London – Greenwich (Borough of) – National Maritime Museum (Guillotine Blade)

This exhibit, which I accept isn’t the cheeriest, is in the collections of the National Maritime Museum in London. It’s a guillotine which dates from around 1792 and it was used on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to execute about 50 royalists.

I have to say that I’m not sure I’d have wanted to live on Guadeloupe in the late eighteenth century. It was French until 1759, when the British took it over, but the French really liked having it. The French decided that they wanted it so much that at the Treaty of Paris in 1763, they swapped their French colonies in Canada to keep control of it, so they took over the island again. The French Revolution, which really wasn’t ideal for the wealthy in France, also spread to Guadeloupe and everyone was made free on the island, regardless of their colour. The British decided that this political power vacuum was a chance to get the island back, so they invaded in 1794 and gained control, only to see the French quickly take it back.

The guillotine was likely taken over by Victor Hugues when he went out to try and purge the Royalists and set the country free from the British who had interfered with arrangements. Hugues arrived on the island with his guillotine on 2 June 1794 along with 1,153 Republican soldiers who were keen and eager to fight and kill people. Documentation mentions that those killed included the estate owners on the island, as well as some military officers, and the guillotine was carried around the island as further victims were sought.

It is said by the National Maritime Museum that Captain Matthew Scott of the Royal Navy decided that it seemed an ideal souvenir, so he brought this guillotine back on HMS Rose when the British left the island. I can understand why Captain Scott took the item, as he might have thought it was something important politically, but Hugues attacked and pushed the British off the island, so it’s unclear why Scott would have this guillotine. It’s unlikely that Hugues would have willingly given it up (Paul Fregosi in his book Dreams of Empire said that he was very attached to it), as he still had work to do with it.

And the next part of this mystery, HMS Rose sank near Jamaica on 28 June 1794, so I have some queries about this situation as well….. It’s clear that Scott hasn’t sailed home with it and come back, as there wasn’t time, so that guillotine would have been on board when the ship sank. The 200 sailors on board had to fashion bits of the ship to create rafts to paddle to safety, this wasn’t some little incident in the harbour where they had chance to reclaim everything. I’m unsure whether someone decided that the guillotine needed salvaging as some sort of priority, was Scott that keen to have it?

So, there’s perhaps something slightly wrong about the story told by the National Maritime Museum and my theory (based on no evidence at all) is that Scott did bring this item back, but that he did so later on. Scott later became a Vice Admiral and he was still on board ships in the region in 1810, the year that the British took back Guadeloupe. So, my historical guess (like this is of relevance to anyone) is that Scott brought back the guillotine as a war trophy at this point, and not before. And I am unanimous in that to quote Mrs Slocombe….