|View of the port of Nantes before the Revolution (attributed to Ozanne Nicolas)|
The Terrorists of Nantes now moved on to the mass of detainees who filled the prisoners. As Jean-Joël Brégeon emphasises, the decision to carry out futher drowning was in part a panic response to the threat of disease and to the sheer logistic difficulty of feeding ten thousand "mouths" By this time the prisoners had already been concentrated outside the town centre, in the Entrepôt des cafés and on board ships moored in the harbour.
On 14 and 15 frimaire (4-5 December) a series of conferences took place which are reveal the anxieties which beset the authorities; all parties must have been well-aware of the two noyades of priests carried out clandestinely a fortnight previously.
On the evening of 14 frimaire Carrier, together with the principal members of the revolutionary committee, met in the former Chambre de comptes with representatives from the revolutionary tribunal, the municipality and the departmental administration. The immediate pretext for action was the discovery of a conspiracy among the prisoners in Le Bouffay. It was a dramatic meeting; according to bishop Minée a “horrifying bacchanalia”. Goullin suggested putting all the prisoners to death, a proposal which so horrified Phelippes-Tonjolly and his fellow judges that they immediately walked out. Robin, Carrier’s close companion, who was aged less than twenty years of age, supported Goullin, thundering against “moderatism, Feuillantism and federalism”. Carrier interrupted him to express his fears of “plague” in the prisons and plots among those detained. They came down in favour of proscription.
It was decided to convene a jury to draw up a list of those to be executed. The members sat for two days and two nights without pausing to eat more than a hasty meal of biscuit and fricot. By 5 o’clock on the morning of 15 frimaire they had compiled a list of three hundred names. An order to bring out the prisoners was presented to General Boivin, commandant of the city, who refused to execute it; Minée, in charge of the department, suspended it. Discussion resumed, but Carrier dared not force the issue. The following day, however, he wrote to the Committee of Public Safety detailing “the most horrible plot”, reporting the execution of the six prisoners involved, and declaring ominously, "A grand measure will deliver us of the others”. The stage was set for the noyades to go ahead.
Brégeon observes that there were two different sets of terrorists involved in actually carrying out the drownings. The first was the "compagnie Marat", one of the best organised and most militant of the armées révolutionnaires. The Marats already existed at the time of Carrier's arrival in Nantes, having been constituted by the revolutionary committee on 14th October 1793 with the approval of the representative Francastel. According to Richard Cobb, they they numbered about fifty men, mostly poorer artisans, many from the former luxury trades, They were paid 10 livres a day and took a colourful oath: “death to royalists, fanatics, muscadins, Feuillants, moderates of all colours and guises”. The majority had served in the National Guard during the recent conflict, an experience which goes much of the way towards explaining their mercilessness towards the "brigands" of the Vendée. Theoretically the Marats were answerable to the representative or the committee, but in practice they were difficult to control. However, they were more interested in plundering the well-to-do of Nantes, and participated in the noyades only intermittently. Carrier suppressed them: by end of nivôse the compagnie no longer existed as an entity.
The second group represented Carrier’s handpicked entourage. The chief instigator was Guillaume Lamberty, a coachbuilder by trade, distinguished by his ardeur against Vendéans and by his talents as an informer; Carrier had probably encountered him during his brief time with the army. His lieutenant was Robert Fouquet. Other individuals named were Laveau, Foucault, Robin and O’Sullivan (a Nantais of Irish origins) (See Brégeon, p.162-3).
Having been thwarted by Boivin, then by Phelippes-Tronjolly in person, the revolutionary committee finally got its way on the night of 24 to 25 frimaire (14th–15th December). This third noyade took the lives of 129 detainees from the Bouffay prison. Led by Goullin and Grandmaison, the “Marats” arrived at the prison and presented the concierge Bernard Laquèze with an order for the transfer of prisoners to “Bellelle-en-Mer”. Too drunk to verify their lists, they took prisoners at random, rifled their possessions and bound them two-by-two, employing a great deal of brutality and callous humour. Goullin tried to hurry them along by warning that the tide would soon be out. The prisoners were taken down river and drowned near the Île Cheviré just past Trentemoult.
The subsequent noyades are more difficult to unravel. They involved almost exclusively Vendéan prisoners from the Entrepôt. The 19th-century historian Alfred Lallié believed he found documentary evidence for eight further drownings. Gaston Martin, writing in the 1920s, verified only three, possibly four, more. They took place mainly in the pool between Trentemoult and Chantenay, styled by Carrier la baignoire nationale. Tales of “republican marriages” and the systematic drowning of children are almost certainly apocryphal.
The noyade of 3 nivôse (23rd December) is testified to by two witnesses, and alluded to in the records of the revolutionary committee, which refers to 850 livres paid for “gabarage”. The batelier Pierre Robert testified to “about eight hundred individuals” of all ages and both sexes, who were loaded onto two boats and drowned opposite Chantenay “as in the preceding noyade”. The carpenter Affilé, who was charged with adapting the gabares, reckoned about five hundred prisoners were embarked. Two rowing boats were attached to each barge in order to tow them out into open water to be scuppered. In their desperation some prisoners managed to escape and climb onto the boats, only to be repelled with sabres.
From 9 nivôse (29th December) to 18th January took place the so-called noyades des galiotes. Rather than being taken directly from the prisons, the victims first transferred to galliots in the harbour, where they could be more effectively stripped of their possessions. It is impossible to say whether there were two or three occasions. Pierre Robert and various other boatmen affirmed that each time there were two or three hundred prisoners, of both sexes, and including children; they were plundered of their personal effects “without regard for the modesty of the women” and were drowned off the Île Cheviré. Two survivors supplied further details. Jeanne Blanchard spent only three days at the Entrepôt, then eight days in the hold of a boat moored near the Sechérie. Then “men with great golden epaulettes” had pillaged the belongings of the women and made them get into a flat bottomed barge. At the last minute the sailors had helped her back onto the boat and saved her from death. Jeanne Chesneau had seen death at even closer quarters. Transferred from the Entrepôt to one of the galliots, at between five and six in the evening of the 11th January, she was herded among three hundred prisoners, bound in pairs, onto a barge, wearing only her chemise. She was rescued in extremis by a customs man who had hauled her onto his boat at the moment that the barge sank.
The final noyage, which was intended to empty the Entrepôt prison, took place on the night of the 29th-30th January, and involved about four hundred prisoners.
The total number of victims of the noyades is impossible to determine exactly. Lallié estimated 4,860, whereas Gaston Martin thought only 1,800. In all probability, says Jean-Joël Brégeon, the truth lies "somewhere between the two". Although Saturnin Depois, a guard at the Entrepôt, thought he recognised Carrier, and Lenotre imagines him watching from the window of the hotel de Villetreux, in reality Carrier did not take part personally. Nor is it likely he organised the drownings of children which Thomas and Phelippes-Tronjolly talked of at his trial.
The Third Noyade
Forthwith the hatch was closed and carpenters began to secure it with blows of the hammer; but in a last despairing effort the bellowing cargo piled itself together, writhing frantically, and gave the crazy woodwork so mighty a heave that they raised the planking of the deck. The ruffians hastily nailed rings on the panels/ and the order was given to cast loose. ..
The lighter, guided by Affilé and his carpenters, took the stream and disappeared in the night, floating down the river.
On the lid of this great gliding coffin, full of uproar and groans, sat Grandmaison and the men of his gang ; they were singing uproariously, to drown the cries of their victims.
" To Cheviré Island," commanded Affilé in a low tone.
Cheviré is a bank of low earth, the spit of which lies down-stream of Trentemoult, at a point where the width of the river, divided into several branches, attains 1700 feet. The lighter glided with the stream, towing two little boats, which the assassins would presently use to reach the bank. Rene Naux had just made use of one of them to carry an order signed by Goullin to the gunners on guard at the pontoon of La Sécherie to " let them pass." The lighter passed in due course, and was soon level with Chant enay. Affilé gave warning that the critical moment was at hand.
His workmen descended into the boats and prepared to open the ports to admit the water. But the uproar from the hold of the lighter continued to augment, and cries of " Save us! Save us! There is yet time ! " rang through the night.
Most of the doomed, heaped together like dung in this floating oubliette, had succeeded in unfastening their bonds. Thereupon a frightful scene ensued ; their fingers clutched and con- vulsively tore aside the planks, which, yielding, revealed a crowd of hands and arms, tossed in gestures of despair. The " Marats " were seized with alarm, and while the shipwrights, hacking at the planks, opened the ports for the whirling wave, Grandmaison, wielding his sabre like a sickle, severed these beseeching hands and writhing arms, plunging his blade into the gaps, and piercing at random his unseen adversaries, whose prison, invaded by the water, sank slowly and evenly ; its inmates on the point of suffocation, uttering shrieks of terror so piercing that they were heard even in the city.
The Loire did not keep the secret of what had befallen in this great sunken tomb even till the jaded assassins got back to shore. As the waves filled and silenced those howling mouths, overwhelming their heads and flinging hither and thither the bodies of such as clung to the sides of the lighter, one had remained desperately clinging and suspended by the hands to an opening of the hatch. It was the body of Julien Leroi, the egg-dealer [who testified at the subsequent trials]….
Julien Leroi was not dead. At the moment of embarkation, when flung to the bottom of the lighter, he had cut with his teeth the rope that still bound him to his fellow ; the latter in turn unbound him also, and when the water rushed into the vessel, Leroi, whose hands were free, remained chnging despite the terrible eddy. The lighter, sunk on a shallow, did not go down wholly. Her upper port remained above the water, which, finding its level, left between its surface and the deck of the vessel a space sufficient to allow Leroi' s head to rise above it. He could thus breathe, but in what a horrible position! We have his own narrative of that night of terror…. It does not seem that the poor fellow felt any great emotion ; the only thing that struck him was that he was still alive, and he gloried in the thought. All else mattered little to him. He says nothing of his sensations when the outcry of his fellows suddenly came to an end in that terrifying obscurity ; nothing of the dying men whom he felt jostle and writhe around him :he floated " for two hours upon corpses." At daybreak — the drowning, though no one gives the exact time, must have taken place after five in the morning — Leroi heard a boat pass and hailed the boatman who, without appearing either astonished or horrified, climbed on the deck of the sunk lighter, cut a hole in it with his boat-hook, and threw a rope to the survivor, whom he took on board his boat and carried ashore.
Leroi went straight to the guard-house. He was almost naked ; he said he came from Montoir and had been shipwrecked. The soldiers lent him a cloak and took him before the Revolutionary Committee, where he found Bollogniel, Leveque, Perrochaud, Jolly the deputy, and Bachelier, who was presiding. On seeing the poor wretch, shivering and dying of distress, these worthy dignitaries realised whence he came. "They looked at him and burst into laughter." But Jolly, whose vanity as an author was at stake, since he was one of the organisers of the drowning, took a severe view of this insolent fellow, this refractory, who had the effrontery not to be dea ; he decided that he should be " pitched back into the water." Bachelier, for fear of vexing his colleague, gave the order that Leroi should be taken back to Le Bouffay, and "led out" that evening with the others. But the eggman got off with a hundred days in durance on bread and water.
[The second survivor] Alexis Garnier, who had escaped before the embarkation, had made his way to Nantes itself, to the house of a friend. There he remained in hiding for three months, waiting for a chance to get on board a ship. One day, having been rash enough to leave his hiding-place, he encountered the turn-key of Le Bouffay, Joson Gerardeau, who seized him by the collar and dragged him before the Committee. GouUin abused him roundly. " What, rascal, is that you ? I used a whole candle looking for you, but you shall pay me well for it."
He was reincarcerated at Le Bouffay, and thrown into an underground dungeon. " Don't trouble," he was told, " we shall come back one of these days for you, and you will make one with the others." And they came indeed to look for him. But it was in the hour when the Committee, now muzzled, was cast into prison in its turn
Our intention is not to narrate in their tragedy the various noyades of Nivôse and Pluviôse, year II. That would only mean multiplying scenes of horror similar to those already described…. But it will not be superfluous …to group together a few features common to all the "noyades”….
We know the leaders of these forays. In almost all of them the share of Lamberty, Grandmaison, Foucaud, Robin, Fouquet, O' Sullivan, Jolly, and Lavaux is attested, these having as understudies certain chosen "Marats" — Durassier, Naux, Ducou, Richard, and Lucas, jointly with other satellites of hearty goodwill, hailing from none knows where, and who came to filch a shirt or a pair of shoes. Affilé the carpenter, appointed as a sort of engineer in ordinary to this staff of bandits, made it his business to manipulate the boats and engage the boatmen necessary to handle them on the Loire.
|Detail from an illustration to Prudhomme, Histoire générale...des erreurs..., Paris, 1797 Bibl.nat|
The craft intended for the " noyades " were, it will be remembered, " sapines " or " gabares," of the nature of tenders, roughly fashioned and ordinarily used as lighters to vessels of larger tonnage between Nantes and Paimboeuf, and having no other value than that of the planks of which they were knocked together. They were taken to pieces after each trip, and their price did not exceed two or three hundred livres apiece ; but they needed a certain amount of preparation before being turned to account for a " noyade."
The tradition has been preserved of vessels which gaped widely at the bottom and allowed their human cargo to slide into the river in a solid mass. This is a fable ; for at first, at any rate, the immersion was effected by means of ports pierced above the water-line, and which were opened in mid-stream. However, this plan had its inconveniences, and would seem to have been improved upon, while retaining the ports, by the addition of a plug. Affilé's evidence is the clearest on this point. " Fouquet," says he, " brought me four boats to insert plugs in them." … O'Sullivan also owns the use of " boats with plugs." Grandmaison likewise vouches for it. When asked if a carpenter had not contrived "a trap designed to send the vessel to the bottom” he answered, "That is so, but I had no share in it " ; and Laurence the armourer declared that he saw '' the trap opened on a ' sapine ' crowded with prisoners, and the whole of the poor wretches sent to the bottom." If we are to believe one of the witnesses, this contrivance worked automatically by means of a petard stowed on board the "gabare," which by its explosion opened the trap.
Boats with traps were thus employed, but this contrivance was not intended merely to discharge the victims, while keeping the " gabare " afloat ; it was an extra port pierced in the bottom of the vessel, and only subserving the more rapid influx of water. All the " sapines " used in the " noy-ades " were in reality doomed beforehand, and so little did they reckon on the opening of the trap to expel the heaped-up bodies into the river that the latter were sometimes secured by ropes and iron clamps to the very bottom of the vessel itself. Lighters and victims were engulfed together.
Moutier, the blacksmith, recalled that Carrier, passing one day along the quay of La Fosse, inquired where were the boats set apart for the destruction of the brigands. On being shown them he remarked, " That's very convenient."
For one thing, the small amount of time spent in these preliminary manipulations made any complicated carpentering out of the question. When a drowning was fixed, Fouquet, Lamberty and Robin went and bought one or more "sapines." These were usually supplied by Joachim Mary of Port Maillard, who under took to bring the boats round to the Cale Chaurrand, not far from the Entrepôt, where Affilé trimmed them up. All was finished the same day, and when evening came the slayers, backed by soldiers requisitioned at the neighbouring post, proceeded to the prison. The course of events was always the same. Fouquet and Lamberty, brilliantly habited as general officers, and with gold epaulettes, caused the doors to be opened to them, and armed with enormous bundles of new lengths of rope paraded the warehouses and barns crowded with prisoners, binding with their own hands those of whom they made choice. Strongly tied together in couples by the wrists and arms, the victims passed down into the street, where soldiers awaited them, drawn up in line before the entrance of the Entrepôt. Orders were given for the utmost silence. It was a very long business ; for when the batch was a heavy one, these preliminaries lasted from five to eleven in the evening.
The doomed victims took their places docilely in file, two couples to a rank ; peasants for the most part, farmers, labourers, workmen from the spinning shops at Cholet, some sick and scarcely able to stand, others still vigorous. As they had been allowed to suppose they were being merely transferred to Brest, they were not uneasy. Some even appeared content. The most wary showed their doubts of the fierce air of the whippers-in and the gloomy mien of the soldiers. All had prepared themselves for a journey, carrying with them their bread, baskets, and little bundles of belongings tied to their belts, or slung over the shoulder with string or cloth-edgings.
|Exploits of the Compagnie Marat, print 1794/5. Bibl.nat.|
The file, watched only by some National Guards, lengthened out at the foot of the walls of the Entrepôt, those in front moving forward as others arrive, and formed up in their rear. Sometimes it extended as far as the Sanitat. These poor folks complained of nothing but their bonds. When they saw Fouquet, Lamberty, Robin, or Foucaud going round, with candles in their fingers, they begged that their bonds might be loosened, for they caused them unbearable tortures. One day young Robin, infuriated by these outcries, was seen to rush into the ranks and furiously overturn five pinioned couples, whom he battered haphazard with the flat of his sword.
The signal to start being given at length, Fouquet passed along the ranks, tightening such knots as seemed too lax, and the herd moved forward in good order. Carrier came once to witness the march past and hold a review of the grim levy ; he wore a dark roquelaure and a round hat. His squeaking voice was heard commanding, " Quicken your step ! March in line ! " [according to testimony of Satumis Depois, turner]
When the funereal column was almost wholly composed of women, as was the case in Nivôse when three hundred female captives were drowned at one sweep, the scene was heart- breaking. These hapless beings were more suspicious than the men ; for they could not, like them, be duped with the pretext of a necessary transfer for the erection of fortifications. That day, by-the-bye, the sightseers were in exceptional numbers on the road from the Entrepôt to the quayside. How did the rumour spread through the city that women were going to be the victims ? No one knows, but certain people were always informed in good time of the place and hour where their charity might be exercised, and came to save the children. There were indeed mothers among those who were to die; with their free arms they held their babies tightly clasped. All lamented and sobbed, and when the slayers bade them go forward, their cries of despair redoubled ; they appealed to the spectators ranged along their path. " They are going to drown us," they cried, " and they will not try us ! "
Despite the arms held out to them in pity, many would not part with their children ; others, more heroic or more loving, gave them over to strangers. One of them determinedly flung her little one among the crowd. At once it was caught " like a ball " by a woman who cried out to the mother " “that she would take care of it." ….. Plenty of families at Nantes, poor and rich alike, thus gave shelter to little strangers who grew up without ever knowing who were their parents.
When the procession reached the side of the Loire, facing the embarking slip, a halt was called ; a gangway formed of planks laid from vessel to vessel led to the yawning lighter. The ruffians quickly searched each couple, bore off their ties and belts, turned out their pockets, and passed a hand under their shifts ; then they piled up on the quay the spoil, which later on they would gather together in large baskets, to be sold next day at the harbour….
The prisoners were pushed on to the gang-way, where a boatman stood, who in his turn snatched whatever he could clutch in passing, hats or caps, of which he made a heap in the barge. One of the soldiers having ventured on board and cast an eye on the bottom of the gabare, already full , saw in the welter of heaped-up bodies a man whom he recognised, still despoiling them and carrying off what little his fellows had not taken…..
The Galliot drownings
The narratives of these excursions, which have been styled "galliot drownings," are fairly abundant. Many of them emanated either from boatmen or National Guards, who had to be called in to protect the drowners. One of these auxiliaries declares that, the night he was on duty, Lamberty's vessel had some fifty women on board ; there were also children and some boys of fifteen, who were brought out of the hold one by one to be flung into the water. Julien Pichelet, whose evidence will be quoted at full length, for he owed his life to a whim of Robin's, was put on board the galliot with three hundred men and fifty women. All were summoned separately into the captain's cabin, stripped, bound together, and let down in their shifts into a lighter which had put out. Even this miserable rag — this shroud, more properly — excited the cupidity of the executioners, for on one of the raids, probably that of January 17th (Nivose 28th), the seamen told off to work the craft saw at first thirty women let down wholly naked. Roused to indignation, they ventured to protest, when the remaining victims were left their shirts.
Though inured to such frequent sights, these seamen were sometimes seized with pity. Oneof them, Colas Freteau, seeing them throw a weeping woman into the lighter, struggling and calling for help, was bold enough to suggest to Fouquet, " Citizen, let us at least save that woman. If you agree, I will go and fetch her." Fouquet gave vent to an oath. " Are you going shares with her, b…… scoundrel ? " he bawled.
And flinging himself on the suppliant he split her head with a blow of his sword.
Such was discipline on board.
On the occasion of another " noyade," while three hundred naked prisoners, with hands tied behind their backs, were being shaken down in the lighter, "a young man, singing the Carmagnole the while "—we seem to recognise Robin— struck off the heads of two "brigands," who seemed to be no more than eighteen. Their headless trunks were flung into the water. When the Loire was at low water the plan adopted was as follows : men were flung from a launch into a part of the river which was shallow, and if they succeeded in getting a footing, were shot or sabred by the slayers from boats. This carnage, which was witnessed by two Nantais, lasted an hour and a half.
At times also whether it was that the lighters were not forthcoming or for some other reason, the condemned would remain some time on board the galliot, awaiting a propitious opportunity for execution. In this manner a volunteer of the Vendéan army languished for two days with three hundred and fifty companions on a boat anchored within sight of Chézine. Did they feed these men, lying at death's door, or what did they do? On half a pound of bread a day, says a witness ; but most assuredly no care was taken of them. Berthé, the boat-builder, saw " a great crowd of prisoners " taken on board the galliot from the Entrepôt; they went down into the depths of the hold and the hatches were battened. When these were opened " some days later " eighty of these unfortunates were found dead of hunger or lack of air. They picked out sixteen of the survivors from among the most robust and sent them back to the Entrepôt, in order to clean their prison. When the work was done they took them back again to the galliot, which was found empty; dead and living alike had been flung into the Loire. Although the sixteen flattered themselves that they would be spared, they " made difficulties about going on board again," narrates the witness, but next day were drowned one after the other.
The system of separate immersion, as well as that of wholesale treatment in a lighter, had its advantages, but also sundry drawbacks. The latter, to be sure, was the more expensive method, since the vessel went down with its cargo. Moreover, when she sank in a deep place she blocked the bed of the river, but at least she retained the corpses, so that the turn of the tide could not carry them back towards the city, which was invariably the case with bodies despatched singly or in couples. It must also be noted that the " gabare " sometimes went to pieces on a sandbank and allowed its freight to escape. This is what happened on December 13th (Nivôse 3rd), at the great whelming of the eight hundred. They had been divided between two craft, one of which sank in midstream ; the other, dropping down, ran against the foreshore of the Prairie au Due, went aground and burst open. The victims, thus released, fled, tumbling over each other, among the rushes ; but naked and pinioned, they could go no farther. Fouquet and his men hastened in pursuit, and drove them back into the water with sword- thrusts.
It was therefore in the great pool formed by the Loire below the Prairie au Due, between Trentemoult and Chantenay, that the chief " noyades " took place. And this is what Carrier styled "the National Bathing-place." It appears that only for one such excursion did they take time sufficient to drop down as far as Indret. A very useless precaution for that matter ; as the constant action of the flood and ebb drifted the corpses from Paimboeuf to Nantes, and flung them upon the two banks. Stranded on the sands of the foreshores, they afforded pasture to the dogs and birds of prey. At Indret they gathered at Île Pivin, and on the embankments. The Commandant of the Republican Foundries caused " many women and naked men to be buried there." One barge even floated down stream as far as Lavau, and came to on the sands ; two hundred and twenty-six corpses were found in it "pinioned with ropes several times twisted, and which had undergone no change." They were interred five hundred ells from the village, at the foot of La Garenne Tower.' The riverside folk hastened to thus bury them. When the Conven tional Dubois-Crancé came to The Foundries "he had before his eyes," as he protests, "the heartrending spectacle of a crowd of delvers ranged along the bank, and were doing nothing but interring heaps of corpses." ' Testimonies of this kind abound ; those of the boatmen who phed on the river are not less eloquent. Noel, a mariner of Nantes, perceived on the bottom of the water a barge full of dead ; Boutel, a ship's captain, found half a score of bodies, tied together in a sunk lighter. A third saw a sunk "sapine" full of drowned women ; they were all naked and bound to the side of the barge — " some peasants unbound them and buried them in a great trench." Berthé, the boat-builder, testifies that the sunk " gabares " were " all constructed alike, and that the year after the " drownings " several were still to be seen in the Loire." One of these craft was sold as jetsom to a certain Bouvier, who, wishing to float it again, found in it the pes tilent remains "of a prodigious number of bodies." And many Nantais can still re- member having seen, some thirty years ago, in a shed on the Cale of the Entrepôt, a heap of human bones, taken from an old lighter fished out of the river by the men of the Ponts et Chaussées. The Loire did not cast up all its victims. People declare that one of Lamberty's "gabares" is still sanded up somewhere towards the Île Cheviré, and that its mouldered hull occasionally shows at low tide.