We have already heard tell of the 22 Prairial that Robespierre pushed into existence, a move that was to prove fatally misjudged. The new law was aimed at those suspected of being counter-revolutionaries; with the passing of the 22 Prairial such suspects could be executed without due process. Citizens were appalled not only at what the law allowed but also at what they saw as Robespierre's gross misuse of his powers. The 22 Prairial had been passed without discussion in the Committee of General Security and this only solidified suspicions that Robespierre was out of control, making sweeping and dictatorial decisions without proper consultation.
However, the people of Nantes had more to worry about than falling foul of Robespierre. The city was overwhelmed by casualties being brought in from the war in the Vendée and the people lived in constant fear of starvation and disease. Prisoners of war and of the revolution were dying at an alarming rate in prison and the National Convention entrusted the region to the care of Jean-Baptiste Carrier, naming him as republican representative to Nantes. In fact, Carrier took something of a scorched earth approach to the area, declaring that he would leave not one enemy of the revolution alive, a policy that attracted the full support of the Committee of Public Safety.
As night fell on 16th November 1793 Carrier requested that almost 200 Catholic priests who were being held on the prison barge, La Gloire, be assembled on the dock. Here a customised barge waited for them and 90 of the priests were bound and herded onto the vessel. With the prisoners packed tight and helpless, the craft was piloted out into the Loire where it was scuppered. All but three of the prisoners on board suffered a terrifying death by drowning and for the trio that tried to swim for safety, respite was short-lived. Picked up by a naval ship that had heard the screams of the dying men, the escapees were soon tracked down and returned to custody to be killed in the second wave of executions on the following evening.
|Jean-Baptiste Carrier by François Séraphin Delpech, 1830|
This was just the first of a series of executions by that would go on until February 1794 in which men, women and children were drowned without mercy or appeal as Carrier's regime crushed all those seen as resisting the ideals of the Revolution. Judges in the region approved mass lists of names for execution and these terrified unfortunates all perished beneath the dark waters of the Loire. Carrier's soldiers laid waste to large areas of the district in a ceaseless search for the perceived enemies, with a modified barge eventually being engineered that made use of special hatches that allowed the executions to be as efficient as possible.
As his reign continued, Carrier found the people of Nantes turning against him. They watched with increasing fear as their neighbours and friends went to their deaths, towns and farms set ablaze in the tireless search for insurgents, with some of those arrested and drowned as young as five years old. Eventually though Carrier's reign came to a shuddering end when reports of his behaviour were looked at more closely and on 3rd September 1794, Carrier was arrested. He claimed to have no knowledge of the drownings, explaining that his role had been mainly one intended to stabilise the economy and manage the troops. His defence convinced no one and he was executed by guillotine on 16th December 1794.
On the anniversary of that first terrible night it is hard to imagine the terror of those who went out on the barge to their death, yet they were the first of thousands to die in the Loire. They were persecuted on account of faith, suspicion and paranoia at the order of a politician who, as so many did, eventually fell victim to his own ambition and cruelty.