Commemorating Slavery in Nantes, France: Material and Virtual Traces

Entrance to the Mémorial de l’Abolition de l’Esclavage in Nantes France

On a recent research trip to Nantes, on the Atlantic coast of France, I came across two particular sites where the city commemorates the abolition of slavery. The first is the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, which houses the museum dedicated to the history of the city. In the early 20th century, the museum took possession of the archival holdings of the Musée de Salorges pertaining to the history of slavery. The Salorges museum collection contains everything from ships’ logs to commercial ledgers, from slave codes to scale models of slave ships known as négriers, from ornamental representations of slaves to the shackles and chains used to imprison enslaved Africans. The other site is the Mémorial de l’Abolition de l’Esclavage, which commemorates the abolition of slavery in France and throughout the world. Making use of ambient sound, quotations from writers, politicians, and musicians, architectural design, and digital sources the Abolition Memorial inscribes the history of slavery on public space in the heart of the newly developed port zone of Nantes. Although these spaces teach the history of slavery and abolition in various ways, they both reveal the difficulty of reconstructing a history of slavery from an archive which aimed to represent enslaved Africans as objects, numerical values, and currency.

Mémorial de l’Abolition de l’Esclavage: A Global History of Slavery

The Abolition Memorial is multifaceted, and presents a mixed-media approach to commemorating abolition as a narrative of freedom from servitude. The Memorial begins as a paved brick pathway, and as you enter you cross the threshold of two steel plaques, which summarize the number of expeditions made between Europe, Africa, and the Americas (27,233), the number of Africans kidnapped and sold into slavery (12 million) with around 1 million who died during the Middle Passage, and the number of Africans sold and deported via French ports (1,380,000 of which 550,000 passed through Nantes). Memorial visitors, from the beginning are struck by the amplitude of the system of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. As visitors continue to the main site of the Memorial, the path is flecked with glass pavers with the names of slave ships, staging sites in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas where slaves were bought and sold. It can be confusing at the beginning, but these ships and sites are meant to represent all of the ships that passed through Nantes as well as all the places they visited. As some ship names are repeated upwards of 10-15 times, visitors come to realize that slavery represented a feverish and depraved commerce built on the imprisonment and sale of humans.

Arriving at the main entrance to the Memorial, visitors descend a flight of stairsthe Memorial is handicap accessible as wellfacing a quotation from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights declaring that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude.” After walking downstairs, the Memorial features a number of frosted glass panels with quotes from writers, artists, revolutionaries, and politicians throughout the African diaspora in manty languages. Quotes from “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley, speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, and Léopold Sédar Senghor are among the more recognizable figures of the Memorial, but the creators also included quotes in Guadeloupian Creole, passages from Negro spirituals, and the first decree abolishing slavery in Saint-Domingue delivered in Creole by Félicité Léger Sonthonax. By including these various languages, registers, and figures from outside of the French public imaginary, the Abolition Memorial expands the pantheon of voices on freedom and abolition in France.

As visitors walk through the exhibit the ambient sound of water from the Loire river sloshes around the Memorial, and even though visitors have descended into the exhibit, one is left to think that this is an inaccurate recreation of the ship’s hold. To be in a slave ship’s hold, was not a pleasant matter, and the Memorial could have framed this portion of the site to better contextualized the inhumane conditions and the extreme terror of the enslaved as they were chained together awaiting servitude in the Americas.

Visualizations of the Atlantic Slave Trade provided by The Slave Trade Database at the Mémorial

Visitors ultimately make their way to the final room of the Memorial, which offers a timeline of the global history of abolition. This room is particularly remarkable because it allows visitors to think about abolition beyond national frames – such as the abolition of slavery in Uruguay in 1830 or in Ethiopia in 1942. Historians of slavery and abolition will also recognize that one of the seminal sources for this portion of the exhibit is the digital humanities project the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. Through the visualizations provided by the database, the Memorial’s creators are able to reinforce the globalized framing of the history of slavery and abolition.

Le Château des Ducs de Bretagne: The History of Slavery and City of Nantes

The Château des Ducs de Bretagne is, first and foremost, a museum dedicated to the history of the city of Nantes. However, given that the development of the city as an Atlantic port city and a commercial hub for the slave trade go hand in hand, the museum is forced to reckon with even the most macabre elements of its history. Of its 32 exhibition spaces, slavery and Atlantic commerce are featured in 10. There are two rooms of the Nantes history exhibit entirely dedicated to the theme “Une Captiale Négière,” or a “A Slave Trade Capital.” These rooms present both the difficulty of reconstructing histories of slavery from colonial sources as well as the importance of the material elements of the history of slavery.

Model of a plantation and looped footage of slaves being tortured and punished

The first part of the “A Slave Trade Capital,” begins by presenting the Code Noir, or the “Black Code,” that governed the French colonies in the Caribbean. The curators succeeded in noting that this set of laws was infrequently if not rarely observed by the Caribbean plantocracy because it was viewed as “unfavorable to slaveholders.” The following room is full of reconstructed models of plantations along with ship’s logs, ledgers, bills of sale for slaves, and irons used to transport and imprison enslaved Africans. The entire room is contextualized by a story of a teenage sailor from Nantes as he makes his first voyage on board a slave ship to Africa and then to the Caribbean. While historians and those who work with the colonial archive easily recognize this type of source, the problem is not its inclusion, but rather that the narrative therein does nothing to reconstruct the subjectivities of the enslaved. Recent studies by Marisa Fuentes and Sowande’ Mustakeem attest to the difficulty and the urgency of narratives of slavery and the slave trade that add nuance to incarcerated narratives that silence the enslaved and leave them as nothing more than a line item on a ship’s ledger.

Accessing the Archive of Atlantic Slavery through Translation

Even though the narrative guide to the main portion of the Château des Ducs de Bretagne dealing with slavery, visitors will notice the importance of the material archives presented in the room such as the slave irons, which attest to the inhumanity of the system of slavery. These rooms, unlike the rest of the museum, are also presented with texts and videos in five different languages (English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish) expanding the accessibility of the exhibit beyond the English/French/Spanish language curation of the rest of the museum. Similarly, the Abolition Memorial featured a number of languages, such as: modern and 18th century Haitian Creole, Guadeloupian Creole, English, and French. Throughout the Memorial, the word “freedom” is written all over the walls and the glass panels in what appears to be around one hundred languages.

The final panel at the Abolition Memorial cites a poem by the recently departed Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott who writes:

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?

Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,

in that grey vault. The sea. The sea

has locked them up. The sea is History.

While these two sites reveal the difficulties in representing the history of slaverydue to all of the historical nuance requiredthey also attest to the desperate need to remember the past, particularly the past that has actively been suppressed and pushed to the margins of cultural memory. As Nantes memorializes abolition, the city seems to have heeded Walcott’s advice, and looked to the sea in order to find the history of slavery.

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Nathan Dize

Nathan H. Dize is a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in Haitian theater, poetry, and revolutionary poetics during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nathan is the editor of the digital history project A Colony in Crisis and co-editor of the H-Haiti series “Haiti in Translation.” Follow him on Twitter @NathanHDize.