During our first days together in Guadeloupe, we’ve talked about who gets to tell a story, and how. We’ve learned a little about the slave trade on this French island territory, as well as how various groups of people functioned post-slavery. Throughout history, it’s traditionally been people with privilege who decide which stories are told. Omitting the horrific realities of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the experiences and histories of marginalized people, has been a popular method of silencing people without privilege. Thankfully, Guadeloupe is actively trying to honor the memory of the slave trade by setting up La Route de l’Esclave — Traces Mémoires en Guadeloupe (The Slave Route — Traces of Memories in Guadeloupe), which is a trail of sites around the islands that teach people about the history of slavery. This is as much an effort to remember the horrors of history as it is to not repeat them.
First on our list of sites to visit was Les Marches des Esclaves (Steps of the Slaves). Located in the coastal town, Petit Canal, 49 stone steps were carved into the foot of a church. Because of the period when these steps were built, it’s presumed that they were constructed by slaves.
Today, these steps are marked by plaques naming many of the names of different African people who were enslaved on Guadeloupe: Congos, Yorubas, Wolof, Fulani, and the Bamilékés. Near the church is a monument, the oldest in Guadeloupe that honors the slaves. A single word and date are engraved into the monument: Freedom — 1848. At the foot of the stairs, another monument if dedicated to Louis Delgrès, a hero who fought bravely against the restoration of slavery in Guadeloupe.
While the slaves who constructed the stairs in Petit Canal weren’t able to tell their own stories, Guadeloupe has decided that their collective story is important enough to share. This was decided both by community, country, and international leaders. It was an enlightened decision made by privileged people who chose to look at the uncomfortable aspects of Guadeloupe’s history. For us, it’s a privilege to walk up the stairs, look over the port below, and learn about some of the history of the slave trade.