French city adds info plaques to colonial street names

Updated June 12, 2020

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Protesters against police brutality and racism have toppled statues of colonial figures in Britain, Belgium and the United States.  — AFP/File
Protesters against police brutality and racism have toppled statues of colonial figures in Britain, Belgium and the United States. — AFP/File

BORDEAUX: As statues of slave traders and colonial figures tumble worldwide in a wave of anger against racism, Bordeaux wants to inform the public with a different tactic.

Streets named after slave traders in the southwestern French city, known for its red wine but also one with a colonial past, are getting additional information plaques put up but will not be renamed, a local official said.

Protesters against police brutality and racism in the wake of African American George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer have toppled statues of colonial figures in Britain, Belgium and the United States.

Bordeaux was France’s second largest slave port, and prospered off the lucrative trade, deporting 150,000 African slaves to the Americas from 1672 to 1837 and providing Europe with goods such as cocoa, sugar and cotton.

The city’s colonial past has left its mark on France’s ninth largest city and five streets are named after slave traders. From this week, their names will remain on the distinctive blue street signs but will be accompanied by an additional plaque explaining the background.

“It definitely resonates at a time where people are tearing down statues around the world,” said Malik Fetouh, equality and diversity officer for the town hall.

“Racism was born to justify the trading of human beings and the hierarchy between superior and inferior beings,” Fetouh said.

But Bordeaux preferred to educate people who read the signs rather than re-baptise streets named for the seventeenth and eighteenth century slave traders, he said.

The new sign for David Gradis (1665-1751) street explains that he had 10 slave ships and provided a plot of land that became the city’s first Jewish cemetery. A website with more information can be accessed through a QR code.

France’s largest slave port Nantes installed a memorial to the abolition of slavery in 2012. But there has also been backlash. A statue of a black slave commemorating the abolition of slavery was found covered in white paint in the southwestern city of Pau on Thursday, next to the inscription “white lives matter”.

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2020