Thursday, 22 October 2015

Guillaume Delorme, black sans-culotte

October  - at least in the UK  - is "Black History Month".  I have been casting around for a suitable subject.  Pierre Bardin, an expert on the French Caribbean and biographer of the Chevalier de Saint-George, has recently pieced together what little is known about the black sans-culotte Guillaume Delorme, who is an interesting and equivocal figure.  This summary is based mainly on his researches.

In Sept 1777 all negroes and mulattos in the juridiction of the Amirauté de France were obliged to declare their presence. There were 309 declarations in total for 1777, among them, on 22nd September:
Guillaume Delorme, mulatto, free man, born in Le Cap, aged about 20-and-a-half years, baptised.  Left Le Cap in 1761 on a ship destined for Bordeaux which was taken by the English in 1762, and then arrived at Le Havre in the same year on an English packet.  Exercises the profession of carpenter/coachmaker. Living in the rue Beaubourg, in the parish of St. Merry, at the house of sieur France, a wine merchant.

In 1778 he is again listed,at the same address. By 1783 he had moved to the cul-de-sac St.Sébastien.
The Répertoire du personnel sectionnaire parisien de l’an 2 (Soboul and Monnier,1985) adds a few further details. Delorme was resident in Paris from 1774 and  was a master carpenter and coachmaker. During the Revolutionary years he also worked as a contractor building military carriages for the  Armée du Nord.  He was paying 35 livres in taxation in 1791, which suggests that he was comparatively well-off among the artisans of the Saint-Antoine district.

Nothing is known of Delorme's early years.  He was later closely associated with the radical Revolutionary Louis Fournier, "l'Américain" and it was often said (assumed?) that Fournier had originally arrived with him from St Domingue. If so, the circumstances are not clear; Delorme had arrived as a child in 1762 whereas Fournier returned to France only in 1783. At his trial Delorme claimed to have been a soldier "since 1760" so perhaps he had been part of a military contingent. What is certain - and remarkable - is that Delorme had lived without formality in France for fifteen years, become a skilled artisan, even a master craftsman, and integrated successfully into Parisian society.

Physical descriptions of the man come down to us only in 19th century publications, but, even so,  they preserve a convincing memory of his considerable physical presence and huge energy, - as well as his evident capacity for violence.  He was "a Hercules",  1.85 metres (5 pieds 8 pouces) in height, "capable of bending an iron bar across his knee" and "a  powerful fellow" with "a large face and considerable girth" as befitted a wheelwright.

Like his artisan neighbours in the  Faubourg St. Antoine, Delorme embraced the Revolution with enthusiasm. He participated in the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789 - he is listed as "Delorme" on the official roll of Vainqueurs.  He joined the Parisian National Guard on 20 August 1789.  Pierre Bardin identifies him as the "De Lorme" who signed a Cahiers de Doléances  drawn up on behalf of the American colonists in November 1789; this time his address is given as rue du Pont aux Choux in the parish of St. Nicolas-des-Champs.

September massacres

In the massacres of the opening days of September 1792, Delorme's name is often mentioned among the chief perpetrators along with Charlat, the assassin of the princesse de Lamballe and the butcher Allaigre who killed "for the simple pleasure of killing". Larmartine credits him with murdering two hundred people in two days and nights and provides a lurid description of  his bare bronze torso, reddened with blood.  He is often accused of having stripped the body of the princess,  its whiteness contrasting provocatively with his own black complexion. ( The Secret Memoirs of the Princess Lamballe  claims intriguingly that the death blow was delivered by "a mulatto whom she had caused to be baptised, educated and maintained but whom, from ill-conduct, she had latterly excluded from her presence". (p.327-8) Without any other evidence it is hard to make any sense of this, though it seems inherently unlikely that Delorme had ever come into previous contact with the princess.)  Here is the relevant passage from Lamartine:

Santerre and his detachments had the utmost difficulty in driving back to their foul dens these hordes, greedy for carnage - men who, living on crime for seven days, drinking quantities of wine mingled with gunpowder, intoxicated with the fumes of blood, had become excited to such a pitch of physical insanity that they were unable to take repose.  The fever of extermination wholly absorbed them. Some of them, marked down with disgust by their neighbours, left their abodes and enrolled as volunteers, or, insatiable for crime, joined bands of assassins going to Orleans, Lyons, Meaux, Rheims, Versailles, to continue the proscriptions of Paris.  Among these were Charlot, Grizon, Hamin, the weaver Rodi, Henriot, the journeyman butcher Alaigre, and a negro named Delorme, brought to Paris by Fournier l'American.  This black, untiring in murder, killed with his own hands more than two hundred prisoners during the three days and three nights of this fearful slaughter, with no cessation beyond the brief space he allowed himself to recruit his strength with wine.  His shirt fastened round his waist, left his trunk bare, his hideous features, his black skin red with splashes of blood, his bursts of savage laughter displayed his large white teeth at every death-blow he dealt, made this man the symbol of murder and the avenger of his race.   It was one blood exhausting another;  extermination punishing the European for his attempts on Africa.  This negro, who was invariably seen with a head recently cut off in his hand, during all the popular convulsions of the Revolution, was two years afterwards arrested during the days of Prairial, carrying at the end of a pike the head of Féraud, the deputy, and died at last the death he had so frequently inflicted upon others.Larmartine, History of the Girondists,  Book 25, chpt 20:

Gaetano Ferri, Death of the princess de Lamballe 1792 
Turin, Musée Civique  (detail)

Although Fournier was incarcerated  in the Abbaye prison from February 1794 to September 1795, Delorme  remained unmolested and continued to take an active part in Revolutionary movements. On 9th Thermidor, he was recorded as  commander of the Popincourt Section gunners when they responded to the Commune's call to defend Robespierre. 

Insurrection of Prairial Year III (20 may 1795)

Delorme's last appearance in history is in the final abortive popular rising of Prairial Year III. So conspicuous was he that Duval in his Souvenirs thermidoreans  of 1844 attributed to this "monster belched up by the African coast" the entire responsibility for organising and galvanising the insurrection at the instigation of the Montagnards. On 1 Prairial a crowd had invaded the Convention demanding bread and the Constitution of 1793.  The head of the deputy Féraud, who had been shot, was paraded provocatively round the Assembly on a pike, some have it by Delorme himself.  In the evening the Muscadins penetrated into the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and attempted to take possession of the Popincourt cannons, only to be met with determined resistance from Delorme and his men. On 4 Prairial the Convention finally sent in regular troops under General Menou and ordered the three Sections of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine to surrender their guns: only when he perceived that the situation was hopeless, did an enraged Delorme finally hand over his sabre.  He was arrested immediately and condemned by the Military Commission. He is recorded as answering his accusers defiantly: "I have been a soldier since 1760 and I would die a soldier". He was guillotined on the place de la Révolution on the following day, 5 prairial III (24 May 1795).

Here is the sympathetic account given by Jules Clarétie  in Les derniers Montagnards (1867), based in part on documentation submitted to the military tribunal:

The gunners of the Popincourt section were commanded by negro from Saint-Domingue, Guillaume Delorme, a formidable colossus, living in the cul-de-sac Sebastien, who lead the whole quarter with a mere wave of his hand . He was  thirty-eight years old.  He was a Hercules; a wheelwright-locksmith by trade, he could bend an iron bar over his knee.  On the fourth, half naked, he commanded his guns in his shirt sleeves, with pistols hanging from the red belt slung about his hips.  He could be seen on the barricade, his bronze face lit up by a savage smile, with his frizzy hair, white teeth and bare legs"

[Delorme refused to surrender and ordered his men to fire on the Muscadins.  When they refused, he struggled in a drunken rage to light the fuses himself. The locksmith Dube and another gunner threw themselves on the cannons to prevent him.  He found himself standing alone before the company of jeunes gens.  A fellowed called Séguin approached one of the batteries]

When the Sectionnaires consented to hand over their guns, in front of the Muscadins and the troops of the line, when the dragoons entered the faubourg, Delorme followed them.  The insurgents gave up their weapons though keeping their rebellious look.  He, with his enormous head, his face of an ox, looked the soldiers in the face.  The National Guards of the Lepellier section advanced towards him.

"If you go any further, I'll run you through with my sabre!"  menaced Delorme.  So General Menou himself went up to him:  "Are you a republican?"
  "Have you any b-b-bread you c-c-can give me?" asked Delorme, who had a stutter.
"Give me your sabre".
"Here you are, "he said, after much hesitation.  "Don't worry, it will never be in better hands than mine!"

And pointing out the gunners:  "If I give you my sabre, it is because these cowards have surrendered their guns!  They did not want to give you a lathering this morning! Ah! The cowards!
They arrested him on the spot.


Pierre Bardin, "Guillaume Delorme - Le Montagnard" Généalogie et Histoire de la Caraïbe (2015)

François Gendron The gilded Youth of Thermidor (1993) p.155-6.

No comments:

Post a Comment