-by Tori Lund
There are two ways in which exile can be defined, either as a person who does not live in their native country by choice or as someone who is forced to live in another country.1 Using this definition, both the Communards who were deported from France and those who escaped France can be considered exiles. Following the Commune’s fall, many Communards were arrested and deported to New Caledonia, while others were fortunate enough to escape to places such as London. Some Communards, such as Louise Michel, lived both experiences. Michel was exiled to New Caledonia and then later spent time in London. It is valuable to examine both types of exiled Communards together because, while their experiences were different, their core values and goals remained regardless of where they were.
The Versailles government arrested and then exiled roughly 30,000 Communards to New Caledonia, a French penal colony.2 Like the other Communards in exile, Michel was a prisoner and thus, her actions while in New Caledonia were limited. Regardless of these limitations, Michel attempted to continue the political aims of the Commune, befriending the local Kanak people and attempting to positively impact their lives.3 Through Michel’s writings about the Kanak, she changed how some French and European scholars viewed these native people.4 This indirect impact is largely due to the limitations Communards faced while in New Caledonia. While in exile, many Communards had to grapple with their role in France’s colonial endeavours as Communards.5 An event that highlights this is when the Kanak revolted against the French in 1881. Many Communards should have supported the Kanak given their shared experiences of oppression. However, during this period of colonial turmoil, most Communards did not support the Kanak.6 Unable to impact the lives of the Kanak directly, Michel was more effective during her time in London, where she faced fewer limitations as a free person.
Michel was drawn to London as it was an extremely popular place for Communards to seek exile, with roughly 1500 Communards and their families finding safety in the city.7 London was so popular mainly because there were no restrictions barring Communards from entering and remaining, and there was no censorship of the press.8 So Communards could escape to London without the worry of being sent back to France, giving them the ability to live freely. In addition to this there was relatively little stopping the Communards from spreading their ideas. The Communards of London focus was on returning home to France, which lessened their overall impact on London’s politics, but certain individuals still had significant impact.9 On an individual level, Louise Michel was one of the more active and influential exiled Communards in London. After her exile in New Caledonia, Michel eventually made her way to London, arriving in 1890, and engaging in various public and private political actions; her contributions included written materials, press interviews, and social events.10 Because of her wide range of political engagement, Michel was able to influence and enrich London’s leftist and anarchist circles.
Though Michel faced very different circumstances in New Caledonia and London, her role as a Communard followed her to both places. This role was suppressed while in New Caledonia because of the limitations Michel faced as a prisoner in a penal colony, while later Michel’s political goals flourished while in London. Though both experiences are different, it is important to examine them together as doing this reveals the continuity of Michel and her actions regardless of where she was. An exceptional case, Michel best demonstrates how life was for these two types of exile.
from the archive
Henri Rochefort’s autobiography, Adventures of my Life, details his life from childhood, including his time exiled in New Caledonia and London. Rochefort often critiqued the Second Empire, expressing these sentiments in several of his journals published before and during the Commune.11 Due to his strong disdain, Rochefort actively sympathized with the Commune’s ideology and goals when it was formed.12 It is important to note that Rochefort’s autobiography is a well-edited piece created for the general public, meaning that he may have downplayed his involvement with the Commune at points and that certain details may be embellished or omitted from his book. Nonetheless, Rochefort’s autobiography does provide essential insight into the time he spent as an exile in New Caledonia and later London. It seems as though Rochefort was not highly involved in the Commune but did express sentiment that aligned with the Commune’s beliefs.13 It is likely due to these sentiments that the Versailles government believed he was an active participant in the Commune and thus sentenced Rochefort to life imprisonment in New Caledonia.14
While in New Caledonia, Rochefort spent most of his time coming up with a plan for his escape from the penal colony.15 After his escape, Rochefort eventually made his way to London, where he revived his journalistic career, once again critiquing the French government.16 Rochefort’s autobiography is useful in understanding the limitations that Communards faced in New Caledonia due to their status as prisoners. Rochefort, like Michel, expressed sentiments that aligned with Communard’s thinking, but he was unable to put these sentiments into action while in the penal colony. Rochefort’s book also highlights the continuity of Communard sentiments. Though Rochefort was unable to express his sentiments while in New Caledonia, once he was free in London, he could revive his journalistic career, continuing the work he had started in France during the Commune.
1. “exile.” In Oxford Dictionary of English, edited by Stevenson, Angus. : Oxford University Press, 2010. https://www-oxfordreference-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/view/10.1093/acref/9780199571123.001.0001/m_en_gb0280190.
2. Alice Bullard, “Self-Representation in the Arms of Defeat: Fatal Nostalgia and Surviving Comrades in French New Caledonia, 1871-1880,” Cultural Anthropology 12, no. 2 (1997): 179.
3. Kathleen Hart, “Oral Culture and AntiColonialism in Louise Michel’s “Mémoires” (1886) and “Légendes Et Chants De Gestes Canaques” (1885),” Nineteenth-century French Studies 30, no. 1/2 (2001): 107.
4. Carolyn J. Eichner, “Language of Imperialism, Language of Liberation: Louise Michel and the Kanak-French Colonial Encounter,” Feminist Studies 45, no. 2-3 (2019): 402-404.
5. Bullard, “Self-Representation in the Arms of Defeat,” 179-212.
6. Bullard, 197-199.
7. Thomas C Jones, and Robert Tombs, “The French Left in Exile: Quarante-huitards and Communards in London, 1848–80,” In A History of the French in London: Liberty, Equality, Opportunity, edited by Kelly Debra and Cornick Martyn (London: University of London Press, 2013), 169. doi:10.2307/j.ctv512xmz.16.
8. Jones and Tombs, 170.
9. Jones and Tombs, 184-187.
10. Constance Bantman, “Louise Michel’s London years: A political reassessment (1890–1905),” Women’s History Review 26, no. 6 (2017): 994-1012, doi:10.1080/09612025.2017.1294393.
11. Mitch Abidor , “Ro,” Glossary of People: Ro, n.d., https://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/r/o.htm#rochefort-henri.
12. Henri Rochefort, The Adventures of my Life, Vol. I, Translated by Ernest W. Smith (Edward Arnold, 1896.), 348-361.
13. Henri Rochefort, “For a citizens’ army,” translated by Mitch Abidor, From Le Mot d’Ordre by Henri Rochefort 1871, https://www.marxists.org/history/france/paris-commune/rochefort/1871/feb-generals.htm
14. Henri Rochefort, The Adventures of my Life, Vol. I, Translated by Ernest W. Smith (Edward Arnold, 1896.), 397-438.
15. Henri Rochefort, The Adventures of my Life, Vol. II, Translated by Ernest W. Smith (Edward Arnold, 1896.), 80-117.
16. Rochefort, Vol. II, 163-186.
2 thoughts on “exile”
Interesting article and comparisons of the different experiences. Thanks for writing it.
Michel’s life is so rich and interesting. When thinking of exile I also like to think of its urban dimension. In other words, didn’t the communards also feel like exiles in their own city following Haussmann’s transformation of Paris, which put a lot of pressure on workers and the poor to move to the peripheries? So was the Commune in and of itself an exile experience?