The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, France

memorial slavery
Mémorial de l’abolition de l’esclavage. Nantes (Loire-Atlantique). © Franck Tomps/LVAN.

The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery: Remembering and Learning from the Past

By Megan Mentuck

Nantes, France offers visitors a unique glimpse into the area’s past with their memorial to the abolition of slavery.

Currently, Nantes is the location for the human rights forum that takes place every two years. However, it wasn’t always this way.

Nantes: A Slave City

Nantes, a city located in France on the Atlantic Coast, was once one of the busiest slave trade exports in the 18th century.

GoNOMAD spoke with Agnes Poras who is a tour guide in Nantes. Poras was able to provide some insight into the city’s past—as well as information on the city’s way of commemorating this past.

Nantes vu par Patrick Messina 2011 © Patrick Messina LVAN
Nantes City. © Patrick Messina/LVAN Photos.

Prior to the 1980s, Nantes’ unfortunate history was not often discussed or mentioned.

However, sometime after the 1980’s historians really began to recognize Nantes and the unfortunate role the city had previously played in the global history of slavery.

By 1992, the first temporary exhibit dedicated to the country’s history of the slave trade opened up.

The Shackles of Memory

This exhibit, “The Shackles of Memory” played an instrumental role in educating Nantes residents and visitors alike about the history of the city.

The exhibit was very popular among people looking to further educate themselves, reaching over 400,000 different visitors who were all able to learn about the city’s history when visiting the memorial.

Following the success of “The Shackles of Memory,” the city of Nantes developed The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery.

An Interactive Memorial

The memorial opened to the public on March 25, 2012. Since then it has served as a tribute to the millions of victims of slavery.

In the years following its debut, the memorial has been a popular attraction for tourists and residents alike.

With the impact of Covid-19, it’s a bit difficult to estimate exactly how many visitors they had in 2020. However, in 2019, they had over 220,000 visitors to the site and they’re hopeful that this summer and fall seasons will bring plenty of more visitors.

Every small detail of the memorial is packed with significance relating to the history of the slave trade in the region. For example, its location on the Quai de la Fosse is significant because this was a place where many ships carrying victims of slavery departed from.

Mémorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, in the Loire Valley. Franck Tomps/LVAN.
Mémorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, in the Loire Valley. Franck Tomps/LVAN Photos.

There are numerous other subtleties that were decided on by the artists because of the meaning packed behind them.

The Designers: Wodiczko and Bonder

Wodiczko and Bonder partnered to design and plan the memorial. Krzysztof Wodiczko is an artist while Julian Bonder is an architect.

Their unique combination of skills promoted a successful collaboration between the two that allowed them to design the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery so successfully.

The two had worked together in the past on designing public spaces meant to memorialize some of the darkest times in history. Their aim in their projects is to inspire a more socially conscious public.

Wodiczko and Bonder were able to revamp a large unused parking lot to address the city’s history of slavery.

memorial to the abolition of slavery
Mémorial de labolition de lesclavage Nantes Loire Atlantique © Franck Tomps LVAN 1 1

According to the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery’s official website Wodizco and Bonder’s approach in creating their pieces stems from their dedication to the “advancement of democratic potential and the vitality and use of space through the creation of innovative, transformative and communicative works of art and design.”

A “Political Project” “Artistic Intervention” and “Symbolic Place”

With regard to the term “political project,” the memorial itself aims to fulfill many different roles. It is meant to encourage the education of the history of Nantes and in recognition of the city’s history, Nantes hopes to evolve as time goes on.

Put simply, one of the mottos behind the creation of the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery is to “assume its [Nantes’s] past, build on its history.”

Mémorial de labolition de lesclavage Nantes Loire Atlantique © Franck Tomps LVAN 4
Mémorial de labolition de lesclavage Nantes Loire Atlantique © Franck Tomps LVAN

As for the title of “Artistic Intervention,” the architecture and design of the memorial are intentional in every aspect.

It aims to acknowledge the city’s past and also the lingering toll that this past has left on the city and society on a more global scale.

Lastly, its existence as a “Symbolic Place” is readily evident in the memorial’s location of a former site of a port that served as a place for slave trade shipments across the Atlantic.

The Commemorative Walk

The Commemorative Walk is one way that visitors are encouraged to explore the memorial and learn more about its history at their own pace.

The walk guides visitors along a path lined with almost 2000 different names of slave trade ships.

The aim of the Commemorative Walk is to demonstrate to visitors the enormous impact that the slave trade had and the countless human lives that were lost because of it.

A Meditative Tour

Visitors of the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery can also take part in a Meditative Tour.

Nantes © Franck Tomps LVAN
Nantes. © Franck Tomps Photos.

Similar to the Commemorative Walk, the Meditative tour aims to further educate visitors and dictate the impact of the slave trade on both history and present-day society.

Visitors are able to view different walls which commemorate the victims of slavery in different ways.

One wall spells out the word “freedom” in many different languages while another wall displays different texts and important work from abolitionist movements around the world.

Visiting the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, France

The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery is not only an impressive architectural and design feat but also an incredibly important commemoration of the countless lives lost because of slavery.

The memorial aims to educate and inform visitors not only of the history of Nantes but also the role of that history present-day.

Plan Your Trip!

Plan your trip to the city of Nantes, France, and check out the city’s Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery.

The memorial offers visitors an interactive experience that allows them to explore the area and educate themselves as they do.

A visit to the memorial also offers the opportunity to explore the beautiful city of Nantes, France.

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