Mapping Memories of Enslavement (MMOE) is an AHRC-funded project awarded through the Leadership Fellowship scheme. It examines how activists, cultural institutions and government-linked groups based in France and the overseas departments of Martinique, Guadeloupe and La Réunion are engaging with France’s historical involvement in the enslavement of peoples of African descent and how this history continues to adversely affect contemporary society. This project’s website features an interactive Map that provides a fully searchable database which allows users to search for activist networks and cultural sites within the French Republic. It displays both the geographical location of individual associations, groups and cultural sites, and catalogues detailed information about each group or site, such as their history, aims and objectives, links to their websites, contact details and media articles, as well as connections to other activists.
Aims and objectives
1. To address the urgent need to provide activists with access to information about other activists working in similar areas of interest across geographically diverse locations.
2. To serve as an important resource connecting academics and activists, enabling users to find and forge connections between geographically, ideologically and politically divergent groups.
3. To offer a gateway to the work of associations and cultural institutions, allowing users to explore multiple approaches to memory and activism.
To achieve these aims, we have created a fully searchable online map and database for use by activists, researchers and other professionals. In addition to providing a wealth of useful information, its purpose is to encourage collaborations among a broad network of practitioners from both academic and non-academic backgrounds. In doing so, it aims to connect communities across a wide geographical area, while contributing positively to the policies and practices underpinning memories of enslavement in contemporary France.
In 1998, France commemorated its 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery (27 April 1848). This event saw France celebrating the Republic’s role in abolishing slavery in its former Caribbean- and Indian Ocean-based slave colonies. This event, however, did not see any official acknowledgment of the role played by the enslaved in their own emancipation, nor did it include any attempt to apologize for the French state’s responsibility in having transported well over 1.2 million Africans to its slave colonies between 1635 and 1818 when the slave trade was formally abolished. In contrast to the official state-led commemoration, on 23 May over one hundred associations joined forces to organize a silent march in Paris to honour the memory of the enslaved. This important gathering was the culmination of many years of social activism led by citizen groups or associations.
Long before 1998, associations had been taking steps at a local level to recognize both France’s history of slavery and honour key figures among the enslaved population who had revolted against the inhumanity of slavery. For example, in 1989, the association Cifordom inaugurated a statue of the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture in the Parisian commune of Massy. While in 1992, a group of Afro-descendants, who would form the Association pour la Sauvegarde des Droits Nationaux des Peuples de Guadeloupe, Guyane et Martinique (Association for the Protection of the Rights of the People of Guadeloupe, Guyana and Martinique), demanded that slavery and the slave trade be recognized as crimes against humanity.
The silent march in Paris brought these and many other collective efforts together, marking an exceptional event that was attended by 40,000 people, mostly from the overseas departments. It resulted in the collection of 10,000 signatures that were used to petition the French government to recognize the criminal nature of its historical involvement in slavery and the slave trade. This formed the basis of the landmark ‘Taubira Law’ that in 2001 retrospectively recognized the transoceanic slave trades and slavery as ‘crimes against humanity’, and in this way broke the institutional silence that had long favoured the more celebratory history of abolitionism. Named after its architect, the former Socialist Minister for Justice, Christiane Taubira, the so-called Taubira law committed the Republic to overcoming its refusal to confront its slaving past. Importantly, however, it was France’s associations that were the initial driving force behind political attempts to engage in the nation’s history of slavery.
Since passing this law, tentative steps have been taken by the French state to begin incorporating memories of slavery into its national narrative. In 2004, the government set up a largely voluntary and advisory Comité pour la mémoire de l’esclavage (Committee for the Memory of Slavery), which advises, for example, on changes to the national school curriculum and successfully oversaw the creation of a National Day for the Remembrance of Slavery, the Slave Trade and their Abolitions (10 May 2006–). Yet, the majority of work continues to take place at local or regional levels, with projects being driven by activist groups with little or no government support, or local government authorities and cultural institutions. These important processes are gradually acknowledging a history that connects France directly to its overseas departments in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. Collectively, they work to recognize the history of slavery and revalorize communities descended from those who were enslaved. Importantly, they connect the past to the present by engaging with the nefarious effects of that history upon contemporary French society, most notably the different forms of socio-economic and racial discrimination that continue to affect black communities living in France. By foregrounding the complexity and rich variety of this work, this project seeks to contribute to that long history of social activism that seeks recognition for a crime against humanity that continues to impact upon society today.