Within moments of arriving in Guadeloupe, I was met with Anti-French slurs scrawled on abandoned bus shelters that lay beside an intricate, developed motorway system. Over the next six weeks, I was to find these red scrawls littered all over the country – the Creole graffiti affirming a bold and unavoidable statement – we do not want France or it’s supposed progressive infrastructure.
The divide between Guadeloupian natives and the ‘ethnically’ French, both nationals and tourists alike (mainly from the la métropole – Paris) was evident from the get go and simply served to enforce the disparity which fuelled the 2009 French Caribbean general strikes. Largely described as a ‘battlefield’, protesters railed against the high cost of living, demanding a salary rise for low income workers. Yet this ‘battlefield’ was far from confined to economics – what the world saw was reminiscent of a race war, a white police force against a black civilian population: history repeating itself.
At this present moment, the structure of the economy of the French Caribbean, in particular Guadeloupe and Martinique, still relies on the legacy of the colonial era – with békés, white French descendants of the islands’ settlers (or otherwise known as the islands’ colonists and slave holders) controlling most of the land and business assets. As of 2007, the Guadeloupian and Martiniquan populations were recorded to have the second and third highest unemployment rates in the European Union, figures that have undoubtedly risen in the wake of France’s most recent economic downfalls.
So, how does this all translate to a country that just a year ago invested 83 million euros in a museum with the aim of encouraging ‘social reconciliation’ between Guadeloupe and its past of slavery?
Inaugurated last July by the French president, Francois Holland himself, the Memorial ACTe Guadeloupe currently serves as the world’s largest site commemorating the history of slavery. Initiated and realised in 2007 by Victorin Lurel, the president of Guadeloupe’s regional council, the Memorial ACTe is deemed a ‘scientific and cultural’ achievement and seen by many to rival the métropoles grandiose Louvre.
The museum boasts a genealogy department where visitors can trace their ancestry according to their district and family name, a temporary and permanent exhibition of artists from the Caribbean and the black diaspora and is hailed as an architectural achievement that surpasses Caribbean notoriety.
The Memorial d’ACTe is without a doubt the capital, Point-a-Pitre’s main attraction for tourists, its magnificent quartz latticework exterior ‘paying homage to lost souls’, protruding over the skyline. Yet, despite the albeit moving symbolic connotations, the architecture sits in stark contrast with the surrounding debris; boarded up houses and shells of cars lining the route to the museum. This juxtaposition is the microcosm of Guadeloupian society.
The museum’s location of the neglected historic Darboussier sugar factory is championed as a reclamation of the black struggle within the sugar trade, and justified as a mission of ‘regeneration’ providing an ‘urban symbol’ to an otherwise slighted quartier chaud (ghetto). 70% of Pointe-à-Pitre’s population currently reside in public housing – but how many really make up the museum’s footfall?
It thus serves to question who really is reaping the rewards of this ‘diamond’ of Guadeloupe? Is it the local sorbet seller or the middle class Guadeloupian couple retired from la métropole? Speaking to the museums Scientific and Cultural Director, Thierry L’Etang, on the monetary figure looming over the museum, he was quick to defend the costs incurred attributing them to safety guarding the sites proximity to a seismic plate and the high costs of importing materials from France. These are the same elevated import costs that working class families face doing their weekly shop.
Granted, the Memorial d’ACTe has its benefits. A pedagogical tool with a multitude of children visiting every month on tailored school trips, gone are the days of a white-washed French curriculum teaching black children of their ‘Gallic’ ancestors. Children as young as four years old are learning about their heritage and their ancestors plight in a new and interactive way that rivals many of today’s computer games. Sensory screens are set alongside historical artefacts, cartoon skits personalising the histories of black pioneers within the abolition of slavery such as Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner. A painful and honourable history has been made technologically accessible.
But is this engagement enough?
For those more immediately affected by the atrocity of the slave trade, it is not. The museum serves as nothing more than an overzealous glittering fact file and as bold as it is, remains ‘cold’. For many of the nation’s older generation, what it overcompensates with technology, it lacks in emotion.
Whilst Guadeloupe remains one of France’s overseas territories, a reminder of France’s colonial ruling will continue to hang heavy in the air. And this cannot be amended by a ground-breaking museum. In bars, in neighbourhoods and on the street, whites and blacks have differing views to France’s role in Guadeloupe; the number one tourist destination for French expats or the ‘motherland’ and haven from France’s racial prejudice?
Alike to Britain, it is the middle class that are largely exposed to a cultural agenda, with museum concession entrance fees rarely reaching their target audience. Even with extensive source of knowledge on their doorstep, girls like Sophie and Shayna have never stepped foot into the Memorial d’ACTe, ‘We live here but it doesn’t attract me. It’s something of the Middle Ages, more for tourists, les blancs;’ (les blancs being symbolic of the middle class, the minority of the Guadeloupian population). In times of continued social and economic struggle, it is therefore a luxury for the black Guadeloupian community to know their history, or as L’Etang puts it ‘to understand themselves.’
Sam Morvany, a retired Professor of Anthropology believes in reparation before reconciliation. He gives me the analogy of a man who burns his neighbours house – it is not enough to apologize; he has to repair the house before they can reconcile. Morvany does not ask for radical independence but rather that Guadeloupe first moves out of being disempowered economically and ‘in- dependence’ on France; for mutual respect, the countries need to be mutually dependent on each other. The commemoration of the memory of the slave trade cannot inspire the future alone, ‘social reconciliation’ must go beyond artistic exhibitions. France must first accept responsibility of its atrocious colonial past, and acknowledge the social, economic and cultural ramifications of their continued ruling over Guadeloupe.
Hélène Selam Klieh is an English and French student recently returned from a year abroad teaching English in Saint-Etienne. She is the founder of Warwick’s East African Society and also writes for the online magazine, gal-dem.com.