Monday, 1 January 2018

Landmarks of the Terror in Nantes

In Nantes two hundred years of industrial growth, land reclamation and wartime devastation have wrought major changes on the urban landscape and physical reminders of the Revolution are sparse.  Here, such as they are, are the main lieux de mémoire.

As elsewhere in Western France, much of the impetus to preserve and record comes from local Vendéen memorial associations, notably the Souvenir Chouan de Bretagne, which in November 2017 organised its twentieth commemoration of the "noyades de Nantes". 

The Préfecture, formerly Palais de la Chambre des Comptes

The seat of the present-day préfecture on the Quai Ceineray, is an imposing neoclassical building designed by the architect Jean-Baptiste Ceineray, and built in 1763 to house the Chambre des comptes for the province of Brittany.  It boasts "a superb vestibule and fine staircase with double balustrade". After the suppression of the Chambre in September 1790, it stood empty.  During the Terror it housed the Departmental and District administrations; plus the Revolutionary Committee.  According to Lenotre,  "On its heavy facade the cyper of the Republic and the Phrygian cap replaced the arms of France."  The Directory of the Department met in the former Great Hall.

The Palais de la Chambre des Comptes, c.1775

The Hôtel de La Villestreux 

The Hôtel de La Villestreux in the place de la Petite-Hollande, built in 1727 for a rich colonist from St. Domingo, was the official residence of members of the Convention on circuit. In the 18th century this area was part of the Île Feydeau, now incorporated into the north bank of the Loire.  Carrier occupied the first floor of the mansion, from which there were views over the river - Lenotre imagines him observing the noyades from his window.

The plaque outside says simply "Carrier y séjourna".

Today guided tours are taken to see the imposing inner courtyard.  The main staircase,  with its wrought iron bannisters, was judged by Lenotre to be one of the most evocative locations in Nantes:
To him who seeks to make the past live again, the most moving spot in the city is the dark staircase of the hôtel de La Villestreux in Little Holland - the staircase where Carrier dwelt.  It is solemn, severe, bare, and terrible.  On its steps have echoed the boots of Lamberty, over them the sabre of Grandmaison has trailed, the pumps of Goullin have slouched.  The furs of the Proconsul hae brushed these walls, and his oaths have wakened the echoes beheath these arches.....

Further views of the Hôtel, ["Nantes ou la Venise de l'Ouest"]

The place du Bouffay

The central square of the old town, the place du Bouffay, now opens onto a road where the northern channel of the Loire once ran. In the late 18th-century a long barracks block fronted the water, whilst to the east the Mint, which was demolished in 1822, barred access to Port Maillard. The guillotine, painted red, was erected in the centre of the square.  

Front and main staircase of the prison du Bouffay from the square where the scaffold stood
Plate from Lenotre.
Le Bouffay from the quay on the Loire.  Plate from Lenotre.
The medieval prison du Bouffay, now also vanished, stood to one side. Here is Lenotre's description:

Le Bouffay was an old and sordid building- black, furrowed, and frowning - the older parts of it dating from the tenth century. For four hundred years it had served as law-court and prison.  In the seventeenth century the front looking on the Place had been rebuilt in a fairly regular style.  A heavy and lofty staircase in stone led on that side to the halls where the revolutionary tribunals sat.  The rest of the block, a jumble of towers, narrow courts, and erections, huddled together at the mercy of successive renovations, was hemmed in on three sides by wrietched dog-holes, tottering and unstable.  From this irregular congeries of roofs and tottering walls projected a belfry surmounted by a dome of lead upheld by caryatides and sheltering a peal of bells.  The door of the registry once passed you found an irregular courtyard, damp and dark, encumbered with an old chapel and surronded by the quarters ntended for the prisoners - pestilent rat-holes or plague-ridden garrets, known as the "great" and the "little civil", the "higher dungeon", the "Tower", the "Tower room", and so forth.

In late 1793 Le Bouffay, received some 500 detainees. The Revolutionary Tribunal had its seat in an adjacent building.  As Jean-Joël Brégeon points out, despite the stories of brutality and overcrowding, the prison operated with relative normality, compared with subsequent improvised places of detention, in former religious buildings or on board ships moored in the Loire.

The prison went out of use 1832 and was finally demolished in 1848. The metal crown-work of the belfry was incorporated into the tower of the nearby church of Sante-Croix.  Some corridors and cells can still be seen under a restaurant in the square. This changed hands recently and the remains are now incorporating the fabric of the restaurant.

Restaurant La Prison du Bouffay

Église Sainte-Croix
It was from the fine mahogany pulpit of the Église Sainte-Croix that Carrier famously haranged the people of Nantes on 16thh November 1793 immediatelyprior to the first noyade.  At the time of the Revolution the church was only just finished;  begun in 1669 on the site of the former chapel of the château de Bouffay, it was under construction for almost a century.

In December 1791 the prieur-curé M. Clair Delaville was replaced by one of his vicaires, M. Guibert, elected as his successor.  The church was despoiled of its silverware in October 1792 and finally closed altogether as a place of worship in November 1793. During the Terror it served as a prison and also as the meeting place for the radical société Vincent-la-Montagne, which moved there from the smaller  Église Saint-Vincent (now demolished).

The building returned to use as a church in 1795.  It was extensively renovated under the Second Empire in flamboyant gothic style, substantially rebuilt after damage during the Second World War and again  renovated in 1999.  Inside it still boasts its original pulpit and an 18th-century Madonna.

Carrier's private residence 

In mid-January 1794 Carrier requisitioned a house for his personal use in the eastern suburb of Bourg-fumé, in the "chemin de Richebourg" at the corner of the present-day rue d'Allonville and rue Frédéric-Cailliaud.  Whilst affording an adequate degree of comfort, the premises were easily modified for security.  No trace of the house remains today, but Lenotre describes its appearance in the early years of the last century:

This retreat was situated on the road to Tous-Aides,  on the right hand towards Doulon. It is a fairly large building, though of an irregular and rustic exterior. In front on the street-side the ground-floor windows and door have been walled up. Was this done as a precaution in Carrier's day ? It may be, at least it gives the empty house a blinded and sinister look. A doorway opened on the courtyard, where was a guard-house, in which soldiers were housed who kept watch day and night over the safety of the Representative. The chambers, turned into wine-stores of late years, were comfortable and even elegant; first came a drawing-room, and then the bedroom, with lights towards the garden. The windows, guarded within by solid shutters of oak, were provided with large bolts strongly secured. The ceilings of these two rooms still retain traces of mouldings and rosettes. In the bed-chamber is the deep alcove where Carrier reposed on a bed of yellow damask. The garden is not large, but at the end of the plot, which ran as far as the common of Mauves, still stand two little summer-houses with slate roofs, meant as alcoves or wine-arbours.

Note: Such was the state of the house three years ago. M. Albert, who lived there, kindly permitted me to go over it; but at that time it was on the point of changing hands, and if not pulled down by now, I believe that its demolition is to all intents decided on.

 Despite Lenotre's predictions, the house was not in fact knocked down until 1972:
See, Yves Merlant, " De la place de la duchesse Anne à la rue Stanislas Baudry"Les Annales de Nantes et du pays nantais, , p. 3.

Illustration from Lenotre
Old postcard from the Communes Anciennes website

The Entrepôt des cafés

Situated at the corner of the rue Lamoricière and the rue Dobré still stands the site of the Entrepôt des cafés, the most notorious prison of the Terror in Nantes.  Originally an immense private warehouse for coffee from the colonies, the complex was requisitioned in October 1793 from sieurs Crucy and Duparc, as a detention centre for the captured rebels of the Vendée.  It was situated at the far end of the port, safely away from the town centre, and  conveniently equidistant from the Loire and the carrières de Gigant where the firing squads operated.  The buildings themselves formed a quadrangle which enclosed a courtyard large enough to hold six thousand prisoners. According to some estimates as many as 10,000 were held there at any one time.

The Entrepôt in the early 20th century - illustrations from Lenotre
The Entrepôt was never properly speaking a prison: there was  no register of admissions, no warders, no effective chain of command;  its workings were shrouded in secrecy.  Those prisoners who were not shot or drowned, died of disease; in foul conditions, with meagre rations and a tainted water supply thousands succombed to typhus and dysentery.  Of thirty-two guards, nineteen died in a few days.  According to Jean-Joël Brégeon for space of six months the Entrepôt was "an authentic deathcamp, comparable in every respect to those of Hitler's Germany" (p.140).

Here is Noël Stassinet, president of Souvenir Chouan de Bretagne , at the site of the Entrepôt , on L'ombre d'un doute in 2012: 

"One must imagine here a a great construction in wood where coffee or tobacco was dried; three floors in which between 8-12000 people were piled up. The food allowance was 8 ounces or 240 grams of rice per day, without bread. On a diet of unrinced rice the prisoners rapidly succombed to dysentery and intestinal disease.  One sees the desire to have them die as soon as possible."

Eyewitnesses are few. Julienne Boishéraud, one of the rare detainees to be rescued alive left the following testimony:
I have tried in vain to describe that terrible place.  I do not have sufficient words.  You need to have been there to understand. I will say only that death was everywhere before your eyes: there was only the dead and dying.  Scarcely had they expired before those monsters would grab them by an arm or leg and drag them outside like beasts.  Those still alive,  they would kick, saying coldly, "That one is for tomorrow"......We saw prisoners appear who then disappeared immediately. One evening they brought in 300; by the next day they were gone. Two or three times a day, they would take a certain number at random whom they shot without trial or judgment....On 18th January 1794, when I got out of this tomb, I felt as if I were a new Lazarus.(quoted by Brégeon, p.139):

Carrier  "in the hospital in Nantes": usually identified as interior of the Entrepôt. Print of 1795.

Lenotre recounts the experience of a certain Fontaine, in charge of the stores of provisions, who had to go to the Entrepôt to carry bread.  He found neither fire nor light; the darkness in that huge sepulchre was such that he could not serve out the rations.  Just as he was leaving he was accosted by a man in trousers and a red cap, who declared himself an agent of the Revolutionary Committee.

"It is I," said the unknown to Fontaine, "it is I that am told off to draw back the panel at the drownings, and nothing is done without my orders.  If you care to come, I will give you brigands' brains to eat"

 Thomas, an officer of health at Nantes, one of the few doctors allowed to enter, discovered an "appalling butchery",scattered with corpses, children still quivering or "fallen into tubs full of ordure."  On seeing him the women gave vent to cries of alarm, thinking he was a noyeur.

The physician Pariset, placed in charge of final disinfection, wrote: 
I had heard a great deal, of the filthy state of the Entrepôt, and expected to encounter a revolting stench.  But as I set foot on the staircase I only experienced a faint and mild smell, which made me incline to vomit.  I went slowly through the wards; they had lost during the night more than a hundred of their miserable tenants, pale and fleshless spectres, lying prostrate on the floors, or crawling and staggering as if in drunkenness...In the morning the bodies were thrown from the windows; they were piled up under voiles;  then they were loaded onto carts and taken to the quarries of Gigant suburb.
[Letter from Pariset, physician and surgeon, dated 8th February 1837, quoted by Lenotre]

The quarries

The stone and mineral quarries of Miséri, Gigant and Chantenay in which the Vendéan prisoners were shot and buried have long since disappeared beneath the streets of modern Nantes.  The site of the principal quarry, the carrières de Gigant, is marked by a modest memorial beside a residential block in the rue de Martyrs.
Memorial 7 rue des Martyrs

John Haycraft was shown the site in 1989: 
At the rue des Martyrs, we saw a monument to those executed in the quarries which, then, were worked nearby.  A cross and the monument stood incongruously, crammed into a small space, close to a block of modern flats.  "I've never seen this building before", said Mme Pierregat [the guide] in amazement. "The cross used to stand on its own.  It's incredible the way they are building everywhere in Nantes.
Haycraft, In search of the French Revolution  p.182

Two military commissions operated in Nantes for the judgment of rebels captured "under arms".  The first was the Commission Lenoir  which sat in the Hôtel Pépin de Bellisle, rue Gambetta. The second, which was responsible for the majority of executions, was the Commission Bignon, set up in Le Mans in December 1793.  During its operation in Nantes the formal president was Gonchon, but its most active member was François Bignon, captain of the Paris batallions.  It sat mainly in the Entrepôt but also at Le Bouffay and the Hôpital La Réunion (the former Santitat).  The commission was responsible for the execution of three thousand rebels in five months: 661 in three days following the battle of Savenay and a further 1948 between 9 and 30 nivôse (29th December 1793 -19th Januay 1794) - an average of eighty a day.

 Judgment was summary - the surviving records give only the names, age and place of birth of those condemned. They were taken swiftly from the court to the quarries of Miséri, Gigant and Chantenay.  The identity of the firing squad is uncertain:  accounts mention the "légion germanique"(German deserters) and "les hussards américains".  Eyewitnesses described  female prisoners shot, finished off with rifle butts, then their corpses stripped of possessions and left  lying exposed on their backs.  Carrier was concerned at the speed of proceedings and hence resorted to illegal noyades; president Gonchon was threatened with  being shot himself when he failed to co-operate (see Brégeon, p.156).

By January, the accumulation of the dead was such that citizen "volunteers" had to be commandeered in order to bury the corpses. A Commission de salubrité put in place by Carrier opened four substantial burial ditches, and officially created a vast new cemetery in a quarry situated beside the modern route de Rennes.  Of  almost 12,000 burials recorded by the Commission between 26 Nivôse and 30 Thermidor (15th January to 17th August 1794), over five-and-a-half thousand took place in this site. In 1796 the remains of Charette were deposited there.  The cemetery was sold off in 1825 and, although there were plans for a monument, the site remained unmarked.   It was only accidently rediscovered in 1981 when building works in the  avenue du Lavoir off the rue Costes-et-Le-Brix uncovered a communal burial pit some 25 metres by 8 metres.  In 1997 the association Souvenir Vendée erected a plaque on the spot in honour of "Charette and more than 8,000 persons".

The Noyades

Inevitably material reminders of the mass drownings are few.  The organisation Souvenir Chouan de Bretagne, holds annual commemorations.  For several years it has gathered on the town's central bridge, the pont Anne de Bretagne, to cast a bouquet of flowers into the river, and in 2016 a modest plaque was erected on the quayside.This year members have taken a boat trip down the Loire to the village of Trentemoult, tracing the route of the gabares

Here are some photos on Vendéens et Chouans blog, post of 27.11.2017.

Occasionally remains have resurfaced.  Lenotre reported that in his day one of Lamberty's gabares was still visible sanded up somewhere towards the Île Cheviré. As recently as 1952 work for a power station at Cheviré dredged up from the river human bones including skulls and also the remains of chains.

See:  "Il y a soixante ans, en 1952, des témoins sortent de la Loire", Souvenir Chouan de Bretagne [blog] post of 28.01.2012.


Map of Nantes in the Year IV

"Nantes au coeur des guerres de Vendée", Vendéens & Chouans, post of 23.07.2017. [map of memorial sites and interview with Jean-Joël Brégeon
 from the local newspaper Presse-Océan]

Blog of the association Souvenir Chouan de Bretagne

Nantes on the InfoBretagne website

Rues de Nantes [blog]

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