Last weekend, I discovered paradise. A city of tiny strawberries and flaky croissants, buckwheat crepes and ripe apricots. As you’ve probably guessed, I was not in England, but rather its more-culinarily inclined neighbor across the channel. This gastro-haven, also known as Nantes, is in northwestern France, along the Loire at the confluence of two other rivers (remember this, it’s important). I was visiting my aunt, who spends several weeks there every spring for her job.
There’s another item for which Nantes is famous: the LU biscuit. A cross between a cookie and a graham cracker, this icon of processed food was the love child of a Nantes baker and his wife back in 1846. Their other child, Louis Lefevre, saw some money-making potential in his biscuit brother and opened the LU factory in 1890 (LU stands for Lefevre Utile) (“2017”). LU became a household name over the next century, and although no longer produced in Nantes, it remains a symbol of the city.
Food aside, Nantes is enchanting. With its narrow cobblestone alleyways, eclectic art projects– including a lumbering 40-foot mechanical elephant – and conspicuous lack of American tourists, it was a lovely escape from London’s urban jungle. There’s even a castle with a moat.
If it seems too good to be true, it is. Inevitably, this wonderland of castles and cookies has a backstory soiled by slavery.
I know I’ve written about these topics before, but I wasn’t looking for blogpost material when I paid a visit to the Chateau des ducs de Bretagne. Instead of the French royalty I had expected, I stumbled across the history of Nantes and found it inextricably linked to the transatlantic slave trade.
As I mentioned, Nantes is a river town, granting merchant ships easy access to the Atlantic. It was therefore the home of France’s largest slave port during the 18th century (“France”). The castle’s exhibit on slavery contains trade beads, model slave ships, and iron chains juxtaposed with an example of a merchant’s sitting room. The opulent décor makes no effort to hide its origins; a wooden figurine of an African man doubles as a snuffbox, a portrait on the wall depicts a wealthy woman piercing the ear of a slave. The link between slavery and wealth is painfully explicit.
The same cannot be said today. During the French revolution, Nantes was reluctant to abolish the slave trade. Even after slavery officially became illegal in 1818, the city continued to send out ships over the next decade (“France”). I can only guess that its subsequent success as an industrial city was largely financed by black gold. Is this what made possible the LU factory, for instance? I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume that the romance of Nantes today, including its nostalgic LU paraphernalia, can be traced back to its slave port past. However, when Nantes proposed an exhibition on slavery back in 1984, the mayor and local families (descended from slave traders) shut down the plans (Simons). Not until 2012 did a memorial to the abolition of slavery open along the quay (“Memorial”).
Too often, slavery is considered an ugly relic of the past. When our program visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, however, we saw that the legacy of slavery persists today in the wealth of developed nations throughout Europe and North America. Props to Nantes for acknowledging its history, but no museum or memorial can fully account for the effects of that history on the present.
I’ve begun to wonder if this fact complicates our privileged role as tourists and travelers. Can we admire these beautiful cities while maintaining a blind eye to the sordid past that makes them so attractive? Or do we have a moral imperative to look at the cute cookies and winding river with a critical eye, not shying away from the stories they tell?
As I near the end of both my time in Europe and this blog post, I don’t have a tidy answer. Still, I’ve learned that although history may be hidden, it never dies. We don’t need to look hard, however, to see that the issues we’ve discussed – slavery, colonialism, race relations – are not confined to museums and memorials alone, but rather pervade our present-day environments and experiences.
~Grace Johnson, ’18
“France.” Port Cities-Bristol. Discovering Bristol, n.d. Web. 26 May 2017.
“Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes.” France. France.fr, n.d. Web. 26 May 2017.
Simons, Marlise. “Nantes Journal; Unhappily, a Port Confronts Its Past: Slave Trade.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Dec. 1993. Web. 26 May 2017.
“2017 Fact Sheet.” La Vie En LU. Mondelez International, 2017. Web. 26 May 2017.