Wednesday, 27 September 2017

A Norwegian sea captain meets Robespierre

In 1793 a sympathetic Robespierre  helped the Norwegian merchant seaman,  Nicolay Linde (1755-1821)  to regain his ship which had been impounded by the Revolutionary authorities.  The circumstances of the Norwegian's encounter with Robespierre were recounted by his son, who died in 1879, and published in the journal Morganbladet in 1928 (translated for the Annales historiques de la Révolution française in the same year.) 

As one might expect from a third-hand account, many years later, some of the details are a doubtful - I wonder whether Robespierre would really have been seated at home dressed in his signature striped coat and "nankeen breeches" ?   Also the references to gout are odd, though it is known that Robespierre did suffer from an ulcerated leg.  Nonetheless the narrative is interesting;  not least for its naive and unusually sympathetic portrait.

In 1793 a Norwegian sea captain called Nicolay Linde, sailed from Bergen in the brig "Charlotte" with a cargo of fish eggs.  He landed at Douarnenez in Brittany only to have his ship detained  by the agents of the Revolutionary government.  The mayor advised him to go to Paris to appeal to Robespierre, and he made the arduous journey by stagecoach (which took six days and six nights).  On his arrival he was puzzled to find that  his intention to visit Robespierre was greeted only with smiles. He was bewildered to see in the streets processions of carts filled with men and women, some laughing and singing, others declaiming and crying. 

He found somewhere to stay and was eventually taken to the rue Saint-Honoré, to the atelier of a carpenter called Duplay.  Linde had difficulty believing that the most powerful man in France could occupy so modest a lodging, for the house was nothing more than a shed for carts.  He began to fear that his trip had been futile.  The place was very quiet with no-one around.  A Virginia creeper spread its dense leaves all over the house and covered the walls so completely that only the windows, with their little panes of glass, were visible.  Linde's guide, seizing his hand,  pointed to some windows among the foliage and said to him, "Robespierre sits up there"; then he left.  After climbing up a steep staircase, which creaked at his every step, he found a open door giving onto a room with a table in the middle.  A man was seated at it, in a light coloured striped coat, nankin breeches and white stockings covering his thin calves.  One of this person's feet, enveloped in bandages, rested on a chair under the table and Linde got the impression that he had been wounded.  His face was pockmarked and his complexion yellow, but his hair was carefully powdered and finished with a silk ribbon at the neck.  As soon as he saw Linde standing in the doorway he put on a pair of green spectacles, and said a few words, upon which a second person came out from behind a screen and stood by the window.  Linde took a step into the room and said that he was looking for a certain Monsieur Robespierre.

"What do you want with him?" said the man seated at the table.  Linde showed his passport and certificate, explained who he was and the misfortune that had befallen his brig,  and how he had come to Paris at the Mayor's advice to seek the help of Robespierre, the most powerful man in the country.  The person looked at Linde through his green glasses for a moment, then read his passport and certificate and finally invited him to sit down on a chair near the table.

"It is me whom you seek," he said, "and it would be my pleasure to render you a service.  I am sorry not to be able to do you the politeness of getting up: today gout prevents me."  Linde was then asked all about his first voyages to France, and about his relations; then Robespierre wanted to know how much the cargo was worth. "Unfortunately," he said, when he had obtained the information  he required, "I cannot help you on my own.  I will have to speak to the Committee of Public Safety.  Come again at the same time tomorrow, and we shall see."  And Robespierre held out his hand to Linde, to take leave of him, asking him again to excuse the fact that he did not get up because of the gout.  He nodded his head smiling, and said, "Au revoir monsieur", when Linde took his leave.

Linde found Monsieur Robespierre one of the most sympathetic gentlemen that he had ever met: so affable and courteous towards a complete stranger!  And further, that warm handshake seemed like a guarantee that his ship and cargo would be returned to him.  But in the streets he discovered that a strange silence reigned everywhere: he encountered lamentable convoys of prisoners, miserable carts careering through the streets....Finding it all very ominous, he hurried back to his lodgings.  There he had the impression that his host was astonished to see him again...

The next day, he returned at the appointed hour at the house in the rue Saint-Honoré. But this time he had to wait two hours to be received, as there were many people on the staircase and in front of the door waiting their turn to speak with the most powerful man in France.  When Linde went in, Robespierre was seated as he was the previous day, with his bad foot up on a chair.  Linde shook his hand, saying that he hoped his gout was better.  Robespierre thanked him and agreed that yes, it was a little better.  Behind Robespierre this time were seated two men in bonnets rouges, silent and watchful.

[Robespierre obliging gave Linde  the price of his cargo and a document guaranteeing the liberty of his ship and his person.]

Linde got up and gave Robespierre a long and fervent handshake, saying that he had never met a better man, although he had travelled throughout the world.  The green glasses that Robespierre was wearing prevented Linde from seeing his eyes, but he noticed that he was smiling, as were the two men in the bonnets rouges behind him.  Linde signed his receipt and took his money.  But as he was about to leave, Robespierre called him back, and gave him a safeconduct in case he was arrested once he left Paris.  Linde once again shook hands with Robespierre who once more excused himself for not being able to get up and see him to the door.

[Thanks to the safe conduct, Linde was able to regain his ship and successfully leave France].


Adolphe Berg and Marcel Simon, "Le capitaine Linde chez Robespierre: aventure d'un pêcheur de Bergen pendant la Revolution", Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 1928, 29: 457-62.

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