From our regional correspondent
On this cold autumn morning, Pierre Guillon de Princé, 82, walks a course he knows by heart. It begins on the Quai de la Fosse, facing the old port of Nantes, in front of the building richly decorated with a former shipowner (triangular pediment, wrought iron balcony, sculpted faces called mascarons, etc.). Then he joined, on the banks of the Loire, the Memorial to the abolition of slavery, whose esplanade is studded with plaques bearing the names of slave ships that left Nantes or their ports of call (Augustus, The Victorine, The Neptune …).
More than 1,800 Nantes expeditions were recorded between the XVIIe and the XIXe century, snatching more than 550,000 slaves from their African land. “This extremely lucrative trade has had a huge impact on shipbuilding, industry and local craftsmanship,” tells of this retired engineer, whose own ancestors were shipowners in Nantes, in the XVIIIe century.
“My family did not hide it but did not give details, he confides. In the end, it was my grandchildren who aroused my curiosity. ” On the strength of his research, he leads guided tours of the site which are always full. “I don’t feel guilty for the acts of my ancestors, he specifies. But I find it important to tell the story, to better understand the present and project into the future. “ Last September, during Heritage Days, he led the visit of the memorial with the descendant of slaves Dieudonné Boutrin, president of the association La Coque nomade-Fraternité, in Nantes. A duo imbued with the same concern for pedagogy. “No one is responsible for what happened four hundred years ago, confirms the latter. The compensation that one can ask for is not financial, but it is to tell the story. When memory hurts, there is no point in putting it to sleep. »
However, in this city shaped by its port past, this episode took many years to reappear. “Nantes has long been in a position of denial, as if mentioning this story could tarnish its reputation”, remembers Michel Cocotier, president of the Mémoire de l’outre-mer association in Nantes. In 1985, the refusal of the mayor Michel Chauty to subsidize an international colloquium of researchers for the three hundred years of the “black code”, initiated by Colbert, marks the spirits.
Jean-Marc Ayrault became mayor of Nantes in 1989 and made the commitment “To assume” this story. A large-scale exhibition, “The Rings of Memory”, organized at the Château de Nantes in 1992, breaks the silence by attracting 400,000 visitors. In 1998, the statue of a slave breaking his chains, designed for the 150e anniversary of the abolition, was ransacked a few days after its installation on the Quai de la Fosse. The city then decides to erect a commemorative work.
Several steps will be taken with the opening in 2007 of the Nantes History Museum, in the castle of the Dukes of Brittany, which devotes several spaces to slavery and colonization. Then the inauguration of the Memorial to the abolition of slavery in 2012, the gestation of which was long and complex. “I was reluctant to create it because it honors the Republic for having put an end to slavery but it is not directly dedicated to the victims”, comments Dieudonné Boutrin, who has been defending for twenty years the construction of an educational boat, modeled on a former slave ship (Dawn), in order to trace the violence of these crossings at sea.
“It’s a way to make history tangible and to pay tribute to the 15% of captives who died at sea …” This dismountable boat, composed of containers in reference to modern forms of slavery, would be intended to move from city to city. Michel Cocotier, for his part, would like a new educational site, near the memorial, to allow classes and families, many of whom are visiting it, to access permanent and temporary exhibitions to explore the issue in greater depth.
For now, the city of Nantes intends to continue to reveal the traces of this past (via an educational route between the memorial and the castle) and to support large-scale events. “We will never have covered this story, considers Olivier Château, heritage assistant in Nantes. For thirty years, researchers have done a great deal of work on this subject and have a great deal to tell us. “
This is the whole point of the exhibition “The Abyss”, offered until June at the castle of the Dukes of Brittany, which offers a more embodied vision of this past (1). “The enslaved people have long remained silent victims, for lack of direct archives, comments Krystel Gualdé, curator of the exhibition and scientific director of the Nantes history museum. But they reappear thanks to the work of academics who have mixed up multiple sources. “ This exhibition also lifts the veil on a little-known parenthesis: the presence of thousands of slaves on Nantes soil, in the 18th century.e century, and in other cities of France.
“She tackles subjects head-on, including the participation of certain African kingdoms in the slave trade, comments Jean-Marc Ayrault, who chairs the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery. It works because it is based on an approach of great intellectual rigor. ” It is for this reason that his foundation recently mobilized to ensure that a major exhibition devoted to Napoleon does not omit his role in the reestablishment of slavery. “Relying on scientists makes it possible to avoid idealization such as simplistic shortcuts”, he continues.
For Krystel Gualdé, look at history “In all its dimensions” is not a work of repentance, “Even if some trends want to believe it”. Lecturer in history at the University of Nantes and specialist in trafficking, Bernard Michon warns against the temptation to erase the less glorious episodes of the past. “Our national narrative is not unequivocal and includes gray areas, he emphasizes. France deported 1.3 to 1.5 million slaves to its colonies and this is not a negligible aspect. In the overseas territories, the populations keep the deep scars. “
Pierre Guillon de Princé, who feels a little alone in his role, would like other descendants of shipowners to take over. “If we do not admit what happened yesterday, when are we going to recognize the bad practices of today’s world? “, he asks himself.