Monu Esclavage Ak Saint NazaireMonu Esclavage Ak Saint Nazaire
©Monu Esclavage Ak Saint Nazaire

Monument to the Abolition of Slavery

Jean-Claude Mayo – 1989

The monument to the abolition of slavery of Saint-Nazaire was the first commemorative site of its kind created in mainland France. It was inaugurated for the Bicentennial of the French Revolution. Created by the artist Jean-Claude Mayo, the artwork is composed of 25-metre-long timber curves suggesting the ribs of a ship, and three bronze figures representing the steps of the abolition of slavery.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

and the Abolition of Slavery in France

Nantes was long a maritime port before outer ports closer to the open sea were used, like Paimboeuf on the south bank of the Loire estuary. The city was able to supply the French kingdom via shipping routes right along the Loire and its many tributaries. This made it a point of convergence for sea-going vessels and river craft.

Many ships involved in the slave trade sailed on the waters you see before you. They were equipped as slave ships by Nantes ship owners. Their crews were recruited from around the area, including the Guérande peninsula. The ships set off loaded with manufactured products, such as fabric, arms and utensils. These goods acted as currency to buy people captured on the west coast of Africa – in Senegal and the Gulf of Guinea – for the purposes of slavery. These captives were transported to the French West Indies and then sold. On the homeward leg, goods from the tropics, such as wood, sugar and coffee, were shipped back to Nantes.

In the 18th century, Nantes was the most important port in the French slave trade. It was responsible for transporting 550 000 Africans to Central America, or 43% of all French slave trafficking.

 

 

 

The ideals of refinement of 18th century French high society were, at least in part, the fruits of a slave-driven system of trade. Sugar, coffee and cotton were obtained mostly from the colonies whose economy depended on forced labour.

In this painting depicting the wife of a Nantes shipping merchant, Dominique Deurbroucq (of whom a similar painting also exists), success is represented by a black servant, sugar and chocolate, all features pertaining to the Atlantic slave trade. The parrot and leafy drapery evoke exoticism.

On 26 August 1789, The French Revolution established the notion that “Men are born free and remain free and equal in rights”. However, despite the wishes of French abolitionists, this principle was not applied in the colonies, where slavery and the trade in slaves continued. It was the uprising of enslaved people and free people of colour, during the revolutionary period, which eventually imposed the abolition of slavery. Following this, it was enacted into law by the National Convention of 4 February 1794. This abolition, though, was in reality only partially applied. Eight years later, the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte restored slavery and the slave trade by the law of 20 May 1802. The slave trade was re-abolished at the end of his reign, but this decision had no immediate effect.

Although illegal, the slave trade persisted until 1831. During this period, Nantes was still involved in this trafficking, and even regained its position as France’s leading port in the Atlantic slave trade. The slave system was increasingly contested, yet it wasn’t until the Second Republic that it was definitively and immediately abolished by the decree of 27 April 1848.

Between the second half of the 16th century and the end of the 19th century, over 13 million African men, women and children were deported to European colonies in the Americas and Indian Ocean under the slave trade.

In 1769, Marie-Séraphique transported 312 captives to Cap-Français, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). This watercolour featuring the ship’s deck plans, profile and layout offer an idea of how the captives were transported on board. This original document signed by slave traders is a unique artefact.

 

 

Printed fabrics, known as Les indiennes, could account for up to 80% of the cargo on the first leg of a trade voyage. The name of these fabrics comes from the fact that they were initially imported to Europe from India.

Few captive people were brought back to France. Those who were, were often young boys chosen to become servants for the purpose of social “prestige”. These people were no longer slaves, since all inhabitants of France were subjects of the King. They were therefore free while still remaining in a form of slavery as unpaid domestic staff. As soon as they arrived, these “manservants” and “maidservants” were baptised, either in the parish of destination or that of the port.

 

 

The records of Saint-Nazaire report three such baptisms of young boys:

  • Philippe, a teenager “of about 16 years old”, from Illinois, thus born in captivity on American soil, on 9 May 1728;
  • Jean-Louis, a child of “about 12 years old”, from Guinea, on 12 March 1750;
  • Jean Baptiste, “aged about 10 years old”, whose godfather was Bonaventure-Ambroise Lorieux, Lord of (La) Tréballe in Saint-Nazaire, on 5 January 1753.

From the late 18th century, a part of the European public opinion came to fight against the colonial slave trade.

Young Visitors

The Atlantic Slave Trade

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans developed a trade in slaves between Africa and the European colonies in the Americas and the Indian Ocean. It was known as the Atlantic slave trade since the Atlantic Ocean was where most of the activity took place. The term trade is used as the system was based on the principle of exchange as in commercial trade.

The main flows of people and goods formed a triangle, connecting Europe, the starting point, with Africa and the Americas, which is why the term “triangular trade” is commonly used. Nantes played a major role in this system, via its merchants who were responsible for this trafficking.

Map of the Atlantic slave trade

1

The first stage of the Atlantic slave trade consisted in exporting fabric and quality goods manufactured in Europe to Africa. These goods were sold to local rulers in exchange for captives, often prisoners of the wars among African peoples.

2

The enslaved persons were transported aboard merchant ships, known as slave ships, to the French West Indies and American colonies. On their arrival, they were sold at auction to plantation owners. These sales enriched all the parties involved, from the ship owners and their partners, to sea captains and so on. For the plantation owners, buying a human being was a long-term investment. The plantation economy was based on the cultivation of exotic raw materials – such as sugar, coffee, tobacco and cotton – which was labour intensive. Slaves cost only their initial purchase price and the cost of the food that they ate. Since their work was unpaid, owners were able to make great profits. Plantations are large farm holdings. They were the main activity in the areas that became European colonies. A colony is a foreign territory that a country annexes in order to take advantage of its economic resources.

3

Products like sugar, coffee, tobacco and cotton, grown on plantations on which enslaved persons worked, were shipped to Europe. The trade in these products, which were rare and expensive at that time, enriched many people. The French Revolution in 1789 allowed people who were opposed to this human trafficking to express themselves freely and lay the foundations for a more free world. On 4 February 1794, colonial slavery was abolished by law. Sadly, it was restored in 1802 and it wasn’t until 1848 that France put an end to this awful period.

Want to learn more?

 

Beginners’ level

 

“Pourquoi parle-t-on de la traite des Noirs ?”
(Why do we talk about the black slave trade?, in French only)
Youtube channel – 1 jour, 1 question
Free educational series from the French public audio-visual corporation

 

Intermediate level

 

La traite atlantique
(The Atlantic Slave Trade, in French only)
Youtube channel – CRHIA Laboratoire d’histoire
Pedagogical Innovation Laboratory on Europe

The Sculpture

 

 

 

From 1863, a ferry service crossed the estuary between Saint-Nazaire and Mindin on the south side of the river mouth. The number of estuary crossings constantly grew, with ferries transporting passengers, animals and vehicles. From 1959, double-ended vessels were used – such vessels are identical at both ends and don’t need to turn around to dock – until the opening of the bridge in 1975.

As part of the 1989 bicentennial commemoration of the French Revolution, an artwork was created by the artist Jean-Claude Mayo from La Réunion. The supports for the former Mindin ferry pier (known as the Ducs d’Albe) provided the base for his work. The piece, commissioned by Saint-Nazaire town authorities, is composed of 25-metre-long timber curves suggesting the ribs of a ship, and three bronze figures.

Here is what the artist has to say about his work:

“To be honest, I couldn’t really see what I could do here on such a subject. My initial idea revolved around a tree theme, but it wasn’t working for me. I was inches from turning the project down when I looked out at the river and spotted the Ducs d’Albe, the former Mindin ferry pier structures. It was love at first sight.
The first figure is hanging onto one of the blocks; he is in chains. The second figure is climbing up the side; the chain has been cut. The third figure on the jetty is a woman who is looking resolutely to somewhere else.”

Slavery Today

In most of the countries where it is still in practice today, slavery is officially illegal, but nevertheless still goes on. Throughout the world, millions of women, children and men are exploited in conditions tantamount to slavery, even though this term is generally not employed.

Human trafficking is the third most lucrative trafficking crime after drugs and arms. It is difficult to accurately assess the scope of this criminal activity in figures. According to associations, at least 200 million people are victims of enslavement at various levels and for various purposes, in 2021.

Since 2014, the Australian NGO Walk Free has produced a survey, every two years, on all forms of human exploitation, as well as a country index. The report, produced in association with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which is the UN agency for the world of work, is published online. Africa and Asia are home to a large share of the countries where the most “slaves” are found. Five of these countries – India, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Russia – account for nearly two thirds of the victims. Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand come next on the list. However, according to the NGO: “Modern slavery exists in all 167 countries covered” by its survey.

Slavery remains a modern-day scourge, and we must continue to fight to abolish all forms of it. This is the message, too, of the monument of Saint-Nazaire.