Franska Tomten

Gothenburg, Franska Tomten (the French Plot)


Peter Nylund

Franska Tomten, or the ‘French Plot’ in the Gothenburg harbor is a small plot of land that, as part of a trade deal between Sweden and France in 1772, gave the French free trading rights in the port of Gothenburg in return for the Caribbean colony of Saint Barthelemy, where the primary business activity was in the trade of enslaved humans through the transatlantic slave trade.

Today, the French Plot is what one might call a non-place, in the sense that Augé used the term to describe generic spaces, often places of waiting, such as airport terminals and bus stations. The people who travel through these spaces daily do not confer to them a feeling of place, nor attach any significance to them. The French Plot is a non-place that, for the pedestrian walking by on Postgatan, or for the driver steering their vehicle past Packhusplatsen, reveals no historical interest or significance. It is a place you simply go through or travel past. But it is also – and more assertively so because of its invisibility as a place of historical significance – a non-place that, if one knows what one is looking at, serves to illustrate a prime example of the general collective amnesia of Sweden’s transatlantic colonial ambitions and endeavors. It can also serve to illustrate what could be read as willful ignorance and a continuation of the very same paradigm in the country’s ongoing extractive policies, both domestically on colonized Sami land, and abroad in the country’s continued involvement in arms sales for war zones, which often affects former countries and subjects of the larger European colonial enterprise.

“Collective amnesia,” a term borrowed from South African poet Koleka Putuma, aptly describes this society-wide phenomenon, and can be seen distilled in the small plot of land that is Franska Tomten. The term illustrates the attempt to relegate to the proverbial “dustbin of history” a historical fact that, subdued by willful ignorance, is meant to be forgotten. Forgotten, yet never hidden. Rather, the site today is “coloniality hidden in plain sight,”[1] as the Transatlantic Shipping Co. building on the site does not make any attempts to cover up this history. With an imposing presence on the site, the building celebrates this history rather than trying to hide it. Adorning the walls both on its facade and inside its lobby are reliefs depicting aspects of the colonial enterprise, telling a story of adventure, conquest, heroism, and violence.

The last two iterations of the Gothenburg International Biennial of Contemporary Art (GIBCA) have addressed the history of this site in several ways, interrogating its connections to global capitalism and the larger European colonial project. So, one might ask, with this work already done, why continue to engage in artistic research in this place, where several attempts to unearth this history have already been made? Simply, it is because the work is far from done. But, to be able to take this research further, a change of perspective is needed. In engaging with this historical site as a non-place, the questions that need to be asked are: How is history playing out in the local present, in a city that is one of the most segregated in Northern Europe? What kind of actions can make visible and interrogate collective amnesia? And, what counter-narratives can be formed as acts of resistance, to counteract this willful ignorance and imposing amnesia?


[1] Sawyer, Lena and Nana Osei-Kofi “‘listening’ with Gothenburg’s Iron Well: engaging the imperial archive through Black feminist methodologies and arts-based research” 2020, Feminist Review 125, p.56