Speech pronounced by Paschal Grousset
at the grave of Verdure
My friends, an awful bit of news came yesterday to strike us with astonishment and sadness. A man that we loved, that we esteemed, that we venerated like a father, had unexpectedly succumbed to the attacks of a sudden illness. Just a few days ago, we greeted him with a friendly word when we met him along this shore that he frequented, calm and smiling in the midst of misfortune, with every appearance of strength and health. Today, we pay our last respects to his corpse: [Augustin] Verdure will never again see France. He died, the doctors tell us, of a terrible malady which is called “general paralysis;” but, my friends, I tell you that he died of a far more terrible disease, which is called “deportation.”
At the age of rest and retirement, at a hour when the tired body and mindneed to stop at the end of the road and contemplate the path traveled, Verdure, like all of us, was violently torn from his interests, his habits, his affections, from everything that gave charm and happiness to life. More painfully, if it is possible, than most, he was personally stricken. On the even of embarkation, his son-in-law, the natural and legal support of all that the old man left behind him, and of a grandchild still to be born, his son-in-law was dead, suddenly, in the same cell as [Théophile] Ferré, to whom he had brought advice based on his legal experience. Then, misfortune would have it that, since his departure from Brest, for ten long months, our venerable friend would remain without any news of his relations. Finally, if we must tell everything — and why shouldn’t we speak our saddest truths before the grave of this honest man? — the depressing spectacle that has too often given, even here, to our adversaries, men unworthy of the honor of being banished, the scandal of the failures and disorders that you know, these sources of bitterness had come to mix with deep personal sufferings. It was more than enough to crush that noble, pure, sensitive and proud heart. He was broken without making any complaint, without breathing a sigh.
My friends, those among us to whom it will be given to return to their hearth can say that they witnessed the death of a just man. The entire life of the citizen Verdure has been dedicated to the people, for which reason he came to die so far from his own. I wanted to tell you the detailed history of that life; but I lack the documents, and I must limit myself to a sketch in broad strokes.
Led early by a decided vocation towards the career of teaching, Verdure devoted himself to the most modest of tasks: he distributed to the children of his country, in the Pas-de-Calais, that primary instruction, the most necessary of all, and which is most lacking; in the accomplishment of his duties, he bore an untiring devotion, the rare patience that you have known in him, and which was in him one of the ornaments of the most solid and varied professional knowledge. It is there that in the heart of his village, among his family, his school and his garden, he lived his best years. This happiness would not last. Our friend had the fault of separating religious questions from school questions, of wanting to be a teacher and not a church-warden: the reaction of 1850 and the men who received their watchword from Mr. de Falloux, could not tolerate such detestable principles. Verdure was dismissed, with so many others, during that famous massacre of teachers, which has given primary instruction, in our country, a wound of which our latest disasters have measured the depth.
The career of teaching being closed to him, he had to think of other ways to use his multiples aptitudes. Verdure went to Paris and found, not without difficulty, work as a bookkeeper. But, if his daily labor belonged to his family, his leisure was always for the people: he dedicated it entirely from them on to the study of the questions of labor, of these great problems of the modern world, which we stupidly think to solve by shooting or deporting them, when it would not be too much effort, with the intelligence, amity, and good faith of all to resolve them. Verdure acquired in these matters, and especially on the questions of association, a competence based o an imposed mass of observations and experimental facts, patiently accumulated by him during the eighteen years of harmful servitude which has cost France so much generous blood, two provinces, all its treasures, and the first rank among nations.
It is with these credentials that he joined, in 1869, the Marseillaise; I will astonish no one by saying that he was for us, in that journal of so rapid and tragic destiny, a collaborator distinguished on more than one account by the excellence and precision of the documents which he prepared, as much as for the uprightness of his character and the complete reliability of his commerce. Seeing the misfortune of his country: none felt them more keenly than Verdure, and the sufferings of the siege, none contributed more to ease them. His perfect knowledge of the needs and miseries of that heroic Parisian population, always decimated, but never beaten, naturally designated him for the municipal functions in the eleventh arrondissement, where he had lived for long years. I was for him like a big family. The voters of that constituency sent him, on March 20, to the Commune.
From that date citizens, I have nothing to tell you of the life of our friend: it became public and was never lost to your view. You saw him seated in the Councils of the Commune, bringing his eminent qualities, a great modesty and precious special knowledge, a conciliatory character joined with an inflexible rectitude of judgment and principles. You see him, on the other hand, presiding over the difficult administration of that populous arrondissement, where so many regrets will meet the news of his end, and giving to that weighty task every moment that that the assembly of the Hôtel de Ville left to him. Then, when the hour of defeat was sounded, Verdure escaped as by a miracle from the death that struck the best among us. Verdure was taken, led to Versailles, brought before a military tribunal, inscribed on the tables of proscription. History when it reviews this trial, will judge the judges; it will be astonished by the singular crime reproached by them in this gentle defendant, who looked them full in the face, strong in his acts, his conscience and his honesty. Do you know what that crime was, my friends? Ah! Don’t search for it in the Code, for you will not find it there: it is called the crime of philanthropy. “Verdure,” the report of his accuser says literally, “Verdure is a utopian philanthropist…” A utopian if you wish, citizens, but a philanthropist for sure! Yes, Verdure was a philanthropist, a friend of men, a friend of the people; he wanted the good and the just; if suffered from the sorrows of others and from the evils of humanity; he wanted to cure them, or at least to relieve them; it is to that we that he gave what he had of strength, intelligence, courage and life: it is for that cause he has died as he lived, as a free man, as a son of the Revolution.
We, citizens, who accompany this good man to that grave, where his wife and daughter cannot come to weep, let his life serve us as an example and his death as a lesson! Do you know what I was thinking of just now, seeing the long spiral of the cortege that we have made for him uncoil on the flanks of these barren hills, seeing all the heavy hearts and all the damp eyes, looking back again towards that immensity of the oceans that separates us from our homeland? I thought of some very different cortèges that you will have been able to see, like me, spread along some avenues of our Paris, pompous funerals of some power of the day. I saw again those cars draped with velvet and silk, this plumed litter, those horses adorned with silver and all those social vanities accumulated to dress up the dead. But I also thought of the ordinary impressions of the crowd suite passage of this pomp, to those impressions which are so often summarized in two words: indifference and scorn. I heard them recall the titles of the dead man, enumerate his positions, evaluate his wealth, count the perjuries of his life; and there was always someone to say out loud what many thought: one villain less!
How different it is here, my friends! A poor casket carried by some exiled laborers; on that casket, a crown of wild flowers; for that casket, a hole dug in the sand of an isle lost beyond the borders of the world. But, behind that casket, a unanimous support of sad friends, a concert of regrets and affection, some mute sorrows and some expansive despairs, mourning on all the faces and even on the very ones who guard us, forced to respect, grasped by the majesty of this death!
However, these men, escorted in such dissimilar manners, the one towards a marble necropolis, the other to this desert, they both started from the same point; they both emerged from the French nation as our fathers have rebuilt it on the principle of equality; both were chosen by the free suffrage of their fellow citizens; both had their hour of triumph; both, in all, went to the same end, to unavoidable crucible where the immortal matter goes to melt, to return in a new form in the great current of life… Why is it that the sentiments awakened by the view of their funerals differ so profoundly? Do you ask it, my friends? It comes from an abyss which is found between them and of which the masses have a profound sense. One made politics a stepstool towards fortune and honors; his thoughts have all been individual; he has deserted the cause of the people to serve that of his own selfishness; he has made his place by base acts; he has raised himself by treasons; he has ruled over some corpses. The other has only seen in politics an instrument of progress; he has entered the lists with generous ideas and guarded them up to the end; his life has been a life of self-denial and struggle, of renunciation, suffering, and sorrows nobly borne, from faithfulness to duty… And that is why the justice of the world comes to the threshold of death, avenger for the one, restorer for the other. That is why the remains of the one, before being cast to the ridicule of history, already encounter on their way the ridicules of opinion; — while the other, the vanquished, the exile, sleeps in that inestimable peace, a satisfied conscience, and, in that glory, the sorrow of the people.
Source : Achille Ballière, La déportation de 1871 : souvenirs d’un evadé de Nouméa (1889) : 415-419.
Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur