Élisée Reclus in Louisiana (1853-1855): Encounters with Racism and Slavery
In January 1853, the future anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus (1830-1905) arrived in Louisiana, where he spent almost three years. Reclus was in self-exile, having left France in the wake of Louis-Napoléon’s 1851 coup d’état. Élisée and his older brother Élie, future anarchist anthropologist, had organized local opposition to the coup, but left ahead of the authorities for sanctuary in England and Ireland. After various jobs, Élisée decided to see the New World, and booked passage on a ship bound for New Orleans. Antebellum New Orleans was still largely a bilingual city, with both professional and proletarian class French speakers, and francophone publications. Reclus’s biographers are unanimous in stating the importance that this sojourn played in shaping the ideas and the personality of someone later considered as a founding figure in both scientific geography and socialist libertarianism (anarchism). (Dunbar 1978; Clark and Martin 2013; Ferretti 2014; Pelletier 2013). In Louisiana, according to his most recent biographer Christophe Brun, Reclus “fortified his atheism, anticlericalism, antislavery, anti-capitalism” (Brun 2015, 29). The New Orleans Reclus entered was the second largest port in the U.S., exceeded only by New York. It was also second to New York in the number of immigrants arriving, and New York had just surpassed New Orleans as the nation’s prime banking center. By many measures New Orleans rivalled New York as the most prosperous city in the U.S., led by its banking, shipping, sugar, cotton and slave trading economy. Reclus stepped ashore into scenes of dynamic, raw capitalism – a bustling world port, trading all manner of commodities, including humans. It also boasted a non-stop carnivalesque character (not much changed from today) with more bars and bordellos per unit area than anywhere in North America, save frontier boomtowns. Atop this street-level demimonde, a genteel stratum of older “Creole” (French and Spanish) and newly arrived “Anglo” planters preceded over a society bent on both pleasure and profit. Reclus initially found work on the docks, where free labor was the exception. Given his background and education, he soon found employment as a tutor to the children of sugar planter Septime Fortier, at their upriver plantation Félicité. This gave Reclus an intimate inside view of the workings of planter society, one that he increasingly found repellent.
At the same time, Reclus took the opportunity to further his geographical studies (he had studied with Carl Ritter in Berlin). Fascinated by the Mississippi River and its hinterlands, he travelled upriver as far as Chicago (Reclus 1859). The amphibious nature of the city of New Orleans, he compared to “an enormous raft on the river’s water” (Reclus 1860a, 189), and the problems of town and regional planning that this situation implied, were one of the first issues that impressed the young geographer. In the aftermath of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, John P. Clark argued that “much of what [Reclus] said is rather prophetic” (Clark 2007, 11), stressing the accuracy of Reclus’s analyses on the necessity of a rational planning and a harmonic integration between humankind and environment. For the anarchist geographer, this task stood in complete antithesis with the logics of capitalism, building on speculation and commodification. Almost forty years later, in the volume of the New Universal Geography dedicated to the United States, Reclus described his old Saint-Simonian dream of claiming this land for social purposes. “When the line of division between land and sea will be established, then it will be possible to claim this region for agriculture and to transform Louisiana in a new Holland through a system of dams” (Reclus 1892, 489).
However, it is on the topics of race, slavery and exploitation that Reclus took special advantage of his experience in Louisiana, becoming one of the principal European advocates of North American abolitionists during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, and a lifelong antiracist and anti-colonialist (Ferretti 2014). According to Clark, “Reclus was unusual among classical radical theorists in grasping racism as a major form of domination – an understanding that resulted in large part from his experience in Louisiana” (Clark 2007, 16-17). Ronald Creagh (2012) also notes that Reclus’s analyses of the American Civil War were more complex than the merely economistic views of Karl Marx, because the anarchist geographer analyzed the different kinds and levels of oppression that operated in the North American society.
In Reclus’s (1855) “Fragment d’un voyage à la Nouvelle Orléans,” an article published as a travel narrative for the popular French journal Le Tour du Monde, his dismay and indignation before the spectacle of a slave market were expressed in vivid terms:
On a platform stands the auctioneer, a large, red-faced, bloated man with a booming voice: “Come on, Jim! Get up on the table. How much for this good nigger Jim? Look how strong he is! He’s got good teeth! Look at the muscles on his arms! Come on, now, dance for us, Jim!” And he makes the slave turn around. “Here’s a nigger who knows how to do everything – he’s a carpenter, a cartwright, and a shoemaker. He won’t talk back – you never need to hit him.” But most of the time there are long whitish rays etched by the whip on their black skin. Then it is a Negro woman’s turn: “Look at this wench! She’s already had two niggers, and she’s still young. Look at her strong back and sturdy chest! She’s a good wet nurse, and a good negress for work!” And the bidding starts again amid laughter and shouts. Thus all the Negroes of Louisiana pass in turn on this fateful table: children who have just ended their seventh year and whom the law in its solicitude deems old enough to be separated from their mothers; young girls subjected to the stares of two thousand spectators and sold by the pound; mothers who come to see their children stolen from them, and who are obliged to remain cheerful while threatened by the whip; and the elderly, who have already been auctioned off many times, and who have to appear one last time before these pale-faced men who despise them and jeer at their white hair. … Sold off for a few dollars, they might as well be buried like animals in the cypress forest. According to the advocates of slavery, all this is willed by the cause of progress itself, the doctrines of our holy religion, and the most sacred laws of family and property (Reclus 1855, 190; English version in Clark and Martin 2003, 83-84).
Nevertheless, together with the dynamics of oppression, Reclus also analyzed subaltern agency and resistance, stressing the on-going efforts of Black slaves to get an instruction, a point that the geographer considered as strategic for any project of social emancipation. “One even mentions Blacks who learned reading alone by studying the names of the boats they saw constantly floating on the Mississippi. Planters are aware of that and start to fear for their future” (Reclus 1859, 625). Reclus was likewise prophetic in foreseeing the incoming conflicts which Southern society would have experienced in the following years, and concluded that: “For all generous men, rare in America as all over the world, the only homeland is liberty” (Reclus 1855, 192). In his correspondence, Reclus expressed the impossibility of remaining in this system without being morally accomplice of slavery and oppression, what determined his decision of leaving. As he wrote to his brother Élie in 1855, “I need to starve, now … For me, it would be better than robbing the Blacks, who deserve the money I put in my pocket by their blood and their sweat; getting back on the chain of oppression, that’s me who keep somehow the whip, and I am hating that” (Reclus 1911, 104-105). Feeling the need to leave Louisiana before he was further compromised, Reclus embarked on the steamboat Philadelphia in December 1855, bound for Colombia via Cuba and Panama. He settled in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region of Colombia with the idea of forming a multi-ethnic community of progressive-minded European colonists and local folk, including indigenous people. Disease and failed recruitment efforts doomed the venture. But his time in Colombia gave him material for his first book – Voyage à la Sierra-Nevada de Sainte-Marthe; paysages de la nature tropicale (1861) (Mathewson 2016).
Reclus returned to France in 1857 to embark on a highly successful career as publisher of geographical studies and political writings. As a geographer, he started with publishing articles in the popular journal Revue des Deux Mondes. He contributed a series of articles describing the condition of the Afro-Americans and expressing radical anti-slavery positions. According to Soizic Alavoine-Muller, “Reclus’s clear opinions and his sharp arguments could exert a decisive influence on the Revue’s readers” (Alavoine-Muller 2007, 43). This meant that Reclus’s ideas had an important impact on French public opinion, because the Revue was the most read French periodical of that time, with a distribution of around 16,000 copies per issue. A very significant topic discussed by the anarchist geographer was the principle of the solidarity of freedoms and rights: if they are threatened anywhere, this concerns all kinds of oppressed people all over the world. “The degradation of Black slaves is that of all proletarians, and their liberation will be the most beautiful victory for all the oppressed in the two worlds” (Reclus 1860, 870). Another significant feature of Reclus’s thinking was his idea that juridical equality and end of formal slavery would not mean automatically complete emancipation, a problem which still today dramatically haunts the debates on the rights of Afro-Americans.
Indeed, Reclus’s articles continued to focus on these problems also after the end of the war in 1865, denouncing the sloppy or ineffective purge of pro-slavery Southern leaders and the retaliation that freed slaves were suffering in several Southern states (Reclus 1866). Again, Reclus insisted on the necessity of education for emancipation, praising those teachers who challenged the threads of pro-slavery people by reconstructing the schools where “the children of the ancient slaves … will certainly learn the virtues of the citizens” (1866, 788). In countering the advocates of scientific racism, especially those committed to the notion of “purity” of race (Coquery-Vidrovitch 2003), Reclus proposed generalized miscegenation as an antidote to racial hatred. He came back to this proposal in his final book, L’Homme et la Terre (1908), published posthumously fifty years after his departure from New Orleans. Here he offered a final assessment of the social progresses accomplished in the United States in the decades after the end of the Secession War:
“Despite what is being said, the population of the United States, red, white and black, is ready for this despised evolution called miscegenation. The union of races will be done from below. Among the abolitionists’ sons, generous men will be able to stand upon prejudices of caste and colour and found families whose children may have a brown shadow on their cheeks. In the big cities, where migrants are more and more concentrated, the girls from abroad, Irish, German and Slavic, are no longer willing to be subjugated … Several of them become wittingly the partner of a Black who charms them for his handsomeness, strength and goodness. Finally, among Americans, misery often associates the wretched of the two races. In the big army of revindications, Blacks and Whites march side by side, and the shared sufferings made the colour diversity disappear (Reclus 1908, 108-109).
Therefore, in Reclus’s thinking, racial emancipation was linked to class struggle and also to women’s emancipation, a view that anticipated some features of what is called today “intersectionality.”
Nevertheless, in the same work, Reclus nuanced his optimism by denouncing the “disguised slavery” which was represented by the discrimination and social subordination that most of the Afro-Americans still suffered in the United States. He sarcastically wrote: “Everywhere, in the buses, trains, theatres, schools, churches, one cares for people of the despised caste can’t soil the noble sons of Japheth with their contact. In case of serious violations, horrible practices of torture became so common that one might consider them as a part of local common law” (Reclus 1908, 107).
It is also worth noting that Reclus was not only a supporter of the Afro-Americans, but also of the Amerindian peoples in both North and Latin America, condemning the crimes of the conquest and the still on-going genocide of the “Redskins” by war, alcohol and diseases (Ferretti 2013). It is possible to conclude that Reclus’s sojourn in Louisiana was paramount in inspiring some of the most radical contents of his engaged geography, one which still talks to present-day debates on geography as a means to counter oppression, racism, sexism and social exclusion.
— Federico Ferretti
School of Geography
University College Dublin
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