Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Jean-Baptiste Carrier in Nantes: considerations

Is it possible to move beyond attributing blame for the atrocities of Terrorist repression in Nantes and come to a more balanced assessment of Jean-Baptiste Carrier?  Whilst memorialists have revived the idea of a genocide in the Vendée, academic historians, notably Jean-Clément Martin, have been working towards a more nuanced view of the conflict and, with it, a certain rehabilitation of Carrier.

As regards Carrier himself the main points are roughly as follows
  • Carrier's trial, the principal source of evidence,  was  a “political trial” which took place in the context of the Thermidorean indictment of the Terror,  "a brutal deconstruction of the politics of Year II" (Martin)  The effect was to isolate Carrier personally and to concentrate opprobrium on the noyades as emblematic of Jacobin policies.
  • In Revolutionary discourse, as exemplified by Carrier, the complex strands of opposition in the Vendée were viewed as a single counterrevolutionary threat.  The agents of the Convention took extreme measures to avoid personal censure for "moderatism".
  • Revolutionary authorities in Nantes acted in a context of crisis, with overflowing prisons, insecure food supply and fear of major epidemics.
  • Carrier, a stranger to the town, was obliged to work with existing local radicals. He was also answerable to the Committees in Paris, whose understanding of local conditions was limited. The attitude of the population of Nantes as a whole is not well understood. 
  • More generally, modern French historians have moved away from explanations based on the psychology of individual terrorists.  Carrier may not have been the most attractive of personalities but he was not demonstrably abnormal or depraved.


Jean-Joël Brégeon, Carrier et la Terreur nantaise 2016 (original edition 1987)
Jean-Clément Martin, La guerre de Vendée new ed. 2014
Corinne Gomez-Le Chevanton,  "Le procès Carrier", Annales historiques de la Révolution française No. 343. 2006


The ideal scapegoat?

If Carrier alone was the object of an act of accusation at the beginning of Year III, it was because he was the ideal guilty individual.  Ideal because of his fidelity to the ideals of Year II, which he reaffirmed ceaselessly, particularly in the Jacobins, by his personal isolation both in Nantes and Paris, by his unsympathetic appearance and personality, by the nature of the crimes committed at Nantes, which were compared to those of Caligula and Nero;  finally because at the end of 1794 the Vendée was subject to a hitherto unanticipated pacification.
Corinne Gomez-Le Chevanton,  "Le procès Carrier", AHRF, 2006

Corinne Gomez-Le Chevanton has studied the huge outpouring of pamphlets which show that the “black legend” of Carrier  was already formed prior to his appearance before the Revolutionary Tribunalon in late November 1794. She categorises attacks on Carrier’s person under five headings:
Madness: He is described brandishing his sabre wildly as he declaimed to the patriots of Nantes. He is said to have supervised the assassination of rebels in the streets; to have wanted to throw a judicial clerk on the fire in his room...
Criminality: As well as the bare fact of the noyades, the sources insist, more dubiously, on his sadistic treatment of pregnant women, on the "republican marriages", on children paraded at the end of a pike before they were drowned.  In fact it seems quite likely that Carrier himself was not personally present at the drownings at all.
Animality: Like other Jacobins, Carrier was assimilated to a bloodthirsty tiger (the "tiger of the West"),  a "cricket" (presumably because of his gangly figure) . Physical descriptions made of him a "monster with the face of a man", for whom "nature has been mistaken in note giving him claws".  In prints he is pictured in his fur jacket as though to accentuate his animality.
Depravity: Accusations of sexual violence featured prominently. Numerous witnesses claimed that he took beautiful girls from prison and abused them before having them drowned; also that he and his accomplices staged orgies in his house in the suburbs.  He was also said to have taken advantage of numerous respectable women of Nantes.
Treachery: Despite his loyalty to Jacobin tenets his intentions were portrayed as criminal and counter-revolutionary.
Corinne Gomez-Le Chevanton,  "Le procès Carrier", AHRF, 2006

Carrier's personality

The English translator of Carrier's letters, Elsé Haydon Carrier (was she a descendant?), appended a little essay in which she collected together the evidence for Carrier's better nature. She reminds us of the anonymous comment of 1789 on his kindness and of the positive assessment of Madame Tussaud.  His letters show him generous in his praise of Republican generals such as Kléber, Vimeux, Haxo, even of those like Tilly and Beaupuy who were former nobles.  
He made no monetary profit from his mission; on the contrary he supplemented the salaries of government employees and petitioned the Convention for "succour" or "indemnities" for Republican soldiers and loyal citizens who had suffered in the war.
"Carrier, the Tiger of the West" in Correspondence of Jean-Baptiste Carrier, trans. E. H. Carrier, London 1920, p.268-76.

Here is the considered assessment of his modern biographer Jean-Joël Brégeon:
Taciturn, brutal, inaccessible, discourteous, suspicious, unpredictable; this was the assessment of all who came into contact with Carrier.  But he was also acknowledged, by contemporaries as respected as  Kléber and Marceau, to be energetic, decisive, honest and sincere.  Sometimes witnesses contradicted themselves.  Was he a coward?  Was he brave, a hard-man with a sensitive soul....

[He seems to have been] prone to sudden mood swings, from violent anger to charm, from depression - he would take to his bed and refuse to speak to anyone - to frantic activity.  Marceau, who met him in Nantes described him as "a big baby who needs to be reined in or confined in Charenton"...

Several witnesses described him as a drinker. He did indeed drink but intermittently. He is depicted both as a solitary drinker, and as a participant in patriotic sessions - famously on the galliot La Gloire.

As to Carrier the sexual obsessive....there are few tangible traces.  That said, Carrier did not lack sexual appetites and he knew how to satisfy them.  That he did so in Nantes on several occasions is not disputed.

Carrier was an extremist, a fanatic. But this was by circumstance as much as by temperament..The fear of being seen as a moderate, of not satisfying the Committees in Paris, pushed him to the worst extremes...

He did not pursue private goals or personal vendettas: he did not seek to enrich himself. A peasant and petty lawyer, he discovered his supreme purpose in life: the salvation of his country, which he identified with the egalitarian republic. Circumstances had led him to a position; he was determined not to fall short of what was expected of him.
Brégeon, Carrier et la Terreur nantaise p.38-40

Carrier the Revolutionary

In his correspondance with Paris, Carrier never neglects to mention his indefatigable ardour. But, according to Brégeon, he was capable of lucid analysis as well as bombast:
Without being an ideologue, or even a particularly literate man, Carrier knew how to express revolutionary idealism; in simple ideas, formulaic phrases,even invective...His correspondance and few political writings reveal a directness, even crudeness of expression...His reports to the Committee of Public Safety, are almost agreeable in their clarity and logic..
Brégeon, Carrier et la Terreur nantaise p.47.
On 27th July 1793 Carrier wrote to the Convention from Les Andelys, where he had been sent to secure the food supply.  In this letter his Revolutionary enthusiasm is almost lyrical.  Royalists have starved "that precious class of citizens which has made so many sacrifices for the Revolution and which upholds it with so much courage — the indigent class……" Revolutionary zeal among the local patriots is of the highest order:
Sentiments of a fraternity so sweet, a patriotism so humane, deserve a place in the annals of our Revolution.  My heart has never known a keener joy than that which it experienced among the citizens of Les Andelys.   I have never known people more devoted to the cause of humanity, fraternity, and Revolution.

In a letter of September 1793 to the Convention Carrier articulates the pessimistic assessment of Nantes which informed his later repression: "Brittany was the first to rise for the Revolution; it will be the first to move for a counter-revolution if it has any opportunity..The town which above all others requires your attention and care is Nantes..... I don't know what motives for circumspection there can be in the case of a town that might well become a second Lyons.

Jean-Clément Martin cites Gaston Martin's Carrier et sa mission à Nantes (1924) for a positive assessment of Carrier's abilities as an administrator.
In his book, which is an apology for Carrier,  Gaston-Martin describes in great detail the successes of the Representative.  His military, political and economic  “oeuvre” was more signficant than his terrorist measures….He carried out a regular census of grain in the town  and in the countryside.  The Maximum  was imposed on  merchants and shopkeepers  and he succeeded in avoiding any price rise in basic foodstuffs….This success was founded upon effective political surveillance. 
Martin, La Guerre de Vendée, p.22.

The noyades in context

Revelations about the noyades were used by the Thermidoreans to stigmatise their opponents and assert their authority.   
The act of accusation against the members of the Revolutionary Committee of Nantes, which was widely diffused, insisted particularly on the noyades, which rapidly became one of the most monstrous symbols of the Terror.  The image of bloody corpses washed up by the Loire, many of them naked women, was taken up in the pamplets; the rhetoric sought to show that even the purifying element of water had been polluted in the Terror of Year II.
Corinne Gomez-Le Chevanton,  "Le procès Carrier", AHRF, 2006

 "Everyday terror" in Nantes:
At risk of shocking, let us argue that the noyades were not what had most impact on the people of Nantes, confronted as they were by the noise of the firing squads, the carts full of bodies, the threat of epidemics, the economic difficulties and day-to-day surveillance activities.  Was Nantes an accomplice or a victim of the Terror?.....
When the terrorists fell, numerous prisoners demanded their liberty but...they did not complain about the proceedings, but the personal suffering they had sustained.  It seems that the Nantais - whether  through  fear, hostility towards  the rural population,  self-interest or conviction - accepted the Terror. ...The economic measures of Carrier cannot have displeased the poor people of Nantes, who benefitted from the price controls; everyone knew that they were at war, in a beseiged town, at continual risk of counter-revolutionary invasion.  Did they resent the oppression of a political system?  That is not certain: in 1795 they denounced men, not the terrorist machine....The great families of Nantes kept a low profile, paid their taxes and participated in the defence of the town...

The fall of Carrier was not due to the resistance of the people of Nantes, but the result of his disagreement with other radical revolutionary elements.
Martin, La Guerre de Vendée, p.220-222.

Local radicals: the "Marats"
The Marat Company of the local revolutionary army, which consisted of about 40 to 60 men, mostly illiterate small shopkeepers and artisans, in their thirties and married but poor enough to need the security of a soldier's pay.  Two features distinguished the members of this company from other revolutionary soldiers.  One was that all or nearly all had participated in the campaign against the Chouans, in the battalions of the Nantes National Guard; several had gathered up the mutilated corpses of their comrades, who had fallen into the hand of the peasants, and all lived in fear, knowing the fragility of the situation at Nantes, threatened on all sides by a violently counterrevolutionary countryside.  In the second place, nearly all were natives of Nantes……

All were possessed of a physical brutality unusual among the révolutionnaires of the Year II… They were, however, neither criminals nor brutes.  Circumstances had made them ferocious, and if [one]...had reached the point where he could push old men, women and children in the water,   it was due to his position as a member of a besieged terrorist minority in a town deeply hostile to the Revolution...They were limited individuals, made revolutionary by circumstances, dishonest too, but at the same time sincere revolutionaries who lived in fear ....[and] were very far removed from the easy-going and debonair révolutionnaires of the departments.  They operated amidst hatred and fear, brutally executing the commands of their superiors..and in the Year III most were released becaused they had 'not acted maliciously' but simply followed orders.

Several elements made up [their]  approval of the repression: a sense of preservation, a desire to punish, a thirst for revenge, class hatred, a wish to be rid of non-productive bouches inutiles, a hatred of priests, particularly refractory ones, and above all a hatred of the townsman for the countryman.  Uusally repression took place in areas far removed from one's own aand it was easier to use extreme brutality against  'étrangers' than against neighbours.  The victims of the noyades were only rarely Nantes people.
Richard Cobb, The People's Armies, trans. Marianne Elliott (1987) p.239-241; 387.

Carrier was not the only advocate of the systematic drowning of prisoners. The practice is attested in other towns at this time.  Fouquier-Tinville himself entertained the method to dispose of detainees condemned to deportation.  In the region noyades took place in January 1794 in Ancenis, Les-Ponts-de-Clé, Angers and Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, where they were known as "patriotic baptisms".  There were others in Saumur and, on 23rd February,  in the bay of Bourgneuf on the Atlantic coast...Although they were not denied and the representatives let them be known to the Convention, they were only referred to in euphemisms and oblique formulae....
 Martin, La Guerre de Vendée, p.225-226.

Carrier's personal responsibility

The Terror in Nantes, especially during Carrier's mission, still poses problems for historians today.  The uncertainties are many;  estimates of the number of victims vary;  the extent of the repression, and the respective functions and responsibilities of its protagonists are poorly measured - those of the representatives en mission, especially Carrier, of the revolutionary Committee, of the special police established by Carrier, with Lamberty and Fouquet at the head;  of the two military commissions, Bignon's and Lenoir's, who condemned 'bandits' to death after a procedure reduced to establishing their identity.  Uncertainties remain also on the ambivalent attitude of the town itself with regard to the repression;  certainly it suffered the terror, but to what extent was it an accomplice, approving, if only tacitly, the 'cleansing' of the town of these thousands of 'bandits' whom it was necessary to feed at a time of shortages and who were piled up in temporary prisons, true centres of epidemic? 

At the time of the trials of the Revolutionary Committee and of Carrier, these uncertainties are even greater; all the more so because this spectacular trial was badly run....To the chaotic character of the trial is added today the confusion of the different accounts...There are many differences between these versions, even contradictions, which it is often impossible to resolve...
Bronislaw Baczko, Ending the Terror (1994), p.148-9

  The role of Carrier remains mysterious. On the evidence, he permitted the repression and allowed its executors a free hand. But he gave no written order and, if his henchmen later claimed they had received orders “by word of mouth”, there is no actual proof.  However, his assent to their actions is indisputable.  He saw large scale execution of prisoners as a means to counter the danger of epidemics and the difficulties of provisioning.  Against the wishes of  the president of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Phelippes-Tronjoly, who wanted the forms of justice respected and the guillotine employed,  he imposed significant large scale executions without trial  [ attested for 17th and 19th December 1793]…..

The reality of the noyades is not in doubt and,  if it will never be known whether he ordered them or not, he claimed them before Convention.  His letters have been abundently cited...His denials at the time of his trial, his efforts to shift responsibility entirely  onto Fouquet and Lamberty , count for little.   Whatever Carrier's personality, the personal role he played, the crimes of which he was accused, the legal use of noyades is amply established and attests to the severity of repression, in Nantes but also elsewhere.  Nantes and Carrier retained the attention of the country in 1794 and all historiography since, because of the large numbers killed and, above all, because of the resonance of the trial of 1794 which marked a turning point in the political history of the country.
Martin, La Guerre de Vendée, p.218-20.

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