Stomp them in
Louis-Ange Pitou was carried to Cayenne aboard the frigate La Décade (Aymé, of whom we shall talk in another article, sailed aboard La Charente, and Ramel aboard the corvette La Vaillante); he reached there in June 1798. And his first impression was a terrible one: “Some avid eyes are staring at us... O my God, what beings! Are they men or beasts?” At the time, only 800 people lived in Cayenne. There were more than 15,000 in 1763! The plague and other diseases had sent them all to the grave. An unfriendly territory, indeed; full of dreadful... insects! The chiques would dwell under your feet nails to devour your flesh; if not treated, their wounds led to amputation and death. The gouty’s lice, a red vermin that loved creeping under your skin, “was to be found by the thousands on any blade of grass”; the crocodiles would catch every dog they could, and the vampire bats that caught you sleeping left you in a pool of blood. As our author says: “What a place!”
But things are never so bad that they can’t be made worse. Soon, Pitou was sent to another part of Guyana, Konanama, under the “care” of Director Prevost, and the head storekeeper Beccard. In their case, to administer the place meant exploiting the prisoners by any means necessary. The change was so brutal that some committed suicide: one Sourzac suddenly jumped into the nearby river, and one Brunégat simply walked straight ahead until he met his death. But even in Cayenne, man remained the most dangerous animal.
The recently freed Negroes who were supposed to take care of the deportees actually charged them for everything, and left the poorest ones to die helplessly. They even refused to bury them—buried by his Belgian fellowmen, as the Negroes refused to do so, wrote Beccard beside the name of a dead priest (Pitou). “They laugh at all this mess,” writes Pitou, “and say, in their own language: We right fi steal the white people-them; Freedom gi wi de right.” In order to collect more money from burials, they rushed their work. Beside the name of Chapuis, another dead non-juring priest listed in Pitou’s work, we can read: “He was among those whom the Negroes stomped into their graves.” This particular event deeply affected Pitou, who dedicated a plate of his book to it. It shows the Negroes hastily burying some dead deportees; in the background, Beccard and Prevost, rejoice and dance with some female Negroes. The caption quotes Aymé’s book: “The undertakers have been seen breaking the legs of the dead, stomping them into too narrow and too short a grave. They acted this way to rush to another victim.”
Yet Pitou held no personal grudge—he wrote: “After the attempted coup of Fructidor 18th, the Directoire showed no mercy, and threw us upon this island, granting us a shadow of justice only (...). Beccard and Prevost (...) will be less guilty, if we dare scrutinizing the human heart. Their fierceness is a local crime they might have avoided had the deportees been less numerous, and hadn’t the bone of contention embittered both sides (...). The Negroes weren’t involved in all these crimes. They are manlike creatures that freedom has turned into mean tigers. (...) In a word, they’re wasting their freedom.” Pitou blames the system more than the individuals. After all, Beccard became “half-mad with drinking and pain” himself, before perishing in 1799, “in terrible convulsions.”
As the title of his book reads, Pitou rubbed elbows with some cannibals while in Guyana. Sent to dry the morasses of La Franche, another deadly “desert”, he eventually mingled with a tribe of Indians, observing them and sharing their lifestyle for quite a while—but one day, they were attacked by a bunch of cannibals. “Lord! This is no battle, or slaughter; this is something even worse. Each winner takes his victim with him, tears him apart just like a lion revenging against the hunter who has hurt him.” Meanwhile in France, another type of cannibal was at work; Napoléon took over the Directoire on November 9th, 1799 (18 Brumaire) and pardoned the deportees. As Louis-Ange Pitou finally sailed away from Cayenne, he seemed to hear the voice of the martyrs he was leaving behind: “Thus, you’re leaving this place where our ashes rest in peace! Tell our families to forgive our enemies; we were 329 upon our arrival, half of us were sent to the grave in the twinkle of an eye. Carry our names to France and don’t forget you’re leaving in those deserts some companions of hardship...”
Upon his arriving in Paris, Pitou learnt the death of his beloved one; “From that day on, his life will be nothing but a difficult and unfortunate struggle against fortune,” writes Philippe Descoux. Sent back to prison for a few months, he was eventually pardoned; he then remained far from politics until the restoration of the Monarchy; he then tried to publish a “heavy and hard to digest composition without sense” (Descoux) about the Stuarts and the Bourbons, but the unexpected return of Napoleon put an end to the project. When Louis XVIII came back for the second time, Pitou was granted a pension of 2,100 francs; but he expected more, and he wrote dozens of inappropriate letters to the King. At the end of his life, “his intelligence has darkened” (Descoux), and he paid the price of his “stupid stubbornness” until being reduced to begging to survive. He died on May 8th, 1846, in the middle of an unfriendly “desert” of France, far from those in Guyana, where he had obviously left a part of himself—the angel had come out alive from the fiery furnace, but not intact.
Our three authors were arrested after the coup of Fructidor 18th, and then deported together to Cayenne; but they sailed in three different boats, and didn’t spend much time together, as it seems. Louis-Ange was just a street singer while Aymé was a former politician, and Ramel an officer in the French army. Pitou talks about Aymé in his book, who only lists him among the deportees as a 30 years-old singer in return. Aymé sends the reader to Ramel’s book to learn about the pains endured by the deportees of Sinamary. But Ramel talks about neither Pitou nor Aymé. On the contrary, they all mention Tronçon-Ducoudray, who ruined his health in anger and discontent. On one hand, Pitou claims he died from a putrid fever in May 1798: “He stubbornly refused to drink some turtle stock that would have saved him inevitably.” But on the other hand, he writes beside his name: Dead of sorrow. A sort of dry death.