How France's Atlantic ports still ignore their grim slave trade past


France's west coast port cities of Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Le Havre followed in the footsteps of Nantes by amassing much of their wealth from the Atlantic slave trade. Yet unlike in Nantes, in these three cities this history remains largely forgotten or hidden from view. And as Lucie Delaporte reports, in the forthcoming local elections which take place on March 15th and March 22nd, neither current councillors nor many candidates seem much inclined to revive these painful memories.

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Around 20 people have gathered in front of the city hall in the English Channel port city of Le Havre, despite the gusts of wind from which the buildings designed by the celebrated architect Auguste Perretafford little shelter. They have come this afternoon to listen to Karfa Diallo.

“We are here, in front of this symbolic place on the eve of the local council elections, because we think it's an important time at which to make councillors aware of the events of which they are often unaware,” began Karfa Diallo, who is Franco-Senegalese. He reminded his small audience that Le Havre was one of France's main slave trading ports. Yet apart from a small commemorative plaque on the city's Guynemer Esplanade, there is little here to recall this grim past.

The visit to city hall was part of a event organised by Mémoires et Partages ('Memories and Sharing'), an association that Karfa Diallo himself founded. It included trips to different locations that symbolised the Atlantic slave trade system from which Le Havre benefited between the 17th and 19th centuries, a period of history that many local people know little about.

Ahead of the local elections, which take place over two Sundays, the 15th and 22nd of March, the association has asked all the declared candidates in Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Le Havre – France's main slave trade Atlantic ports after Nantes – what they intend to do to finally bring an end to the suppression of these painful past memories.

It is true that in Nantes, which was by far the most important slave trading port, the former mayor and then prime minister of France Jean-Marc Ayrault started the process of remembering the city's slave trade past some 20 years ago. But there is a striking absence of such initiatives in the other three ports.

Karfa Diallo in front of city hall in Le Havre. © LD Karfa Diallo in front of city hall in Le Havre. © LD
The almost total destruction of Le Havre in 1944 led to the virtual disappearance of the old town centre and with it most of the traces of the wealthy merchants who had lived there. And it is fair to say that local politicians have not rushed to remember that shameful saga of history.

As a result the 'Maison de l'armateur' ('Shipowner's House') – a large private house lived in by Martin-Pierre Foäche (1728-1816) a merchant and shipowner whose wealth came from the slave trade – is the only museum to tackle the subject, and does so only in passing in a small exhibition room. The rest of the museum is devoted to architecture and furniture.

“It's a museum to the glory of the shipowner's good taste!” said Karfa Diallo indignantly. “Can you imagine telling the story of the Holocaust in a Nazi's house?” asked Patrick Serres, the association's president.

A work by the Benin artist Serge Mikpon, known as Aston, which is called 'Bateaux négriers' or 'Slave trading boats' © LD A work by the Benin artist Serge Mikpon, known as Aston, which is called 'Bateaux négriers' or 'Slave trading boats' © LD
Several of the city's streets bear the names of major slave traders. In the centre of the city, for example, just a few hundred metres from the cathedral, Rue Jules-Masurier pays homage to a particularly sinister character. “The scoundrel of scoundrels,” as he was described by Karfa Diallo, who reminded his small group that this merchant earned most of his wealth from the illegal slave trade; in other words the trade in slaves which was carried out in secret after its abolition.

To stop his boat being stopped and searched by the British, who at the time were hunting down those who continued the illegal slave trade, the order was given to the crew to throw the slaves into the sea in case of a problem.

When in 1860 Masurier's ship Le Don-Juan arrived in Cuba with 600 slaves on board, around 200 other had been been thrown overboard to avoid British scrutiny. This same man was made mayor of Le Havre a decade and a half later in 1876.

“We shouldn't rename the streets as that would be to remove the toll the past has taken, but it should be explained, we should remember what these people did,” said Karfa Diallo. This activist has been trying to raise the profile of this issue for a long time, in the face of indifference - or ignorance - on the part of councillors. And though things might be changing, it is a slow process.

“Relations with the councillors are sometimes friendly,” said Diallo. “The former mayor of Le Havre, Antoine Rufenacht, met us in 2009 and was very interested in our approach. He acknowledged that he himself came from a great family of merchants who got wealthy from the slave trade. The problem is that beyond that nothing or almost nothing happened,” he added.

When questioned about the absence of visible memorials in the city, the current mayor of Le Havre insisted that he had started to address the issue.

“It wasn't a taboo subject but it's true it was a bit forgotten,” Jean-Baptise Gastinne said. He pointed out that the city organises a ceremony each May 10th in which a school class takes part. The local archive website was also given a portal dedicated to the history of the slave trade. Meanwhile a temporary exhibition on the 'triangular' slave trade – which involved trade routes between Europe, Africa and the Americas – will take place later this year at the Dubocage de Bléville Museum, which once belonged to a city merchant.

“I want to go further, for this museum to have permanent rooms in the future devoted to this history,” said Jean-Baptise Gastinne, saying he was “completely in synch with [French prime minister] Édouard Philippe”. The latter is the official candidate to be mayor of Le Havre but he has made clear that if he wins he will allow Jean-Baptise Gastinne to carry on as mayor as long as he, Philippe, is still prime minister.

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