Siege of Toulon Update 1: Records of the Convention Nationale

As the first stage of my project in examining representations of the 1793 siege of Toulon (abstract) I made use of the records of the National Convention’s proceedings to gain an idea of how the siege was described in contemporary political discourse. Since an overwhelming amount of records mention Toulon during this time, I had already decided to limit my readings to documents mentioning Toulon from December 1793, the month in which the siege ended and the republican forces were victorious. That way, I was able to read documents from the end of the siege period as well as the beginnings of the victory’s celebration and commemoration. (If anyone is interested, here is the database where I accessed these records!)

Although I had expected the majority of the reading to be speeches given by the Convention’s members, it turned out to be mainly letters to the Convention from administrators, individual citizens, or political societies from different districts across France, not counting the reports from the military officials and representatives at the front in Toulon. Some of these letters were simply record of an event that had occurred or a past achievement, while others were petitions to the Convention. I would say the vast majority of the letters relating to Toulon were records of donations: some directly applicable to the war effort, such as money or cloth for bandages; other donations of money, military decorations, and weapons were designated as rewards for the soldiers who distinguished themselves in the siege.

This high level of civic engagement and patriotism is especially interesting for the purposes of my project. Whether or not ordinary people actually felt the patriotic fervor they espouse in these documents, they put considerable effort into performing it. The groups and individuals who made these offerings “sur l’autel de la patrie” or “to/on the altar of the nation” wrote to the Convention to ensure their donations would be recorded. (In certain cases citizens living in Paris, such as workers from different Parisian factories/workshops (“ateliers”) who had pooled their wages to make donations, were also physically present to address the Convention’s deputies in person at the Tuileries Palace.) After the matter had been addressed, the Convention most often decreed an “honorable mention” of the donation, event, or achievement in the “Bulletins de la Convention Nationale” which were printed and distributed by the revolutionary government. Fortunately, the archives on the database also show where other versions of the same event are located, which allows me to say that such events were often also published in the newspaper Moniteur universel. By donating to the soldiers “sous les murs de Toulon”, people – including administrators who had been arrested and were awaiting judgement – were able to advertise their patriotism to the government as well as a large portion of the population. When I planned this project, I had not really considered that ordinary citizens might take part in (and make use of) the theatricality of the Revolution’s political sphere of their own initiative.

The ways events at Toulon were described seemed to be generally consistent throughout the records. The presumed martyrdom of Beauvais (Charles Beauvais de Préau, a deputy of the Convention imprisoned in Toulon) was constantly referenced as a motivator for the soldiers and an outrage which demanded avenging. “Foudre” (lightning/a lightning strike), even “foudre populaire” or “foudre nationale”, is often used to describe the Republic’s planned (and later executed) vengeance for the city’s betrayal. Toulon is described throughout as infamous and its inhabitants perfidious (“l’infâme Toulon” is a recurring phrase, repeated about 17 times in the documents I read.)

A letter from the Société populaire of Saint-Martin-de-Bromes is typical of many when it reads: “Nous devons vous dire que toute notre jeunesse est devant cette perfide cité dont l’infamie déshonore l’horizon méridional, qu’elle brûle d’impatience de laver dans le sang des coupables une trahison qu’elle abhorre… qu’elle a juré de précipiter dans les ondes de la mer ces insulaires aussi arrogants que timides qui, transis de peur à l’aspect des armes républicaines ne savent nous attaquer que par la trahison; elle l’a juré, législateurs, son serment ne sera pas vain.” (“We must tell you that all of our young people are before that perfidious city (Toulon) whose infamy dishonors the south of France, that they burn with impatience to wash away a treason they abhor with the blood of the guilty (an image repeated several times over) …that they have sworn to toss into the waves of the sea these islanders (the English) who are as arrogant as they are timid and, transfixed with fear at the sight of republican weapons, only know how to attack us by treason; they have sworn, legislators, and their oath will not be in vain.”) As I continue reading the plays commemorating the victory, I hope to determine to what extent the images used in these records are also present in the scripts and vice versa.

Other theatrical elements include the highly emotionally charged language used, as well as speeches to the Convention making use of suspense to hold the audience’s attention, as well as provoking reactions and applause from the deputies and spectators. I plan to also spend some time researching the Convention itself as a theatrical space.

The assembly’s reactions were certainly at a height when, on the 24th of December, the Convention received news of the victory! To that effect, I will close this long post with some excerpts from Barère’s report on the recapture of Toulon, which demonstrates a good deal of these devices:

“Pour les terrasser, il me suffira de vous apprendre les détails des lettres que nous recevons; lire ces lettres, c’est lancer la foudre contre les aristocrates, les hypocrites et les contre-révolutionnaires…” (To bring down [the intriguers], it will suffice to inform you of the details of the letters we’ve received (ie., from the front); just reading these letters is to strike with lightning the aristocrats, the hypocrites, and the counterrevolutionaries”)

“Jamais armée ne s’est conduite avec autant d’héroïsme. Les représentants du peuple marchaient à la tête des colonnes républicaines… La pluie, le temps le plus affreux, n’ont pu ralentir un instant l’ardeur des armées républicaines.

Vous décréterez donc que l’armée dirigée contre Toulon a bien mérité de la patrie…

(Toute l’Assemblée se lève en criant : Oui! oui!)

Le Président met aux voix la proposition. Elle est décrétée par une acclamation unanime au bruit des applaudissements des spectateurs.” 

(“No army has ever conducted itself with so much heroism. The people’s representatives marched at the head of the republican columns… The rain, the most horrible weather(/times), could not decrease for one instant the ardor of the republican army. You will decree then that the army directed against Toulon is well worthy of the country… / The whole Assembly rises, crying “Yes! Yes!” The president puts the proposition to the vote. It is decreed unanimously to the sound of the spectators’ applause.”)

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