A Book of the Riviera/Chapter 5
Coudon and Faron—Telo Martins—Dye works—Toulon made an arsenal and dockyard—Galley slaves—The Bagne—The Red Caps—Travaux forcés—Story of Cognard—Siege of 1793—Carteaux and Napoleon—Massacre Expedition to Egypt.
THE precipices of limestone, Coudon, 1,205 and Faron, 1,790 feet, standing as guardians over Toulon, crowned with gleaming circles of white fortifications, effectually protect the great arsenal and dockyards of this place of first importance to France. Coudon looks out over the crau towards the Gulf of Hyères, and would effectually prevent attack thence; and Faron, standing immediately above the harbour of Toulon, could sink any fleet that ventured within range. Indeed, till these two fortresses should be silenced, Toulon would be impregnable.
Faron (Pharus) as its name implies, was formerly the beacon height to the Rade. During the night a fire was flaming on its summit, during the day moistened straw was burnt to send up a column of smoke. This language of signals communicated to the population of the coast the appearance on the horizon of vessels suspected of piratical intent. The beacon of Faron communicated with other beacons on heights within sight of one another. The keeping up of these signals on points
of observation was essential to the protection of the coast, and the archives of Toulon contain a series of agreements concluded between the town and the neighbouring places, for the maintenance of the watch-tower of Faron, as also that of Six Fours, one of the most ancient lighthouses of France.
Toulon, the Latin Telo Martius, was originally a Phœnician settlement for the preparation of the famous Tyrian die, made out of the shell of the murex The Latins called it the Telo of Mars, the God of War, because, as lover of blood, he was patron as well of the dye, which ranged through all the gamut of tints from crimson to blue-purple.
The town was ravaged successively by Franks and Saracens, and sank to insignificance; it did not become a place of maritime and military importance till the sixteenth century, when Henry IV. built the forts of Ste. Catherine and S. Antoine, and the two great moles that flank the port; he was the first to discern that the pivot of defence of Provence lay here. Louis XIV. confided to Colbert the reorganisation of the fleet; and for the purpose dockyards, workshops of all descriptions, were needed. The basins were enlarged and deepened, and Vauban received instructions to extend the quays, construct fortifications, surround the city with a series of star forts, according to the system that has immortalised his name, and, in a word, make of Toulon the first arsenal of France. It was due to this that the place was able to withstand the sieges of 1707 and 1793. Toulon was, moreover, made the largest convict establishment of France; and the convicts were employed on the work of its defences, in excavating basins, and building quays and warehouses.
In ancient times—indeed, from the classic period the arduous and exhausting work of rowing vessels was given to slaves and prisoners. No free man would
endure the toil and hardship of the galleys. War vessels, merchantmen, and pleasure yachts were alike propelled by this unfortunate class of men. Jacques Cœur, the banker, had four coquettish galleys with gilded prows and oars, propelled by prisoners hired for his service. Each of these vessels had at the bows a sacred image, wreathed with flowers, of the saint whose name it bore. There was La Madeleine, S. Jacques, S. Michel, and S. Denis. Charles VII. seized them all; he did not leave a single boat to the fugitive merchant, whose only fault was that he had made the King of France his debtor to the amount of a hundred thousand crowns.
In a large galley as many as six men were required for each oar. Sweating close together, for hour after hour, not sitting, but leaping on the bench, in order to throw their whole weight on the oar, they were kept to their task with little relaxation.
"Think of six men, chained to a bench, naked as when they were born; one foot on the stretcher, and the other on the bench in front, holding an immensely heavy oar (15 feet long), bending forward to the stern with arms at full reach to clear the backs of the rowers in front, who bend likewise; and then, having got forward, shoving up the oar's end, to let the blade catch the water, then throwing their bodies back on to the groaning bench. A galley was thus propelled sometimes for ten, twelve, or even twenty hours, without a moment's rest. The boatswain in such a stress puts a piece of bread steeped in wine into the wretched rower's mouth to stop fainting, and then the captain shouts the order to redouble the lash. If a slave falls exhausted upon his oar (which often happens), he is flogged till he is taken for dead, and then pitched unceremoniously into the sea."
Jean Marteille, of Bergerac, who was himself on the galleys about the year 1701, thus described the life:—
"Those who have not seen a galley at sea, especially in chasing or being chased, cannot well conceive the shock such a spectacle must give to a heart capable of the least tincture of compassion. To behold ranks and files of half naked, half starved, half tanned, meagre wretches, chained to a plank, from which they do not remove for months together (commonly half a year), urged on even beyond human endurance, with cruel and repeated blows on their bare flesh, to the incessant toil at the most laborious of all exercises, which often happens in a furious chase,—was indeed a horrifying spectacle."
To be condemned to the galleys was not necessarily a life sentence. At first all such as were sent thither were branded on the shoulder with GAL, but afterwards this was changed to T.F. for Travaux forcés, or T.P. if for life; and each class wore a special coloured cap. Great was the indignation felt at the Revolution, on ascertaining that the red cap of Liberty was what was worn by one class of gaol-birds. A member of the Convention rose and demanded that this honourable badge should be removed from their heads; and amidst thunders of applause, the motion was carried. A special commissioner was despatched to Toulon to order the abolition of the red cap from the Bagne. Accordingly all the caps were confiscated and burnt. But the National Convention had made no provision for replacing the red cap with one of another colour,
consequently the prisoners had for some time to go bare-headed. In 1544 the Archbishop of Bourges sent a couple of priests and two other clerks to the
captain of the galleys at Toulon, and required him to put them to hard labour. But this was regarded by the Parliament as an infringement of its rights, and the captain was ordered to send the clerics back to the archbishop.
Men were condemned to the galleys for every sort of crime and fault. Many a wretched Huguenot toiled at the oar. Often enough a nobleman laboured beside a man belonging to the dregs of the people. Haudriquer de Blancourt, in love with a lady of good rank, to flatter her made a false entry in her pedigree, so as to enhance her nobility. There ensued an outcry among heralds, and for this De Blancourt was sent to the galleys.
As naval construction and science improved, oars were no longer employed, and sails took their places; the galleys were moored at Toulon, Brest and Roquefort, and acquired the name of Bagnes. The derivation is uncertain. By some it is supposed to be derived from the Provençal bagna, which signifies "moored," by others from the prisons of the slaves near the Bagno, or baths of the seraglio at Constantinople.
Louis XVI. abolished torture, which had filled the Bagne with cripples. Thenceforth the Bagne ceased to be an infirmary of martyrs, and became a workshop of vigorous labourers. The Revolution of 1789 tore up all the old codes, but it maintained the galleys, only it changed the name of Galerien to Travaux forcés à temps, ou à perpetuité. No one formerly seemed to be sensible to the horrible brutality of the galleys. When Madame de Grignan wrote an account of a visit to one of them to her friend Mme de Sévigné, that lady replied "she would much like to see this sort of Hell," with "the men groaning day and night under the weight of their chains."
Furthenbach, in his Architectura navalis (Ulm, 1629), says that the convict in a galley received 28 ounces of biscuit per week, and a spoonful of a mess of rice and vegetables. The full complement of a large galley consisted of 270 rowers, with captain, chaplain, doctor, boatswain, master, and ten to fifteen gentlemen adventurers, friends of the captain, sharing his mess, and berthed in the poop; also about eighteen marines and ten warders, a carpenter, cook, cooper, and smith, &c., and from fifty to sixty soldiers; so that the whole equipage of a galley must have reached a total of four hundred men.
The Bagne has seen strange inmates. Perhaps no story of a forçat is more extraordinary than that of Cognard, better known as the Count of Pontis de Sainte-Hélène. This man, who seemed to have been born to command, was well built, tall, and singularly handsome, with a keen eye and a lofty carriage. This fellow managed to escape from the Bagne, and made his way into Spain, where he formed an acquaintance with the noble family of Pontis de Sainte-Hélène, and by some means, never fully cleared up, blotted the whole family out of life and secured all their papers, and thenceforth passed himself off as a Pontis. Under this name he became a sub-lieutenant in the Spanish army, then rose to be captain of a squadron, and after the attack on Montevideo, gained the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Later he formed a foreign legion, and took part in the political struggles in the Peninsula. He affected the most rigid probity in all matters of military accounts, and denounced two of the officers who had been guilty of embezzlement. But these men, in their own defence, accused Pontis of malversion, and General Wimpfen had him arrested. He escaped, but was caught, and transferred to Palma, among the French prisoners. In the bay was lying a Spanish brig. Cognard proposed to his fellow prisoners to attempt to capture it. The coup de main succeeded, and after having taken the brig, they sailed for Algiers, where they sold the vessel, and went to Malaga, then in French occupation. Count Pontis was given a squadron under the Duke of Dalmatia; and when the French army retreated he was accorded a battalion in the lOOth regiment of the line.
At the siege of Toulouse, the Count of Pontis, at the head of a flying column, took an English battery. At Waterloo he was wounded.
In 1815 the Count was made Knight of Saint Louis, and given a battalion in the legion of the Seine, and in six months was promoted to be lieutenant-colonel. One day the Duc de Berri asked him if he were one of the noble Spanish House of Ste. Hélène. "Pardieu, mon prince," answered Cognard, "je suis noble, et de la vielle roche encore."
Cognard, covered with decorations, in his rich uniform, at the head of his regiment, at reviews—might well have pushed his fortune further, but for an unfortunate meeting. One day, as commander of his corps, he presided, near the column of the Place Vendôme, at a military degradation; when an old Toulon convict, who had been released, observed him, eyed him attentively, and, convinced that he recognised an old comrade of the Bagne, in a fit of spleen and envy, denounced him as such.
The general Despinois sent for Pontis, and finding that there was much that was equivocal on his part, despatched him, under the charge of four gens d'armes, to the Abbaye. There he obtained from the officer permission to change his linen, was allowed to return to his quarters, possessed himself of a pair of pistols, and escaped. Six months after, the Count Pontis de Sainte Hélène, lieutenant-colonel of the legion of the Seine, Knight of S. Louis and of the legion of honour, was recaptured, convicted of appearing under a false name, suspected of the murder of the Pontis family, recognised as an evaded convict, and was sent to end his days in the Bagne at Brest.
In October, 1793, a disorderly mob of soldiers and revolutionary cut-throats, under the command of the painter Carteaux, after having dyed their hands in the blood of six thousand of their countrymen, whom they had massacred at Lyons, invested Toulon, which had shut its gates against the revolutionary army, and had thrown open its port to the English. The town was crowded with refugees from Marseilles, and its bastions were occupied by a mixed multitude of defenders, Sardinians, Spaniards, French, and English, united in nothing save in common hatred of the monsters who were embrued in blood.
The investing army was divided into two corps, separated by the Faron. On the west was Ollioules, where Carteaux had established his headquarters. The commander-in-chief, ignorant of the first principles of military science, and allowing his wife to draw out the orders for the day, and sign them as Femme Carteaux, had planted his batteries where they could do no injury to the English fleet. The siege had begun in September; it dragged on through October. There was organisation neither in the host nor in the commissariat. The army was composed partly of troops detached from that of Italy, mainly of volunteers set at liberty by the taking of Lyons, and a horde of Marseillais ruffians, animated by hopes of murder and plunder.
In the midst of this confusion Bonaparte arrived before Toulon, and appearing before Carteaux had the audacity to point out to him the rudimentary errors he had committed. Carteaux was furious, but his claws were clipped by the Commissioners, who, satisfied of his incompetence, dismissed him, and Dugommier, an old officer, was placed in command. On November 25th a council of war was held, and the Commissioners placed the command of the artillery in the hands of Bonaparte.
In compliance with his instructions, the whole force of the besiegers was directed against the English re- doubt Mulgrave, now fort Caire, on the Aiguillette. An attempt to carry it by assault was made on the morning of December 17th. The troops of the Convention were driven back, and Dugommier, who headed the attempt, gave up all for lost. But fresh troops were rapidly brought up in support, another onslaught was attempted, and succeeded in overpowering the Spanish soldiers, to whom a portion of the line was entrusted; whereupon the assailants broke in, turned the flank of the English detachment, and cut down three hundred of them.
The possession of this fort rendered the further maintenance of the exterior defences of Toulon impractible. Its effect was at once recognised by the English commander, and during the night the whole of the allied troops were withdrawn from the promontory into the city.
Meanwhile, another attack had been made, under the direction of Napoleon, on the rocky heights of Faron, which were carried, and the mountain was occupied by the Republicans, who hoisted the tricolor flag.
The garrison of Toulon consisted of above ten thousand men, and the fortifications of the town itself were as yet uninjured; but the harbour was commanded and swept by the guns of the enemy from l'Aiguillette and Faron. Sir Samuel Hood, in command of the English squadron, strongly urged the necessity of recovering the points that had been lost; but he was overruled, and it was resolved to evacuate the place.
When the citizens of Toulon became aware of this decision, they were filled with dismay. They knew but too well what fate was in store for them if left to the hands of their remorseless fellow-countrymen. Accordingly the quays were crowded with terror-stricken men and women imploring to be taken on board, whilst already the shot from Napoleon's batteries tore lanes among them, or his shells exploded in their midst. With difficulty, as many as could be accommodated were placed in boats and conveyed to the ships. Fourteen thousand were thus rescued; but Napoleon directed shot and shell among the boats, sinking some, and drowning the unhappy and innocent persons who were flying from their homes.
The prisoners now broke their chains and added to the horror, as they burst into the deserted houses, robbing and firing and murdering where resistance was offered. Next day the troops of the Convention entered the town. During the ensuing days, some hundreds of the inhabitants who had not escaped were swept together into an open place, and without any form of trial were shot.
Barras and Fréron issued a proclamation that all who considered themselves to be good citizens were required to assemble in the Champ-de-Mars under pain of death. Three thousand responded to the order. Fréron was on horseback, surrounded by the troops, cannon, and Jacobins. Turning to these latter, he said, "Go into the crowd and pick out whom you will, and range them along that wall."
The Jacobins went in and did as desired, according to their caprice. Then, at a signal from Fréron, the guns were discharged, and the unhappy crowd swayed; some fell, others, against the wall, dropped. Fréron shouted, "Let those who are not dead stand up." Such as had been wounded only rose, when another volley sent them out of life.
Salicetti wrote exultingly: "The town is on fire, and offers a hideous spectacle; most of the inhabitants have escaped. Those who remain will serve to appease the manes of our brave brothers who fought with such valor." Fouché, Napoleon's future Head of Police, wrote: "Tears of joy stream over my cheeks and flood my soul. We have but one way in which to celebrate our victory. We have this evening sent 213 rebels under the fire of our lightning." "We must guillotine others," said Barras, "to save ourselves from being guillotined." Executions went on for several days, and numbers of the hapless remnant perished. But even this did not satisfy the Convention. On the motion of Barrère, it was decreed that the name of Toulon should be blotted out, and a commission, consisting of Barras, Fréron, and the younger Robespierre, was ordered to continue the slaughter. Such as were able bought their lives. One old merchant of eighty-four offered all his wealth save eight hundred livres; but the revolutionary judge, coveting the whole, sent him under the guillotine, and confiscated his entire property.
Whilst the butchery was in progress, a grand dinner was given in celebration of the taking of the town. Generals, representatives of the people, sans-culottes, galley-slaves, "the only respectable persons in the town," as the commissioners said, sat down together, the commissioners occupying a separate table.
Toulon again gradually refilled with people, and under the Directory it was constituted the first military port of France. From Toulon Bonaparte organised his expedition to Egypt.
- Stanley Poole, The Barbary Pirates.