Mediterranean Migrations to the French Atlantic

This article is a part of our series, entitled “Age of Slavery,” which explores the existence, persistence, and abolition of slavery in the revolutionary era.

By Meredith Martin and Gillian Weiss

King Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) viewed France’s “mastery” of the Mediterranean Sea as critical for establishing a worldwide empire. As one of the first steps, he and his chief minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, set out in the 1660s to build a spectacular fleet of galleys based in Marseille.[1] These vessels were powered by forçats (convicts)—among them Protestants condemned for heresy after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes—and esclaves turcs (enslaved Turks), or Turcs. Mostly Muslims from North Africa and the Levant, as well as southern and central Europe, they had been captured at sea, or else purchased by royal agents on the Ottoman-Habsburg front and in slave markets like the one at Malta.

From the 1670s to the 1690s, the Crown also experimented with manning its rowing force with West Africans transported by the Compagnie de Sénégal and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) kidnapped from New France. The presence and portrayal of these enslaved oarsmen—called NoirsNègresMaures, or sauvages, yet subsumed into the single, official category ofTurcs—bolstered Louis XIV’s image as a global conqueror and Catholic crusader, notably at a time when European rivals were vilifying the Sun King for brokering commercial agreements (known as Capitulations) with the Ottoman sultan. 

Turcs gave the lie to the legal tradition that “there are no slaves in France,” or that every slave who stepped foot on metropolitan French soil had to go free.[2] Yet the monarchy made no effort to conceal the forced labor of Turks and convicts, who generally spent the warmer months at sea and the off-season at port. In Marseille, galley slaves were conscripted to help build and decorate the ships they rowed, and to help construct a majestic new naval arsenal, thus contributing to spaces, performances, and artworks that touted their subjugation. Some oarsmen also won the privilege of keeping quayside stalls known as baraques, where they offered services like hairdressing or sold coffee, whose consumption enslaved Turks were credited with introducing to France.[3]

By 1688, the Crown had completed and staffed forty oared vessels, a feat celebrated in a royal medal that year. A contemporaneous maritime manual attributed to a naval commander with ties to the Knights of Malta, the religious-military Catholic order devoted to combatting Islam, presents an aerial view of a royal galley packed with oarsmen in a way that disturbingly resembles the iconic engraving of the Brooks slave ship from a century later. Both illustrations derive from a tradition of naval diagrams that show how many commodities—or human beings—could be crammed into a ship’s hold. Only after the Brooks plan was redeployed by British abolitionists, however, did it become an emblem of cruelty and suffering. Together the two images suggest connections between an earlier model of Mediterranean galley slavery and the larger-scale, better-known system of plantation slavery that was rapidly proliferating throughout the French Caribbean from the late seventeenth century.

This essay asks how these two forms of enslavement might have been linked through the exchange of personnel, commodities, regulations, and labor practices. Even as the Crown was commemorating its achievement of forty galleys in Marseille, Louis XIV and his ministers had set their sights on the Americas. There, members of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (Knights of Malta), closely tied to the kingdom of France since the Crusades, were already serving as a colonizing vanguard, and filling high-level administrative posts. Isaac de Razilly, for instance, author of a 1626 memorandum promoting French colonization, took part in failed expeditions to Brazil and Morocco, fought North African corsairs, and negotiated a treaty with Salé before founding a settlement in Acadia and becoming lieutenant-general of New France.[4]

Another French Knight of Malta, Philippe de Longvilliers de Poincy, had established a Caribbean colony on the island of Saint-Christophe (Saint Kitts), and later acquired more islands for the order. He played a key role in developing sugar production in the region and personally owned three sugar mills and a large enslaved labor force.[5] From the 1660s, once Colbert persuaded the Knights to sell their territories to Louis XIV, the Crown continued to appoint naval officers to oversee operations. Among them was Charles de Courbon de Blénac, who had an early experience chasing “Barbary pirates” alongside French vice-admiral Jean II d’Estrées. Apart from one disastrous campaign in the Caribbean, this future marshal of France and honorary viceroy of New France found particular success in capturing the slaving outpost of La Gorée (off the coast of Senegal) from the Dutch, and in leading major bombardments against Ottoman Algiers and Tripoli.[6] Blénac, for his part, was named governor general of the French Antilles in 1677. A year after assuming this post, one of his proposals for promoting “security” and preventing sedition in the colonies was to send captured “Maroons” and otherwise “vicious nègres” to the royal galleys.[7]

A Brooks-designed slave ship, similar in layout to a French galley.

When in 1681 Colbert asked Blénac to collaborate with the intendant of Martinique on drafting an ordinance to regulate slavery across France’s colonial empire, the two men seem to have drawn partly on traditions and rules governing oarsmen on the royal galleys. Clothing allotments and food rations distributed to forçats and Turcs, for instance, bear striking similarities to the provisions guaranteed to “esclaves” and “Nègres” in the 1685 Code Noir, as do punishments for runaways. Whereas fugitives from the galleys were to be branded with “a fleur-de-lys…on the cheek,” according to a royal decree from 1665 promulgated in Marseille, Caribbean fugitives were to have the symbol of France’s monarchy burned onto one shoulder.[8] Metal collars constrained both galley slaves and enslaved West Africans during forcedoverland marches to waiting ships, and similar leg irons curtailed their movements on land and sea.

Scholars have for the most part overlooked the possibility of such regulatory or material connections.[9] French colonial officers in the 1680s, by contrast, clearly associated galleys with Holy War and appreciated their function as vehicles of religious conversion for enslaved Turks (including West Africans) and Protestant convicts, especially during a decade of increased royal commitment to bringing all peoples within the Crown’s reach into the Catholic fold.[10] This same evangelizing impulse pervades the Code Noir, which required that “slaves in our islands be baptized and instructed in the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion.” 

A similar convergence between Mediterranean and Atlantic also makes a visual appearance in representations of galley slaves and enslaved West Africans paying homage to white sitters. One suggestive example is Jean-Baptiste de Faudran’s c. 1660s painting of Marseille’s archbishop Jean-Baptiste Gault encircled by a shackled forçat and distinctively topknotted Turc. The painting finds echoes several decades later in an engraved frontispiece for the 1742 edition of Dominican missionary Jean-Baptiste Labat’s Nouveau voyages aux isles de l’Amérique. Made after a work by Provençal artist André Bouys (1656-1740), whose brother was official painter for the city of Marseille, it depicts a presumably enslaved West African holding an oval medallion of the tome’s author, who ministered to enslaved populations in the Caribbean between 1693 and 1706.[11] Could Bouys have been recalling this earlier portrait or others like it when he composed his image? The poses, bodies, attire, and gazes of the enslaved men in both pictures is markedly similar, as are the effigies of the clerics and the details of the settings—only with a Caribbean landscape and a plantation substituting for Marseille’s naval arsenal and port.

Jean-Baptiste Gault, archbishop of Marseille.

Jean-Baptiste Labat.

Beyond representations, people with multiple origins, living along a continuum of servitude, comingled as a result of involuntary trans-Atlantic migrations from the Mediterranean during the late seventeenth century. In the spring of 1687, two years after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, and the same year the Code Noir was finally registered in Saint Domingue, a French cargo vessel named La Marie set sail under the escort of two warships on a five-month voyage from Marseille for Martinique to supply provisions, including laborers, to the colonies. Beneath the kitchen, in a space too low to stand and too short to lay down, sat 58 male and 21 female Protestants being exiled for their refusal to abjure Reformed Christianity. Next door, seventy “sick or crippled” galley slaves (galériens) “shackled with heavy chains” suffered equally airless, cramped conditions, as well as the torment of vermin, heat, thirst, hunger, and the stench of human excrement. Fifty of these invalid rowers were convicts: mostly salt smugglers mixed in with petty criminals now facing three-year indentures—fronted with a fixed amount of sugar—to be paid off through labor on either plantations or public works projects. The other twenty were enslaved Turks.[12] No longer deemed fit to row, they were being shipped across the Atlantic “to be sold like Negroes.”[13]

The architect of this Mediterranean-Atlantic circuit was Michel Bégon. Better remembered as a humane man of letters and an amateur botanist who gave his name to the begonia flower, he was also a career royal administrator who filled naval posts in Toulon, Brest, and Le Havre before becoming intendant of Martinique and Saint Domingue in 1682 and helping Blénac complete a full draft of the Code Noir. While his predecessors may have looked to the galleys for inspiration in regulating slavery on plantations, Bégon clearly applied his Caribbean experiences to his 1685-1688 stint as galley intendant in Marseille. There, he followed the logic of the Code Noir in trying to lower mortality rates among oarsmen, but he never questioned the necessity of subjugating human beings or assigning them standard exchange values—whether measured in pounds of sugar, numbers of Turcs, or sums of money generated from selling 86 “useless” West Africans and some number of Muslims among upwards of a thousand convicts dispatched to the Americas.[14] After fifteen years supervising a new naval base in Rochefort, which employed the labor of enslaved Turks to build warships that protected the transatlantic slave trade, Bégon frankly acknowledged the reality of slavery in all its forms and “the pure chimera” of France’s “free soil” principle.[15]

Bégon’s duties in the Antilles had extended to the cultivation of plants that could fuel France’s colonial commerce and end the Crown’s reliance on such Mediterranean imports as coffee and cotton. His successors in the Americas, including his son and namesake (who became intendant of New France in 1710), eventually managed to shift the production of these and other commodities to the French Atlantic, where they enabled colonial administrators to participate in a “culture of taste” that was dependent upon the brutal regime of plantation slavery.[16] Probate inventories and letters like those written by Bégon’s Montreal-born daughter-in-law indicate how administrators and their families relied on both colonial commodities and enslaved labor for self-fashioning, not unlike Mediterranean naval families who had used Turcsas sedan carriers and measured their own civility against the “savagery” of galley servitude.[17]   

The institution of the royal galleys was suppressed in 1748, in the same decade that Saint-Domingue solidified its status as a global capital of sugar and coffee production.[18] Yet these developments did not mean that the French Crown’s focus on “mastery” definitively shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, or that the Mediterranean faded from view. Indeed, as France’s own dreams of establishing a colonial empire in the Americas were dashed over the next several decades, the Mediterranean, and North Africa in particular, became an area of renewed colonial ambition—a place where royal successors like Charles X (r. 1824-30), as his propagandists claimed, could follow in Louis XIV’s footsteps and finish what the Sun King had started by invading Algiers.[19]

Meredith Martin (associate professor of art history at New York University, and Gillian Weiss (professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, are the authors of The Sun King at Sea: Maritime Art and Gallery Slavery in Louis XIV’s France (Getty Publications, 2022). 

Martin is also the author of Dairy Queens: The Politics of Pastoral Architecture from Catherine de’ Medici to Marie-Antoinette (Harvard University Press, 2011), and a co-author of Meltdown: Picturing the World’s First Bubble Economy (Harvey Miller, 2020), which accompanies an exhibition she co-curated for The New York Public Library. In addition, she is a founding editor of Journal18 and the co-creator and producer of the Ballet des Porcelaines.

Weiss is also the author of Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Stanford University Press, 2011).

Title Image: Overview of the layout of a French galley.

Further readings:

Bamford, Paul. Fighting Ships and Prisons: The Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973.

Freller, Thomas and William Zammit. Knights, Buccaneers, and Sugar Cane: The Caribbean Colonies of the Order of Malta. Santa Venera, Malta: Midsea Books, 2015.

Martin, Meredith and Gillian Weiss. The Sun King at Sea: Maritime Art and Galley Slavery in Louis XIV’s France. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2022.

Rushforth, Brett. Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.


[1]Meredith Martin and Gillian Weiss, The Sun King at Sea: Maritime Art and Galley Slavery in Louis XIV’s France (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2022), which develops many of the ideas that appear here. 

[2]Sue Peabody, “There Are No Slaves in France”: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Gillian Weiss, “Infidels at the Oar: A Mediterranean Exception to France’s Free Soil Principle,” Slavery & Abolition 32, 3 (2011): 397-412. 

[3]See, for example, Jean de La Roque, Voyage de l’Arabie heureuse… (Amsterdam: Steenhouwer and Uyterf, 1716), 365; and [Auguste] Chambon, Le commerce de l’Amérique par Marseille ou explication des lettres-patentes du roi, portant règlement pour le commerce qui se fait de Marseille aux isles françoises de l’Amérique…, 2 vols. (Avignon: n.p., 1764), 1: 284. 

[4]Isaac de Razilly, “Mémoire du chevalier de Razilly,” in Léon Deschamps, ed., Un colonisateur du temps de Richelieu, Isaac de Razilly (Paris: Institut géographique de Paris, 1887), 16n15.

[5]William Zammit, “The Order of St John and its Caribbean Islands, 1653-1665: A Cartographic Record” in Islands and Military Orders, c.1291-c.1798, ed. Emanuel Buttigieg and Simon Phillips (Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2013), chap. 22. 

[6]André Baudrit, Charles de Courbon de Blénac (1622-1696): gouverneur général des Antilles françaises (1677-1696) (Fort-de-France: Société d’histoire de la Martinique, 1967), 18; Adrien Richer, Vies de Jean d’Éstrées, Duc et Pair, Maréchal de France, Vice-Amiral, et Vice-Roi de l’Amérique… (Avignon, Jean-Albert Joly, 1786).

[7]Cited in Ashley M. Williard, Engendering Islands: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Violence in the French Caribbean (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 145.

[8]Compare Article 38 of the 1685 Code Noir to the printed royal order for the galleys from Toulon naval intendant Louis Testard de la Guette, Marseille, 2 March 1665, Archives nationales (hereafter AN), Marine B6 137, unnumbered. Note that branding and facial mutilation were already features of French criminal justice in the medieval period. 

[9]Notable exceptions include Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), and Jean-Baptiste Xambo, “Servitude et droits de transmission: la condition des galériens de Louis XIV,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 64, 2 (2017): 157-182. By contrast, Vernon Valentine Palmer in his foundational essay on “The Origins and Authors of the Code Noir,” Louisiana Law Review 56, 2 (1996): 363-407, asserts that “At the time of the drafting of the Code Noir…France had no tradition of slavery and no laws on slavery had been in force in metropolitan France for centuries” (364).

[10]See, for example, the “Declaration portant que les Mahométans et idolâtres qui voudront se convertir ne pourront être instruits que dans la religion catholique,” Versailles, 25 January 1683, reprinted in François André Isambert et al., eds., Recueil général des anciennes lois29 vols. (Paris: Belin-Leprieur, 1821-1833), 19: 414r-415r; as well as correspondence from AN, Marine B6.

[11]Michel Fare, “André Bouys, 1656-1740. Portraitiste et peintre de genre,” Revue des arts, 4-5 (1960): 201-212.

 [12]Samuel de Pechels, Mémoires de Samuel de Péchels: Montauban, 1685-Dublin, 1692, ed. Raoul de Cazenove (Toulouse: Société des livres religieux, 1878), 50: “dans le compartiment suivant se trouvaient soixante et dix galériens malades ou invalides, Turcs et chrétiens, enchaînés par les lourdes chaînes.” On indentured servants (engagés) in the French Caribbean, one classic work is Léon Vignols, “Les Antilles françaises sous l’Ancien Régime: l’institution des engagés (1626-1774),” Revue d’histoire économique et sociale 16, 1 (1928): 12-45.

[13]Mémoire for marine minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, marquis de Seignelay, May 1688, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (hereafter ANOM), Colonies C9 A 1, cited in Charles Frostin, “Du peuplement pénal de l’Amérique française aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles: hésitations et contradictions du pouvoir royal en matière de déportation,” Annales de Bretagne et des pays de l’Ouest 85, 1 (1978): 91n45: “pour être vendu comme des nègres.”

[14]Mémoire by Michel Bégon, Marseille, 12 January 1686, AN, Marine B6 86, ff. 494-496.

 [15]Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance, 75, citing another mémoire by Bégon, 1704, ANOM, Colonies C8 B 75.

[16]Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). On early attempts to cultivate coffee and cotton in the French Atlantic, see James Pritchard, In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670-1730 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); and Jutta Wimmler, The Sun King’s Atlantic: Drugs, Demons, and Dyestuffs in the Atlantic World, 1640-1730 (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2017), chap. 2.

[17]Élisabeth Bégon, Lettres au cher fils: correspondance d’Élisabeth Bégon avec son gendre (1748-1753), ed. Nicole Deschamps (Montréal: Éditions du Boréal, 1994). See also Philippe Halbert, “Power Houses: Furnishing Authority in New France 1660-1760” (MA Thesis, University of Delaware, 2014); and Martin and Weiss, The Sun King at Sea, chap. 3.

[18]Madeleine Dobie, “Orientalism, Colonialism, and Furniture in Eighteenth-Century France,” in Furnishing the Eighteenth Century: What Furniture Can Tell Us about the European and American Past, ed. Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg (London: Routledge, 2007), 13.

[19]As one French journalist crowed shortly after the dey of Algiers surrendered to France’s invading army in 1830, “Muslim society recoils before Christian civilization…Louis XIV punished piracy; Charles X abolished it.” Journal des débats, 10 July 1830.

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