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Slavery to be remembered in French cities

The throwing of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour has raised questions on how French cities with slave-trade links are dealing with their past.

Calls for compensation

Economist Thomas Piketty, whose best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century demonstrated how the rich have been getting richer, wrote an article in Le Monde calling for a reopening of the debate on paying cash compensation to the descendants of slaves. He advocates a change to the present economic system to repair some of the damage done by slavery and colonialism Nantes, with its historic port and history as a centre for trade with the Americas and West Indies, was the French city which profited the most by far from the slave trade.

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Some history

Historians have tracked 1,714 slave-trading journeys which left the port from the middle of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century. Most used the triangular route, taking goods from France to trade for slaves and sell in Africa, then taking slaves across the Atlantic, mainly to sell in the French West Indies, and returning to Nantes with sugar, spices, rum and other products from the slave labour-dominated economies.

Le Havre sent 451 slave voyages, La Rochelle 448, Bordeaux 419, Saint-Malo 218, Lorient 137, Honfleur 134, Marseille 88, and Dunkirk 41. Eugénie Bardet, spokesperson for Nantes’ Memorial de l’abolition de l’esclavage monument, said: “It is something the city has worked with for 25 years – to recognise the role played by slavery in its development at a time when it was one of the richest ports in France. This wealth came from slavery and the terrible human cost of slavery.”

The memorial, opened in 2012, is on a quai along the banks of the Loire river which was a departure point for hundreds of the slave journeys. Bordeaux too has an active policy of explaining the role of slavery. It has added explanatory notices to streets named after people with links to the slave trade. 

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