Maxime Tellier (France Culture) writes about France’s slavery past, which has resurfaced since the death of George Floyd in the United States. He asks, “How is this past approached by cities that enriched themselves with the slave trade? He shares the present situation in Nantes, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, and Le Havre. Here are excerpts:
Large French cities flourished thanks to slavery and the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, a past that re-emerges today in the wake of the movement borne of George Floyd’s death. In many cities in Europe and the United States, symbols of slavery, colonialism, or racism are being torn down: statues, street names, etc. In France, the port cities associated with this heavy past have begun to carry out a work of remembrance but this reflection remains very recent and is far from being completed.
Some key figures and data
The Atlantic slave trade led to the deportation of more than 12 million people from Africa to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries, to which must be added 7 million dead on slave routes (before boarding the ships). The slave trade was part of an economy called “triangular” because it linked Europe, Africa, and the Americas to exploit the colonies’ riches: sugar, coffee, cocoa …
The three countries with the most uprooted human beings are Portugal (then Brazil, after independence in 1822) with 5.8 million people, Great Britain (3.2 million) and France (1.3 million) according to slavevoyages.org, which lists all the crossings that took place (more than 50,000). The island of Saint-Domingue [present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic] was the main French possession with nearly 500,000 slaves in 1791, at the time of the great uprising against the French colonists, which led to the first abolition in the French colonies in 1794. The island gained independence in 1804 under the name of Haiti. Slavery was restored in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, who tried to vanquish the Haitian Revolution. The slave trade was finally prohibited in 1830, and the final abolition took place in 1848.
But this past is still present and visible, in particular, in the sumptuous architecture of certain districts in the large French ports of the western side: Feydeau Island in Nantes, the private mansions of Bordeaux or La Rochelle, including furniture and paintings… According to the Memorial for the Abolition of Slavery [Mémorial de l’abolition de l’esclavage] in Nantes, France organized at least 4,220 slave expeditions over this entire period. Nantes was the main shipping port with 1,714 shipments to Le Havre (451), La Rochelle (448), and Bordeaux (419); but other cities also participated: Saint-Malo, Lorient, Honfleur, Marseille, Dunkirk…
Slave trafficking contributed to the economic development of these ports and, more broadly, to the countries that practiced this trade. “At the court of Louis XV, there was an expression to say that someone was very rich; they said, ‘rich as a colonist from Saint-Domingue,’” explains Myriam Cottias, historian and research director at CNRS, who also worked on the slavery memorial. On this aspect, a turning point took place in 1998 at the national level, according to Cottias, on the occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the abolition, with symposia and a whole series of dialogues between metropolitan France and the overseas departments and territories. It also saw the emergence of a political figure, Christiane Taubira, MP of Guyana, which enabled this claim to be made with the recognition of slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity in a law passed in 2001. This change also requires teaching the history of slavery (today on the curriculum for the 4th grade). “But work remains to be done; locally, it is often driven by the overseas associations that push the town halls. At the French level, there is still a blockage and we can still see it today, because the issue is not settled,” said Myriam Cottias, “yet slavery is part of the history of France.”
Nantes: a museum and a memorial to end the taboo
Nantes was among the first metropolitan cities to look into its slave past in the 1990s. The most commonly used date is 1992, the year of the exhibition “Les anneaux de la mémoire” [The rings of memory] organized by the eponymous association created a year earlier. Its founders were from Nantes; they wanted to act against the denial of this painful past by bringing the city and its inhabitants face-to-face with it. It was a great success—with more than 400,000 visitors for the 1992 exhibition—and marked a turning point: “This is the first major symposium on the slave trade and the start of work on the remembrance of slavery,” explains Myriam Cottias, “although it remains marginal; it is only done locally and not throughout France. The founders were white Nantes residents with the idea of taking charge of this remembrance process and enhancing it; they were later joined by overseas associations.” [. . .]
La Rochelle: a museum and cooperation with Haiti
Work on the memory of slavery in La Rochelle began around the same time as in Nantes. As in Loire-Atlantique, the subject became a political issue through the action of the Les anneaux de la mémoire association, but also through the resolve of the mayor of the time: Michel Crépeau (who was elected from 1971 to 1999). “He was the one who wanted to open the New World Museum,” said city mayor Jean-François Fountaine. “This museum evokes the discovery of the St. Lawrence and the relationship with Canada, but it also deals with the triangular slave trade in which La Rochelle participated, especially in the Caribbean and on the island of Saint-Domingue [or Hispaniola; present-day Haiti] where our city left a lasting imprint: we sometimes even speak of a La Rochelle island.”
This museum is located in the historic center of the city, housed in an old private mansion that belonged to a slave merchant: the Hôtel de Fleuriau, named after Aimé-Benjamin Fleuriau (1709-1787), who owned a sugar cane plantation and 300 slaves near Port-au-Prince in Saint-Domingue. The mansion was inhabited by descendants of the family until 1974, when it was bought by the town hall. The museum was inaugurated in 1982 and has devoted part of its space to the history of slavery for several years: exhibitions of irons, ship models … In 2015, Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow produced a statue of Toussaint Louverture, which sits today at the entrance to the museum, and which pays homage to this freed slave who fought against the French colonists for the independence of the island and the emancipation of slaves.
But the location of this 2.80-meter statue was not agreed upon when it was installed. An association dedicated to the memory of the black slave trade would have liked a more visible place rather than the interior of the courtyard of a museum … Today, La Rochelle has established regular relations with Port-aux-Prince, Haiti’s capital: “I am very friendly with the mayor, Ralph Youri Chevry,” specifies the mayor of La Rochelle, “he comes every year during the May 10th ceremony. [. . .]
But in La Rochelle, there is no plan at the moment to rename streets: “If you remove those who had a link with the triangular trade and the colonial venture, there is nothing left,” said the mayor. But in La Rochelle, another place has been criticized: “the elephant monument” near the Place de Verdun, which pays tribute to the “pioneers of the Ivory Coast.” The mayor concludes, “It is no longer about slavery but there is an indisputable continuity; I think it would be smart to place an explanatory plaque.”
Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. To read the full, original article (in French), see https://www.franceculture.fr/histoire/comment-les-anciennes-villes-negrieres-francaises-travaillent-sur-leur-passe.