime culture, or rather literature about the maritime aspects of the commerce in slaves, as its main subject. . . . Eric Slauter argues that historians have become less likely to read and cite what literary scholars write about the Atlantic, even as literary scholarship has become more ‘historical.’ This will not be the case for Christopher L. Miller’s work, whose ambitious geographical and historical trajectory confirms the explanatory power of the French Atlantic.” — John D. Garrigus, H-France, H-Net Reviews

“Miller's The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade is a working model of cross-disciplinary analysis that will guarantee the future centrality of French Studies, while also yielding improved understanding of culture, literature, and politics and encouraging the fields of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century literary studies to further address the dynamics of gender, race, and slavery.” — Dominic Thomas, Research in African Literatures

“Stylistically, the volume is engaging and highly readable. Textual interpretations and connections are outlined with clarity, and the use of parenthesis to enhance detail or even comment upon what has preceded suggests Miller’s position as an erudite converser. Each chapter contains a wealth of material for future scholars working within any period of French Studies, and he approaches colonial and post-colonial cultures in accessible prose, turning to well-chosen theoretical terminology in order to perform textual exegesis. It is firmly to be hoped that he has provided the opening words of a fascinating future academic dialogue.” — Louise Hardwick, Modern Language Review

“This extensive study is quite a feat of scholarly endurance. Despite its daunting erudition and extensive documentation (endnotes cover a third of the volume), it offers a pleasurable read. It is clear that the author is a specialist of French literature: from the beginning to the end of the work, Miller succeeds in unceasingly confronting the discrepancies between historical realities and what is perceived and written of them by the varied authors whose texts he investigates. The book can be read on several levels, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, though each layer contributes to a clear cumulative insight.” — Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Itinerario

“This work is sure to set a new agenda in French cultural studies and should be of interest to historians working on similar issues in North American history . . . . An invaluable contribution. . . .” — Alison Games, Journal of American History

“Though not the first to draw attention to this disturbing ongoing phenomenon, Miller’s critique is refreshing, pointed, all encompassing, and tenacious. . . . A meticulously researched, exhaustive and magisterial study that deserves widespread recognition and attention, The French Atlantic Triangle illustrates that literary engagement with regard to the Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans remains a worthy and necessary pursuit, however haunting it may be.” — Bernard Moitt, International Journal of African Historical Studies

“What Miller has accomplished with this hefty volume is to set a new tone and direction in the study of French the nation’s place in the narrative of tragedy, conflict, that made the Atlantic world. In this manner, Miller for scholars whose main research is on the periphery reminding us to void the all too familiar tendency of to the status of spectator. The French Atlantic Triangle new generation of scholarship, while complicating the and invigorating field of Atlantic history.” — Jeffrey A. Fortin, Journal of World History

The French Atlantic Triangle will stand as a landmark in both the study of slavery and its very particular manifestations in the French Atlantic world.” — Martin Munro, Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

“Miller’s The French Atlantic Triangle is an original and highly readable book that makes a significant contribution to scholarship on Atlantic slavery and its role in shaping the modern world. . . . [T]he book’s detailed examination of France’s long-neglected involvement in the slave trade makes it a necessary read for anyone seeking to understand the cultural echoes of the Middle Passage in the Francophone world and beyond.” — Andrew Optiz, African American Review

“Miller’s project is unusual not only in its broad historical scope but also in its attempt to trace links between 18th and 19th-century French literature and 20th-century works by writers from France’s former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.” — Brent Hayes Edwards, London Review of Books

“This is a book of encyclopedic reach and vast dimensions. . . . The French Atlantic Triangle is meticulously researched, almost comprehensive in its treatment of the literary corpus, and makes diligent use of historical scholarship. It offers an astonishing web of circuits of reception, rereadings and intertextual relations between key texts . . . and thus fills a troubling gap in French literary and cultural history. . . . The French Atlantic Triangle is a tremendous achievement that is possible only on the basis of decades of committed research and teaching. Most importantly, it is an important rectification of a reprehensible cultural narrative. Perhaps the day will come when French literary history can no longer be written without mentioning the slave trade and the slave colonies that subtended the motherland of liberty.” — Sibylle Fischer, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

"Thoroughly researched and thought-provoking, this well-written book will be accessible even to readers unfamiliar with the primary texts Miller discusses. . . . It will interest not only those studying French and Francophone literature but also those pursuing work in African and black studies. Highly recommended. Lower division undergraduates through faculty."
— D. L. Boudreau, Choice

The French Atlantic Triangle is a tremendous achievement. Meticulously researched and lucidly written, it is an introduction to a neglected water world, without knowledge of which our encounter with continental history and literature is doomed to perpetuate biases and omissions.” — Deborah Jenson, author of Trauma and Its Representations: The Social Life of Mimesis in Post-Revolutionary France

The French Atlantic Triangle is an extremely impressive, compelling, and necessary book. Christopher L. Miller provides a magisterial examination of how the history of slavery, which profoundly shaped the culture of France, has haunted and animated the work of generations of writers and artists. In the process he offers us a new way of defining and seeing the French Atlantic.” — Laurent Dubois, author of A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804

“Revealing a remarkable breadth of knowledge, Christopher L. Miller combines conceptual sophistication, an authoritative analysis of Francophone texts, and a compelling discussion of the ways that the French Atlantic triangle emerged and put a lasting imprint on French imagination and politics. This is a significant contribution to an understanding of the world slavery built. It is a truly great book; it should be read by anyone who cares about race, memory, literature, and citizenship.” — Françoise Vergès, author of Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Métissage

“This dazzling, provocative book is a compendium that sets an explosive new agenda for French Studies. Christopher L. Miller’s work is important not only for scholars but also for postcolonial France as it struggles to comes to grips with its past.” — Paul Gilroy, author of The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness

“This is a lovely book about an un-lovely subject. Christopher L. Miller brings the insight of a mature major scholar to questions about literature, slavery, and culture in the Francophone world.” — Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Christopher L. Miller is Frederick Clifford Ford Professor of African American Studies and French at Yale University. He is the author of Nationalists and Nomads: Essays on Francophone African Literature and Culture; Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa; and Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Abbreviations xv

Part One. The French Atlantic

1. Introduction 3

2. Around the Triangle 40

3. The Slave Trade in the Enlightenment 62

4. The Veeritions of History 83

Part Two. French Women Writers: Revolution, Abolitionist Translation, Sentiment (1783-1823)

5. Gendering Abolitionism 99

6. Olympe de Gouges, "Earwitness to the Ills of America" 109

7. Madame de Stael, Mirza, and Pauline: Atlantic Memories 141

8. Duras and Her Ourika, "The Ultimate House Slave" 158

Conclusion to Part Two 174

Part Three. French Male Writers:Restoration, Abolition, Entertainment

9. Tamango around the Atlantic: Concatenations of Revolt 179

10. Forget haiti: Baron Roger and the New Africa 246

11. Homosociality, Reckoning, and Recognition in Eugene Sue's Atar-Gull 274

12. Edouard Corbiere, "Mating," and Maritime Adventure 300

Part Four. The Triangle from "Below"

13. Cesaire, Glissant, Conde: Reimagining the Atlantic 325

14. African "Silence" 364

Conclusion: Reckoning, Reparation, and the Value of Fictions 385

Notes 391

Bibliography 527

Index 547
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4151-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4127-7
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