The Abyss

Nantes’s role in the slave trade and colonial slavery, 1707-1830

16 October 2021 to 19 June 2022
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Still today, historians are unable to agree on the number of victims resulting from the transatlantic slave trade. With so many documents missing, it is impossible to arrive at an exact figure; and yet, the difference in final totals does not vary in terms of tens or hundreds or thousands – but in millions. How can a phenomenon so tragic and fundamental divide those who study it to such a degree? It would appear that the number – as staggering as it may be – does not explain the problem sufficiently.

Moreover, what would we ultimately know if we arrived at a definite number? Would we know how many men, women and children died during the wars and raids that led to their captivity? Would we have a better idea of how an entire city and its surrounding region could justify using the colonial system and slave trade as a means to accumulate unprecedented wealth? Would we be able to imagine the close ties between the transatlantic slave trade and the early Industrial Revolution? Would we understand, if only for an instant, how horrible it must have been to no longer be autonomous, to stop being considered human and be relegated to the status of a material good, to disappear without leaving any trace or memory?

The Musée d’histoire de Nantes offers an opportunity to hold its collections up to the light and reveal the invisible (but ever-present) traces of the men and women that were victims of the colonial system. Beyond the economic and commercial perspective commonly offered, this exhibition will reveal the complex reality of a city that was so deeply involved in the slave trade.

Simultaneously immersive, evocative and empathic, L’abîme presents the complex reality of these historical periods, while paying particular attention to the French territory. Visitors will discover the names of the men and women who lived in Nantes as captured slaves between 1692 and 1792, when they were registered in official documents.

The exhibition also echoes the great debates and issues of our time: migration, human trafficking networks, the development of new racisms, equal rights movements, and more.

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