Bordeaux museum working to change narrative on slavery past

Models of former slave ships are shown in the Aquitaine museum's permanent collection called 'Bordeaux in the 18th century, the Atlantic slave trade and slavery,' 20 February 2019
Models of former slave ships are shown in the Aquitaine museum's permanent collection called 'Bordeaux in the 18th century, the Atlantic slave trade and slavery,' 20 February 2019 Christina Okello for RFI

Since 2009, Bordeaux's Museum of Aquitaine has sought to illustrate the harsh reality of slavery through a host of archives hitherto conspicuously absent in the port city's literature. It's part of a growing drive for the city, whose wealth was built on the slave trade, to come to terms with its past.


Closely shackled together, hundreds of enslaved Africans are shoved into the hold of a ship, their bodies glistening with sweat and filth.

The lights go out and screams of agony ring aloud.

The scene is from a short film retracing a captain's journey on board the Unicorn slave ship from Bordeaux to the Americas.

It is one of the features of the Museum of Aquitaine's permanent exhibition: 'Bordeaux in the 18th century, the Atlantic slave trade and slavery,' a harrowing 800-metre square collection told across four rooms.

"The aim was not to be sensationalist," explains Christian Block, the museum's curator, "but to try and get as close to reality as possible," he says, although acknowledges that slavery was far worse.

During the six to eight week voyage, disease, suicide and murder claimed the lives of between 10 and 20 per cent of slaves.

Human suffering on this scale made Bordeaux rich.

"The city's architecture flourished in the 18th century. For us, it was important to show how this wealth was acquired," Block tells RFI.

Unchartered territory

This was no small feat. Slavery, which saw some 150,000 men, women and children snatched from their homes and shipped across the Atlantic in exchange for sugar and tobacco, was seldom featured in the city's museums or universities.

It was thanks to a donation by Marcel Chatillon, who had worked as a surgeon in Guyana and Guadeloupe, in 2000, that the Museum of Aquitaine was able to offer a glimpse into the less luminous chambers of Bordeaux's past.

Still, changing the narrative on slavery, hitherto extolled for its virtues, would be unchartered territory.

"For a long time, people clung to the notion that because the Atlantic slave trade represented only 5 per cent of Bordeaux's wealth to begin with that slavery here did not exist. That is factually wrong," argues Block.

Its importance is represented through giant model ships in the dimly lit room of the main exhibition dedicated to Bordeaux's trade ties with the Caribbean.

"The city's direct trade with the Caribbean accounted for 95% of its wealth. But who produced the coffee, sugar and cocoa? None other than slaves. Not only did Bordeaux perpetuate the system of slavery, it benefitted from it," says Block.


Visitors, a mix of tourists, families and schoolchildren, are visibly moved.

"Some of these things, I have never really seen in that level of detail," Cameron Mooreland, a lecturer from Canada, accompanied by his two children, told RFI.

"A lot of the stuff...reading about it makes me ill," he says referring to a book, listing slaves as property.

"But it's there, it happened. We have to move forward and see how we can make our world better in the future."

Franco-Algerian teacher Nasira Sobsack reckons there is still a long way to go.

"It is so important to know our history in order not to repeat the same mistakes," she says, alluding to a rise in anti-Semitic and anti-black attacks in France.

"It is important to remember that before being a colour or a race, we are human beings, and we are all part of this world," she told RFI.

Celebrating black identity

The answer may lie in celebrating the contribution of minorities to society, pertinent as the city hosts Black History Month.

The final part of the exhibition entitled 'legacy,' a giant wall of portraits celebrating the lives of prominent and less-well known black personalities, makes the brave attempt.

"In this final section, we explore the legacy of slavery," explains the museum curator's Block.

"There were negative consequences such as racism, which remains a poison still today. However, there was also a positive outcome," he comments, pointing to the wealth of music and literature bequeathed by black people.

The foremost of which is French poet and politician Aimé Cesaire, whose famous comments: 'I accept my origins but what do I do with them?' are quoted in full view, posing one of the salient questions of this exhibition.

"Our work is never complete," recognises Block. "Yet there is a real desire among us to live together, irrespective of our skin colour."

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