|Mathieu Guillaume Thérèse de Villenave, Relation des cent trente-deux Nantais: envoyés à Paris par le Comité Révolutionnaire de Nantes. Paris: Ballard, 1794.|
One of the reasons the case assumed such a high profile was the strategic publication of this little 45-page book, signed by a dozen of the prisoners, which gave a highly readable first-hand account of the tribulations of their long forced trek from Nantes to Paris across war-ravaged France. The work is ascribed to the Nantes lawyer, and former member of the Société Vincent-la-Montagne, Mathieu-Guillaume-Thérèse de Villenave - who was to become well-known in later years as a writer and collector of manuscripts. According to Jean-Joël Brégeon, the circumstances surrounding the publication are not entirely known, though some information can be gathered from the papers in the Nantes archives relating to Villenave's publisher Ballard. There was a first edition of the book dated 1er Messidor II, but it was the second, dated 30 Thermidor, which created the real impact. 4,000 copies were planned, but in the end Villenave doubled the number and employed colporters to distribute them. There may also have been pirated versions.
Villenave recounts how 132 prisoners left Nantes but only 94 arrived in Paris to present themselves before the Revolutionary Tribunal. They endured terrible suffering on the road. During the first leg of their journey, via Ancenis and Varades to Angers, they were constantly threatened by patriots who mistook them for "brigands". In Angers, which was beseiged by the remnants of the Vendéan army, they asked to fight with the defenders, but were refused permission. Instead they were bound six-by-six with ropes like common felons, and forced to progress under insults and blows. Several of their number died of cold, sickness and deprivation. In Saumur they shared a prison for six days with ordinary criminals, confined next to putrifying bodies, and with only polluted water and spoiled bread as sustenance. From then on things improved somewhat; they were able to pay to stay in stables and "compassionate republicans" gave them hot meals. They finally arrived in Paris on 5th January 1795. At this point 110 men remained. After forty days of forced march, imprisonment and ill treatment, they were almost lynched before they reached the Conciergerie.
The prisoners were now dispersed among various prisons of Paris, where they were at last able to make contact with relations and well-wishers. Fouquier-Tinville was reluctant to proceed against them without written evidence; the Nantes Terrorists Chaux and Goullin came to Paris at this time, perhaps in response, but were unable to produce any documentation. The wider course of events then came into play, with the fall of Robespierre, the indictment of Fouquier-Tinville himself (14 Thermidor) and the reorganisation of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The Thermidorians now saw Villenave and his fellow accused as offering the means to proceed against the Terrorists in Nantes. The trial lasted a week from 22 to 28 fructidor, 8th-14th September 1794. According to the awkwardly worded verdict, the 132 were found "guilty of conspiring against the unity of the Republic, but not guilty of counter-revolutionary intentions".
Who were the 132 Nantais?
The Nantes historian Alfred Lallié has done the research on this one. The breakdown he came up with was as follow:
47 traders, shipowners, owners of factories,
42 lawyers or administrators
5 officers in the merchant navy
Clearly these were mainly wealthy traders, industrialists and professionals from the upper echelons of Nantes society. The reasons for their arrest given by the Revolutionary Committee suggest that they were singled out mainly because of their position rather than any political wrongdoings. Some had been VERY rich indeed: both M. de Menou and M. Florenceau-Descotiers had possessed vast plantations in Saint-Domingue - the Menou plantation was said to have been worth a million-and-a-half livres. As is evident from Villenave's account, these were men used to high standards of living and a degree of social deference.
Alfred Lallié, Les cent trente-deux Nantais, 1894; [see Gabory ,Le voyage à Paris des cent trente-deux Nantais. p.183]
|Luxurious living in 18th-century Nantes:|
Salle 15, "Chez les messieurs du commerce", Château des ducs de Bretagne/Musée d'Histoire de Nantes
Was there an order to kill the prisonners?
According to Brégeon (p.325, nt.10), this question has never been entirely resolved. Lenotre thought such an order existed, and held Carrier responsible, but his only evidence was Carrier's general denunciations of the wealthy bourgeois. Lallié, on the other hand, blamed the Revolutionary Committee, Chaux and Goullin in particular. It is certainly the case that Carrier and the Committee spread rumours a few days before the arrests of a conspiracy against the Revolutionary authorities. A woman who came to ask for documentation on behalf of one of the prisoners was told by Goullin that her efforts were pointless: "they are men that have been sacrificed; they are no more" The convoy was also accompanied out of Nantes by civilian commissioners with sweeping powers. Phelippes produced a written order signed by members of the Committee which enjoined the commander of the escort Jean-Baptiste Boussard to take the prisoners and to "shoot them without distinction, in whatever manner he judged suitable". Boussard, who did not comply, was then removed by order of the Revolutionary Committee of Angers as over-indulgent towards the prisoners. Probably the hope was that at least some of their number would be lost through escape or execution. There was an informer among them, the watchmaker Hernault, who disappeared at Oudon. However, not all the thirty-eight who failed to complete the journey in fact died; some paid cautions and left; others were abandoned on the route.
The Journey of the 132 Nantais
The following is translated (loosely) from Émile Gabory's Le voyage à Paris des cent trente-deux Nantais. Paris, 1933. As well as Villenave, Gabory draws on the narrative of a second prisoner, Bernardin Marie Pantin, comte de la Guère, which was published only in 1894. La Guère wrote in April 1794 whilst still being held in the prison at Bercy, the events fresh in his memory; his memoir, which is purely personal and has no particular polemic intent, differs only in detail from that of Villenave.
Departure from Nantes
On Wednesday 27th November 1793, at five in the morning, the prisoners, who were being held in the prison known as l’Eperonnière in Nantes, were ordered to assembly in the courtyard. A roll call was taken and they were counted; they numbered 132 in all. They were told to be ready to depart. Most were resigned to their fate: "For almost five months, they had taken me from prison to prison" (ms. note by Pellerin).
They left with such speed that they were unable to take their bedcovers and spare linen, which had to be thrown through the windows to them. Several had no suitable footwear: some managed to procure shoes from the prison supplies; Mabille des Granges was obliged to make the whole journey in wooden clogs.
The prisoners were placed in two lines and their knives and razors confiscated. Eleven carriages arrived to transport the sick and infirm. They were warned that all attempts to escape would be punished by death. They were to be escorted by a detachment of the 11th Paris Batallion of Volunteers under the command of Jean-Baptiste Boussard.
For many hours the men waited for the order to depart. The weather was grey, with a continuous fine rain which depressed their spirits. Wives and parents arrived in the hope of saying their goodbyes, but were refused: "the tyrants unintentionally showed humanity for the first time because, by this barbarity, they spared us the distress of farewells." (Villenave).
At midday the signal was finally given. Three members of the Revolutionary Committee, Naux, Joly and the ferocious Bologniel, placed themselves at the head of the column.....One group of Volunteers took up position at the front, and another at the rear. The road was in such bad condition that progress was difficult. La Guère and his friend Fleuriot d'Ombrepied walked side-by-side and often slept on the same bed or litter.
Towards evening, one of the prisoners, a sieur Hernaud, escaped into the darkness, attempting to make his way back to Nantes. It was said that his escape had been plotted in advance by the Committee to provide a pretext for the prisoners to be shot; this is possible but not proven; the next day, he was recaptured and brought back. He was a curious person, who walked along still wearing a bonnet rouge. Another prisoner, Tiger, was also afforded the opportunity to escape, when he lost his way and was offered asylum by a friendly farmer. Whether through fear, or because he was too confident of his innocence, he refused, and voluntarily rejoined his camarades in the little town of Oudon.
Arriving at nine in the evening, having eaten nothing since dawn, they hoped for a decent meal but were shocked to be distributed "only bad food" (Pellerin): black bread and rancid lard, so bad that "the Volunteers used it to shine their shoes".(Villenave). They slept in the local church, where, according to Villenave, La Guère's companion Fleuriot, a native of Oudon, was compelled to spend the night lying on his father's tomb. Fortunately they were not relieved of their money. La Guère even managed to meet up with his wife; he and Fleuriot were allowed to dine "chez la citoyenne Rezé" and to obtain a change of linen.
The next day at five in the morning, the sound of a drum roused the company, the columns were quickly formed up and the caravan set out once more. In Ancenis, Volunteers, who mistook the prisoners for "brigands" from the Vendée, showered them with invectives and threatened to kill them.
Exhaustion soon began to make itself felt among men already weakened by long detention and insufficient food, or by old age. Since all the carts were full and the number of sick had grown, some had to be carried on the officers' horses. On the evening of the second day they arrived at Varades, where same outrage greeted them as at Ancenis...All the little towns along the way had declared themselves republican and the terror exercised by the Vendeans and Chouans naturally inspired the inhabitants with thoughts of vengeance. The fact that one of the prisoners was called Charette added to the confusion; no doubt the Revolutionary Committee encouraged the mistake by declaring that many of the prisoners were accomplices of the rebels. At Varades, they stayed once again in a disused church. The next day, at seven o'clock, when the order was given to leave, one man was fast asleep in the confessional and did not hear the call. Bologniel threw himself on him in fury and dragged him from his sanctuary, threatening to crush with his sabre the head of the next man that he found .
Arrival at Angers
The next stop was scheduled to be at Saint-Georges; but they now learned that the Vendéan army, in retreat from Granville, was about to march on Angers. It was feared that they would be cut off. A few leftover rations were hastily distributed and the column pressed on, the stronger among the prisoners helping the others along. An east wind swept the Loire valley. Rain was succeeded by freezing cold. They were forced to stop briefly to light a fire of brushwood in the open road. Then they set out again, the carts more laden down than ever with the weak and sick. At ten o'clock they finally reached Angers, where a hostile crowd awaited them, maddened by news of the enemy's imminent arrival. Hotheads threw themselves on the column, and only the firm intervention of Boussard, saved them from lynching.
Straw bedding had been prepared for them in the Seminary. As they made ready to sleep, they saw Boussard arrive. He expressed his satisfaction that, in spite of the opportunities for flight, only one man had escaped; they had shown themselves truly worthy of the trust of Republicans.
However, nothing had been prepared for them to eat (It had been the same throughout the journey) They were forced to buy provisions at exorbitant cost from the concierge, who was intent on enriching himself at their expense. Nonetheless such details were soon forgotten since the atmosphere was pleasant in the spacious building; the men could move freely, with only a sentry at the doors. In such comfortable surroundings, it was easy to entertain false hopes. They imagined that they were to be exchanged for other prisoners, and returned to their families.
They were soon to be disabused. No sooner had they sat down to dinner at about two o'clock in the afternoon, than they were told to pack their bags, not to go home, but to move to another prison. They hastily finished their meal and went down into the courtyard. There they were greeted by gendarmes who hadropes intendedto bind them. There were protestations. The Volunteers drew their weapons. Order was restored and the prisoners were tied up like bandits.
Meanwhile a hostile and noisy crowd had gathered. The gendarmes had trouble dispersing them. Bound together in this way, the prisoners were reviewed by the members of the Revolutionary Committee who had come from Nantes with them. Naux was particularly foul-mouthed; he insulted shamelessly the men that he had helped put in chains. He swore at Boussard for failing to shoot the Nantais when he had the opportunity. Was the flight of Hernaud not a sufficient reason? Boussard protested energetically: he was a soldier, not an executioner. He defended the conduct of the prisoners, which was enough to provoke his arrest...
The three miserable rogues consoled themselves that the Representatives at Angers, Hentz and Francastel, were as implacable as Carrier, and that the local Committee was every bit as rigorous as the one to which they belonged. Their part was finished and they must return to Nantes...
The Nantais watched them depart with joy...They would not forget their crimes; they would not forget, for example, that at Angers, Bologniel had forced the jeweller Castellan to spend the night on the same bed as his dead son.
The prison in Angers
Still bound together, they were now transferred to the chapel belonging to the prison of the old sénéchaussée, a crampt and foul-smelling place, already full of common law prisoners. In the Seminary they had enjoyed a degree of liberty but now they had no room to move at all. They had lost in Boussard their only defender...They knew that at Angers, as at Nantes, the Loire had claimed hundreds of victims; counter-revolutionaries no doubt; but had they themselves not been mistaken for brigands?
Their first night in this crowded gaol left a terrible impression on their spirits. So appalling was the overcrowding that they pitied their companions in captivity even though they were the dregs of society. Piled into a space only twelve-and-a-half feet by twenty-four feet, they were forced to lie on top of one another, and could only move if they all did so together. Bundles of straw were thrown to them as though they were dogs. Villenave describes the grim conditions, without sustenance and without any light. Fortunately someone had a flint lighter and someone else candles. They managed to illuminate the prison walls, only to catch sight of the ragged possessions abandoned by former occupants who now, no doubt, populated the charnel houses of the Revolution.
Despite the cold outside, the air in the prison was hot and stiffling. To serve their basic needs, they had only "a single ordinary sized bucket" which had to be passed from hand to hand above their heads; since no-one could move freely, it got upset, soaking five or six people and filling the whole chapel with its miasma. Nor was the bucket the only source of stench and pestilential air, for surrounding the chapel ran an open sewer. Tainted water from a half-dry well was the only source of drink for these men, who, so little time ago, had lived in luxury and abundance.
Finally dawn came. The prisoners went out into the yard and, like those who preceded them in that miserable prison, made use of the sewer which served as a latrine. In the light of day, they saw clearly for the first time the repulsive faces of their fellow-prisoners. They could not hold back tears of shame and disgust, especially since these persons had passed on to them the fleas and lice which now devoured them.
That evening, in order to relieve the congestion, the gaoler allowed some of the prisoners to sleep in a neighbouring room. It was a dark hole, filled with "a fetid vapour" even more nauseating than in the chapel itself. But such was the discomfort caused by being piled together, and the horror they felt at contact with the ordinary prisoners, that sixteen Nantais hurried to avail themselves of the change of locale.
The gaoler was certainly not acting out of humanity; on the contrary he was adept at inflicting suffering; he knew how to torture the spirit as well as the body. One evening he said mysteriously to one of their number, "Tonight I must come and get forty of you." These worrying words were repeated, and everyone wondered who the forty condemned would be; they were in no doubt that anyone lead away under shadow of darkness would be taken to their deaths. The night passed; with the dawn their anxiety lessened slightly, then the next night the miserable charade would be repeated again.
Everything contrived to remind the prisoners of the danger of their situation; if they escaped being shot or guillotined, they seemed likely to die of malnutrition and disease. At one corner of the yard was a sort of porch where the dead were collected. Every day four or five bodies could been seen laid out there. It was impossible to go out without crossing this barrier of corpses, which was continually being added to.
They suffered in all sorts of other ways; if they opened a window, they froze; if they closed it, they suffocated. Wetness from outside seeped through the walls. Many of them took from the prison in Angers the beginnings of illness which within a few weeks was destined to kill them. Those who declared themselves to be sick were taken to the infirmary, a euphemism for a black pestilential hole where the staw was replaced by unspeakable litters still warm from the deaththrows of previous occupants. Among the Nantais were several doctors and surgeons who did their best to help their fellows. The worst cases were taken to the Hôtel-Dieu, "a room of the dead and dying".
Every evening at four o'clock the prisoners were again locked up in their gaol; sometimes even at three o'clock when it got dark early. Woe betide anyone who was tardy in obeying the gaoler's orders; they were threatened with being placed in irons, "in still more horrible a dungeon, closed by a triple door".
Finally, on 2nd December, wearied by suffering and sensing themselves at their limits, the Nantais took their courage in hand and addressed a plea to their bourreaux to demand better accommodation "in the name of humanity and justice". The very next day, as they awaited a reply, they heard the thunder of enemy cannons. ...whereupon they signed a new petition. They no longer wanted to change prison, but to take up arms and fight. "When rebels threaten our homeland, our only care is to defend it," declared Villenave and the other signatories. However, their offer was not taken up....Soon they saw the defeated peasant rebels who had been taken prisoner, arrive in the courtyard, then depart to be shot. The Nantais, several of whom had fought for the Republic, feared they would suffer the same fate.
In order to demonstrate their patriotism, they made a collection for the wounded, and for the widows and orphans of those who had fallen. Though they were proscribed men with only hard bread to eat, they managed to pledge the sum of 2,400 livres. The cloth merchant Billard alone offered 1,000 livres. The collection was presented to the Municipality....
It did not serve, however, to losen their bonds, to soften the conditions of their detention or improve their rations. They received only two pounds of bread every three days, a rough black bread that challenged even the most robust stomachs. To augment this ration, they sometimes had food brought from the Hôtel de la Boule d'Or, the only hostelry which would serve them. The wine was as bad as the bread: "Hard, green and amazingly thick". Drinking it, said La Guerre, one could say "I am drinking and eating at the same time". The concierge sold it for fifteen francs a bottle and soon amassed a small fortune.
[In the second week a strange event occurred, when two messagers from the Revolutionary Committee in Nantes came to secure the release of four of the prisoners. It would seem that these men had bribed the Committee; one of their number had handed over 80,000 livres before his departure.]
The rest of the prisoners soon realised that they were not to be freed; on the contrary, they were joined by five new prisoners, Ballan, former director of the royal glassworks at Couëron, and four merchants, one a humble employee. To Villenave this suggested that the Committee wanted to send 132 prisoners to the Revolutionary Tribunal and was not too concerned as to their identity.
In all the Nantais, who had arrived in Angers on 29th November, remained there for twenty days. In that time four men died: Charette de Boisfoucaud, whose gout was aggravated by cold and fatigue; the architect Gauter; Joseph de Monti; and the young Castellan. Already ill at the time of departure the youth fell dead before his father's eyes, on top of a camarade who was eating. Six more died in the hospital before the departure of the column.
From Angers to Saumur
Their stay at Angers could not last forever now that the threat from the rebel army had receded. Neither the Committee in Angers nor the Representatives Hentz and Francastel were inclined to execute them, preferring to sent them on to Paris. On 17th December an health inspector came to accertain how many could make the journey on foot; sixty or so pleaded age, ill-health or sickness. On the night of the 18th, the gaoler, appeared with a lantern in his hand, and declared laconically, "You leave at five o'clock".
At the appointed hour the prisoners were assembled. They now numbered 111. Many seemed too debilitated to walk, but the inspector must have thought they were malingerers, for there were only three carts provided to transport the sick. Once more they were bound six-by-six, though it was unclear what threat they represented. It seems fear of the Vendéan army still weighed heavily. On 19th December all the gates of the town were barred closed except the one used by the Nantais to leave. They were obliged to cross a district of the town which had been burned down as part of the defence. According to Villenave,only the presence of a mounted guard protected them from serious harm at the hands of the inhabitants. La Guerre said merely, that the people of Angers regarded them "with great interest".
By good luck the lieutenant assigned to them, whose name was Beaubiller, shared his predecessor Boussard's moderation and good sense. He was a rough soldier who threatened to shoot anyone who tried to escape - he had his orders and intended to carry them out - but at bottom, he was a good man. A league from the town, he ordered the prisoners to be untied and requisitioned two carts. They were now approaching Les Ponts-de-Cé, not without apprehension, for they knew of its fearsome reputation; there Hentz and Francastel had drowned as many victims as had Carrier in Nantes. When they bypassed the route to Les Ponts-de-Cé, they were much relieved.
At four-thirty in the evening, they reached the village of Saint-Mathurin. Here they were shut up in the church and served a meal of three gigots, two mutton stews, bread and wine - meagre fare, comments Villenave, for 111 men. They had counted on sleeping at Saint Mathurin, but the commander of the escort decided to move on since he had learned that 1,500 troops were about to arrive. And what troops! A terrible hoard, with the ferocious Ronsin at its head! Villenave declared that this meeting was not fortuitous; it had been arranged to ensure their destruction. So sure were they that the prisonners were about to meet their end, that no-one at Angers had even bothered to count them!
And so, with its equipment and its carts, the caravan set out on the road once more. At eight in the evening they reached Les Rosiers. The next day, the 20th December, they continued on towards Saumur.
Here too the people were hostile, thinking that these were the comrades of those who, several months previously, had laid seige to their town. When the prisoners reached the first houses on the outskirts; "soldiers and citizens seemed to dispute the privilege of terrifying us the most" (Villenave). Sabres were drawn. One of the Nantais was threatened by a military man with a moustache who claimed to recognise him as a brigand; "Once, I made prisoner of you; I cut your hair; today I will cut your throat". As Villenave takes pains to emphasise, the officers of the escort once again saved those in their charge.
La Guère (p.37) relates that the sight of the entrance to the national prison froze them with terror. Five or six dead bodies barred the way, in an advanced state of decomposition and emitting an appalling stench. The door of their gaol was right next to this charnel house, which seemed an ominous portent. Were they themselves destined to die? Were they not already like walking corpses?
They had scarcely been shut up in this sinister place when they had a visitor; it was the executioner, who had come to boast of the steadiness of his hand and the excellence of his machine: "Did you know" he told them, "that I could despatch you all in less than an hour? Do you want a demonstration? They have bought me 36 brigands whom I can make pay before your very eyes". Fortunately the local commander, a Citizen Gomer, reassured them that he would do all in his power to alleviate their misery; notably he had the offending corpses removed.
Their situation was still intolerable. They slipped around on straw which had been unspeakably soiled; the food was insufficient, they drank water from a well polluted by the presence of putrifying corpses. At their request they were allowed to order wine and vituals from the town; the soldiers of the guard served as intermediaries and exacted an exorbitant ransom.
In Saumur they stayed for five days in all, awaiting the arrival of several of their comrades who had been left behind in the infirmary at Angers. They were then forced to continue on the road towards Paris. "We did not seek to know the true goal of our journey; we were like automatons; They told us to walk, and we walked. They told us to stop and we stopped. The worst could happen and we would not have been surprised" (Villenave). This time the commander of the escort procured more carts. At Langeais, they were grateful to the Muncipality who procured them food and accommodation in private houses. Finally on 28th December they reached Tours.
Here they managed to find shelter from the freezing cold in an the outbuildings of an inn, but their pleas to be allowed to rest a few days, or to leave behind the sick, were refused. A new escort was provided, with soldiers from the Armée de Mayence, who had endured some of the bitterest fighting in the Vendée. However, according to Villenave,even they were mollified by the republican sentiment of their captives and defended them against the hostility they encountered en route. At Beaugency they slept for the first time in sheets and ate seated at a table. "None of us had undressed in thirty-four days" recounts Villenave. "We had been lead from prison cell to prison cell, from church to church, from stable to stable, sleeping on straw, which was often rotten". The change was sweet, comments La Guère, "but it cost us dearly".
He refers to an incident when tragedy was narrowly averted. Some soldiers of the escort took pity on the prisoners and allowed two of them to share their beds. The commander found out and ordered one of the prisoners to be shot; the gun was primed and only when the soldier hesitated, did the commander back down.
So it was they continued their painful journey towards Orléans, helping one another as best they could, marching seven to eight leagues a day on sodden roads in the rain and snow, with little sleep or sustenance. Conditions here were poor, but they faired better at Étampes and finally found themselves on the last leg to Paris.
In Versailles,the prisoners were held in the Queen's stables where Grace Elliott encountered them.
"They were in a most miserable plight, having been marched on foot from Nantes, many of them very ill; some dying on the road it is supposed of the gaol distemper. This, however, I doubt, as I slept on the same straw with them all night in the stables, and though they were full of vermin I got nothing dirty from them...
Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Journal of my life during the French Revolution, 1823.p.184-5:
On the morning of the 16th January they were loaded into closed carriages and their escort reinforced as they approached the barrière d'Enfer. A hostile crowd gathered, jubilant because Hanriot had put about the rumour that the Nantais were members of the Catholic and Royal Army, coming to meet the firing squad in the Bois de Boulogne. So immense was the baying mob lining the Champs-Elysées that the prisoners feared the cordon of troops would be broken and they would be lynched; the lawyer Cocaud de la Villauduc, who was at the end of his strength, died on this final stage of the journey.
Finally the cortege arrived at the Hôtel de Ville and the prisoners were dispersed to various prisons around Paris.
E. Gabory, Le voyage à Paris des cent trente-deux Nantais. Paris, 1933.
Mathieu Guillaume Thérèse de Villenave, Relation des cent trente-deux Nantais: envoyés à Paris par le Comité Révolutionnaire de Nantes. Paris: Ballard, 1794.
Le procès des 132 Nantais 1894, avec une relation inedite de leur voyage à Paris par le comte de la Guère by René Kerviler