The Drownings at Nantes
Mass executions were a common occurrence during the French Revolution, with guillotines set in many public squares and plazas for the mechanical removal of the convicted heads of thousands. Most were innocent of any crimes, the victims of a national frenzy of killing. It is a common mistake to associate all of the executions with the guillotine. The guillotine was used in many areas because it was considered to be a humane form of execution, quick, efficient, and painless for the victim. In some instances, humane treatment of the condemned was not a consideration.
During the Reign of Terror, death was prescribed by law for any persons who were found to not support the revolution, or anyone believed to support the Royalists. This including the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church, especially after the Pope condemned the execution of King Louis XVI. The Royalists had strong support in the Vendee region of France, which threatened the city of Nantes, on the Loire River. In June 1793, Royalist forces from the Vendee attacked the city and the Republican troops there. Although the Royalists were defeated, Republican leaders of Nantes came to the conclusion that Royalist sympathizers in the region were to be eliminated.
Republican deputy to the region Jean-Baptiste Carrier established a tribunal which brought charges against almost 13,000 men, women, and children. Up to 11,000 of these died, some from typhus contracted in the cells in which they were held, but most of them by execution. The number of people whom Carrier consigned to death exceeded the capability of the guillotine, although some were beheaded, and firing squads dispatched many as well. Carrier needed a means of killing a large number of people simultaneously.
He found the answer in the waters of the river. It began with the mass drownings of convicted priests, carried out to the middle of the wide river in flatboats, weighted down, and tossed into the water. After two “successful” executions of this type, Carrier proposed a system by which prisoners were transported to the deeper water of the Loire near Chantenay in flat bottomed boats, to be cast over the side under cover of darkness. The issue of bodies breaking free of weights and floating to the surface or shore was of little concern to Carrier, anyone reporting such an event would be designated a Royalist and await their turn in the boats.
In at least one instance, and possibly more, boats were deliberately sunk with prisoners chained in the holds and the hatches sealed. Carrier preferred the method of weighted drownings, since the boats themselves retained their usefulness. Historians have disputed the number of victims of the drownings, since many prisoners in Carrier’s cells died of typhus, other causes, or simply despair. There were between six and eleven drowning executions for a certainty, how many prisoners were killed at each is unknown. At the same time of the drowning executions there were prisoners being executed by other means. The drownings at Nantes took place from November 1793 to February 1794.