The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery (Nantes) Two Years After its Inauguration by Iglika Stankova


On the 2nd and the 3rd of July, the Centre for the Study of International Slavery (UoL, ISM) and the Institute for Black Atlantic Research (UCLAN) organised the symposium ‘History and Public Memorialisation of Slavery and the Slave Trade: Liverpool – Nantes’. The aim of the event was to compare the different practices of commemoration undertaken in Nantes and Liverpool. Both cities have inaugurated major projects to remember their slave trading histories, from the opening of International Slavery Museum in Liverpool in 2007 to the recent Nantes Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery (2012). Historians, artists and museum curators gathered from France, Holland, the United States and the UK to exchange ideas and experiences.

As a journalist, I was invited to speak about the Memorial to the Abolition of slavery in Nantes, two years after its inauguration. My report focuses on the role of the Memorial today, its utility and whether or not it has been accepted by the people of Nantes.

Iglika Stankova

First of all, I would like to thank Professor Alan Rice for inviting me, as well as everyone who has made this symposium possible. When I first came to Nantes in August 2011, the Memorial to the abolition of slavery wasn’t inaugurated yet and I was impatient to see the outcome of what was supposed to be the first memorial of its kind in France. I was excited, not only as a journalist, but also as a foreigner, coming from a country that was under Turkish (Ottoman) slavery for five hundred years…

The Memorial to the abolition of slavery was finally inaugurated in March 2012, after 12 years of negotiations, debates and polemics… Today, it seems like it is part of the city. It is included in the Voyage à Nantes trail (an annual festival of modern art), and most of all, it is the place where the abolition of slavery in Nantes is commemorated on the 10th of May. Nevertheless, two years after its inauguration, the Memorial is still a very sensitive subject and for many, Nantes has a very long way to go when it comes to facing its past.

I was able to get in touch with local associations, as well as people who were implicated in the project during a very long time, in order to understand the role of the Memorial today, to find out whether or not it has successfully shed light on Nantes’ dark past and whether or not people visit it and feel like it is now an important part of the city.

I would like to point out that everyone was very responsive – maybe even too responsive – when I contacted them. There were no cancelled or rejected interviews, something that happens rarely, and which shows that the associations and the institutions of Nantes insist on having their voice heard on this matter, especially when it comes to sending a message abroad.

What everyone seems to agree upon is that the Memorial to the abolition of slavery is just a small step in a very long and difficult process of unveiling the past of Nantes, a city that has profited off the Transatlantic Slave Trade and that was strongly opposed to the abolition of slavery. A process that mustn’t be curtailed, just because the city of Nantes has already created a Memorial or because it has certain rooms of its History Museum dedicated to slavery…

If there is anyone in Nantes who knows everything about the project, it is Marie-Hélène Jouzeau, Director of the Direction of Architecture and Heritage.In her opinion, the Memorial shouldn’t even be called a Memorial, because of the many Memorials around the world that are both museums and places of remembrance. Like the Mémorial de Caen in Normandy (France) which commemorates the Second World War or the Shoah Memorial in Paris. Marie-Hélène prefers to define the Memorial of Nantes as an urban commemorative monument (“monument commemoratif urbain”). Meaning that it’s a monument that is, above all, a place of remembrance and a part of the urban landscape – just like the “Tables mémoriales” or the “Cour des 50 otages ” in Nantes. She says :

“Commemorative monuments refer to a historical event, but they don’t tell the whole story around it. In order to understand the event, the visitors have to look for information elsewhere. This is why, two years after its inauguration, the Memorial cannot be examined as a typical museum or library or concert hall. (…) It also has a different form – it’s not a sculpture, it’s a very vast horizontal space. People have to pass by it to go from the Passerelle Victor-Schœlcher to the Anne de Bretagne Bridge. We see people that go to work, mothers with their babies or people who just walk by to go to the île de Nantes and see the Machînes.”

Because everyone can pass by the Memorial freely, it is very difficult to understand whether or not the citizens of Nantes intentionally visit the Memorial. This is why a counter was placed at the entrance of the Memorial in September 2013. It counts the people who go down the stairs and actually enter the passageway, the very heart of the Memorial. That of course does not guarantee that people who pass through the underground hall are there because they want to see it. Some have even told me that they just hide there when it rains…But even though there isn’t accurate data about the number of visitors over the past 2 years, Marie-Hélène Jouzeau insists on the fact that people have claimed ownership of the Memorial, that it has become a “living public space” which also serves as an important pedagogical tool:

“Many teachers organize visits to the Memorial”, she says, “which means it is now part of school programs. Teachers have told us that they take a multidisciplinary approach to the Memorial: it helps understand history, geography, economy, human rights and even art. Because we mustn’t forget that the Memorial is a work of art. Teachers can, for example, address the question of how artists work on public memory from an urban and architectural perspective.”

Michel Cocotier, President of the Association “Mémoire de l’Outre Mer”, agrees. This association frequently organises school visits to the Memorial: “The Memorial gives us something tangible to work with. It is much easier to visualize certain aspects of Nantes’ history, especially with the way the Memorial is built and its connection to the river. Students are left to read the texts and really think about what has happened in the past. This Memorial plays the role it was assigned: it builds a bridge between Nantes’ painful memory and the present issues of contemporary slavery.” Nonetheless, Marie-Hélène Jouzeau admits that there is still a lot to be done. The City institutions are currently working on attracting a wider audience and sensitizing the public on slave-trade…

For Rossila Goussanou, a better communication strategy is necessary. Rossila is a student at the University of Architecture in Nantes and has a strong interest in sociology. Her Master thesis focuses on the internal mechanisms of places of memory and she spent the past months studying the Memorial and people who go there. Her research has been approved for a doctoral thesis, so she is going to continue her work and maybe even publish it afterwards. “First of all, there are people that have no idea the Memorial exists”, explains Rossila. “This might be due to the fact that there are very few events that take place during the year[1] at the Memorial and that the overall communication in Nantes concerning the Memorial is very weak. But it might also be explained by the lack of curiosity and cultural interest of certain people.”

During the interviews she took at the site of the Memorial, Rossila was able to identify different groups of visitors: people that come a few times a year, alone, to reflect on the past, students, families and tourists. But there is another category in which Rossila believes a large majority of the citizens of Nantes fall into and which she will analyse furthermore in her doctorate thesis. She calls it the “non-visitors”.

“There are people who have no interest whatsoever to go to the Memorial. They think that the Memorial is an insult to them and to their ancestors. For them, it’s like twisting the knife, by reminding them of the atrocities their ancestors suffered. Other people consider that the city has taken too much ownership of the Memorial and that it has distorted the initial symbolization of the monument. For them, the fact that it is part of the major tourist attractions of the city is more than inappropriate.”

Most of the associations I have been in contact with claim that their initiatives and ideas are rarely if ever heard. Marie-Hélène Jouzeau disagrees. She says the City has always taken into consideration the associations’ proposals.She reminded me that a book is supposed to be published by the end of this year, a collective work about the creation of the Memorial of Nantes and its mission, “which will try to answer the questions that the public has been asking”. Furthermore, a letter has been sent on behalf of the new mayor of Nantes, Johanna Rolland, to include Nantes in the UNESCO Slave Route project.

Interestingly enough, the City is still thinking about the initial proposal of Krzysztof Wodiczko, the architect of the Memorial, to turn the “Maison de la mer”, or another building nearby, into a place for citizen action. As Nicola Firth points out in her article “The Art of Reconciliation: The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes” (expected to be published in 2015), the Memorial ended up with no physical space, because of financial issues.Marie-Hélène Jouzeau admits it is, today, something that is really missing at the Memorial site: « We hope that in the future, there will be a place close to the Memorial, a living space, where people can gather and where the whole story of slavery and Nantes can be told. As I mentioned earlier, the Memorial was never supposed to tell the whole story.” Whether or not the “Maison de la Mer” will finally become part of the project is still not certain. Until then, the lack of a physical space will continue to be brought up by the associations.

Anna-Karina Caudevilla is an active member of the association “The Shackles of Memory” and author of the thesis “The Memorial of the abolition of slavery in Nantes. A study of the process of rewriting history, identity and memory.” She says the fact that the “Maison de la mer” is still not part of the Memorial is a major contradiction to the role that it plays: “Space is powerful. Literally, physicality is powerful. I understand the fact that the City created a place for reflection. That’s fine. They also say it is a space for change – but there is no physical space to do anything. You can’t even bring a larger group of people together to do a workshop! Other Memorials in the world have spaces where you can organize all kinds of activities. Like the 9/11 Memorial in the United States.” As Krzysztof Wodiczko states in a conversation with Renée Loth (“Memory is a verb”):

“Memorials should create conditions for people to argue, to exchange opposing views, and confront their memories and their interpretation; [they] should become a forum for major debates, and actually multiply them and prolong them, and include more and more voices. That will be the best way to think of a memorial as a discursive place. Of course, a memorial could also do something to help people engage in projects that will ameliorate the situations. “

But for Anna-Karina, there are many other issues with the Memorial that have, in many ways, pushed people away:
“The Memorial is, to me, not an inclusive project. I consider contemporary art, in general, as exclusive. Symbolic ideas can be very powerful but for very select few. The writing on the plaques is exclusive, because it honours the Western written tradition – that of the colonisers! To me, it doesn’t respect the tradition of those who were enslaved. Talking about the past doesn’t always have to pass through written documents. If you want to touch people emotionally, you must use images, songs, objects. Let’s not forget that for some people it is not natural to communicate or feel something based upon a written document. They are not going to see themselves in that expression.” What is more, Anna-Karina believes the Memorial of Nantes today has almost nothing to do with the initial project of Krzysztof Wodiczko :

“This artist has never created fixed art. All of his artworks can be put up and taken down. And they move. And they change. That is the essence of this artist. He proposed something that could be all the time added to, embellished, changed, that’s why he wanted all these visuals, auditory elements, working spaces so there was always movement and change. But now he is stuck to this fixed project that wasn’t his vision in the beginning. This was not supposed to be fixed in stone. It was supposed to be a moving, working, breathing space.”

Anna-Karina even goes as far as saying that there are historical inaccuracies and that the committee in charge of choosing the texts hasn’t even taken the time to verify some of the information. It might seem far-fetched, but some philosophers and historians have also expressed their discontent regarding the texts in the underground hall. Louis-Sala Mulins is a Catalan essayist and political philosophy professor in Paris and Toulouse. For him, it is inadmissible to talk about the abolition of slavery without even mentioning why it happened and who allowed it. This, in his opinion, leads to historical misinterpretation:

“The Memorial begins with the dates of the abolition of slavery. It’s like we are telling a very long story, while omitting its first chapter. The one in which it is pointed out that the so called “industrialisation of slavery” began because of the royal will. There are no references to Louis the 13th or Richelieu, or to Louis the 14th and Colbert. The ordinary visitor may very well think that slave trade in France was some sort of act of banditry. The names of those responsible for the legalisation of slavery should be mentioned! This deep-rooted involvement of the law and the Crown in the slave-trade tragedy must be explicitly stated!”

The demands to fill in some of the empty glass panels of the Memorial with further information about the
instauration of the slave trade in Nantes has received some support. Louis Sala-Molins and the Collectif de 10 mai in which he takes part were able to send a petition to the French government, signed by famous writers, philosophers and actors of civil society. The Minister of Justice of France, Christine Taubira, who has
supported the project from the very beginning and was present at the inauguration of the Memorial, has sent a letter in which she states that she will be following the issue closely. Even so, the panels will remain blank.

Interior view of the Memorial commemorating the abolition of slavery in Nantes, France. Photo: D. Désir

Interior view of the Memorial commemorating the abolition of slavery in Nantes, France. Photo: D. Désir

Marie-Hélène Jouzeau explains this decision with the fact that the Memorial is a work of art and the vision of the artist cannot be changed – the blank panels of the Memorial are left blank because they represent moments of reflection in-between texts (Although, as mentioned earlier, the Memorial today has almost nothing to do with the initial project).

Furthermore, the Memorial is an international monument and references to French history would be contradictory. In order to find out more about the history of Nantes, people should go to the Museum at the Château des Ducs de Bretagne. It is, according to Marie-Hélène Jouzeau, the only European museum that displays the Black Code decree.

Dowoti Désir is a human rights activist, founder of the international human rights organisation, the DDPA ( Its objective is to help fight the scourge of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia, by using culture as a tool for influencing policy and bringing about social awareness. For Dowoti Désir, people who visit the Memorial don’t have to visit the Museum of History at the Chateau and vice-versa. She agrees that there should be a didactic text on the site of the Memorial that addresses the start of the slave-trade in Nantes:

“A state-sponsored monument that addresses the abolition of slavery without ever addressing how it began or the State’s role in slavery is a form of recidivism because it misleads people. It’s just inaccurate. The official, dogmatic, meta-narrative of the State is in confrontation with the memory of the people.”

Nevertheless, in her article The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery – Nantes, France, published in the International Review of Africa American Art, Dowoti points out that the Memorial is a very interesting piece of art, strongly connected to African culture:

“Perhaps unwittingly so, Wodiczko and Bonder conjure something most nuanced on the urban landscape, which is a private, instrumental symbol of an African world view: the Kalunga line of the KaCongo-Bantu spiritual system. The Kalunga line delineates the space between the living and the dead and separates the past from the present. As the memorial is situated along the waters that led to the death both actual and social of enslaved Africans, it is especially meaningful. It symbolically bisects traditional African epistemology from the European imagination just as spaces of existence were legally and socially segregated in the past.”

Even so, Dowoti is certain that the ordinary visitor would never “see” this when visiting the Memorial; he would never know how to interpret the space in such a way. She also points out the fact that the Memorial is decontextualized: “As a site of consciousness, the Memorial is a classically Cartesian space that masks the corporal, mental, emotional, and spiritual violence that was the European Slave Trade. There is no inherent sense of threat or anxiety evoked. It is a cerebral response to a phenomenon that was the single most devastating event suffered physically, socially and spiritually by Africans and their descendants. At the same time, it is precisely its pristine rationality that reveals the diabolic, cold, and calculating nature of an ugly, global reality that was endured longer than any other act of evil committed against any group of human beings, lasting over 400 years.”

Dowoti Désir states that the issue of decontextualisation can easily be solved by more organized tours to help provide context for the piece. “The community of descendants must also benefit from the Memorial. I don’t see why African descendants cannot be hired as docents to take people on tours and help provide context for this piece? They can explain the bigger narrative of the slave trade and Nantes role in the slave trade, not just in its abolition. They can tell more about the architects, their journey and the issues that came up as a result of doing this work and how people are continuing to respond to it. This way, the narrative and the memory of the descendant community won’t be supressed as much.”

Some associations have developed ambitious projects that are complementary to the Memorial and the Museum.It’s been seven years since the Association “Anneaux de la Fraternité » (Shackles of brotherhood) launched the project “Le bateau pédagogique” and build a replica of the Aurore slave ship which can actually sail in different countries and sensitize the public on slave trade and slavery. Because of the cost of the project of almost 10 million euros, the association has decided to create a smaller copy of the boat which would be assembled and unassembled while travelling different countries, this time by land, and where it will stay for a few weeks or even months. It’s called the Coque Nomade which literally means Nomadic hull and represents a travelling museum. Dieudonné Boutrin is the President of the Association “Anneaux de la Fraternité” and a descendant of an enslaved family. He says both projects are complementary and that they do what the history museum and the Memorial of Nantes cannot: « The Coque Nomade is visible from far away and it’s mobile. It attracts a wider audience. We decided to build this ship because thousands of slave ships were burned and people today cannot imagine what they were really like. The project makes history more accessible to younger generations, more palpable, so that they understand how much suffering people have gone through in the past and why it is important to fight contemporary forms of slavery.”

The Museum is dedicated to slave-trade history and raises economical, sociological and anthropological questions. Camille Niquin, member of the Association, is responsible for the project. She says it also recreates the horrible living conditions on the boats: « The Coque Nomade has a very unique museography. We use all of the 5 human senses. There are chains, ropes and cotton to touch, coffee to smell, but even vomit and dirt.” The Association has already been contacted by Brazil and the USA. Dieudonné Boutrin also points out that it is a great way to speak about Nantes and the Memorial and attract foreign visitors.But once again, for some, this is not enough. Franck Barrau was secretary general of the International forum of human rights in Nantes.

According to Barrau, Nantes should go even further: “There aren’t many cities in France that assume their past like Nantes does, that organize exhibitions or that have both a history museum and a Memorial to the abolition of slavery. But this isn’t a Memorial in memory of the victims, it commemorates the abolitionists, which to me, is a big difference. I think that Nantes has to lead a new network of cities that are trying to fight different forms of contemporary slavery, like Nantes and Liverpool. And let me remind you that contemporary slavery exists in Nantes. The history of slavery concerns all of Europe and fighting its modern forms is a national and European responsibility. It should be done on all scales. We have to create a network, not necessarily between cities that have been part of the slave-trade, but between any city that wants to contribute with their analysis and expertise to fight modern-day slavery. A great load of prevention work has to be done with the people – we mustn’t stop informing them, teaching them, warning them and so on.”

I have tried to show you different sides of the current debates that go on in Nantes today. And it’s precisely because there are many differences of opinion that the Memorial to the Abolition of slavery will continue to develop and serve all actors that have dedicated their lives, in one way or another, to the memorialisation of slavery and the slave-trade and to the fight of contemporary forms of slavery.

As Dowoti Desir told me: “The Memorial is playing the role that it can. It’s built, it’s there. Hopefully people learn something. Hopefully they are smarter and more informed than they were before they came in: (Emerging) With a more profound understanding of the nature of struggle and how people, black and white, during this particularly difficult period of human history, actually tried to create a more just world with the abolition of slavery.”

[1] Still, there are events that are being organized at the site, as well as exhibitions which normally attract the public (like the exhibition “10 strong women, portraits of women fighting against slavery in the colonies”), but they are centered on important dates like the 10th of May.

In anticipation of the Nante's permanent memorial to the abolition of slavery, community members created a red, black and white mural denouncing the  Transatlantic Slave Trade, a crime against humanity, and its continued structural violence and imbedded racism against African descendants. Photo: D. Désir

In anticipation of the Nante’s permanent memorial to the abolition of slavery, community members created a red, black and white mural denouncing the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a crime against humanity, and its continued structural violence and imbedded racism against African descendants. Photo: D. Désir

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