As historical novels, the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries follow, however loosely, the events that shaped the Mediterranean world in the final decade of the Eighteenth century and the first decades of the Nineteenth, up until the French incursions beginning in June of 1830. I have done my best to remain true to those events and, in doing so, I have called upon the services, so to speak, of the historical characters who helped to shape those events. Among these are two colorful clergymen, one British and one French. I have already written a little about Charles Mace. I’ll now like to introduce the historical Jean Bon St. Andre. He figures in at least two of the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries, and has mention in four.
He first came to my notice as I was researching the change of British fortunes at what came to be known as the Battle of the Glorious First of June, or the Battle of Ushant fought in the Atlantic in 1794. A convoy of grain from America to alleviate the conditions of starvation brought about by the French Revolution was intercepted by a line of 34 British battleships under the command of Admiral Earl Howe. Escorting the convoy with its precious cargo was Rear-Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse and his 26 battleships. In foggy weather, the two fleets played hide and seek until, on June 1st, the British found themselves windward of their enemy and attacked. By day’s end, each side had suffered terrible losses, estimated at about seven thousand French and one thousand British, with eleven and twelve ships lost respectively. Although the grain reached port, the engagement was hailed as a tactical victory for the British and was wildly celebrated. Interestingly, St. Andre wrote an account of his time with Villaret during the Battle of the First of June. This has been translated into English and is available at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.
To establish some facts in regard to the British and French navies around 1794: Britain had 661 vessels in total, with 14,000 cannon and 100,000 crewmembers. The French had 291 vessels, with 12,000 cannon and 78,000 crewmembers.
What has all this to do with the Frenchman, Jean Bon St. Andre?
Let’s begin with his beginnings.
He was born on 25 February 1749 in an upper- or middle-class family of entrepreneurs engaged in the textile industry in Montauban, a city in Southern France, not far from Toulouse. They were a Protestant family, Calvinist, but owing to the influence of Rome on the French, they had to be married and baptized in Catholic churches. Following a simple education in his hometown, Andre went to Bordeaux where he learned to be a sailor until, in 1771, he became a naval officer. He then proceeded to study Theology at a seminary in Lausanne where he was readied for the ministry. In 1773, he was ordained and assumed the pseudonym of Saint-Andre. Taking a position at a church in the predominantly Protestant city of Pau, he established himself as an able negotiator and, in 1778 he was delegated by his parishioners to deal with disputes at synods. Following the Edict of Tolerance issued by the King in 1787, he continued his ministry at his home city of Montauban where he earned praise as a teacher and orator. In September of 1792, St Andre was elected representative of the Lot region (now Lot e Garonne) and his oratory skills won him significant popularity. He was elected President of the Jacobin Society on 2 November 1792 and in January 1793 he wrote in favor of the King’s execution. During these early years, St. Andre penned a number of studies, thus increasing his popularity in the minds of the populace. In March of 1793 he established a revolutionary court of justice in the city. His public profile and revolutionary activities led to his appointment of the newly-formed Naval Committee and he was instrumental in the reorganization of the French Navy. It was during this period that he found himself aboard Rear-Admiral Villaret’s flagship as a political observer.
How did St. Andre come to be the French Consul-General in Algiers? Again, it seems politics were in his favor or, rather, that St. Andre was on the right side of revolutionary politics becoming a member of the ruling Committee for Public Safety in which office he was instrumental in the elevation of Robespierre, and oversaw the execution of scores if not hundreds of French nobles. A small hiccup in his fortunes took place in 1795 when he was arrested in the wake of the Thermidorian suppression of the Jacobins. After the Uprising of May-June that year, he spent six months in jail and reportedly came near to facing the guillotine himself.
From his incarceration, he was appointed Consul-General in Algiers. How and why? I can find nothing to explain any of this. In the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries, I have portrayed him as a political activist, attempting to lure Algerians away from Turkish rule and advocating the establishment of an Algerian Republic. I can assure my readers that this is based solely on information gleaned from the British Newspapers Archives, in which several papers reported that the Dey of Algiers called for the head of St. Andre. The story was published in more than one British daily, and some went as far as to report St. Andre’s decapitation in Algiers.
Friday, 12 May 1798, Ipswich Journal The cause of the execution of Jean Bon St. Andre at Algiers, is said to be this: He held a Revolutionary Club composed of a few Frenchmen and some natives. Information of this was carried to the Dey of Algiers, who only demanded if the fact was ascertained; and on being told it was, he said, “Let me have no more of that, but bring me his head in two hours.” Thus fell one of the most sanguinary Revolutionists of France.
The same was reported in the Northampton Mercury on 12 May and by the Gloucester Journal and the Reading Mercury the Chester Courant and the Hereford Journal on 14 May. Days later the report was corrected by the Newcastle Courant. “The report of Jean Bon St. Andre having been beheaded by order of the Dey of Algiers turns out to be false. It has been contradicted by the Algerine Envoy at Paris.”
After a year or two in Algiers, St. Andre was transferred to the French consulate in Smyrna where, in 1799, he was imprisoned by the Turks for three years. Again, I am unable to find a reason for his incarceration. Following his release in 1801, Bonaparte appointed him a prefect in the German province of Mainz where St. Andre died in 1813.
In looking at the man’s life, it’s interesting to note how he began and ended his life as a clergyman, though he lived the life of a sailor, a revolutionary, and a politician. From the same British Newspaper Archive, I found a story in the Elgin Courier, dated Friday 4 July, 1851, printed decades after St. Andre had passed.
A Bit of Sublimity.-During the French Revolution, Jean Bon St. Andre, the Vendean Revolutionist, said to a peasant, “I will have all your steeples pulled down, that you may no longer have any objects by which you may be reminded of your old superstitions.” “You cannot help leaving us the stars,” replied the peasant: “And we can see them further off than our steeples.”
Although the mother tongue of my beautiful grandchildren is French, I have had only the most rudimentary introduction to that language. But, for those who read it, I know of two biographies of St. Andre in that language.
LEVY-SCHNEIDER Léon, Le conventionnel Jeanbon Saint-André, Paris, 1901 LIGOU Daniel, Jeanbon, Messidor-Editions sociales, Paris, 1989
Here’s a passage from A RUNAWAY IN ALGIERS:
“Well, Sidi Ahmad, I asked him about the new Consul-General, this citizen St. Andre.”
“Citizen? What’s that mean? Citizen?”
“Since the French have assassinated their king and the entire royal family, they now consider themselves republicans. In their republic, everyone is supposed to be equal. So, they call one another ‘citizen,’ regardless of rank, because they consider rank to be no more, a relic from a past they have abolished.”
Beneath his whitened and bushy brows, Bourabwa’s eyes have opened wide. Then, no longer restraining the volume of his speech, he says, “Citizens, eh? W’Allahi! No wonder they’re killing each other. Nobody’s left to keep order among ‘em!”
When I reply, I’m sure to emphasize the need for silence by crouching over and whispering. “Well, this citizen St. Andre became a member of something called the Committee of Public Safety. Then, Caid Jafar told me, it was he who proposed Robespierre for membership. Robespierre is the one who unleashed what they call the Reign of Terror when the citizens took it upon themselves to kill everyone whose station in life was higher than their own. Then, what is even more astonishing is that somehow, some way, this Citizen St. Andre made himself responsible for the entire French navy! From a provincial pastor, to a leader of revolution? Then a citizen politician? And then a navy man? He even sailed with Admiral Villeret at the Glorious First of June! Can you imagine? And now he arrives here as a diplomat! Caid Jafar said a stranger piece of driftwood never washed ashore anywhere.”
“So, this Nazarene imagines himself able to walk on water!”
Seeing the incredulous expression on my face, the aging corsair puts his arm around my neck. “Hah! Caid’na! You think old Ahmad Bourabwa doesn’t know about these Nazarenes?”