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.