“I had the misfortune of not thinking like the powerful, of not adhering to their opinions, or their orders. This was the full extent of my crime.” Pierre Vaux, Cayenne, 16th August 1858.

In February 1848, revolution broke out once again in Paris; King Louis-Philippe abdicated and left France. The Second Republic was proclaimed, universal suffrage was introduced, and slavery abolished.

Hippolyte Carnot, the Minister for Public Instruction, launched an appeal to the 36,000 schoolteachers in France:

“I beg of them that, for their part, they carry on founding the Republic! It is not a matter of defending it against dangers from across the borders, as it was in the times of our fathers; we must defend it against ignorance and deceit, and this task has fallen to them. (…)

May my voice inspire them, even those in the humblest of our villages.” (Circular to the Rectors, 6th March 1848)

Schoolmaster of the Republic

Let us go back to the previous month, January 1848, at the boys’ school in the village of Longepierre (Saône-et-Loire). Pierre Vaux, the schoolmaster, proudly watched his pupils leave the classroom. He had let them leave slightly early on that day. This was his way of celebrating their first victory together: the Municipal Council had just voted for free schooling for all children. This had not been without a struggle, however, as he wrote later: “The prominent town members (…) protested this measure and damned it everywhere they went: saying that those who wish to receive an education should pay for it; that poor children would become as educated as their own; that the children would spend the whole summer in class and they would no longer be able to find any young servants.”

Vaux arrived in Longepierre (population: 700) in 1844 after leaving Teacher Training College in Mâcon. He came from Burgundy and quickly settled into the village. He married a beautiful girl from the area, Irma, and hoped to see his children grow up there. He was not a revolutionary, just a man aware of the injustices of his time. However, his life was about to take a new turn after February 1848.

For him, being a good schoolmaster was no longer enough and he felt that, as a man of letters, he had certain duties. At the age of 27, Vaux decided to become involved in the political life of the village. He became secretary to the Mayor, and started denouncing the priest and prominent town members who owned most of the land in village.

His attitude did not go down well. Louis Napoléon Bonaparte became President; the revolutionary spirit was coming to an end. The Inspector wrote in his report (31st November 1849): “Able and good morals. Reasonably zealous with a tendency towards socialism”. In April, Vaux was dismissed for political agitation. He was no longer allowed to teach in the region and had to leave his lodging within eight days. Four thousand schoolmasters in France met with the same fate, after being accused of inciting social unrest.

Together with a few friends, Vaux then decided to run for local office. His list of candidates won the mayoral elections in November 1850, and the schoolmaster became Mayor. His victory was fine but short-lived. In being elected, Vaux made himself some life-long enemies. One of these was Henri Gallemard, the innkeeper, who also wanted to be Mayor, and another was the Prefect who had just dismissed him. The Prefect saw this election as a snub and refused to acknowledge his victory. Gallemard found himself Mayor, whilst Vaux was now in opposition. This was the political context in which the fires started in Longepierre.

A plot in Burgundy

During the night of 2nd March 1851, two fires started in the village. The fire brigade did their best to put out the flames but the thatched roofs left them with no real chance of success. The damage was considerable and this was only the beginning. In the following months, a considerable part of the village was reduced to ashes.

Traces of phosphorus matches were found near the scenes of the fires. Who were the arsonists? It began to be said that it “must have been the ‘reds’ who had their eye on the Town Hall”. Once the rumour had started, there was no stopping it. The schoolmaster and his friends were the perfect scapegoats. Their victory was snatched from them, so they seeking revenge.

Vaux was imprisoned in May but released after 24 days due to a lack of evidence. Other arrests were also made but enquiries led nowhere and houses continued to burn.

An individual named Balleaud, who was already known to the police, was then arrested with counterfeit banknotes in his possession. “This money was the price for my silence,” he declared in front of the judge. He had seen it all. The counterfeiters and arsonists were one and the same gang, led by the schoolmaster. When the two men were put in the same room, Balleaud was not even able to describe Vaux’s house – to which he claimed to have been invited for a secret meeting. “Of course not, that’s only to be expected,” explained the accused. “He has never set foot in my house.”

Certain of his innocence, Vaux remained confident that justice would be done. He was wrong. The coup of 2nd December 1851 by Louis Napoléon Bonaparte put an end to the Republic. The sub-prefect at Chalon-sur-Saône, a zealous servant of the Empire, declared that he wanted to combat “disorder and anarchy, day and night”. The opportunist Mayor Gallemard, who had become a Bonapartist, testified against the dangerous red criminal Vaux. He had been unable to speak out earlier due to fear of reprisals. On 29th April 1852, Pierre Vaux was locked up. A mockery of a trial was held two months later:

- “I hold Pierre Vaux to be the most loyal, most honest, and most upstanding man I know,” M. Costes, the revenue collector, declared to the court.


- “Did you not declare in the past that he held the dagger of socialism in one hand and an incendiary torch in the other?”

At this the prosecuting counsel, M. Costes stammered:

- “Yes, but -”

The judge had obtained the effect he wanted on the jury. “Fine, go and sit down!” he abruptly interrupted.

M. Nadaud & M. Pelletier, Le calvaire d’un instituteur, Pierre Vaux, 1926.

Vaux was condemned to life imprisonment with hard labour. For Le Journal de la Côte-d’Or justice had been done: “Hatred of the rich – that is to say against those who have possessions – is lighting and guiding the torch of the arsonists“.


Nevertheless, the fires did not stop at Longepierre. Tension in the village reached a peak. In a dramatic development in April 1855, Balleaud, the chief witness for the prosecution, could take no more. He admitted that he had lied and denounced his accomplices and their ringleader: Gallemard. After being arrested, the Mayor hung himself in his cell. The miscarriage of justice had been proven, but admitting it would damage the prestige of the Imperial judiciary.

The applications for pardon presented by Irma Vaux were rejected. There was no retrial. After having spent two years suffering in the port prisons of Toulon and Brest, Vaux was placed aboard the frigate Armide which was sailing for the prison colony of French Guiana.

The isle of political prisoners

“The Ilet-la-Mère is without a doubt the best place for an establishment for political transportees. Lying two hours from Cayenne, the vegetation on this island is magnificent, offering wood, water, and agricultural resources. The southern slope, which is completely sheltered from the sea winds by the escarpment running lengthwise across the island, combines all the conditions for good health and well-being.”

Saillard, deputy director of penitentiary establishments in French Guiana, 15 October 1853.

Pierre Vaux, prisoner number 3680, arrived at Ilet-la-Mère on 17 September 1855. Lying off the coast of French Guiana, the isle was used for political deportees, who made up more than half of the 488 prisoners on the little fifty-four hectare rock.

Since the 1853 riot, the cruellest punishments were applied “for the slightest disobedience, the slightest irregularity in carrying out the orders of the commander or of a warden” (L. Watteau, Quatre ans à Cayenne, 1859). As a kind of escape, Vaux regularly wrote to Irma. He told her about his daily life and the days spent working as a navvy, the poor soup served up three times a day, and his sole satisfaction: that he was not in chains.

Few prisoners, however, were able to read and write. In December 1855, he was sent to work on the Gardien, one of the four prison ships of French Guiana, as its public scribe.

Freedom – almost

The prison ships were decommissioned Navy vessels. They acted as an infirmary, prison, and depot for transportees on arrival. Vaux had to reside there but, due to his work, he often had the opportunity to go to Cayenne. With the occasional jobs he carried out for the local bourgeoisie, he even managed to send a bit of money back to his family. In April 1859, he was reassigned as an employee in government headquarters. Vaux enjoyed preferential treatment and, in addition to being better paid, he was allowed to wear civilian clothing. Despite the support of the Governor of French Guiana, however, his request for a retrial fell on deaf ears. Realising that he would never return to France, Vaux then sought to convince Irma to come and join him.

Even though the crossing was free and the voyage paid for, few women dared to join their husbands in the green hell of French Guiana. As he began to lose hope, Irma told him that she would cross the Atlantic. After a two-month crossing, she arrived in Cayenne in October 1861 together with their four children.

“The roads there are rivers”

(Anne-Irma Vaux, Mémoires, circa 1925.)

The family was reunited once again after nine years of separation. The Governor of French Guiana, who was convinced of Vaux’s innocence, leased one of his properties out to him, the abandoned L’Hermitage plantation, near the town of Roura – a ten-hour pirogue journey from Cayenne.

Vaux employed several convicts and they all set to work to revive the 100 hectares of woodland and fields. The equatorial forest had a few surprises in store for the family from Burgundy: “One morning our plantation, which had been magnificent the day before, didn’t have a single leaf left,” wrote the youngest girl, Anne-Irma, in her memoirs. They learnt about forest life along with their neighbours, the recently released prisoners. They knew how to protect the coffee plants from the manioc ants and with their help Vaux made his first pirogue. He developed a liking for woodwork. He already had some expertise from when he had been an apprentice clog-maker. The schoolmaster thus became a carpenter, which turned out to be a very good move. Woodwork soon became his main source of income. Vaux made everything – tools, wheelbarrows, furniture – and was eager to invent. In this way, he designed certain machines which attracted a fair bit of attention: mills with a wooden cylinder to crush manioc, sugar cane, and rocou, and a machine to wash gold.

It was around this time that his applications for pardon finally succeeded. Life imprisonment was reduced to a dozen years. Pierre Vaux was on his way to becoming a free man, although with the obligation to reside in the colony for life.

Everything would have been for the best, if only the head of the family had not been worn down by fevers and years of deprivation. After 1867, his family persuaded him to leave L’Hermitage. Part of the family then moved to Roura, where his two sons opened a small store, and part to Ilet-la-Mère, where his daughter Anne-Irma ran the prison canteen.

Return to Ilet-la-Mère

Anne-Irma was appointed to run the prison canteen in Ilet-la-Mère together with her husband, a former soldier who she had met in French Guiana. As the only store on the island, the canteen also acted as a grocers and ironmongers. The prisoners were not allowed inside but were served at a window counter, where they were able to buy tobacco and tafia.

By this time, political deportees were no longer being sent to the island. The authorities had got into the habit of sending all the old freed prisoners, the convalescent, the sick, and the invalids there from the prison colony. There were several hundred men employed for light work such as gardening or making straw hats. This prison island became, as Paul Mury wrote: “a place of rest for the veterans of transportation”.

Vaux soon spent all his time there. Affected by chronic paralysis in his hands he was no longer of any help to sons. He spent his days walking and reading a few books in the library of the Jesuit priests.

Pierre Vaux died in the prison hospital of Ilet-la-Mère on 12 January 1875. His family returned to France in 1876.


In 1893, Pierre Armand Vaux, who had run around the woods of French Guiana as an adolescent before becoming a shopkeeper in Roura, was elected as the Member of Parliament for the Côte d’Or. He had never given up on the idea of clearing the memory of his father. His perseverance was rewarded. On 16th December 1897, Pierre Vaux was rehabilitated by the courts 22 years after his death. By then, miscarriages of justice had taken on a new face, that of Alfred Dreyfus.