Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Slavery and visual memory: what Britain can learn from France

The debate over Edward Colston’s statue goes to the heart of the visual politics of memory and history. What can Britain learn from France’s treatment of its slave-trading past?

Olivette Otele
29 August 2016
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Mémorial de l'abolition de l'esclavage. Groume//flickr.cc(by-nc)

Controversies surrounding the public memorialisation of slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston illustrate how Bristol oscillates between remembering and forgetting its slave trading past. There have, on the one hand, been several initiatives in the city since the 1990s aimed at raising awareness of Bristol’s historical connection to slavery. A major exhibition exploring the city’s role in the slave trade was initiated by local activists, academics and artists in 1999, and some of its exhibits are now held in a permanent gallery in what used to be the Industrial Museum. There is also the Slave Trail, and Pero’s Bridge, linking the two banks of the Bristol docks, and named in memory of the life of Pero, servant to 18th entury plantation owner, John Pinney. But on the other hand, Edward Colston, a slave trader, continues to be publicly honoured. Schools, avenues, and a concert hall are all named after him, and his statue still stands in the city centre. The mere idea of tearing it down meets with fierce resistance from certain quarters.

In May 2016, the annual debate of the Bristol Institute for Research in the Humanities and Arts revisited the controversies surrounding Colston’s statue. Prior to the debate, a three-hour programme on BBC Radio Bristol stimulated heated exchanges among listeners. They had been encouraged to comment on the question, “Time to get rid of Edward Colston’s legacy?” The answers revealed how current social issues shaped people’s perceptions of the past. Many argued that the statue was disgraceful because it celebrated the life of a man who contributed to the welfare of the city with revenues acquired through ‘human trafficking’. But some were unapologetic, stating that it was irrelevant to question the statue’s morality since slavery was legal in Colston’s time. Still others contended that European conquest saved the lives of millions of Africans who would have otherwise been condemned to a life of misery and tribal warfare. Some called in to deplore the emphasis put on the history of slavery abroad when the conditions of British coal miners two centuries ago were, they claimed, as appalling as those of slaves. “What about our own people?” one caller asked, while the radio host claimed that “Nigerians sold their own people”. Lurking beneath these words is the troublesome question of race, expressed in terms such as “us” often opposed to “them”, and in the assumption that Bristol’s “own people” did not include descendants of the enslaved.

Current social issues clearly shape people’s perception of the past

In Bristol, debate about Colston’s visual legacy is taking place at a time when academics, student movements, and social justice activists concerned with inequality, racism and nostalgia about Empire, are themselves debating how and whether to dismantle postcolonial sites of memory. But what is different in Bristol is that the debate is public, which is a strong marker of a shared history, and focuses very specifically on the visual representation of that common history. Some Bristolians argue that removing the statue will lead to forgetting the past (good or bad), while others argue that what happens to Colston’s statue is irrelevant, since what would really make a difference would be raising a statue of prominent black men or women as a memorial to the descents of enslaved Africans. Yet what can Bristolians learn from France?

Slavery and memory in France

Consider, for example, the argument that street names in honour of slavers should be changed. In Paris, a plaque indicating a street named after Antoine Richepanse, who was one of Napoleon’s generals and helped him to re-establish slavery in 1802, was replaced by a plaque that also names Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint Georges. Boulogne, the son of an enslaved black woman and an aristocratic plantation owner, was brought to Paris and became one of the most renowned musicians and composers of 18th century Europe. The joint presentation of both men’s names ensures that visitors are confronted by multiple histories.

There are few statues of people who were enslaved or of enslaved descent in Britain (notwithstanding the memorial to the Caribbean community in London and Mary Seacole’s newly unveiled monument). By contrast, after twenty-eight years of debate, the French city of Nantes unveiled a full Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery on Quai de la Fosse in 2012. For its part, Bordeaux chose both an exhibition and monument to acknowledge the role of people of African descent in the city’s history, with the exhibits of the Musée d’Aquitaine complementing the bust of Toussaint l’Ouverture located in Parc aux Angeliques. The city of Le Havre chose to transform the use of colonial spaces by telling the story of France’s past and its legacies in what used to be the seats of power. La Maison des Armateurs, for example, is now a regular site for debates about the history of slavery, colonialism and European expansionism. As for the capital city, Paris, a modest monument is to be found in the Jardin du Luxembourg, located near the Senate, and offering a reminder of the role played by politicians in first legally and financially supporting, then outlawing, the slave trade.

Beyond statues, France has chosen May 10 as the date of the annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery. The event is organised by the National Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery. It is an important date for the nation and the ceremony is attended by high ranking members of the state such as the president, mayor and education minister. Education has become pivotal to abolition commemorations in France. During the ceremony, prizes from the project La Flamme de l’Egalité are awarded to people for their contribution to enhancing their peers’ understanding of the history of slavery or for setting up initiatives that foster social equality and tackle racism. These initiatives are by no means the only ones, and they reveal how outreach projects and high profile yearly commemorations can work together.

France can be said to take a different approach to its historical involvement in transatlantic slavery

A way forward for Bristol?

All of the above show the different approach that France is taking to its historical involvement in transatlantic slavery (even if sensitive questions of social cohesion and white supremacy are still to be addressed in nationwide public debate). France continues to work towards inclusive viewpoints regarding its slaving past by tackling the debate generated by what I call ‘reluctant sites of memory’. By contrast, proudly multicultural Bristol is still struggling to find common ground regarding its own forms of memorialisation. The new Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, thus has a vast task ahead in cohesively integrating diverse narratives and expectations. He frames his own dual heritage and working class background as positioning him as a unifying figure, and he locates the roots of deep-seated inequality and racism in post-war migration stories. He will now need to connect these stories to a longer history of inequality and address growing demands for Reparations if Bristol is to break the vicious circle of remembering and forgetting a past that has been polarised around Colston’s presence in the city.

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