Theodore Canot (1804-1860) was a French-Italian adventurer and slave trader. His memoirs, notable for their vividness and general accuracy, illustrate the conduct and character of every branch of the slave trade.
Theodore Canot, whose real name was Theophile Conneau, was born at Alessandria, Italy, the second son of an Italian mother and a French father who was a paymaster in Napoleon's army. Theodore went to sea in 1819 as cabin boy on an American ship which took him to Salem, where he learned navigation. After a series of West Indian adventures he joined the slave ship Aerostatica at Havana in 1826 and "plunged accidentally," as he put it, into the slave trade at age 22. Henceforward Canot— ambitious and intelligent, daring and unscrupulous, with "no religion, many vices, and few weaknesses"—became one of the more famous, though not the most successful, slavers of the 19th century.
Canot's story is filled with the lurid details and violent personalities of the new era of slave trading after the Napoleonic Wars, stimulated by Europe's revived demand for tropical produce, the expansion of slave systems in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States, and the enormous profits to be gained in the face of Britain's efforts to blockade the seas. The small operators of earlier centuries were now eclipsed by heavily capitalized "merchant princes" called mongos, established in huge depots or strongholds on the West African coast, able to embark a thousand and more slaves at a time.
Canot served these operations as clerk, agent, supercargo, and shipowner, seeking repeatedly to branch out on his own. Beginning on the Guinea coast as clerk for "Mongo John" Ormond at the Rio Pongo, he tried to succeed Ormond on the latter's suicide in 1828 but was burned out by hostile Africans. With a condemned schooner from Sierra Leone, Canot hijacked a cargo of slaves and took them to Cuba. After a series of successful voyages he was seized by the French and imprisoned at Brest. Pardoned by King Louis Philippe, he returned to Africa and joined Don Pedro Blanco, the Spanish nobleman and "prince of slavers," at the Gallinas River between Sierra Leone and Liberia.
After Don Pedro's retirement to Havana as a millionaire in 1839, Canot's fortunes declined. He tried legitimate enterprise for a time as a planter at Cape Mount in Liberia but failed and returned to slaving. Burned out of Cape Mount by the British, he was captured on a slaving voyage in 1847. Taken to New York for trial, he skipped bail and fled to Brazil, where the great coastal raid by Commodore Foote destroyed Canot's last ship in 1850.
Canot next appeared down but not out in the saloons of Baltimore in 1853, where he parlayed his acquaintance with the philanthropist James Hall of the African Colonization Society, for whom he had done favors when a planter at Cape Mount, into a second chance. Canot then recovered his fortunes with an unlikely marriage to socially prominent Eliza McKinley of Philadelphia and with the help of his brother, who had become personal physician to Napoleon III, pursued a career in the French colonial service as collector of Nouméa in New Caledonia, until he returned to Paris and died in 1860.
Through Hall, Canot had met Brantz Mayer, prominent journalist, who became his amanuensis and produced the book that made Canot famous: This memoir, as well as being a circumstantial account of the slave trade, is a document in the intellectual history of racism. Mayer saw in Canot's story a confirmation of his own facile assumptions concerning the slavery question, and he provided Canot's narrative of skulduggery with a moral for his times.
Slavery, said Mayer (1854), and the careers of men like Canot must be the fruit of Africa's own fatal flaws, whereby "one sixth of Africa subjects the remaining five sixths to servitude," long before the white man enters the picture. Mayer's was an Africa "unstirred by progress … full of the barbarism that blood and tradition have handed down from the beginning." For him, Canot's story demonstrated that slavery was not a white man's institution "except in so far as it is an inheritance from the system it describes"—an African-originated system which exhibited" an innate or acquired inferiority of the negro race in its own land."
Thus, in the creation of the 19th-century's image of Africa, the corrupt life of slaver Canot was turned against Africa and Africans. The victims became in effect the source of the transgression. The universal human and historical failure which the slave trade represented was attributed not to the shared responsibility of its white and black perpetrators alike but to the modern myth of race—the racial ghost of African inferiority.
Further Reading on Theodore Canot
Brantz Mayer's introduction to Captain Canot, or Twenty Years of an African Slaver (1854) summarizes Canot's ideas concerning Africa, Africans, and the slave trade in relation to the American slavery question. The 1854 edition is the complete account, while Malcolm Cowley, ed., Adventures of an African Slaver (1969), reprints the narrative with minor deletions up to Canot's decision to abandon slaving in 1840 (on which he reneged) and provides an epilogue summary of his subsequent career. Cowley's introduction is a useful assessment of Canot's place in the new slave trade. Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley, Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865 (1962), includes a short account of Canot's career.