Monday, 11 December 2017

Lenotre on the "noyades" of Nantes

This year I have grown a little tired of Lenotre's mawkishly sentimental Christmas tales.  Instead, on an altogether more sombre theme, here are some extracts from his classic account of the "noyades de Nantes",  which took place in the winter of 1793-94.  Lenotre's text, translated into English in 1912, remains grimly evocative;  my accompanying notes are summarised  from Jean-Joël Brégeon's modern study Carrier et la Terreur nantaise (2016).

According to Brégeon, the "drownings" - one of the worst atrocities of the Terror - were not the result of a systematic plan.  They arose as "la fuite en avant", a response to complex conditions, which then took on  a momentum of their own.  By the end of 1793 the radicals of Nantes, leaded by the Jacobin proconsul, Jean-Baptiste Carrier faced organisational crisis as the population of the once-prosperous port swelled with wounded and sick soldiers, republican refugees and, above all,  prisoners from the conflict in the Vendée. The illegal execution of these unwanted and pestilence-ridden "mouths" was an ever-present temptation.

The First noyade

The first victims of the noyades were a hundred and sixty refractory priests. The idea of drowning priests was not entirely novel; it had already mooted in speech by Louis Legendre in the Jacobins, who suggested loading them onto the maries-salopes of Brest and floating them out to sea. 

Following the Law of 26 August 1792, which ordered the deportation of refractories, Nantes was one of the centres in which they were concentrated for embarkation.  The majority were shipped to Spain under the protection of the revolutionary authorities;  only the old and infirm remained in Nantes.  On 25th October 1793, eighty-six detainees were transferred from the former capuchin convent to the Dutch galliot La Gloire, where they were battened down in the hold and confined in the most abject conditions.  With their allowance of 25 sous per day withdrawn, they were reduced to starvation; soon the majority were more dead than alive. Carrier, however, signalled his desire to be rid of these “foutus calotins” altogether.

A "Dutch galliot", illustration from Lenotre.  
A galliot ("galiote") was a large fishing vessel with a square mainsail and two triangular sails forward.
The galliot was moored opposed the Sécherie, a quai surrounded by private warehouses. Carrier’s lieutenant, Lamberty, secured passage through one of these warehouses in order to transfer the priests to a gabare, a flat-bottomed lighter.  A boatbuilder called Baudet was employed to insert hatches so that it could be easily scuppered, supposedly as part of a barracade to protect the harbour. Carrier himself was absent in Angers from 1st to 5th November but his complicity is confirmed by his allocation of funds for the project.

On Carrier's return, Lamberty received an order to allow him free movement with his “gabareau chargé de brigands”. (This order was to be one of the most damning pieces of evidence at Carrier’s eventual trial).

The drowning was carried out on the night of 16th-17th November.  A gunner called Wailly (or Vailly), on one of the pontoons guarding the  entrance to the Sécherie, testified that he was asked by eight men in a canoe to let pass the lighter which they said had on board ninety “brigands”.  When Wailly refused, the revolutionary Fouquet showed him the order signed by Carrier.  A quarter of an hour later Wailly heard noise and shouts which made him understand what had happened.  

Three survivors of this first drowning -  the rector of Corsept, a priest from the parish of Sainte-Croix in Nantes, and one other another identity is not certain -  were picked up by fisherman, only to be returned by the authorities to the galliot, and to perish in the second noyade.  A fourth, Julien Landeau rector of Saint-Lyphard, managed to remain at liberty and lived to leave an account.  Several bodies were washed ashore at Chantenay and Basse-Indre but were hastily buried.

The Second noyade

Again it was Lamberty who was the prime mover.  Preparations took place in a certain amount of disorder, since certain members of the local armée révolutionnaire, “ les Marats” led by Foucauld, set about robbing the ecclesiastics of their meagre personal possessions.  On the galliot  were fifty-eight priests who had arrived from Angers. Transferred to a specially adapted barge, they were taken far from the port to the entry of the estuary; opposiite the pointe d’Indret. This time there were no survivors.  The sources record unseemly quarrels over the pickings:   Foucauld himself took possession of a pair of shoes that he was still wearing at the time of the trial of the Committee; Lamberty complained vocally to Carrier and was awarded the galliot itself in compensation.

Carrier profited from the occasion of Haxo's victory over Charette to write to Paris that the priests had been engulfed by the “revolutionary torrent” of the Loire.   His letter was greeted with applause in the Convention.


The priest are transferred to the galliot La Gloire

The transfer of the priests took place on October 28th.  From the prison in the former couvent des Petits-Capucins  to the Sechérie the way was not long; the sloping gardens of the convent led down to the quay, and it was easy to avoid exposing the pitiable procession to the sympathy of passers-by…….

A mere perusal of the list of captives will enable one to imagine the descent of this band, lengthened out, according to the strength of each : their shaking heads, grey hairs, bent figures, tottering legs. One was a Capuchin of eighty, Father Kermoran ; another in the same decade. Abbé Lemercier, priest of Guérande; a vicar in Nantes, well known by the whole city, Abbé Fleuriau, seventy-nine years of age; the former rector of Gorges, M. Dugast, had also told seventy-eight years.  Two were helpless: Abbées Briand and Lamarre; while another, Abbé Leroy, though young, hobbled on two crutches. Ninety of them in all, carrying under their arms all they owned in small parcels — supporting, helping each other, urged on by the soldiers, hurried by Commissary Viau, who was in charge of the embarkation. Then the mustering of the miserable band along the quay, its difficult scramble into wherries tossed by the waves, the shocks and buffet ings, the transport in groups towards the galliot, up the sides of which awkward shapes are seen from a distance painfully mounting, to be seized by men at the bulwarks, and disappear at once, swallowed by the 'tween- decks. 

The hatches being reclosed, a guard of soldiers was placed on board the galliot. How did the priests live, packed so closely in this floating prison ? Who fed them ? There are signs to show that daring Nantais managed to slip on board and take them victuals ; it is known that at least one woman came habitually to bring food to one of the captives, and assuredly this was not an isolated instance. But officially no further mention is made of them. ….

The  noyade

On November 16th, when night had fully fallen,[Lamberty]  proceeded to the Sechérie accompanied by [his lieutenant] Fouquet. Some men of the Marat Company escorted him, for they had to beware of the soldiers, and had induced adjutant-general Boivin, commanding the town, to withdraw the guard stationed on board the galliot.  Lamberty posted a sentinel at Dame Pichot's wine-shop to watch the quay, and made off with the rest of his band.  Some moments later the hostess later testified that she saw through the night the barge gliding along the water, a broad and deep coffin, which from their “bachots", the boatmen, were guiding towards the galliot. 

They range alongside, and Fouquet, Lamberty, Foucauld, and the others climb on board. How many of them are there ? Who gave the order ? No one knows. It is impossible to unravel from the abundance of testimony how the perpetrators shared the work between them. No picture that we can form for ourselves could exceed the tragedy of that moment, the attitude of these men coming in cold blood and without instructions to commit the craftiest and most deliberate of murders upon this herd of old men, sick and crippled, whom no tribunal had condemned to death. There must have been a warder on the galliot. What pretext did they use to get him to hand over the prisoners ? No doubt a fictitious order of removal. Who had the effrontery to descend first into the 'tween-decks where the poor wretches lay, or to awake and warn them ? We only know that to avert all resistance, however improbable, they had received beforehand, in view of a fresh transfer, an invitation to place their watches, money, and whatever they valued most in the hands of the commandant. These articles, they were assured, would be given back to them at the manor-house of La Musse, at Chantenay, whither they were to be taken.  Thanks to this warning, when the captives saw Lamberty and his myrmidons appear in the 'tween-decks, they told themselves that their transfer was now going to take place. …

Lamberty brought the captives out of the 'tween-decks, two by two. They were searched/ deprived of everything of any value whatever, then tied one to another, and the couple thus trussed was let down into the barge moored alongside the galliot. Then two more were called. It was done politely, with excuses — “ merely as a precaution," they said, "and in no way to incommode them."  

In the " gabare" they fell placidly into three rows. None of them had an inkling of imminent death. Still, when M. Hervé de la Bauche, vicar of Machecoul, took his place, he drew his neighbour's attention to the fact that the flat white stones lying at the bottom of the lighter in the guise of ballast hid holes by which water entered. Another remarked that, as the craft seemed far from sound, they would do well to absolve each other. All thereupon took to their prayers and blessed each other piously. The moon, now at its full, silvered in the distance the broad face of the  river, which the ebb drew in great gurgling eddies towards the sea. 

The cargo was complete. Lamberty, O'Sullivan, and Fouquet, in order to furnish escort to the barge, ensconced themselves with several " Marats " on a wherry, and at once the moorings were severed. Gauthier and Foucaud remained on board the galliot. The heavy pine hull, carried by the retreating tide, got under weigh with the current, towing the wherry in which stood the drowners ready to direct the final manoeuvre : it was about half after midnight.  They were scarcely a few cables' lengths from the galliot when, as the barge and its pilots were passing the floating battery La Samaritaine, a peremptory challenge rung out on the bright night. It came from the deck of the battery, where sentinels were posted. A voice from the boat sent up the reply, " Commander, we are coming on board! "  

Accordingly, the master-gunner of the pontoon — his name was Vailly — saw coming towards him the boat with eight men on board, among them Fouquet and Lamberty. These two  hoisted themselves on board, and the latter, explaining that he was in charge of a barge full of brigands, asked leave to pass. Vailly replied that, embargo being the order of the day, he could let no vessel pass along the river. Fouquet became angry, threatening to cut the insolent gunner to pieces, and protesting that he and his men were authorised to pass anywhere. But Vailly obstinately demanded that such authorisation should be shown him. Lamberty at length drew from his pocket Carrier's order, and the other, on reading it, insisted no longer.^ He and Fouquet then sprang into their boat and bade the rowers catch up the barge. A moment later Vailly, still on the watch, saw the latter pass slowly in the dim light by his battery.^ No sound proceeded from this great ark, gliding down the meandering stream. Doubtless the bound priests were collecting their thoughts and praying. Borne by the stream, it floated down the river in touch with the executioners' wherry. In a few moments it had passed Trentemoult, which is on the left bank ; had left Chantenay on the right, and entered the vast basin above Chevire Island, where the river, spreading like an inlet, is 1700 feet in breadth. This was the suitable spot. 

Lamberty's men, with heavy blows from mallets, then opened the ports ;  the rushing waters burst in torrents into the barge, while at the same time they began to roar at the bottom, displacing the tufa blocks which served as ballast. From the passengers, as yet silent, a clamour arose. The hapless wretches were heard struggling and calling for help. One of the soldiers that manned the boat, being somewhat of a wag, boarded the barge and crept to the centre. The victims, now on their feet, were jostling each other, the water being already to mid-leg. Eager to add insult to the frightful death-struggle which was beginning, the man pretended to bale the water, using as scoop a chestnut-roaster full of holes. The farce over, he came up and got back to his boat which was already sheering off, so as not to be dragged down in the coming whirl, and the barge, now left to itself, logged by the infiowing waters, went its way in the night down-stream, slowly settling down as it went. She was already out of sight when, in the deep silence, a long-drawn cry arose from the horizon where her black outline was vanishing, an outcry of heartrending anguish, which suddenly died down. All was silent, extinguished, swallowed up.

The deed was done ! A few strokes of the oar brought the boat to the spot where the lighter had sunk. Here and there black forms tossed by the eddies still struggled and strove desperately. The boat gave chase to them; a few blows with boat-hooks or with the sweeps, and in a moment or two all was over. As far as eye could see nought floated on the vast reaches of the river. ... 

The drowning had gone off well, though not perfectly ; for there still remained something more to achieve. Thus he learned that three of the priests, having succeeded in undoing their bonds, had escaped death. One had been saved by a fisherman, while the current had carried the other two to the bank.  All three had been picked up by the men of the Imposant and were on board that ship, lying in Lavigne Harbour. The trouble, to be sure, was of the smallest ; the Revolutionary Committee had only to claim the three priests of Captain Laflerie, in command of the Imposant. A fellow named Racau brought them back to the galliot, and all that was necessary was to throw them back into the water next morning. More by token, Foucaud took advantage of his luck to take possession, before the plunge, of the foot- gear of one of them, and thus became master of a good pair of shoes, in which he paraded, and which long served his turn in wear.

There was another hitch more serious. Whether the ports had been too widely opened, or that, being dashed against some sandbank, the fragile hghter had been damaged, that craft had not, as was desired, retained the corpses, but, borne by the current, they were drifting at the mercy of the waves. A fisherman picked up in the tideway a book, a basket, a small box full of butter, and five hats which " lacked the tricolour cockade." ' A drowned man was found on the sand, near the Basse Indre, and instantly buried.^ Another floated as far as Lavau. At Chantenay, on November 19th, the rising tide left on shore the body of an old man about seventy-five, clad in a Capuchin habit, and six others in knee-breeches, cassocks, and black stockings. The body of a man of eighty was recognised as that of M. Fleuriau, incumbent of St. Jean at Nantes. One whom they did not succeed in identifying had the left hand torn off. The victim, seeking to rid him self of his bonds, had only mutilated himself.
These grim jetsoms were noised abroad, and Nantes was no longer ignorant of the drowning ; but as no man protested, this general silence might be taken as approbation, and from that point of view the success of the experiment was complete. 


G. Lenotre, Tragic episodes of the French Revolution in Brittany (1912)

Jean-Joël Brégeon, Carrier et la Terreur nantaise (2016, first ed. 1987)

No comments:

Post a comment