Drownings at Nantes

During the Reign of Terror, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, a member of the Revolutionary Tribunal, was sent to Nantes to suppress a revolt by anti-revolutionaries. Later, in his capacity as the représentant en mission, Carrier set up what was called the “Legion of Marat.” The Legion of Marat was composed of soldiers who received “ten livres a day.” Their job was to watch the inhabitants of Nantes and give mandates of arrest against persons they suspected of being disloyal to the revolution. Moreover, the soldiers could search any suspect’s house and request doors be broken down if inhabitants did not willing open them. 

Jean-Baptiste Carrier, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France Drownings at Nantes
Jean-Baptiste Carrier

In addition to the Legion of Marat, Carrier was responsible to set up a tribunal and conduct “fair” trials for the accused. Once prisoners were found guilty, the Legion of Marat was responsible to quickly dispose of the guilty. But because so many prisoners were found guilty, Carrier invented a variety of disposal methods. Among the disposal methods was a firing squad where the condemned were lined up and shot one by one. However, there were other extremely torturous ways to execute people.

One of Carrier’s most unpleasant and sadistic execution methods was mass drownings (noyades), which Carrier and his minions nicknamed “immersions,” “bathing parties,” or “national baptisms.” The first mass of drownings involved Catholic priests, called the “refractory clergy.” The priests had been arrested and held at Saint-Clément Convent before being transferred to Nantes. On the evening of 16 November 1793, a special customized barge was taken to the docks and ninety condemned priests ordered to be drowned at once. The barges were railed off so that the condemned priests could not jump overboard. When the barge was “at a certain distance, valves in the sides of the vessel were opened, and … [the barge] sunk.”

If the drownings were not dramatic enough, “boats with guards followed in the wake of the ship, and whenever a priest appeared struggling with the waves, he became a target for ball practise.” Despite the guards best efforts to kill the priests, however, three escaped. The three priests were rescued by sailors, but the sailors were forced to return the priests to Carrier. The next night the three priests were taken with more priests and drown. After the drownings, a great feast “costing forty thousand livres” was held on the barge. Someone reported that Carrier celebrated by toasting “in the very boat, used for the drowning of the unhappy victims.”

This was the first wave in a series of executions that continued until February 1794. However, it was not just priests that Carrier executed in Nantes: Old men, pregnant women, and young children were killed. No one was safe, as every age, every sex, and every class of people were drowned and done so without distinction. Moreover, it was said of Carrier that he did his work so well, “the Loire was poisoned by corpses, that its use for drinking and cooking was prohibited.”

Sometimes Carrier’s drownings also had a sexual component. For instance, at first, people were drowned in their clothes until one day Carrier announced something new called “Republican marriages.” Republican marriages were celebrated in the following way:

“[It involved] stripping boys and girls, then lashing them together face to face, and … turning them round in a most ingenious sort of waltz to national music, until they reached the river or field of execution, where they were either cast into the Loire, or massacred by a detachment of the armée Revolutionnaire.”

A gunner named Wailly was aboard La Samaritain when he and his friends witnessed some of the drownings at Nantes. Wailly left a first-person account. He claimed he witnessed “the most horrible carnage” and heard the most “horrible cries.” He also noted that after people’s deaths, those that perished became prey to their executioners. The dead were stripped of “their clothes, their jewelry, their assignats,” and everything sold to the highest bidder.

Accounts of the number of victims at Nantes varies. However, according to the journalist and historian, Louis-Marie Prudhomme, the victims under Carrier amounted to 32,000. He provided a partial breakdown, which is shown in the table below and lists how 10,244 victims were executed:

The residents of Nantes watched as their friends, neighbors, and relatives were caught up in Carrier’s net. Finally, they began to turn against him, but about this same time, Carrier was recalled to Paris. A few month’s later Robespierre fell from power, and a critical look at Carrier’s conduct in Nantes began. At the same time, prisoners Carrier had brought to Paris from Nantes were examined, acquitted, and released. This lead to further indignation and denunciations against Carrier and his actions at Nantes.

Maximilien Robespierre, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Maximilien Robespierre

On 3 September 1794 justice was finally served against Carrier. He was arrested for his iniquities at Nantes, and all sorts of accusations of inhumanity were leveled against him. Carrier was as unemotional as he had been vigorous in drowning those resistant to the revolution in Nantes. He brazenly denounced the accusations saying:

“I took but little share in the policing of Nantes; I was only there in passing … Hence I have little information to offer … I know little or nothing of the accused.”

The jury thought otherwise and voted unanimously for his execution. He was guillotined on 16 December 1794.

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