The issue of the slave trade is one of the most controversial ones because this question is not only associated with the problem of slavery, but it is also based on the problem of morality which is related to the discussion of slaves as objects of trade. In his book The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade, Robert Harms presents the records of Robert Durand who was the first lieutenant of The Diligent, the French slaving ship.
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The French people joined the Atlantic slave trade later than the other European countries such as Britain and Portugal, but the French successes were significant, and the slave trade became the characteristic feature France’s development in the 18th century. Thus, the historic significance of the book is in the fact that it provides the discussion of the role of slave trade in France during the 18th century.
However, it is more important to concentrate on the aspect of morality to understand the French public’s attitude to the problem of slavery in the 18th century. Robert Durand does not demonstrate any signs of uncertainty in relation to the morality of the slave trade, and his position corresponds with the position of the French people regarding the nature of the slave trade, but it is possible to condemn Durand for his attitude because reflecting the public’s visions, he violates the universe moral norms and supports cruelty and violence.
Robert Durand’s accounts show that the lieutenant does not feel any qualms about the idea of the slave trade in spite of its brutal nature. According to Harms, Durand was writing “about selling people exactly as he would have written about selling barrels of wine or loads of wheat.
He gave no indication that he felt any sense of shame or moral ambivalence about his mission”1. Durand’s “businesslike” and “matter-of-fact” tone can surprise not only the author who analyzes the accounts but also the readers because this tone is not appropriate to discuss the important moral issue of the slave trade in France of the 18th century2.
Furthermore, the young lieutenant does not demonstrate the unique attitude to the problem. Instead, Durand’s accounts represent the attitudes of the majority in relation to the issue of the slave trade because the French public paid more attention to the problems of war, to the issue of famine, and to the economic questions associated with inflation and taxes than to such moral issues as the slave trade in the 18th century.
In his work, Harms intends to explain Durand’s position while stating that “the talk focused on issues of access, profits, tariffs, and bonuses”3. Thus, Durand’s approach to discussing the question was typical for the period, and it was even the “part of a general mind-set in the seaports of early eighteenth-century Brittany”4.
From this perspective, it is almost impossible to state clearly whether the French public supported or not the idea of the slave trade because the actual public discussion of the problem was not observed within different social classes.
However, the reference to the social tendencies cannot be used to justify the approach of Durand to discussing the problem of the slave trade. The fact that Durand focused more on recording the factual details of the trade operations and prices and on counting the profits supports the idea that the aspects of morality were widely violated in the French society.
It is possible to condemn Durand for his actions because his activities are significantly associated with a lot of moral aspects, and Durand could reject the development of the slave trade as any other person in the French society. Nevertheless, many people chose to ignore the issue of the slave trade, and they discussed it only from the perspective of its profitability rather than morality. Slave traders chose their path consciously because the business was risky and problematic.
That is why, Durand made his choice without thinking about the moral implications of his actions. In spite of the fact that Durand was one of many people who did not focus on the slave trade as the social problem, this fact cannot be referred to while discussing the problem of condemning Durand’s actions. The slave trade was the business characterized by a lot of problems and contradictions associated with the concepts of the slaves’ freedom and use of their work in France.
The records and accounts written by Robert Durand demonstrate his focus on the slave trade as on the profitable business rather than on the moral issue. This approach or attitude is also reflected in the general public’s visions of the question which were typical for the French society in the 18th century.
However, in spite of the fact that the moral aspect of the slave trade was not actively discussed in the society, Durand’s attitudes and actions cannot be justified because the man violated simple moral norms and promoted the brutal practice of trading people. Thus, the book by Robert Harms is the important source to research the problem of the slave trade in France as the moral issue with references to the historic significance of the phenomenon.
Harms, Robert. The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. USA: Basic Books, 2002.
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1 Robert Harms, The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade (USA: Basic Books, 2002), 5.
2 Ibid., 5.
3 Ibid., 5.
4 Ibid., 5.