It all started when I saw a photo of a river with a cathedral and a few boats. I’m a sucker for picturesque scenery. I Google Image searched the photo and Nantes appeared. I had no idea where it was at the time, but naturally, I started looking for flights. Every year, I take my fiancé away for his birthday on a surprise trip of sorts, and I figured: this could be it! I looked around for flights and saw that Iberia (the Spanish national carrier) flies directly there and on top of that, it’s less than two hours away. The departure time and price were absolutely ideal, and just like that we were headed to Brittany!
Nantes is located in the Northwestern part of France, formerly known as Brittany and only has about 900,000 inhabitants, making it the 6th most-populated French city. While walking through this beautifully quaint city, with croissant crumbs all around my mouth, my fiancé and I saw a sign pointing to a memorial of sorts. My French is beginner level; however, I could make out that this site was dedicated to the abolishment of slavery. Naturally, a question mark appeared above my ‘fro because I couldn’t for the life of me understand the connection between delicious, cheese-filled Nantes and slavery.
We followed the signs expecting to find some giant, marble phallic object with an eternal flame and a sign along the lines of “Never Forget”. Boy, were we wrong. This memorial is more like a museum. It’s underground and right in the city center. Of course, my first thought was: “Dang, they must’ve really messed up big time!”
Nantes & The European Slave Trade
What we learned is that at one point in the 18th century, 75-80% of France’s slave ships left from the port at Nantes and in total, this tiny city was responsible for almost half of all France’s slave trafficking. There were over 4, 220 expeditions from French ports and 1,800 from Nantes alone which translates to around 550,000 African souls shipped to the Americas and Caribbean with French Guyana, Martinique and Guadalupe being some of the main destinations.
It’s rumored that there were so many Black Africans in Nantes during the 18th century that wealthy landowners gave human beings away as “tips” for services rendered.
I noticed something different about Nantes as soon as I stepped off the tram: there were African hair stores, African people and African businesses throughout the city including in high commercial areas. The Black men and women I saw on the streets walked with a certain sense of security, agency and yes, confidence. This is a stark contrast to the way Africans scurry through the streets of Madrid almost expecting to be annoyed by the prejudiced Spanish police force.
They wore bright colors, because being noticed here, unlike in other European cities, would not ultimately bring trouble or blatant indignation at their presence. In Madrid, people of color try to slide by and not make too much noise, because they know that the unfair stereotypes of our brothers and sisters weigh heavily on the minds and at times, cold, hearts of the majority. As if the memorial wasn’t enough: there was a block party happening that we managed to attend before our flight. There were food trucks and other vendors as well as a stage set up with performances by local artists. The showstopper, of course, was the dance battle. Young, beautiful, talented, and confident dancers battled one another (respectfully) while dancing to Soca, Ghanian hip-hop, contemporary African dance music and Caribbean rhythms as well. Although there was much to see, they weren’t a spectacle. In other places, people gawk and stare and eventually judge, and for some reason, the vibe here was electric in the most positive way.
This trip was one of the most memorable in my five years of living in Europe and such a wonderfully pleasant surprise. It almost brought me to euphoric tears seeing Black people walk through this European city proclaiming the truth: we belong here. The blood of our ancestors taint these cobblestones. Our bones bent to build this city that you now call home and you need to – read: better—recognize this fact. So yes, our hair will fly free. Yes, we will dress how we please whether that be in African or Caribbean garb or with piercings & tattoos or traditionally French. We are home. Look around you, and you see that our influence, our history, covers every square meter of this city and our cry is so loud, and so powerful, that even when you try, you cannot deny it.