Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Facing History in Nantes

The semester is over, the year is new, there is ice on the ground in Lewiston (but, alas, no snow), and a new semester awaits, but before I sharpen my skates and revise my syllabi, several thoughts remain from Nantes. I developed some of these ideas in a presentation that Kirk, Ebbe, and I gave at an alumni event in Paris at the beginning of November, and it is to those ideas that I return again as a way of paying some tribute to the work we did and the experiences we shared.

It was a privilege to work and travel with these 25 students for three and half intensive months, to gain a sense of the ways that their lives and studies inform each other. More than in any other teaching experience I have had, I saw how interests and experiences shape what lessons individual students seek and which ones they shape into their own. I quote some of their work in this essay in an effort to offer a flavor of what I am talking about but also because they put some of these ideas much more elegantly than I. (I should note that students have given permission for me to quote their work in this essay.)

As a historian, I was thrilled to teach in Nantes because, quite simply, France has a lot of history. It is hard to miss this fact. As Max Arnell put it, “To be blunt, there is a castle sitting in the center of the city, and people walk by as if it was nothing. The University of Nantes was founded in 1460, and this is no great wonder. History is on a different scale here.” For others like Lewiston, Maine, native Kate DeAngelis, this awareness of France’s past was much more personal.

My grandmother has told me stories of how our ancestor Robert Giguere immigrated from Saint Aubin De Tourouvre in the diocese of Chartres to Beaupré in Quebec, Canada, in the early 1600s. I am constantly in awe wondering if I am walking on the same cobblestone roads as long lost family members and other people who have played their role in France’s history.

The personal connection differs for Raina Jacques in part because the stories are so much less complete. “African slaves were not allowed to keep their names when they were brought to Haiti and converted to Christianity. My last name, Jacques, is more than likely a name of a French planter that bought some of my ancestors during the slave trade....” This link was all the more difficult to miss (if still difficult to explain) because Raina lived near a church named after her namesake. “My time in Nantes caused me to try and understand the connection between St. Jacques and his importance for the French and Haitian people.”

These kinds of thoughts inspire others whose last names are not French, too. “Perhaps France is so inspirational,” Maud Welch asked early in the semester, “because we are eager to find our place in its extensive history?” I wondered that, too, and it was part of the inspiration behind teaching “Atlantic France,” a course that would introduce us to French history even as it also suggested some of the ways that outsiders like us might be connected to it. In Nantes, a former port on the Loire River, these connections often stare you in the face if you know where to look.

At the very end of October, shortly before students and teachers took some time for vacation and travel, I took students around Nantes on a short walking tour in search of some of the evidence of its bygone life as a bustling port. As a city at the head of the tide on the Loire, Nantes’s history is bound up with the Atlantic. Romans built the town they called Naoned because of its location between Loire Valley grape vineyards and the marshes that produced sea salt near the river’s mouth. The Dukes of Brittany built their great château there to defend this strategic port on the duchy’s eastern border with France. And at the dawn of the eighteenth century Nantes became France’s premier center for Atlantic commerce. The principal engine for this growth was the slave trade. Cloth from India and firearms from Europe purchased people from sub-Saharan West Africa who were in turn shipped to the Caribbean, where they were forced to produce sugar that was sold in Europe at great profit.

The class read about some of the details of this infamous commerce in Robert Harms’s book The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. As Noah Sleeper summarized part of the book, “The slave trade, built upon a supply and demand system that was complemented by the West Africans’ already existing history of slaveholding, allowed France to expand her colonies and therefore gain influence in more areas of the world in addition to the wealth that the resources of the colonies provided.” Harms had helped us imagine some of the ways that the trade worked. I wanted us to see some of its results in Nantes, a city whose merchants would be responsible for the capture, transport, and sale of some 450,000 people from West Africa during the 1700s and early 1800s.

We stopped outside some of slave merchants’ homes on the Île Feydeau. These opulent townhouses, now leaning more than Pisa’s tower as they settle into the mud, still retain some of their splendor from the days when they were the homes of Nantes’s most fortunate residents. Ground floors served as warehouses for loading and unloading the boats that tied up right to the quays at their doorsteps. First floors served as business offices and upper floors housed families and their servants. The branches of the river that lapped their doorsteps and made the neighborhood into an island were filled in in the early twentieth century, but the houses remain as mute witnesses to this bygone era of prosperity.

And Nantes merchants wanted us to recognize the roots of their prosperity. Above the windows and doorframes of many homes on the Île Feydeau are carved faces known as mascarons. Some of them depict gods and goddesses from Classical Antiquity who were patrons of trade, abundance, or the sea. Others are more fantastical spirits or demons. My favorites included four faces, each apparently representing one of the known continents. A turbaned man seemed to stand in for India; another with a helmet looked close enough to a Classical figure to symbolize Europe; a third with a feather headdress probably personified tropical America; and a fourth with clearly African features almost certainly represented Africa. Here, then, were symbols of the four continents that provided the wealth that made this home possible. 

Their quiet smiles, though, were deceptive. With these mascarons the merchant who built this house acknowledged the importance of international trade for his wealth, but he suggested nothing of the complexity of the negotiations with African merchants nor of the pain, the work, or the dreams of the people who were bought and sold. Some students had already recognized this disjuncture between beautiful appearances and more complicated foundations in other scenes in Nantes. As Emma Hitchcock described,

I drifted up the Erdre River last weekend [in late September], on a boat tour with my family, and was enchanted by the beautiful chateaux along its banks. I could not help but think…of the slave labor and tainted money that must have played a part in their creation and histories. The stories of the many slaves who played a huge part in shaping Nantes’ history are easily forgotten. Figures such as Gerard Mellier and Réné Darquistade [two Nantais politicians from the early 1700s who promoted the slave trade], who may have had brief moments of sympathy towards Africans but mainly reaped the benefits of their enslavement, are the people about whom we have the most information. Therefore, they are the type of people off whom we base our notions of what it means to be "French".

This is a huge point: It is only when we recognize the breadth of France’s interconnection to a wider world that we necessarily recognize the inadequacies of images of France rooted solely in berets, wine, and striped shirts. Destinee Warner understands this idea more broadly when she writes, “French history is in constant dialogue with history elsewhere, and this history has profound consequences for why French people are in a sense ‘French.’” Kathy Kenlock puts a similar point in a different way, “France needs to...be inclusive of all the cultures that make up its history rather than isolating the history of its past colonial nations from its own.”

As Kathy is suggesting, by studying a history of France’s connections to a wider world (connections that are frequently quite painful), we have the chance to recognize the much greater range of people whom we might see playing a role in French history, willingly or not. In doing so, we might, to return to Emma’s observation, expand our understanding of who we understand to be “French.”

It means, however, asking troubling questions about the pain that paid for the houses we admire. It means, too, that more of us, even those “from away,” have a chance of finding ourselves in the history of this country we are visiting. It also means that we can find new meanings in the homes we saw and the names we carry. Or that we can think differently about which parts of French history appear in Nantes street signs or chocolate candies or kebab sandwiches. It means we listened with more attentive ears to contemporary Nantais’ debates about the memorial they are erecting to commemorate the slave trade and also acknowledge their ancestors’ role in the trade that made slavery possible.

This semester in a place where history is so abundant but also so hidden has highlighted just how much it is important to seek inclusive histories not just in France but in the other places we call home. I hope we continue to look at other homes, including Bates, with similarly sensitive eyes. Wherever we write our histories, our searches for inclusiveness should not ignore difference but should seek, if I may paraphrase the college’s new mission statement, to engage it.

--Professor Hall