Dilemma on St. Pierre
THE MAIN street of Saint Pierre is the Quai de la Roncière. One side is the harbor. The other is a row of stiff buildings unmistakably Breton, and above them the bleakest granite hills south of the Labrador. On November 13 last, pasted on a shop window in that street appeared a large proclamation in French crying, “ Habitants du Territoire! For some time there have been circulating in Saint Pierre the most extraordinary and tendentious rumors . . . Reply as I shall indicate below.” And there below were listed the questions and answers Gilbert de Bournat, Administrator for what is still, by God’s grace, the Republic of France, deemed his people should believe. It ended, “Français of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, you have heard of old French common sense. Very well, in all circumstances think and act like Frenchmen.”
Farther up the Quai stood a blackboard. On it, inscribed with reverent neatness in chalk, was another message. It read, “I thank you for your attachment. The Free French forces are worthy of your confidence. Long live Free France! Long live our British allies! Long live Saint Pierre and Miquelon, the free.” It was a copy of a cablegram released that same morning. It was addressed to the Ancient Combatants, Saint Pierre’s organization of World War veterans. It was from General Charles de Gaulle.
There, in that distant tiny place, just as in Africa and the Far East and in beleaguered France herself, waged that sad struggle of Frenchmen, desperately, emotionally, trying to figure out what was best to do for themselves and their own homes and, above all, for France. There were twenty fishermen, most of them in sabots and berets, quietly reading the administrator's simple words. There was another small group silently staring at the blackboard where De Gaulle was crying out.
The ship, the only one in three weeks, blew her whistle before we could find the answer to that struggle for Saint Pierre. Who can tell what it will be, or when it will come? But we got the rest of the story: what has happened to Saint Pierre. It turns out in the end to be a study of an extraordinary person and, we claim, a brave one—De Bournat.
The ship—she was a forty-year-old Norwegian tramp with a smell steeped into her very rust and riding light as an eggshell with a few hundred casks of monte sèche, dried cod, in her hold—found the slow melancholy rhythm of a grey easterly ground swell. The sky was drooping astern, leaden and laden. De Bournat’s little islands, two of the last vestiges of France’s once great empire in North America, floated far off, lonely and pathetic as astray dories with the smell of snow in the air and the coast a hard chance away. You could not help hoping that he, some way, can bring them in.
The islands are situated—Saint Pierre and Miquelon— off the southern coast of Newfoundland. Newfoundland’s peninsula of Burin is shaped like a boot—not. we are quick to explain, at all like that other peninsular boot where they hide a navy, but like a good husky Labrador “skinney whopper” bootand the French islands are under its stumpy toe. Saint Pierre, because it has a harbor, is the more populated one. It is two miles wide and five long. Some 3,500 inhabitants of Breton,' Norman, and Basque blood live in the crowded town. Miquelon Island is much larger, some'eighty-three square miles. ' Cn.one long curve of road that exactly parallels, a curve of beach
on the open roadstead, dwell all 500 of the inhabitants.
Fish ! Le monte! They are Saint Pierre’s destiny and her duty. She remembered that duty for 268 years. At first she had her own island fleet. Then when that was not enough and ships came out from France, she helped them with her fishermen, and watched over their empty hulls through the winter when they were frozen rail to rail hard in the harbor ice. And each spring, two or three big French East Indiamen, or a small fleet of naval vessels, would heave in out of the March fog with a thousand hands aboard, and enough wine to quench them all summer, and puncheons of Martinique rum. It was a joyous holiday, they still remember, when les marins, the fishermen, came back in the spring.
SAINT PIERRE forgot about her destiny, le monte, during American and Canadian prohibition. There is no sense in recounting that time. It is part of our time and everyone knows about it. Halfway between supply— European wine cellars and distilleries mad for export—and demand, the great American and Canadian thirst, Saint Pierre was a natural cache. She became one great liquor wharf where the transfer between European cargo vessels and rum-row rummies and coastal smugglers took place. Her sail makers’ needles flashed, sewing twelve-bottle units—the smuggler’s case, be it ale or champagne—into tight burlap sacks. The dollars flashed too, for everybody. It was more exciting, easier than fishing. France shrugged her shoulders and collected the tax—it totalled 130 million francs—and smiled at her liquor interests.
True she had to make some other arrangements about getting her fish, but it was time for a change anyway. Machinery was reaching out into the world’s fisheries. She built big steam trawlers that could fish through a whole season with only an occasional run into the nearest jxjrt for fresh water in case of a long drought on the banks.
There were no warehouses for fish now in Saint Pierre. They were full of liquor, and the town was building still more for bottle storage. Lucky Saint Pierre to have such a good time. It was a good time until it ended as if someone had turned off a light. It did not leave much behind to blink at in the dark after the light was gone.
Some roads! Seventy million francs worth of harbor blasting. A few stories. There is a good story about St. Croisine Free School. Monseigneur Heitz needed $5,000 more to build it. He was walking sadly by the Lalanne Hotel on the Quai with his hands clasped behind him, his head bent. Two very tipsy rum operators watched him from the hotel window and marked his sadness. When they learned from the hotelman the cause, they were surprised. Only $5.000! There was a little venture of theirs in the making, they explained, that would needs be completed first, but they would be glad to place a pre-dated cheque in the bank to relieve the good prelate’s sadness, and if the venture succeeded . . .
Lalanne, the hotel proprietor, waited until the Monseigneur had reached his home, and took the two charitable Brooklyn men there. The Monseigneur listened, then nodded. The hand of God is often inscrutable, working in mysterious ways. The two Brooklyn worthies swayed on their knees as he solemnly blessed them. The cheque was filed, waited a time, was good. The school
stands, a worthy structure teaching eighty serious young Frenchmen the word of God and worldly knowledge. Never again did the two Brooklyn men come back to Saint Pierre, nor does anyone know what became of them.
But that quick vanishing of the rum trade left few such miracles. It left, in reality, a damaged island. Its people had forgotten the fish. They had forgotten how to live like fishermen. In 1934 it cost ten million francs to run the island. Local taxation accounted for four million. The rest was made up by a “subvention” from France. Every year since then that subvention has been necessary. Chômage is dole, in French. What the dole was in 1934 is not known, but during 1940, there were 470 men, 200 women and 7,000 children—of which 2,000 were babies—on chômage.
De Bournat of Saint Pierre
TNE BOURNAT is a Parisian, born, in Aix-en-Provence.
He flew in the last war and received an award of the Croix Militaire. He has a prominent, high-arched broken nose that lends him a sharp eagle glance out of very black eyes. The Foreign Administration Service got him after the v;ar, and he served at Chad, the Congo, Morocco and Gabon. He came to Saint Pierre late in 1937. With him he brought his retinue—three doctors, one judge, six gendarmes and the church personnel, the Monseigneur and three priests.
His rather simple task of administering a dependency changed, with the capitulation of France in June of last year, to the difficult feat of saving it. Money was his immediate need. France could no longer feed it to him. Or couldn’t she? There was French gold, French credit frozen in New York and Montreal by edict of the Canadian and the United States governments. I f some of that could be melted ... !
Herewith, the first authentic report on the Crisis of Saint Pierre and Miquelon —A story from Canada's strategic doorstep of a lost little people torn by the doubts of the De Gaulle-Vichy struggle
Panorama of Saint Pierre town and harbor.
It could. A credit of $80.000 was established in Montreal and $50.000 in New York, for Saint Pierre. It was charged against the frozen French gold. It lasted him until mid-September. Then he came ashore again to melt some more. This time a regular monthly credit was established of $40.000 a month from Montreal and $20.000 from New York. They tell in Saint Pierre of how he returned from this last trip. There are no regular ships calling there. His work was done, and there was a long wait until the next tramp freighter was due to sail. Pie cabled for his pinnace, a beamy little twenty-five-foot harbor work boat, drab as a hagdown hen. but Saint Pierre’s navy. She was to meet him at Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. He could reach there by train and the Cabot Strait ferry. Between Port aux Basques and Saint Pierre is a hundred and ninety miles of hard water. A westerly gale found them halfway home. The small boat pitched them black and blue and at times they thought she was gone, but they brought her in. “My brave pinnace,” De Bournat calls her.
Internal machinery for utilizing the credits is complicated. Francs at an arbitrary rate of forty-five to the Canadian, and fifty to the American dollar are the internal currency of Saint Pierre. Prices of food commodities are fixed by governmental decree. A Saint Pierre merchant, of whom there are a multitude, all handling small stocks from cabbages to cordials, applies for an import permit to the local exchange control. If it is granted, he buys a cheque with francs from one of the two Saint Pierre banks, payable to the firm he is buying from in Canada or the United States, in dollars. The dollars never enter Saint Pierre, nor do the francs ever leave it. Francs pay the chômage (the dole), the cost of maintenance and administration of government. They revolve on an endless internal circuit; citizen (via wages or dole) to merchant, to government and then back around again. They’re wearing them out. Some of the flimsy franc notes require two hands to pick them up now, fragile as paper lace.
De Bournat’s politics are very frankly based on cherishing, at all costs, this financial salvation he has achieved. In his famous proclamation, one of the questions and answers is, “What are our relations with our neighbors? Our present relations with Newfoundland, Canada and the United States are the most amiable and such as they should be among countries having the same spiritual aspirations.” Another states, “Have we an interest in modifying at the present this position? Our position is clear. To modify it now would result in spreading trouble in the minds, would hinder our great neighbors . . . and would place the Territory in a very difficult financial situation.” And yet another, “Is the provisioning of the Archipelago conditioned upon a change in our attitude? Our provisioning is at present assured by France in friendly collaboration with our neighbors. What better can one hope for than these conditions?”
Many believe that at heart he is an admirer and envier of those Frenchmen free to continue the active combat against Nazi Germany. Saint Pierre’s duty, however, he conceives to be passive, and his to keep her so. She has nothing with which to fight or help and thus she must be quiet and unobtrusive and not make a nuisance.
1-Iis opponents are the Ancient Combatants. They are the veterans of the last war, 400 strong. François LeBuf is the president. LeBuf is one of the island’s biggest businessmen, a director of Saint Pierre Slip Stores, the marine railway and chandlery. At the last meeting of the Ancients, a vote was taken of the sentiments of the meeting. De Gaulle carried by an overwhelming majority. Another motion was immediately passed calling on De Bournat to hold a plebiscite of the colony. It was given a corollary amendment that in case De Bournat refused, the Ancient Combatants would take the plebiscite themselves. At press time official notification of the motions had not been presented to the Government al-
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though the facts are common talk in the town and De Gaulle’s cablegram thanking the body for its action was passed through government censorship.
Argument is as ojien as Canadian election talk. “Honor” is a current word. There is more of that to be had, the De Gaulles claim, on their side. They meet the administration’s argument that Saint Pierre’s economy is the price of change by reminding it of Winston Churchill’s promise that Free Frenchmen would be cared for. That anyone studying a chart in I^ondon might make the natural mistake that the logical guardian of Saint Pierre in such case would be Newfoundland, hangs some crejie on that jiromise.
The two, Newfoundland and Saint Pierre, have fished and bickered side by side for a long time, and the hair on a Saint Pierrais’ neck lifts when he thinks of being in thrall to Burin. There is no class or creed limiting the advocates of either side. Guillot. the administration’s judge, is a radical De Gaulle fan. When news reached Saint Pierre that De Gaulle had walked into Libreville, he flew the flag of Free France from the rear window of his living quarters over the jiost office. The front windows of his quarters face the harbor and are not visible from the Quai. All day the light blue flag fluttered free.
It is a lovely piece of bunting. The tricolor has become a jack in the upper luff, and the main ground is light blue with the Lorraine cross in white. When Madame de Bournat, the very blond and brilliant wife of the Administrator, commented, she said:
“If that were my flag I would at least honor it enough not to fly it from the kitchen vyindow.”
That Canada and the United States are watching closely, is very evident. The United States consulate had been closed for some time. It was suddenly reojiened in early August, and Maurice Pasquet, a vice-consul, transferred there from Diaren, Manchuria. Shortly after his arrival he was promoted to full consul.
Fishing Fleet Invasion
rT'HE MOST spectacular event to date, now happily ended, was the invasion by the deep water fishing fleet. It came fleeing in as soon as the news of the fall of France reached the Grand Banks. The big trawlers led the way, twelve of them with their grey paint rust streaked and their tattered tricolors whipping out over their fat, sway-backed sterns. A day later the cordiers, the handliners, mostly barques and barquentines, arrived. They jammed in rail to rail, turning the little harbor into a noisy sea-born tenement slum. Their crews, 1,385 lusty, bearded Bretons and Normans and Basques, swarmed ashore. It was late in the season for them, and they were loaded for bear. There was no pay for them in Saint Pierre, of course. Their wine stores were gone and their food low in the locker. There was nothing for De Bournat to do but see that they were fed from the island’s store of food and ojien the wine shops and tell mothers to keep their daughters under lock and key. Rumors that the situation had got out of hand were rife in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. There was no justification for them.
There was one evening that had promise. The gendarme-adjudanl sniffed wine cups in the café. By law the wine shops must sell only that, and the adjudant was sniffing for brandy. His third sniff was in the cup of a large and hairy cordier out of the barquentine Immaculate Conception. The cordier waited until the official nose had withdrawn and then let the cup go full in the adjudant’s face. There was action that ended in the cordier tossing the adjudant out into the moonlit Quai where he slid on his buttons straight up the moonpath of a large mud puddle.
Four of the inmates of the café were arrested and marched off to the clink. The rest of les maritis, the sailors, came swarming ashore over the rigging of the crowded fleet and marched on the jail. De Bournat was in charge by this time. He sent for Guillot, the judge, and held court at once. The arrested men were found to be innocent spectators of the incident, and everyone was happy. There was also a Sunday when les marins decided that the Ville d' Ys, a Government ship tending the lishing fleet, had been hanging to her moorings long enough. She should get the devil back to France and pick up the fleet's mail as she was supposed to. That there was a war on, and France was full of Germans, did not matter; mail was what they wanted, and they started to cast her loose from the dock. The Ville d' Ys sprang into action with her powerful water hose and squirted the mob. After forays and sallies, it ended without any damage at all.
On October 15, to the great relief of all hands, the sailing fleet was ordered to up sail and make a run for it. The British blockade apparently turned its back for, save for one of the old ships that peacefully sank off Cape Race with all hands safe ashore in the dories, they made Casablanca and are feeding Morocco their salt cod cargoes. The steam vessels were not considered so harmless and were refused coal to depart as a fleet. They are getting bunkered one at a time now, however, and slipping away, apparently with the permission of those who rule the sea.
Name your own number for the fate of little Saint Pierre. Nobody wants her, and that’s the truth of it. No one but her own small lost people. They want her very much. At the moment she’s not a menace, or an asset, or a threat, or a future submarine base, or a challenge to the Monroe Doctrine. She’s a lump of igneous rock, green in patches up against the blue where a furze of ground spruce grows, and all the rest salmon pink rock in the thin sunshine. At her base the North Atlantic makes a slow surge and roar and bursts into cream. There is one bold head—Cap à l’Aigle— Cape of the Eagle, that the Atlantic Ocean loves. It plays a fine bold tune there with an easterly sea.
It’s a likely head for Jacques Cartier’s ghost to hold out on, and LaSalle’s, and Père Marquette’s, and the shades of all the rest of those bold Gallic sons who came in out of the fog and then went on upriver to help make this country.
Herewith is the text of the De Bournat proclamation:
Territory of the Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon The French Republic Liberty, Equality and Fraternity
Inhabitants of the Territory
For some time there have been circulating in St. Pierre the most extraordinary and frequently the most tendentious rumors. These rumors are charged to various sources: newspapers, radio broadcasts and even the too fruitful imagination of certain residents. They cause trouble in the minds and engender partisan quarrels in families. Do not be the dupes of all these rumors, and have the patience to wait until they are verified. Know
how to reply to those who carry these lying rumors and especially those who state or write that the French soldiers did not have the courage of their forebears, that the French sailors were absent from Dunkirk, that the French aviators had received the order not to fly, that the interests of France were not to suspend hostilities, that Marshal Pétain is not the great figure venerated throughout the entire world, that a modification of the political status of the Territory will be more profitable for the inhabitants with the maintenance of the position taken since last June, that the provisioning of the Archipelago is conditioned upon the change of this position, that the dollars which serve at the present time for our provisioning do not belong to France, etc. . . .
In these matters make the replies I shall indicate below, replies which flow from the simplest type of reasoning and which you may easily verify for yourselves:
The French soldiers?
R: Their valor has been exalted in
particularly moving and convincing terms by Mr. Bullitt, the Ambassador to France of the United States, during the course of several radio broadcasts made after his return to America.
Was the French Navy absent from Dunkirk ?
R: In the Dunkirk affair the French
Navy lost six destroyers (among them the glorious Sirocco) and it was the French Navy which, in collaboration with the British battleships and the French land army, assured at Dunkirk the protection of the retreat of our British friends—the first evacuated as was their right on French soil—then the remainder of the French troops.
The French aviators? Had they received orders not to fly during the German offensive?
R: All the allied radios announced that from the 10th of May to the 10th of June the allied aviators brought down 2,000 German planes; therefore, it may be stated and written officially, without anyone—not even the Germans—denying it, that the French aviators may take credit for having brought down alone nearly half of this number, or nearly 1,000 !
Was it not to the interest of France to suspend hostilities?
R: It is again Mr. Bullitt who has replied to this question by stating in the same radio broadcasts, that at the moment of the cessation of hostilities, the French did not have in the mother country either sufficient planes, or tanks, or sufficient artillery and munitions to continue the struggle and that in the French colonies there was hardly any defense except the chests of our French soldiers.
R: Marshal Pétain, the conqueror of
Verdun, is the present head of the French State to which King George VI and President Roosevelt have recently addressed indications of admiration and to whom the President of the Veterans of St. Pierre has addressed a panegyric during the course of the reunion of Veterans on October 24, 1940. Marshal Pétain is still the chief of the French Veterans Legion with which are associated 99 per cent of the Veterans Associations of the French Empire.
The Minister of Colonies?
R: The Minister of Colonies is Rear
Admiral Platon, one of the heroes of Dunkirk.
What is the present position of the Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon?
R: It is still that defined in the telegram which we addressed the 23rd of June to the head of the French State, the telegram which was posted in the Territory and broadcast throughout the entire world.
Have we an interest in modifying at the present this position?
R: Our position is sharp, clear and precise. To modify it now would result in spreading trouble in the minds, would hinder our great neighbors and friends, would be a disservice to France and would place
the Territory in a very difficult financial situation.
Can the Territory at present aid in the liberation of France?
R: The French have no material and in these conditions anything they might do at present could not but cause annoyance to France. However, we may be sure that the day is not far off when it will be possible for us to participate in this great task. On that day, being better informed than we are at the moment, we shall know exactly in what manner we must direct our action.
What are our relations with our neighbors?
R: Our present relations with Newfoundland, Canada and the United States are the most amiable and such as they should be among countries having the same spiritual aspirations.
Is it correct that the French Navy and the naval bases beyond the seas have been offered to Germany to aid it in its struggle against England?
R: No, that is false.
Is it possible in the name of liberty to force fellow citizens to take an attitude which they do not approve?
R: Common sense replies: no.
Is it possible to envisage seriously and sincerely the alignment with the chief of an expeditionary corps without admitting the obligation to go to fight at his side if he expresses the desire?
R: No, because otherwise this alignment would only be a platonic gesture without value and the only result of which would be profoundly to deceive the chief to whom it was addressed on the day when he might deem it necessary to make a conscription of fighters.
The fathers, mothers, wives, sisters, young daughters, the men over forty and under twenty (who know very well that were troops conscripted they would not be called themselves), those who have no sons in condition to bear arms, have they the right to oblige their sons, husbands, brothers, fiancés, or the children of others to make the sacrifice of their life?
R: No. This right only belongs to the interested ones themselves or to a regular French Government.
Is the provisioning of the Archipelago conditioned upon a change in our attitude? R: Our provisioning is at present assured by France in friendly collaboration with our neighbors. What better can one hope for than these conditions?
Who pays at present the salaries of officials and employees, pensions, unemployment assistance, family allowances?
R: The Territory with French money.
To whom belongs the dollars which serve at the present for the provisioning of the Territory?
R: To France. France owns on this side of the Atlantic considerable sums represented by gold put in protection in different places, American dollars deposited in New York with the French-American Banking Corporation, and Canadian dollars deposited in Montreal with the Bank of Montreal. These are the American and Canadian dollars (which, I repeat, belong to France) which serve for our provisioning.
What is it possible to deduce from the above?
R: Notably this: that one should not
believe all that is said and also before making an important decision, it is necessary to reflect carefully, to weigh well the pro and con, and above all else, to wait to be perfectly and completely informed which, for the moment, is still difficult here.
FRENCHMEN OF ST. PIERRE AND MIQUELON. YOU HAVE HEARD OF OLD FRENCH COMMON SENSE. VERY WELL, IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES THINK AND ACT LIKE FRENCHMEN.
St. Pierre, November 12, 1940.
G. de Bournat.