The Weight Of History

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Growing up in France, a lot of emphasis was put on history classes. We studied ancient history, like the Greeks and the Romans, but also modern and contemporary history. In the name of the “devoir de mémoire” (a French expression that can loosely be translated as the “responsibility to remember”), we weren’t spared any atrocity: the French government that collaborated with Hitler during WWII, the role of France during the European Scramble for Africa, the bloody decolonisation wars… The list was long.

The list is long.

As kids in France, we had the weight of history on our shoulders. French strongly believe that “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it” and guilt was drilled into us.

We ought to remember to atrocities of the past, but when can we move on? Do we remember these events because we still feel guilty about them or because we feel we have to? Ideally, the main idea is to ensure that generations never forget the fatal consequences of fanaticism, fascism, racism, etc. But hey, after all, these generations aren’t responsible for events that happened fifty, sixty, a hundred years ago.

It’s important to give proper recognition to a variety of events, positive of negative for a nation, but where do we draw the line? The perception of most of these historical events is still subjective. For instance, France as a nation still has issues talking about the decolonisation war in Algeria. We know we were the bad guys here, but we have trouble to accept it.

Sometimes, it’s not that easy to accept the responsibility to remember.

Last week, Nantes inaugurated a brand new memorial to the abolition of slavery.

The city doesn’t have a glorious past: Nantes was the slave trade capital of France, and that’s how it became the largest port in France and a wealthy city. In the 18th century and well into the 19th, Nantes alone launched about 1,800 expeditions to buy African captives, hauling more than 500,000 men and women to the New World. Slave ships from this port frequently sold their human cargo in Haiti, where plantation owners were often from Nantes, but also in the Caribbean and on the Louisiana coast.

The city now wants to confront its past, hence the construction of the memorial. Not so long ago, history books glossed over the role of France in the slave trade, and in Nantes, prominent local families, including descendants of the slavers, simply avoided the topic altogether.

Much easier this way, isn’t it?

Yet I was surprised to see very little linked the memorial directly to the city. The upper part of it is a long esplanade, with the name of the 1,800 boats that carried the slaves to their sad destiny. Below, at river-level, is a underground tunnel full of quotes and texts around human rights.

But where is the role of Nantes explained?

To me, it looks like the city is trying to face its past, but it’s not exactly there yet.

Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery

Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery

Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery

Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. You would not believe some of the conversations I had about history with some French people. I find that the war in Algeria and the second World War are touchy subjects. Slavery is less touchy because it was a long time ago but still I know some people that deny it has even happened in France.

    It’s really weird!

  2. It’s important to remember the past to do better in the future. Very often, this is not emphasized enough to my mind. There’s no point in remembering if you don’t learn anything from it. I don’t think it’s very useful to point finger at people, when such a long time has passed that you can’t blame them directly anymore. But I think history should be studied not to remember dates, but to understand how things happen, how to avoid repeating the same mistake, how to help the harmed people.

    When I see France right now during the campaign, I see a lot of oblivious people.

    • I don’t like the way North America seem to forget so easily. I’m not a huge fan of the War Museum in Ottawa, for instance, because it bothers me that they use current events (like the war in Afghanistan). I agree, we must remember… but how?

  3. Heh! You want a reaction, try talking to anyone French about the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985, or indeed the whole French nuclear weapons testing programme in Mururoa atoll. Much too recent for them to be apologetic. Maybe in 100 years…

  4. The museum in Nantes (in the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne) has an exhibit about the city’s slaving past. I was there on the last day of my visit, so I was sad to begin with, and although I enjoyed learning lots of things, some of them in a visceral sort of way (such as upon entering a darkened exhibit about maritime history and hearing the sound of sailors singing a call-and-answer type folk tune that sounded so very much like the Québécois ones I learned, growing up), I ended up leaving feeling upset. Which isn’t a bad thing for a museum to do, necessarily. I saw paintings and descriptions of people being killed horribly during the French Revolution, and I then went on to the slavery section where the manacles and other grim artifacts made me uncomfortable even though I already know a fair bit about this subject. But then when I got to the Holocaust section, something in me went “no way – too much of this in one day!” and I started having a physical reaction, so I scurried past that part with my eyes glued to the floor!

    • I haven’t seen the exhibition in a while but I did visit it a few years ago and when I was a kid, and I know exactly what you are talking about. I loved the “Anneaux de la mémoire” exhibit in the 1990s, which was one of the first times Nantes dared to face its past.

  5. Je passe en français pour ce sujet ô combien compliqué ! Le devoir de mémoire est un concept que je n’ai jamais pleinement compris. Je trouve que c’est un procédé “anti-historique”, c’est à dire que l’on laisse entrer un devoir moral (donc nos sentiments) dans un procédé qui doit être purement historique (donc scientifique). La science ne peut pas être totalement objective, soit, c’est évident. Mais le devoir de mémoire n’a finalement rien d’historique du tout. Et c’est ça qui me dérange. Le devoir de mémoire avait un sens à la sortie de la 2ème guerre, ou les peuples étaient encore traumatisés, où il fallait pardonner, avancer quand-même, mais ne pas oublier pour autant. Il fallait penser à ce qu’il s’était passé pour aller de l’avant. Tout le monde était à fleur de peau. Mais aujourd’hui ? Pourquoi ne pas préférer une démarche scientifique ? A l’heure actuelle, j’ai l’impression que les deux ne sont pas compatibles. Ils le deviendront peut-être.
    Pour ce qui est “d’embellir” son passé, je crois que chaque peuple/nation/pays, consciemment ou inconsciemment, fais un peu de ménage selon ce qui l’arrange… Mais le fait qu’il faille attendre plusieurs dizaines d’années avant de pouvoir admettre certaines choses et de pouvoir travailler dessus (à la fois scientifiquement et “psychologiquement”) ce n’est pas quelque chose typiquement français, je pense que tous les pays agissent de la même façon… Même aux USA, où tout semble si vite oublié (par exemple, le sentier des larmes et la déportation des indiens n’a été officiellement reconnue comme telle qu’au début des années 2000, idem pour le gouvernement australien qui n’a présenté des excuses pour les kidnapping d’enfants aborigènes qu’il y a deux ans…)C’est un processus long, douloureux, mais il finit toujours par aboutir.
    Sauf quand les ministres de droite s’en mêlent…
    Je m’éloigne un peu du sujet (désolée !)

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