The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, France

Dowoti D├ęsir

The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, France. Photo:  Dowoti Désir

The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery (le Mémorial de l’abolition de l’esclavage) is one of the largest monuments in the world dedicated to slavery and its abolition. Roughly half a block long, this underground structure is designed largely in glass, cement and wood.  It captures the words of a variety of voices from the past and present, Afro-descendants and European alike, involved in the battle of freedom that has marked the dynamics between blacks and whites for centuries.

Designed by Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko and his collaborator, New York architect Julian Bonder, the Memorial cradles the estuary of the Loire River on one side and the Atlantic on another. With its elegant spacing and clean lines, the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, is a long architectural labrum whose narrow chambers recall the confining barracks or hulls that held Africans captive during the Middle Passage.

Perhaps unwittingly so, Wodiczko and Bonder conjure something most nuanced  on the urban landscape, which is a private, instrumental symbol of an African world view: the Kalunga line of the KaCongo-Bantu spiritual system. The Kalunga line delineates the space between the living and the dead and separates the past from the present. As the memorial is situated along the waters that led to the death both actual and social of enslaved Africans, it is especially meaningful. It symbolically bisects traditional African epistemology from the European imagination just as spaces of existence were legally and socially segregated in the past. In spite of high percentage of mixed race relationships and almost 1 in 5 people being of African descent in Nantes, remnants of that segregated space remains.       

The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, France. Photo:  Dowoti Désir  Visitors descend into its entry chamber to view its richly textured natural and manmade elements. It is framed by massive etched glass panels on one side, and stone walls that permit one to view the Loire River on the opposite. Parallel to the walls adjacent to the estuary are a series of open beds that allow the movements of the raising and ebbing tide to be seen. The sounds of the streets above and the river below echo throughout. Above ground, we find slivers of glass embedded in the concrete with names of slave ships — often with the dates of their maiden voyage from Nantes — that reflected the familial connections, aspirations, or places of intent for securing wealth by slave traders such as:  “Le Père du Famille ” (1785); “Le Roy Nègre” (1764); “Le Succès” (1753); and “Le Saint Dominique” (1733).

On continental Europe, Nantes was the biggest beneficiary of the slave trade, deporting the largest quantity of Africans across the Atlantic. Between the mid-17th and 18th centuries, over 1,380,000 Africans were deported to the Americas on over 4,220 slave trading expeditions leaving France from 18 French towns.

In Nantes, there are no memorials or monuments in the built environment to the legacy of enslaved Africans. Although an important and historic endeavor, the inconvenient truth is that the only contemporary marker to the history of the Slave Trade is the newly unveiled underground memorial that highlights its termination. The end of the story is told without recounting its start. Consequently for some members of the African descendant community, there is a sense that the Memorial is intended to the honor the whites that were at the helm of the abolitionist movement and their memories, and not the Africans resistors of the Slave trade and/or the liberators who fought against it and gained their freedom.

The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, France. Photo:  Dowoti Désir In spite of the deeply moving quotations inscribed throughout the Memorial, and some poetic encounters between materials rough and polished, that allude to the collision of philosophic, metaphysic and cultural sensibilities between Africa and Europe, the Memorial’s cool demeanor begs for a primal response from visitors. The rectangular blocks balustraded along the ceiling slope sharply to 90-degree angles and slide neatly into the predetermined L-shaped apertures of glass. Therein lies the challenges of form following function: the element of ascription and predetermination, thus the avoidance of conflict within the space itself as an architectural construct and social phenomena concur.

As a site of consciousness, the Memorial is a classically Cartesian space that masks the corporal, mental, emotional, and spiritual violence that was the European Slave Trade. There is no inherent sense of threat or anxiety evoked. It is a cerebral response to a phenomenon that was the single most devastating event suffered physically, socially and spiritually by Africans and their descendants. At the same time, its is precisely its pristine rationality that reveals the diabolic, cold, and calculating nature of an ugly, global reality that was endured longer than any other act of evil committed against any group of human beings, lasting over 400 years.

The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery opened to the public in March 2012 amidst controversy. The battle occurred in part, because the descendant community was not directly engaged and very few people-of color, if any, had input in the design and build process. The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery asks questions about process and who has the right to tell the story of a massive, historically disenfranchised population and its descendent community. The Memorial’s presence underscores existing tensions surrounding issues of race, multiculturalism, and Republicanism in a France that claims to be “one and indivisible.” Memory however is a critical component of the historical differentiation that exists between members of the African and African descendant population, and non-blacks. Recognition of this difference while it bifurcates the possibility of a uniform and uncontested interpretation of history, permits political integrity of a nation and its democratic ideals to be manifest. 

This complex issue is articulated by another "memorial." However unconventional, the Marche des Esclaves (The Slave March) held annually since 2006, is a living memorial of flesh and blood, organized by a group of the (largely) black citizens of the City of Nantes who are members of the Collectif du Dix Mai. The Marche des Esclaves makes it clear the Republic has not recognized the compounded history of Africans in France. The Marche recreates a procession of enslaved Africans, indentured servants, and even the French elite in period clothing traversing the heart of the city. A narrative of beatings, insurrections and redemption occurs through the streets of Nantes.  This procession, considered problematic by local government officials, is popularly considered the only event that pays homage to the African victims of the European slave trade outside of scholarly conferences and exhibitions.

Recreation of the march of the slaves, Nantes, France, 2007. Photo: Nantes Citizen blog The enormous wealth secured by the port city of Nantes during the Transatlantic slave trade is evident in its architecture. The distinctive limestone buildings with arabesque iron work are found throughout the center of the city.  The stone faces of the profiteers and occasionally the African victims of the Slave Trade punctuate the facades of many of these historic buildings.  At the inauguration of the Memorial, the Guyanese Parliamentarian Christiane Taubira, noted, “This Memorial is the apotheosis of a a long-standing battle. Here before me I see a monument in a space, whose physical embodiment represents the common history of three continents: Europe, Africa and America.”

Memorial visitors are reminded that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, also known as the Maafaa (the great suffering), is a crime against humanity as determined not only by the United Nations international moral mandate and the Durban Declaration & Programme of Action Plan but also by France’s own Loi Taubira (named after the Parliamentarian Christine Taubira.) Now 11 years old, Taubira’s Law was passed by the French legislature on May 10, 2001, resulting in the amendment of its constitution to recognize the Trans-Atlantic, Oceanic, Indian, and other slave trades involving the trafficking of enslaved Africans and Oceanic Peoples as a crime against humanity.

The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, France. Photo:  Dowoti Désir  The subtext to the Memorial site, lodged deep within the construct of the “architectural grid,” is scientific reasoning and a shift in humanity’s relationship with virtue; perceptions of time; and relationships that reduced the dynamics with fellow humans to categories that hierarchized physical and racial attributes. It denigrated human intelligence and worth; and undermined cultural values and norms to a place so dangerous, it sustains itself as the foundation of racism today. The Memorial is at once appropriately and vexingly placed underground. Because it is not readily apparent on the City’s landscape, one can argue a tragic magnum opus of human history has been “swept under the rug” of a city whose wealth and most notable architecture was literally built on the backs of Africans. Relative to this is how the scars of moral depravity carried post-humorously by European enslavers, the beneficiaries of the slavery trade and their respective descendants have been bandaged. However ironic, placement below-grade and across the bank from the Palais de Justice, speaks to the insidious depths of racism that is heavily anchored by its socioeconomic counterparts: inequality and inequity. Additionally, the underground structure underscores the subaltern life, the invisibility, and repressed psychic pain endured by Africans and Afro descendants globally.

Finally, another remarkably distressing element of this Memorial is how its signature component is abused. What makes the Memorial worth remembering are the various quotations viewers read. However, according to Wodiczko and Bonder, instead of allowing the architects to hire their own team of scholars to select or translate quotations from the various agents of social change, the City found its own.  That was a regrettable move, as some of the texts are inaccurate and misleading, such as a quotation from the Chart of the Kouroukan Fouga, the first human-rights document authored in the world (Mali in1236), is attributed to an African scholar in 1991. This information however must be excavated between the lines of the Memorial by the visitors themselves.

Memory requires consensus, the voices of victims, their perspectives and priorities  must be considered by the state or government, especially when a country has a troubling history  and a proposed site of memorial and the culture of those being memorialized is the subject of contention. The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery is not a lair of deceit as many have argued, but potentially a node of fermenting energy waiting to explode onto the consciousness of not only the citizens of Nantes, but the global community in general as the discourse around racism has an official site of public discussion and debate in France. For Peter Lema, a principle player of the Collectif du 10 Mai, “The issues surrounding this Memorial will generate continued debate, hopefully one with a positive outcome. In the end, we hope that the Memorial will permit a new rapport between Afro-descendants and the West; France and her relationships with the larger African community; and whites and Afro-descendants in general to emerge.”

Dowoti Désir, an African descendant is the founder and president of Durban Declaration & Programme of Action Watch Group [DDPA Watch Group] and is a curator of contemporary art with a focus on art in public spaces impacting the global African community.