-6-Martyrs of the Mines


Séverine-by Renoir-1885


Séverine was first and foremost a journalist. And she loved it. She was thirty-three years old now and beautiful, all dressed up for the social revolution armed with a pen that was sharper than a sword and ready to be put to use on behalf of all combats for tolerance, peace and justice. And she had already sacrificed everything for it. For, journalism was more than just a job or a business to her, it was a mission. The power of the press is that no one, no matter how highly placed they may think they are, is untouchable. The reporter is there to give information, reveal the news and tell the truth. Moreover, the press has the responsibility of being the voice of the voiceless, the weak and oppressed, the condemned and exploited, who otherwise would not be heard.

Séverine was always swimming against the current and kicking against the pricks—she refused to conform. She wrote and thought as a free woman. What she wrote was often provocative, sometimes shocking because she said not just what she thought, but also what she saw. And what she saw was not the same as most of her male counterparts. Being an intruder into that world of men that was journalism and politics, she often found herself the only woman tolerated at certain gatherings. The men might be courteous to her, but they certainly could not resist the cutting word or nasty remark that could make or break careers and her vitriol of anger and insubordination was fuel for their fire. But she thrived.

Since most places were still off limits to women, like the debates in the Chamber of Deputies, electoral reunions, etc. she had to sneak in or pretend not to be a journalist and then stand with other people, mix with the lay people as it were. This along with her woman’s point of view gave a special flavor to her reporting. But even this was not enough for her.

Although being a journalist for Séverine meant mixing with the crowd, everywhere, in the streets and factories and courtrooms, in their sweat and blood and distress, to be a consummate journalist it was still necessary for her to go farther, to break as many barriers as possible. The Miners offered her an early opportunity.

Grand industry, big business, with its capitalist dynasties tried to regulate the lives of workers and their families in every place and in every way possible, in and out of work, from birth to death. Bosses were slave drivers ready to defend the despotism of profit. Workers were defenseless in a capitalist system that was made even more aggressive and oppressive by the economic crisis. Poverty wages, arbitrary firings and excessive hours were normal currency. In the mines the misery was aggravated by the frequent disasters that injured or killed the miners, leaving their families without resources.

The bowels of the earth begat the energy that made the industrial revolution possible, tirelessly producing the substance of progress and hence the profits of the modern social and economic system. But there was a price—it was the miners who paid it. The owners of the mines were fully aware of the occupational hazards as well as the danger of revolt by the workers, so they instituted appropriate measures to stifle any trouble. They had spies and the workers had to accept them. Just like they had to accept lower wages when coal was selling for less or sanctions if they were late, absent or acted up against the bosses. The threat of being fired for any or no reason at all constantly loomed over the miners who could barely afford to live on the wages they received for their work so they could not risk losing their job. Sometimes, however, the line was crossed.

In the spring of 1886 the miners of Decazeville in southern France went on strike. In Le Cri du Peuple Séverine launched a call for donations to support the striking miners with more than just words because they needed real help to feed their families while they were being deprived of their salaries. Duc-Quercy was also writing scathing articles in her paper and he went to jail for it, perhaps because he was targeting Léon Say, the Chairman of the Decazeville Mining and Foundry Company and a typical representative of the hated capitalist system. In June the strike came to an end with some concessions made to the miners, but by then other workers throughout the region, glass workers, iron workers and fellow coal miners, had joined in. By the fall the strike had moved on to Vierzon in the center of France and Séverine continued her campaign. Her calls did not go unheeded. Donations were given to the miners and people rallied around her to fight the organized repression by the government at the behest of the companies. It was a never-ending battle.

Four years later in the summer of 1890 an explosion in the mine of Villeboeuf at Saint Etienne in east central France killed 113 men and wounded 40 others. Just like she had in Le Cri she opened a call for donations to the support the affected families, but this time she wanted to go down to Saint Etienne and write a serious of articles on the conditions of life and work of the miners. Even more than this, she got it in mind to descend into the mine where the explosion occurred. The Company made it difficult for her to get authorization, but her ardor and stubbornness won out.

Three other women had gone down into a mine before her, but without any risk. She was the first woman to go down into a mine after an explosion when the combustible gas was still in the air ready to explode again, which it did, twice, three days later, killing seventeen more men. But she was proud to be a pioneer. In Le Gaulois she simply told what she saw in all sincerity, but at the same time denounced the daily dangers that these crumbling coalmines presented to the workers. The next day she visited the wounded in the hospital and afterwards lay sick in bed for two days. She was turned into a heroine. But it was a bittersweet accomplishment for her since she was fully aware that she earned more money with one article than a miner earned in a month. Nevertheless, her sensational exploit and articles had the effect she was hoping for. People, even the rich, found her graphic descriptions exotic and picturesque. Donations came pouring in.

She spent almost a month in Saint Etienne with the miners, distributing the charity to the widows and victims, writing about their lives, their toil, their desperate, violent struggle—“Poverty kills more people than the machine gun ever will”—appealing to all people to place humanity above party politics. She was a militant of living humanism. However, despite some minor improvements and the trivial fines taxed upon the companies, she continued to find the same suffering and distress. It was a cause she fought for her entire life and earned her the nickname “The Little Mother of the Miners.”


Next:  Descent into Hell


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