Descendants of enslaved, enslavers ‘break silence’ around France’s past

NANTES, France — Dieudonne Boutrin is a descendant of people enslaved in the Caribbean. Pierre Guillon de Prince’s ancestors, from Nantes, were ship-owners transporting those enslaved. Although contrasting, their families’ histories are linked.

They met in 2021 in Nantes, which was France’s largest port for transatlantic slavery, and have since been working together to raise awareness about the past and its legacy in today’s society.

Originally from the Caribbean island of Martinique, 59-year-old Boutrin moved to Nantes in the 1980s. It was only then that he fully learned about the true extent of slavery.

From the 15th to the 19th century, at least 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped and forcibly transported by mostly European ships and sold into slavery. Researchers estimate at least 2 million people died in the grueling “Middle Passage” voyage across the Atlantic. France trafficked an estimated 1.3 million people to the Americas, including the Caribbean.

“The more I got into the story, the more anger there was,” Boutrin said. “(So) I decided to put all my energy into paying tribute to these men and women.”

Boutrin is the president of the Nantes-based Coque Nomade-Fraternité, an association that wants to “break the silence” around slavery through education.

In 2001, France officially recognized transatlantic slavery as a crime against humanity but, according to the French Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery, racism persists.

Several cases of police using excessive force against Black people in recent years have highlighted accusations of systemic racism in the French police by human rights groups.

Boutrin’s association is raising funds to finish a 2018 project to build a replica of a 18th century ship that transported captive Africans enslaved by people such as Guillon de Prince’s ancestors. The replica will work as a learning center.

“People will be able to understand the conditions the captives lived in,” he said.

Through the association, Boutrin joined forces with Guillon de Prince, 83, to give guided tours that explore Nantes’ links to slavery. One of the stops is the city’s slavery memorial.

Guillon de Prince has always known his ancestors were involved in slavery as ship-owners, but he made the decision to look deeper into the past in 2015.

They are now encouraging other descendants to join a group they have created to continue what they have described as “memory work.”

“I feared this would be forgotten so I wanted to pass it down to my grandchildren,” Guillon de Prince said. “We will not solve issues of racism if the two (descendants of enslaved and enslavers) do not talk to each other.”

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