Pamphlet of Protest: Revolution, Exile, and Abolition in Chautard’s Escapes from Cayenne

By Michaël Roy

In September 1857, Jean-Léon Chautard, Charles Bivors, and Louis Antoine Hippolyte Paon arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. The three French refugees from the Revolution of 1848 were “homeless, penniless, friendless, strangers in a strange land, among a people of a strange speech,” as one of their advocates, abolitionist luminary William Lloyd Garrison, later put it.[1] The only thing they had was a story to tell—an affecting, yet thrilling story of revolutionary upheaval, forced exile and hairbreadth escapes over three continents, which Chautard managed to write in English and to have published as a pamphlet. At 63 pages and 25 cents a copy, Escapes from Cayenne looked no different from the dozens of autobiographical narratives—“paupers’ tales,” Ann Fabian calls them—penned and published by convicts, beggars, sailors, and formerly enslaved men and women in nineteenth-century America.[2] Like other such “outsiders” studied by Karen Weyler, the three men had experienced numerous constraints on their liberty and labor since 1848; they also found themselves without the advantages of connections in the United States.[3] By setting down their experiences in print, Chautard hoped to draw attention to their plight, as well as promote a progressive political agenda. His pamphlet, which has long sunk into oblivion, deserves rediscovery.

Cover of Escapes from Cayenne by Leon Chautard.
Front cover of Escapes from Cayenne (1857) by Jean-Léon Chautard (credit: American Antiquarian Society)

Chautard was forty-four when he first set foot on U.S. soil. A native of southern France, he had settled on the outskirts of Paris, where in the 1840s he lived with his wife and worked as a bookkeeper. Politically, Chautard was a republican and a socialist. “Socialism,” he explained in Escapes from Cayenne, “is a new science having for its purpose to seek the best means of securing to all citizens of the commonwealth the greatest portion of comfort, knowledge, freedom—of happiness, in one word.”(58)[4] His vision might have seemed utopian to some, but Chautard surely felt that the time had come for its realization when in the last days of February 1848 Parisians flooded out into the streets and erected barricades to protest the government of King Louis Philippe. The three-day insurrection led to the demise of the July Monarchy and the advent of the Second Republic. Chautard participated in several of the political clubs that sprang up after the revolution, as laws restricting freedom of association and freedom of the press were lifted by the provisional government. He was a member of the Club des Montagnards and the leader of the Club républicain de Montmartre; both were described as “red” by an observer of political organization during the revolution.[5] As the newly created republic started to take a conservative turn, Chautard fought to keep it on a radical democratic track. Among laborers at the National Workshops, a public works program for the unemployed, he propagated what the Paris police prefect called his “inflammatory ideas.”[6] When the government abolished the National Workshops in June and Parisian workers staged a revolt in response, Chautard took command of a barricade in the Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, leading no fewer than one thousand men. The June Days uprising, as it came to be known, was brutally repressed by the National Guard: thousands of insurgents were killed. “All persons known for their devotion to Republican institutions were then imprisoned,” Chautard wrote in his pamphlet. “I had the honor to be of the number with twenty-five thousand more” (5).

Advertisement for the meetings of the Club Républicain de Montmartre.
Placard advertising the meetings of the Club républicain de Montmartre (credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France).

It was soon decided that participants in the uprising should be transported to one of France’s overseas colonies.[7] While many of the insurgents were eventually liberated or pardoned by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte after he was elected president in December 1848, Chautard, like Paon (a locksmith) and Bivors (a journeyman), was moved “from prison to prison, from cell to cell” (27)—his longest stay was at the penitentiary of Belle-Île-en-Mer—before being taken to Algeria in 1850.[8] The three political prisoners were particularly dangerous in the eyes of the authorities, as the Belle-Île-en-Mer prison records reveal: Chautard was said to be “vicious” and a “fierce leader”; as for Paon, he was “not afraid of using violence.”[9] In Algeria, Chautard was repeatedly tried and punished for insulting his superiors and attempting to escape. He refused to recognize “the crowned Sycophant called Louis Napoleon Buonaparte” as president and later as emperor, despite being promised his liberty in return.(5) In September 1852, the intractable Chautard became the first of the June insurgents to be transported to the recently established penal colony of Cayenne, in French Guiana.[10] Paon and Bivors followed in mid-1853.

Chautard spent a large part of his transatlantic exile on the small islands off the coast of Guiana, including the notorious Devil’s Island. Conditions varied throughout Chautard’s decade in captivity, but what he recalled most acutely was the forced labor:

We were . . . treated worse than convicts; we were covered with chains, . . . we worked the whole day under a tropical sun, and were not allowed to light any fire nor to cook any thing. . . . We stayed at St. Joseph Island for nineteenth months, and lost fifty of our companions—the fourth of us. They died from despair, want of food, ill-treatment, and dysentery. (11-12)

In Cayenne, Chautard concluded, “dying is the rule and to live [sic] the exception.” (14) Embedded in his narrative is Paon’s account of his time on Devil’s Island, where he tells about the “barbarous treatment” to which unruly prisoners were subjected: because he had laughed at a group of policemen, Paon was put on the pillory “for two hours, twice a day, for fifteen days.” (26) After several attempts, Paon, Bivors and Chautard managed to escape from Cayenne; Chautard did so on the symbolic date of July 14, 1857. Like other runaway bagnards (convicts) before them, the three friends set out for the United States, where they hoped to find “an asylum, protection, friendship, and honorable employment.” (36) On their way they met with Indians, maroons, Dutch settlers, and Portuguese shipowners. In the early hours of September 19, 1857, the vessel they had boarded a few weeks before in Georgetown, British Guiana, entered the harbor of Boston. They were safe at last.

“All Hail! land of the United States, land of freedom, land of the future, Hail!” Chautard exclaimed at the end of Escapes from Cayenne (63). Yet the French socialist was well aware of the limits of freedom in a supposedly democratic country. His radical republicanism and experience of being treated “like a slave” in Cayenne—the whole point of transportation to Guiana, after all, was to create an alternative workforce after the abolition of French colonial slavery in April 1848—made him particularly attuned to the persistence of slavery in the United States (14). While in Cayenne, Chautard had been punished “for having called ‘Slave Dealer’ a man who was, in fact, a retailer of negroes” (20). In his narrative, Paon delivered a scathing critique of slavery, a “shameful institution” which “injures all human creatures” and has “no other purpose than money-making” (48-50). Both men had struggled for their own liberty in France and its colonies. Now they condemned the enslavement of “four millions of human beings [in the U.S. South], by a perfectly dishonest association of three hundred thousand ruffians, liars and thieves,” as Chautard put it in a letter dated April 1858.[11] They met and sympathized with Garrison, who gave practical assistance to “[these] victims of the despotism of the French usurper, Louis Napoleon”; his wife Helen sold copies of Escapes from Cayenne for their benefit.[12]

As Manisha Sinha has emphasized in her new history of the abolition movement in a transnational context, abolitionists in the United States “viewed the revolutions of 1848 . . . as kindred movements.” They “identified the despotic Slave Power of the United States with European forces of reaction and their own battle against slavery with European revolutionary struggles.”[13] That Escapes from Cayenne boasted on its title page the motto “Our country is the world; our countrymen are all mankind”—the same motto that adorned the masthead of Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator from 1831 to 1865—further attests to the political and ideological connections between U.S. abolition and the European “spirit of 1848.”

A fascinating account of a man’s transnational trajectory from the barricades of Paris to the bagne (prison) of Guiana and later the city of Boston, Escapes from Cayenne opens a window onto what one recent conference has called “the worlds of 1848.” It documents the global ramifications of the French Revolution of 1848 from the perspective of three of the many little-known activists who took part in it—and fell victim to the reactionary backlash that followed. Written in English by a Frenchman, and reminiscent of both U.S. and European literary traditions such as the slave narrative and the picaresque novel, it is a rich, hybrid political document and a passionate cri de cœur for universal justice.

Michaël Roy (@mroyUPN) is a maître de conférences in the Department of English at Université Paris Nanterre, France. He is the author of Textes fugitifs. Le récit d’esclave au prisme de l’histoire du livre (2017), which investigates the publication, circulation, and reception of antebellum slave narratives, and the co-editor of Undoing Slavery: American Abolitionism in Transnational Perspective, 1776-1865 (2018). He has contributed essays to MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, and the Revue française d’études américaines. He is currently at work on a French translation and critical edition of Escapes from Cayenne.

Title image: Medal by the Club des Montagnards bearing the inscription “No more kings, no more slaves” (1848) (credit: Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris).


[1] Letter from William Lloyd Garrison to an unknown correspondent, February 6, 1858, The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, vol. 4, From Disunionism to the Brink of War, 1850-1860, ed. Louis Ruchames (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975), 510.

[2] Ann Fabian, The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

[3] Karen A. Weyler, Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 4-5.

[4] Page numbers for quotations from Escapes from Cayenne are given parenthetically in the text.

[5] Alphonse Lucas, Les Clubs et les Clubistes. Histoire complète, critique et anecdotique des clubs et des comités électoraux fondés à Paris depuis la révolution de 1848 (Paris: E. Dentu, 1851), 180, 185.

[6] Archives nationales d’outre-mer, Aix-en-Provence, FR ANOM COL H 569.

[7] On the role of deportation in the punishment of political protest during the Second Republic, see Allyson Jaye Delnore, “Political Convictions: French Deportation Projects in the Age of Revolutions, 1791-1854” (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 2004), chap. 5.

[8] On Belle-Île, see Jean-Yves Mollier, “Belle-Île-en-Mer : prison politique,” Criminocorpus (2014); on Algeria, see Marcel Émerit, “Les déportés de 1848,” Revue de la Société d’études de la Révolution de 1848 39, no. 181 (1948): 1-9.

[9] Quoted in Louis-José Barbançon, “Les transportés de 1848 (statistiques, analyse, commentaires),” Criminocorpus (2008).

[10] Louis-José Barbançon, “Transporter les insurgés de juin 1848,” Criminocorpus (2008).

[11] “Conspirators’ Bill in the United States,” The Liberator, April 16, 1858.

[12] Letter from William Lloyd Garrison to Theodore Parker, November 8, 1857, Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, 499. See also “French Refugees,” The Liberator, January 1, 1858.

[13] Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 364.

Further Reading:

Aprile, Sylvie. Le Siècle des exilés. Bannis et proscrits de 1789 à la Commune. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2010.

Cordillot, Michel. Utopistes et exilés du Nouveau Monde. Des Français aux États-Unis de 1848 à la Commune. Paris: Vendémiaire, 2013.

Fabian, Ann. The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Godfroy, Marion F. Bagnards. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2010.

Gribaudi, Maurizio, and Michèle Riot-Sarcey. 1848, la révolution oubliée. Paris: La Découverte, 2008.

Sinha, Manisha. The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions, 1848-1851. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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