Correction to This Article
The article gave an incorrect title for the human rights declaration that grew out of the 1789 French Revolution. It was called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

In Bordeaux, a Struggle to Face Up to Slave-Trading Past

Karfa Diallo has been rebuffed in his bid to have the French town rename streets named for families of slave traders.
Karfa Diallo has been rebuffed in his bid to have the French town rename streets named for families of slave traders. (By Edward Cody -- The Post)
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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 26, 2009

BORDEAUX, France -- When pedestrians leave the elegant esplanade in front of the Bordeaux Opera and stroll down Sainte Catherine Street to browse its chic cafes and boutiques, the first corner they come to is Saige Street.

Although many people in this cosseted capital of fine wine and good living do not know it -- and do not want to know -- Saige Street is named for a family whose forbears were part of the slave trade that helped make Bordeaux a rich commercial center as far back as the 18th century.

Karfa Diallo, who migrated from Senegal two decades ago, wants to change that.

To the chagrin of many here, he organized a group, the European Slave Trade Memorial Foundation, several years ago to pressure City Hall to erect a monument commemorating Bordeaux's past as a slavery hub. And this month he set out to get Bordeaux to rename Saige Street and the two dozen other arteries that honor the families of prominent human traffickers of the past.

The campaigns have met with rebuffs from Mayor Alain Juppé and his team, who argue that the memorial would cost too much and that the street names honor families that, over the years, made many contributions to civic life. In addition, Juppé's administration recently opened an exhibit in the local museum dedicated to the city's slave-trafficking history.

But for Diallo and his backers, the mayor's stand reflects an underlying reluctance among most of the population to confront the darkest chapters of Bordeaux's past. The slave trade and its contribution to Bordeaux's blossoming, he said, present an awkward challenge to the city's cherished reputation as a paradigm of bourgeois comfort, exquisite taste and historical pedigree.

"They are so concerned about that image that they can't bear to talk about their slave-trading past," Diallo said in an interview over coffee in one of the preserved squares that have earned Bordeaux a place on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.

France, like the United States and other nations, has long struggled with the unsavory parts of its history. After decades of playing down the country's role in persecuting Jews during World War II, for instance, the government only in the past 15 years has openly acknowledged its responsibility; the issue now is freely discussed in French literature, movies and academia.

Similarly, the French Parliament declared slavery a crime against humanity in 2001. Since then, officials have more clearly recognized France's role in the promotion of slave trafficking during the days of government-subsidized triangular trade between Africa, America and Europe. Jacques Chirac, as president in the 1990s, formally condemned as "unacceptable" what was done to the thousands of Africans hauled off to work in the sugar-cane fields of what is now Haiti.

Bordeaux was France's second-largest slave port in those times, sending out about 500 ships to ply the slave trade. That was about a third of those dispatched from Nantes, which was the country's largest slaving hub, where Diallo also is trying to have street names changed.

Diallo, 38, who studied law and political science at the University of Bordeaux, said he first became outraged at the city's approach to that history during observances in 1998 of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in France. Hailing from a country whose Goree Island was the departure point for thousands of slaves, he was upset to see French people "basking in the glory of having abolished slavery," he said, without discussing their nation's role in the practice and the slave revolts crushed by French soldiers in bloody crackdowns.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was a triumph of the 1789 French Revolution, for instance, was not so universal that it applied to slaves in the French colonies, he noted. Although revolutionary governments criminalized the slave trade, he said, it was made legal again a few years later under Napoléon Bonaparte. And when Haiti's slaves rose up, their leader was captured and brought to France to die, while Paris demanded millions of dollars in gold from the newly independent nation as the price of freedom from slavery.

Diallo said that when he attempted to organize demonstrations to attract attention to the cause, police agents tried to talk him out of his plans. And when he went ahead anyway, city fathers reacted with anger, saying he was sullying Bordeaux's name by dragging up dirt from the past.

Diallo ran for city council in 2001 at the head of a nonpartisan list, but he and his fellow candidates drew only four percent of the vote. That was not enough to earn seats on the council, he said, but enough to win more attention for his cause among the city's 236,000 residents.

In response, City Hall named a committee of officials, historians and others to study whether something should be done. Four years ago, the panel recommended building the slavery memorial, which Diallo's group estimated would cost $3.6 million. But Juppé, who had been outside France during the committee's deliberations, was reelected and promptly vetoed the memorial proposal, arguing that it was an unwise way to spend city funds.

The slave trade was legal at the time it was carried out, city officials argued. In addition, Anne Brézillon, Juppé's aide in charge of diversity issues, said the street names under attack by Diallo refer to Bordeaux families of longstanding prominence, not just their slave-trading ancestors.

"It's true Bordeaux has a slave-trading past," she said in a telephone interview from West Africa, where she accompanied Juppé on a four-day swing this week. "That's a fact. You can't deny it. But with the street names, you are talking about a family, not a single person. The mayor does not want to stigmatize those families."

At the same time, Juppé's administration presided over the construction of the 8,600-square-foot exhibit in the regional Aquitaine Museum, which opened in May. Showing the city's history in this way is better than just erecting a memorial in any case, Brézillon said.

A guide taking a group of tourists through the exhibit this week emphasized that most of Bordeaux's 18th-century trade with America was direct, without a stop in Africa to pick up slaves. In front of a drawing showing slaves stacked in a ship hold like cordwood, she pointed out that slaves represented a large investment for ship owners and, as a result, were allowed to take exercise on the upper decks to preserve their health during the long journey across the Atlantic.

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