Bordeaux was not alone. In France - which ranked solely behind Great Britain and Portugal in terms of the scale of its slave trade - the city of Nantes organised 1,744 expeditions, and the ports of La Rochelle and Le Havre were on a par with Bordeaux.
Before the triangular voyages began (they peaked in the 1780s), the boats departing from Bordeaux conducted straightforward two-way commerce with the Caribbean. Boats would carry wine, oil and flour, all of which would be exchanged for local produce.
With the onset of triangular trade, vessels would leave from Bordeaux loaded with foodstuffs, cloth, arms and trinkets which, upon arrival on the eastern coast of Africa six to eight weeks later (the “outward passage”) would be exchanged for slaves. The dangerous middle passage would then follow, with the slaves being ferried in inhumane conditions to the colonies, mainly Saint-Domingue as far as the Bordeaux ships were concerned. The death rate on board the boats was between 10 and 20 per cent.
Upon arrival, the (surviving) slaves would be sold or auctioned off and set to work on the plantations where the average life expectancy was a lowly five to six years. Meanwhile, the boats would embark on their return passage to Bordeaux carrying sugar, cocoa, tobacco, cotton and other produce, making a substantial contribution to the city’s wealth.
Until the mid-1990s, this inconvenient chapter in the city’s history was more often than not glossed over. But, in recent years, Bordeaux has begun to come to terms with its past, hence the unveiling of this statue of Toussaint Louverture (who also has a cul-de-sac named after him, as pictured above), as well as a plaque on the Quai des Chartrons acknowledging the memory of the slaves whose destinies were dictated by the boats that departed from that spot.
Another notable development has been at the Musée d’Aquitaine, which now has a permanent exhibition dedicated to the city’s links with the slave trade. Finally, in early 2012, the renaming of a section of the Garonne-side pathway as Promenade Martin Luther King Jr., in recognition of the achievements of “this emblematic figure in the fight for equality, civil rights and diversity” (in the words of the official press release), was in keeping with the municipality’s desires to wrong the rights of the past.
Many of these moves can be attributed in part to the tireless campaigning of an organisation formed in Bordeaux called “Fondation du Mémorial de la Traite des Noirs” (the Slave Trade Memorial Foundation, originally known as “Diverscités”). Other achievements include the backing of an authoritative book by the retired historian and teacher Danielle Pétrissans-Cavaillès entitled “Sur les traces de la traite des Noirs à Bordeaux” (“Following the tracks of the Slave Trade in Bordeaux”). Ongoing projects include a large-scale permanent national memorial in Bordeaux (which was initially green-lighted but has stalled in recent years), as well as lobbying efforts to raise awareness of street-names that refer to people who played a part in the slave trade.
In Bordeaux these include Rues Saige and David-Gradis, and Cours Balguerie-Stuttenberg, and there are similar examples in Le Havre, Nantes, La Rochelle, Marseille, Honfleur and Dunkerque. The organisation is calling for the street-names to be changed or, at the very least, for some form of clarification to feature on the street signs. The official line in Bordeaux is that the street-names honour families that have made substantial contributions to civic life over the years and who “must not be stigmatised” because of their part in the slave trade.
In any case, at least the slave trade subject is out in the open in the modern-day incarnation of Bordeaux, and no longer brushed under the carpet as it was in the recent past. It will be interesting to see whether I have to return to this article in the coming months and years to make further updates on the situation...
- Find them: Toussaint Louverture statue, Impasse Toussaint-Louverture, Quai des Chartrons plaque (opposite number 17), Promenade Martin Luther King, Jr
- Washington Post interview with Karfa Diallo of the Fondation du Mémorial de la Traite des Noirs
- Fondation du Mémorial de la Traite des Noirs website: www.diverscites.eu