Martin Carter, ‘Bastille Day – Georgetown’
There was a very interesting news caption in the newspapers of Wednesday, July 17 which highlighted the celebration of Bastille Day in Guyana. This took the form of a formal ceremony on July 14 in which the Guyanese and the French governments along with a military representative from neighbouring French Guiana observed France’s National Day.
Last Sunday, July 14 was Bastille Day, as it is popularly known. But it is La Fête Nationale, the National Day of the French Republic highly celebrated in France as Fête de la Fédération and commemorated with festivities in several other countries around the world, particularly where there is a French community. This public holiday and national day of France is a very significant day in the birth of the modern French nation and of France as a Republic.
It signifies the unifying of the country after bloody conflict and divisions and is the anniversary of the day, July 14, 1790, when the constitutional monarchy was declared as a replacement for the long and notorious Ancien Régime. On the same day was the declaration of ‘The Rights of Man and Citizens.’ That time, too also marked the end of feudalism in France.
This took place during the reign of King Louis XVI who gave ground after bloody revolt by middle class leaders who whipped up support from the French proletariat and peasantry against the rule of the monarchy. A declaration by an earlier monarch, King Louis XIV that L’état, c’est moi (I am the state) defines what was known as the Ancien Régime of absolute monarchy. Things came to a head after the manoeuvres of middle class leaders and anti-monarchists escalated with a popular uprising that triggered off the French Revolution (1789-1799). At the celebration of the general Fête de la Fédération on July 14, 1790 it was felt at the time that the revolution was over. Paris celebrated the achievement of freedom.
However, July 14 is widely known as ‘Bastille Day’ because it is the anniversary of other events that took place in 1789 and which virtually launched the violent French Revolution. This was the storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a notorious fortress prison known as a place where the king kept political prisoners, persons whom he could incarcerate at his pleasure without judicial procedure. It became a symbol of an autocratic system that the Revolution dismantled. This fortress was stormed by a mob and marched to the Bastille, overpowering the guards and setting the gates open. Some versions of the event said the guards and their commander were sympathetic to the people’s cause and opened the gates before any violent clash.
In spite of that, however, the storming of the Bastille did lead to great violence and bloodshed and set the tone for what took place years later in the Revolution. This included the infamous ‘Reign of Terror’ that took place after King Louis himself was guillotined in January 1793. After Louis came his Queen Marie-Antoinette and later several thousands of others. A leader of this was Maximilien Robespierre, head of the Jacobins, the main group of revolutionaries.
But Bastille Day took its place in history as symbolic of liberation and the triumph over oppression and autocracy. French nationhood and the declaration of the rights of man are associated with this act of resistance. This association is reflected in Martin Carter’s poem ‘Bastille Day – Georgetown’ in which the poet compares the massive popular street march against the government in Georgetown on July 14, 1979 as Guyana’s ‘Bastille Day.’ But ironically, while he makes this association he also links it to the grave revelation of what was wrong in his country – the nature of “our vileness.”
The event to which Carter alludes is the murder of Father Darke, a Guyanese Catholic priest who was also a photographer for the small newspaper the Catholic Standard. He was taking photographs of the street protests when he was attacked in the open street in daylight and stabbed.
This shocked the poet who was there among the multitudes on the street when it happened and led him to feel that here was another reason why a “fight” is necessary. Not only is it necessary to liberate the underprivileged and defenceless, but there among the poor and needy were men willing to be bought with “a pot of rice.”
The French Revolution, of course, has had a long association with art. Carter’s ‘Bastille Day’ is one outstanding example of how writers have been moved by the large extensive implications and extended meanings of that movement which changed France, rocked Europe right up until 1848 and inspired the Haitian Revolution which ended with independent Haiti in 1803. There is a painting by famous Impressionist painter Claude Monet commemorating the actual declaration of the holiday to observe France’s National Day in 1880.
The philosophy adopted by the Jacobins in Paris Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité was extremely pervasive in the late eighteenth century leading up to Bastille Day. The whole idea of liberty, equality and brotherhood (fraternity) drove political sentiments across Europe and in particular, in England where it influenced much of political and cultural life. The Abolitionist movement gained inspiration from it, as did the outcry against child labour and exploitation, a move towards socialist politics and philosophical thought. These helped to drive the dawn of the Romantic movement which found expression in music and poetry. Romantic poetry was virtually launched with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and ST Coleridge in 1798.
But before them were the kindred spirits of Robert Burns and William Blake. Blake, of course is recognized as a Romantic poet even though he worked before the general group of Romantic poets which included Keats, Shelley and Byron in the early nineteenth century. Also worth mentioning is the rise of strong women writers such as Mary Shelley (wife of Percy Bysshe) whose mother Mary Wollstonecraft might have written the first thesis on feminism in 1797. Bastille Day was a catalyst to this philosophical outpouring.
Among the greatest works on the French Revolution is the classic A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. This monumental novel documented much of the impact and the legacy of Bastille Day in a story of romance, heroism, love, self sacrifice and terror. It is the love story of the ironic “Gentleman of Delicacy” Charles Darnay and of the true hero Sidney Carton, the “Gentleman of No Delicacy” who gave his life for his friend, rescuing him from the Reign of Terror in France. Dickens, employing great irony, writes of the ironic mixture of heroism, justice, love, hate and naked terrorism. He certainly showed the unromantic side of the bloody French Revolution.
Wikipedia quotes this statement by Henry Martin made in 1880 about the declaration of July 14 as France’s National Day; about a tension between the anniversary of the unifying event in 1790 and the Bastille Day of 1789.
“Do not forget that behind this 14 July, where victory of the new era over the ancient regime, was brought by fighting, do not forget that after the day of 14 July 1789, there was the day of 14 July 1790. . . This [latter] day cannot be blamed for having shed a drop of blood, for having divided the country.
It was the consecration of the unity of France. . . If some of you might have scruples against the first 14 July, they certainly hold none against the second. Whatever difference which might part us, something hovers over them, it is the great images of national unity, which we all desire, for which we will all stand, willing to die if necessary.”