ONffroy de Verez, An Historical Account


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The Vendée Revolt

Sometime before 1771, Rolland Pierre Onffroy, his wife Louise and family once again embarked on a sailing vessel to return to France. They came to Bretagne in northwestern France and settled in the Chateau de la Gaudinelaye, located south of Rennes outside of the town of St. Malo de Phily. Rolland Pierre maintained the proprietorship of his plantations in Saint-Domingue appointing overseers to run the plantation operations. Rolland Pierre's son, Jacques Rolland Onffroy was married to Colombe de Virel who died a few months later. He was remarried to her sister, Louise Augustine de Virel on Oct. 21, 1771. He inherited the sugar cane and coffee plantations from his father, Rolland Pierre, upon his death in 1777.

Chatyeau de la GaudinelayeOn July 2, 1782, Jacques Rolland obtained a writ from the parliament of Bretagne that gave him access to and a voice in the parliamentary proceedings. Two years later, he was named one of their commissioners by the states of Bretagne and was re-elected in 1786 and 1788. The revolution of 1789 put an end to these parliamentary offices in Bretagne. He was named instead as the commissioner of inspection for 42 towns in Bretagne.

Jacques Rolland Onffroy and his family apparently enjoyed a privileged and tranquil life there. He maintained proprietorship of his coffee and sugar plantations in the Antilles from which he derived an on-going immense fortune.

It can be inferred that Jacques Rolland Onffroy de Vérez was a considerate proprietor of his lands, setting as a priority the welfare of the peasants who worked on his lands and the security of the shopkeepers and artisans with whom he conducted business. According to records from that time, Jacques Rolland Onffroy held the titles of Seignuer and Marquis de Ver, de Vérez, de St. Laurent-Sur-Mer, d’Agnerville, de Beaumer, de la Roziere, D’Aubigny, de la Piramiere, de la Hayelet, de Varennes en Normandie, de la Guadinelaye, de Plessis-Bardoult, de la Fiolais, and du Plessis de Sixte en Bretagne.

The Birth of Anne Marthe Rolland Onffroy de Vérez

Anne-Marthe Rolland Onffroy de Vérez was born on the 14th of October, 1778, in St. Malo, Bretagne. At an early point in his life, the political developments in Paris began to intrude on the Vendée region and he and his family were thrust into troubled times. During his life, Anne-Marthe Roland Onffroy achieved glory and honors, but he and his family also suffered severe disruptions, became refugees, and eventually were sent into exile as a result of their untiring loyalty to the “legitimate” King and their great devotion to the Catholic church.

The French Revolution, the Vendée and Bretagne

In 1789, the French Revolution came about as a result of the debates and passionate writings of several brilliant individuals including Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton. They produced an idealistic document , the Declaration of the Rights of Man, influenced by the Declaration of Independence of the United States, which asserted that individuals have the rights of freedom of religion and to live peacefully and without tyranny. The movement also prescribed the abolition of compulsory labor and the gradual abolition of privilege - Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. This movement was not even opposed by King Louis XVI himself.

In 1790, the reality of the Enlightenment became revealed. The bourgeois of Paris began to lay out the rules the rest of France were to follow. Provincial assemblies were abolished, stripping people of their local government. The priests in cities and rural provinces were to be replaced, their property confiscated and new priests were to be appointed by lay people. In many places in the Vendée, Brittany and Normandy, the people responded by following their old priests into the deep woods where religious services were conducted in secrecy often on altars of stacked stones. The newly appointed Republican priests were faced with virtually empty provincial churches.

Seige of GranvilleThe region adjacent to Bretagne was known as the Vendée-, also referred to as the Bocage, a name that is derived from the symmetry of its cultivated fields separated by hedgerows and forests. In this stable region, over the centuries, the people - peasants, artisans, shopkeepers and nobility - had developed a mutual consideration and respect that led to a productive and comfortable existence. The people of the Vendée, Bretagne and Normandy hoped for this new movement to pass by and for the return of the monarchy and their priests. Instead, in 1791, King Louis the XVI was arrested and imprisoned in The Temple prison in Paris and, within a year, the extremist Jacobins lead by Robespierre took power and formed the infamous Convention. Subsequently the French Republic was born. The Republicans began sending their enemies to the guillotine including their former compatriots Desmoulins and Danton and other early revolutionaries who were re-cast as traitors.

In 1793, the people of the Vendée received the horrifying news that their King had been sent to the guillotine. The Convention declared war on the rest of Europe and deployed agents throughout the rural provinces of France to conscript 300,000 men for their army.

In the Vendée region, the flame of revolt was lit when a Republican agent arrived with a small detachment of military in the village of St. Florent. Establishing a post in the village square, he called out a list of all the able bodied men chosen for conscription. Not a single man stepped forward. The colonel ordered his men to search the village for the man who was first on the list, Peter Berrier, a stable hand at the local inn. They found him easily, standing at the inn’s gate with three or four other men from the village including the inn’s proprietor and a man named Cathelineau, a stage coach outrider.

Jacques Cathelineau When the Republican militia tried to manhandle Peter Berrier into custody, a battle ensued between the peasants of the village and the outnumbered Republican militia force. Cathelineau and a man named Foret led the peasants, armed with but a few old muskets, sticks and farm implements in an attack on the better-armed Republican militia, numbering 70-80 men, and forced them into a walled yard at the barracks. The peasants proceeded to batter the gate to burst it open. At the same time inside the barracks yard, the Republican militia had pressed into service a cannon that was stored behind the barracks and furiously struggled to turn it. If they could get off a volley into the peasants’ faces, they could stop this incident in its tracks.

The cannon was turned just as the peasant hoard broke through the gates, and the colonel ordered it fired. Cathelineau, leading the peasants’ charge through the gate, shot the artillery sergeant just as he was applying the lit taper to the cannon’s touch-hole preventing the discharge of the cannon. The peasants proceeded to fall on the Republican militia inside and those Republicans who survived were soon taken as the first prisoners of war of the Vendée Revolt. The peasants joyously surrounded the cannon and climbed all over it - this cannon that had refused to kill them - and anointed it with the name Marie Jeanne. This scene was played out at several other villages in the Vendée with victory going to the peasants.

Local heroes emerged from the clash at St. Florent particularly Cathelineau and Foret, who became the informal leaders. Now that the revolt was underway, it soon became apparent that they needed real leaders who had some level of military training and experience. Cathelineau, Foret and Peter Berrier rode to the Chateau Dubelliere to enlist the aid of the chateau’s lord, Marquis Jacques Larochejaquelin, and his son Henri Larochejaquelin. The Larochejaquelins and other noblemen including M. de Lescure, a cousin of Henri Larochejaquelin, and Adolphe Denot, Henri’s friend, joined them. Although this revolt was started by peasants, it soon was a combined effort of peasants, nobility and provincial merchants united against the hated Convention and dedicated to to restoring the son of Louis XVI - the true monarch - to the throne.

Retreat from CancaleThe Larochejaquelins, Cathelineau, Foret, and the other leaders began to organize, coming together for the common cause. They stockpiled ammunition, gun powder, weapons and soon they were ready to launch a coordinated blow against a major Republican target. They had met with easy victory in the first small conflicts of the Vendée Revolt, and believed that God was on their side. Cathelineau, the hero of St. Florent, had a vision that Saumur should be their next conquest. Saumur was the strongest fortified city in the Vendée region and was surrounded by high stone walls. A large Republican camp was sited just outside the city and Saumur was the Republican armory for the region. Cathelineau speculated that if the peasant army could take Saumur, not only would they gain the stores of powder, muskets, ammunition and weapons located therein, they would take a monumental step forward in driving out the Republicans.

The call was sent and eventually 7,500 men - three out of four able bodied men of the Vendée - gathered in the village of Cholet in preparation for the march on Saumur. Any man that did not volunteer had his name black-listed. Only certain men with key skills, such as a blacksmith who could produce weapons for the peasant army, were exempted.

The army was formed into makeshift regiments with even a makeshift cavalry which would not have been recognized easily as such. They were ready to march on Saumur to combat the Blues, as the Republicans were called with their blue uniforms. The celebrated cannon, Marie Jeanne taken in the first conflict at St. Florent, was recommissioned and made ready along with twenty-four other pieces of artillery.

The day before the march was to begin, Larochejaquelins, Cathelineau, Foret, de Lescure and Denot were making final preparations for the next mornings march when Father Jerome, a priest, rushed in to tell them that the peasant army had already started up the road to Saumur. A rumor had circulated that Cathelineau and Larochejaquelin had already gone on ahead. With great enthusiasm the peasant army surged forward not wanting to get left behind in this grand adventure. Soon 6,000 men were streaming towards Saumur and there was no way to stop them.

Cathelineau and the Larochejaquelins came to the realization that the plans they were woring on were for naught, the undisciplined peasant army were walking straight into great danger. Varin, the Republican camp, was directly in their path and filled with well-armed and prepared Blues that included seasoned veterans of the old royal army.

Cathelineau and the other leaders rushed to the front of the peasant columns in an attempt to regain what scant control was possible. Upon reaching the outskirts of Saumur, the leaders had no choice but to attack straight into Varin, the fortified camp, where the Blues were fully prepared to receive them.

A group of the royalists led by Henri Larochejaquelin and Cathelineau leapt into the trenches of the Republican camp and fought ferociously but the rest of the peasant army soon lost their enthusiasm as lead ball, shell and blade cut into their ranks. The entire army was soon streaming backwards in full retreat with the Republican army in hot pursuit. To the great good fortune of the peasant army, darkness fell and they were able to make their escape avoiding a much worse fate at the hands of the veteran Republican troops. In the process they left everything behind to lighten their load including their artillery, wagons, and ammunition. The famous cannon from the St. Florent conflict, Marie Jeanne, was retaken by the Republicans. In all the peasant army suffered 500 casualties - dead, lost and wounded.

On August 1, 1793, the Convention decreed the destruction of the Vendée and an army of 100,000 arrived in Nantes on September 6. The Blues (Republicans) and the Whites (Vendéans) met in battle several more times. The Vendéan armies became known as the armies of the Chouans because of their rallying call which imitated a screech owl. On Dec. 23, at Savenay, the main part of the Vendéan army was surrounded and annihilated.

The Blues went on to commit virtual genocide, massacring first the instigators of the rebellion, then entire populations of rebel villages including women, children and the old. As a child Sophie Mason, an Australian writer, heard stories of the Vendée Revolt from her father and grandfather, descendants of the Chouans. In 1996, she wrote:

Carrier Executioner of Nantes"’Not one is to be left alive’. ‘Women are reproductive furrows who must be ploughed under’. ‘Only wolves must be left to roam that land’. ‘Fire, blood, death are needed to preserve liberty’. ‘Their instruments of fanaticism and superstition must be smashed’.  These were some of the words the Convention used in speaking of Vendée. Their tame scientists dreamed up all kinds of new ideas - the poisoning of flour and alcohol and water supplies, the setting up of a tannery in Angers which would specialise in the treatment of human skins; the investigation of methods of burning large numbers of people  in large ovens, so their fat could be rendered down efficiently. 

One of the Republican generals, Carrier, was scornful of such research: these 'modern' methods would take too long. Better to use more time-honoured methods of massacre: the mass drownings of naked men, women, and children, often tied together in what he called ‘republican marriages’, off specially constructed boats towed out to the middle of the Loire and then sunk; the mass bayoneting of men, women and children; the smashing of babies' heads against walls; the slaughter of prisoners using cannons; the most grisly and disgusting tortures; the burning and pillaging of villages, towns and  churches.

The aristocrat Turreau de la Linières took command of what are known in Vendée as the douze colonnes infernales (the twelve columns of hell), which had specific orders both from his superiors and from himself  to kill everyone and everything they saw.  “Even if there should be patriots [that is, Republicans] in Vendée,” Turreau himself said, “they must not spared.  We can make no distinction.  The entire province must be a cemetery”. And so it was.  In the streets of Cholet, emblematic Vendéen city, by the end of 1793, wolves were about the only living things left, roaming freely and feeding on the piles of decomposing corpses.

People in Vendée still tell the stories of the colonnes infernales and the unspeakable things they did.  There was not even any pretense of discriminating between fighters and civilians; documents of the time, still kept in army records in Vincennes, tell their hideous, chilling story, a story which has tolled repeatedly in our own terrible century.  The generals speak coolly of objectives achieved, exterminations nicely done, “ethnic cleansing” carefully carried out, of genocide systematically and rigorously conducted.  There were those, too few, alas, who refused to take part; but they were summarily dealt with. 

But the Vendéens were not completely beaten.  Full of hate now, they fought back, sporadically but ferociously. Their “chouan” rallying cry became a source of terror for republican stragglers in the deep remote country of the marshes and forests of Vendée.  And the Bretons fought, attempting to come to the aid of their brothers, but it was difficult to maintain resistance in the face of such full-scale assault.  One by one, the charismatic leaders were killed or hunted down like wild beasts.  Within two years, Chouan resistance in Vendée was all but dead, though Brittany, under the leadership of the remarkable Georges Cadoudal, continued to fight for many years to come.

Bonaparte himself had much respect for the Chouans and their leaders; he called their war Le Combat des Géants.  As an officer in the republican army, he had opted for a post fighting on the frontiers of France rather than being sent to Vendée.  He understood, too, that the Vendéens' sacrifice had been for the preservation of liberty - for the freedom of religion and assembly and culture, and he immediately set about repairing relations with the church.  He concluded treaties with Cadoudal and other Chouan leaders; and it seemed as if things would be better.  But never was it acknowledged that the horror of the genocide in Vendée was the responsibility of more than just Robespierre and his murderous cronies and generals.  There was never any examination of conscience, and indeed although one or two scapegoats paid for their crimes with their heads, amongst them the vicious Carrier and Westermann, an Alsacian noble known in Vendée as "The Butcher", others were exonerated and even honoured.

But Cadoudal and Brittany were not quiet for long.  Eventually, the indomitable Georges relaunched the Chouannerie and twice attempted to assassinate Bonaparte.  Cadoudal had come to regard Bonaparte as a tyrant as dangerous as Robespierre, and as likely to drag the whole country into years of bloodshed.  He was right; but he never saw the fulfilling of his fears, for he was captured and guillotined in 1804.  After his death, his body was cut up and various bits of it given to so-called scientists to study, his head being of particular interest for the "study of rebellion".  It took years for his relatives to finally obtain all the parts of his body for decent burial. "

By the time the revolt was finally abandoned in 1796, the Vendée and Bretagne regions sustained more than 200,000 casualties including half of the total residents of the regions of the Vendée and Bretagne.

Jacques Rolland Onffroy de Vérez, his sons and the French Revolution

The lives of Jacques Rolland Onffroy and his family in Bretagne were upended by the French Revolution. Such was the fate of the noble families of France who had supported the King and church for generations. In fact, there were only two choices for a nobleman - support the Vendée Revolt to restore the rightful King or flee the country. Else their fate was the guillotine or slaughter at the hands of the Republican army. In the 1820‘s, in his Memoirs, Comte A.R. Rolland Onffroy wrote of this:

“The time came when he (Marquis Jacques Rolland Onffroy) was called, like many of his ancestors, to sacrifice his significant fortune for the King. ... Nothing can surpass the devotion of this family to the family that reigns now so gloriously in France.The family lost everything for the honor to serve the grandsons of Saint Louis. Many million were sacrificed for this great cause and the re-establishment of the parish altar. Little is had by those that thought like them until their goal was reached. They ask only for new opportunities to to prove their zeal and the inflexibility of their principles. When the death of Louis XVI was made known in Saint Domingue, the Royalists and principal families of the province of Jérémie detested this horrible loss and the anarchic principles that were governing France, which came to be the ruination of the colony .."

The family of Jacques Rolland Onffroy was split apart. Two sons, Guy and Emmanuel joined the Chouans in the Vendée Revolt taking part as capitaines aides-majors of the Vitré legion. Jacques Rolland Onffroy, his sons, Henri Achilles, Anne Marthe Rolland and Benjamin, and the rest of his family fled France and returned to Saint-Domingue in the West Indies.