There is a museum in Washington, DC dedicated to African American History that speaks about the slave trade. We also have the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Wisconsin. But I’ve always wondered what the story was like when told from other countries perspective, the countries that actually traded the slaves vs the countries with people that were enslaved. Well, I got the French side of the story in Nantes, France at Château des ducs de Bretagne and the MEMORIAL TO THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY.
I was heading to Nantes in the Loire Valley for a winery tour and tasting (because it’s France and there’s wine everywhere) and a friend mentioned this museum to me as one she hoped to visit one day. Glad she said something as I didn’t even know it existed. So, a 2 ½ hour train ride from Paris later, I’m in Nantes. I stayed at a hotel walking distance from the train station and the museum was only about a 7 minute walk from the hotel. Super convenient.
Now, I am using the term ‘museum’ loosely as this building was previously a real life castle. Built in the 13th century, this Castle of the Dukes of Brittany served as a military fortress against royal power. Over the course of time, kings of France have lived here, it’s been a military arsenal and a prison. It was sold to the city of Nantes in 1915, became a museum in 1924, and the castle as we know it today was completed in 2006.
While this museum is not solely a ‘slave museum’, the Atlantic Slave Trade is a key theme and presented in depth from the French perspective. France got into the slave trade around the 18th century after England and was the 2nd largest trading power and slave country in Europe. Nantes was the first slave port in France, providing more than 42% of the departures of slave ships between 1707 and 1793. Shipowners, bankers, industrialists, traders, shopkeepers, shipbuilders and sailors all benefited to varying degrees from the trade.
It was decided that slavery would be abolished in February 1794, but the French argued that the economy and trade could not survive without slaves (side eye). Two more laws were passed before slavery was truly abolished in 1831 and the end of slavery was registered on 27 April 1848. So it took 30+ years and three (THREE!) laws to get slavery to be fully abolished because even after the first two, of course people still owned, traded and transported slaves. Truth be told, the real reason the third law stuck was because the river to Nantes had begun to dry up and the large slave ships could no longer make the trip into the city. Slaves couldn’t make the trip from the ocean down the river and slavers no longer found it lucrative to continue the trade. This fact became apparent when looking at the numbers of slaves that got on the ship vs how many arrived at the destination in later years.
Much of the rest of the story is the same, chains for the neck and ankles, whips, servitude, etc. The glaring differences between European slaves and American slaves were that families remained together in Europe and there wasn’t as much ‘hard labor’ or field type work. Africans were still taken from their land on ships and in chains to a foreign place and forced to do work they were not paid for.
It’s not often Europe speaks of their role in the slave trade so it was interesting to see this theme in the museum. It was presented very well and very in depth. There is also a Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery (MÉMORIAL DE L’ABOLITION DE L’ESCLAVAGE) which has a pathway from the Chateau with the names of all the slave ships that came through Nantes engraved on plates in the ground. I seriously wished I was a photographer at this point so that I could have taken a picture to show how it looked to walk across all these plates!! There are 1710 plates with the names of the ships and dates of departure from Nantes. Then another 290 plates with the names of slave counters, ports of call and ports of sale. At the memorial were famous quotes from Dr. King, Toni Morrison, Nelson Mandela and others.
A heavy museum and visit, but definitely a side of a story that I didn’t know. If you ever find yourself around the Loire Valley (did I mention they have wine there?) this museum and memorial are definitely worth a visit. France, like America, still has work to do in acknowledging the rights of all people, but this is definitely a start.