Nantes is on Fire

When La Marie Séraphique arrived in Saint Domingue in 1772, she arrived with 73 Angolan slaves and the city of Nantes in her pocket. Purchased in January 1769 by Nantes dealer Jacque Barthélémy, La Marie was at once christened and propelled into the height of the French Atlantic slave trade. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean the West African coast and the French West Indies, La Marie captured hundreds of African men, women, and children in exchange for goods wrought by plantation slavery. In a matter of months, she would return to Nantes with sugar and other sweet luxuries, leaving the bitter truth of her dealings behind at the docks.

Thanks to the enduring records of her captain, Jean Baptiste Fautrel-Gaugy, La Marie Séraphique would go on to outlive the very trade she dealt in. A cartographer known for his attention to detail, Gaugy was said to have attended to the ship and its cargo with a kind of organizational obsession. Perhaps, this would explain his meticulous descriptions of La Marie. His elaborate drawings of the craft remain as some of the only artistic renderings of a Nantes slave ship. Named as if it were an angelic thing, these illustrations return La Marie Séraphique to the status of a cargo vessel — a beauty inseparable from the grit of labor. Drab and unassuming, the watercolors of her seem to have abandoned all richness. Even the blue seas are muted and industrial. La Marie is but a thing of tans, blacks and greys. Her vitality stowed away in the interest of utility.

Accounting for the ship’s contents, Gaugy makes little distinction between slaves and goods. La Marie’s business is one of storage and inventory. Property is no passenger. The very infrastructure of the ship articulates its strict order. Built into the main deck, an iron barrier bifurcates the vessel. In the drawing, the barricade serves to isolate the European sailors from the enslaved. White men are pictured as languishing in indulgence, feasting amongst themselves on the ship’s stern as Africans look on. An exercise in arranging and exploiting geography, the ship revels in its own might, relishing in its expansive capacity for captivity.

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In Gaugy’s outline, entitled, “Plan, Profil, Et Distribution Du Navire La Marie Séraphique,” he dissects each level of the ship and its purpose. The lowest levels store the goods amassed along the journey, products obtained through thievery or transaction, though few knew the difference. On the lower deck, above the inanimate stock, Gaugy depicts the arrangement of La Marie’s human cargo. In between these assortments of the enslaved, additional goods are stored behind dividers. Indivisible from objects, their humanity is disassembled without regard, their bodies growing increasingly unrecognizable. Black and stiff, they are stowed with cruel pragmatism — persons made into product. With their arms and legs fixed on a continuum, the bodies of African people line the entire deck. The bodies are indistinguishable. Constricted and sequestered, soon even one’s flesh begins to reject regulation.

Confinement breeds dysfunction. On the slave ships, it would arrive as dysentery and dehydration, known to decimate the enslaved by 15% upon arrival to the ports. By water and by force, the Atlantic slave trade dislocated humanity from land and limb for centuries. And where the French are concerned, the sheer magnitude of the trade rested on the city of Nantes.

Embracing the Loire River, Nantes sits on the western side of France, lodged in an estuary. Made possible by the Atlantic Ocean’s deliverance, it is a city that has known a coastal existence that it should have been denied. And with all its access, Nantes turned water into wealth. Over the course of three centuries, the trading of slaves kept the city rich and buoyant. From the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, France would organize more than 4,220 slave trade expeditions to the coast of West Africa, the majority of which were led by the ships of Nantes. By 1817, when the trade was abolished in the French colonies, Nantes would be responsible for 43% of the entire French Slave Trade. A small port with an intense hunger, Nantes’ insatiable traders would continue selling souls even after the trade’s illegality. In the end, however, the city’s riches would be spoiled only by their growing shame. For decades, the city, once ostentatious, would cower under the weight of history’s gaze. As the times changed, so, too, had their flourishing. The truth and wealth of Nantes became submerged in reputation, family secrecy resisting reparation. Once more, the city sent its sins to sea.

I arrive in Nantes in early July of 2018, and the city avoids eye contact. Yet the land and water vow to tell all of its business. A maze of uneven cobblestones and buildings that willed themselves to stand atop the sand, Nantes asserts itself through its architecture. Near the Loire, the elaborate, immaculately kept homes and offices of slave traders still stand in plain sight. Soiled by time, their stature began to sink into the sand. What remains is their bravado: across the buildings, carvings of stone heads narrate the wealth of their former owners. Busts of African faces protrude with old arrogance, a constant reminder of the city’s source of wealth. Next to this stone grandeur, the present modesty of the city falls into question. Polluting the sea’s blessings, Nantes’ own were once gluttonous in their ventures abroad. For centuries, it was not the truth of their exploits that merchants kept from advancing beyond the docks, but the enslaved themselves. The brutality of transport and the humanity of the enslaved, all but the fruits of their labors, were barricaded from reaching Nantes’ ports. Whether they died on ships like La Marie Séraphique or were sold in the French plantation economy, nearly none would arrive in the city that had financed their misfortune. Though the city ebbed and flowed in accordance with the rhythms of enslavement, few people of African descent would ever touch ground in Nantes prior to 1848, with few exceptions made for the slaves of Nantes’ most extravagant owners. Almost two centuries later, the African presence in Nantes is undeniable, yet proximity has only reinforced the city’s violent instincts.

During the only night I spent in Nantes, another black life was taken. On Tuesday, July 3rd 2018, 22-year-old Aboubakar Fofana, the son of Guinean immigrants, was shot and killed in a late-night police visit. A resident of the Nantes Breil public housing estate, a largely immigrant community dislocated by over-policing and gang violence, Abou’s murder sparked three nights of rioting. In the days that followed his death, thousands reportedly marched in the streets in his honor, holding signs that read “Justice et vérité pour Abou.” Police responded with tear gas and arrests. Allegedly, one of those in custody included a 14-year-old boy. According to police accounts, he was found with a petrol can and matches in his hand. The makings of a fire.

Miles from the riotous fires breaking out in the city, I would not see the fires kindled until I was in the wake. While scrolling through Twitter, I would instead stare at the orange flames overtaking the landscape of my screen and think of the people Nantes has forgotten. The ships it welcomed and worshipped at their expense, and the people today who threaten their barricades against memory. I wonder if there is beauty in resisting this rejection if there is power in knowing that even a city of water and wealth can burn.

Artwork by Sumit Mehndiratta “fire in the sea.”