Atlantic Exiles - Refugees and Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1770s–1820s
The major political upheavals in the Atlantic world between the mid-1770s and the mid-1820s triggered political migrations of an unprecedented scale.
The research project Atlantic Exiles (2020-2025) will undertake the first systematic exploration of this momentous period as an age of refugee movements, that is, as a period in which political migrants and their movements became a defining feature. Rather than simply complementing existing scholarship, the project puts forth a new reading of the age of revolutions and its consequences, by showing that supposedly marginalized figures were not on the sidelines, but at the very center of major transformations.
The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC), directed by Jan C. Jansen and hosted by the History Department at the University Duisburg-Essen.
News from the Team
The Atlantic Exiles team welcomes Megan Maruschke and Jannik Keindorf as new team members! Megan, previously a postdoc at University of Leipzig, will work on the Philadelphia/US case study; Jannik just completed his MA at Ruhr University of Bochum and joins Atlantic Exiles as PhD researcher on the Kingston/British Empire case.
Just published: Interview with "TRAFO - Blog for Transregional Research" about Atlantic Exiles project.
Atlantic Exiles explores movements and networks of refugees and exiles of the revolutions in the Americas and Europe (1770s–1820s). Political modernity, brought about by the “age of revolutions” and often identified with new notions of sovereignty and citizenship, was intertwined with the emergence of the political refugee as a mass phenomenon. Each of the revolutions and the violence they generated put tens of thousands of people on the move. At least 60,000 “Loyalists” left the United States after the war of independence in 1782–3. An estimated 150,000 people left revolutionary France in the early 1790s. Some 20,000 to 30,000 people left the French colony of Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) and tens of thousands more fled Spanish American revolutions and civil wars between 1808 and the mid-1820s. In total, more than a quarter million people left or were forced to leave their homes as a result of political conflicts and civil wars.
Atlantic Exiles brings this particular moment, both in Atlantic and in migration history, into full view. The project offers the first systematic exploration of political migrants and their movements as a defining feature of the revolutionary era. Its starting hypothesis is that allegedly marginalized figures did not stand on the sidelines, but at the very center of major transformations that the Atlantic world underwent during these momentous decades. These four lines of inquiry [J1] include the reshaping of citizenship and subjecthood regimes, changing practices of welfare and early humanitarianism, the porous and shifting boundaries between freedom and slavery, and the emergence of transnational exile politics.
While there is growing consensus that revolutionary ideas and actors in the Atlantic basin can no longer be studied in isolation, those who opposed and fled these revolutions have received strikingly less attention. Focusing on the interactions between refugees and receiving societies in a variety of contexts, Atlantic Exiles breaks new ground on two interlocking levels of inquiry: It recasts the Caribbean as one of the world’s major receiving and transit region for refugees during this period and it provides the first systematic exploration of exile and refugee movements in a decidedly Atlantic perspective. In addition, it sets the findings from the Atlantic world into a long-term and global history context. Based on multi-site and multi-linguistic research and the close engagement with records in the Caribbean, the Atlantic Exiles’ four sub-projects open up new avenues for the study of both Atlantic and refugee history.
Lines of Inquiry
In the decades between 1770 and 1830, revolutionary upheavals, emancipatory struggles and inter-imperial warfare fundamentally reshaped the Atlantic world. While scholars tend to ascribe these changes primarily to the revolutions and the revolutionists’ actions, Atlantic Exiles seeks to show that the refugees of the revolutions were not on the margins of these developments—that, on the contrary, their movements, their activities and their often contentious interactions with their host states were at the very center of the reshaping of the Atlantic world. The project explores this main hypothesis along four interrelated lines of inquiry, each reflecting a transformative process in which refugees played a key role: (1) citizenship, subjecthood and changing concepts of belonging; (2) the politics of humanitarianism; (3) the shifting boundaries of freedom and slavery; and (4) transnational exile politics.
(1) Citizenship, subjecthood and changing concepts of belonging
The revolutionary Atlantic saw the rise of new concepts of national citizenship, a fundamental change in the principles and practices governing the relationship between states and their residents. Constitutions came to define the “people” or “citizens” of a given nation-state and their rights vis-à-vis that state. The new citizenship regimes were not solely inclusionary; while establishing the inalienable rights of the citizens, they also withheld these rights from others along social, gender, racial and/or political lines. The refugees of the revolutionary era stood at the point where several processes shaping citizenship regimes and their exclusionary politics converged. Revolutionary governments worked at crafting specific categories for political refugees. What is more, most states and colonies considered the arrival of significant numbers of foreign refugees a major challenge. Authorities passed alien laws that aimed at controlling, limiting and documenting the arrival of refugees, and curtailing the refugees’ agency. The project replaces political refugees at the center of these processes of redefining the statuses of citizens and aliens throughout the revolutionary – and “counter-revolutionary” – Atlantic.
(2) The politics of humanitarianism
The age of revolutions had a large impact on imperial and religious structures of assistance spanning the Atlantic world. The rise of “humanitarianism,” i.e., the turn from religiously based and personal charity to secular and institutional philanthropy aimed at reducing human suffering, is often seen closely linked to revolutionary events in Europe and the Americas. There is a growing literature on changing attitudes towards the domestic poor and slaves. The treatment of refugees at this time has largely fallen outside this historiography, despite case studies showing the importance and contentious character of refugee assistance in the revolutionary Atlantic context. By examining the struggles over refugee relief, the project puts the rise of humanitarianism back in its broader political contexts.
(3) The shifting boundaries of freedom and un-freedom
Though most obvious in the case of the slave revolution in Saint-Domingue, the contestation of slavery was integral to all revolutionary struggles across the Atlantic. Apart from the French émigrés, all refugee groups of the revolutionary era were highly heterogeneous, in terms of both race and legal status. White women and men of all social classes, including many slave owners, were but one, and not always the largest, segment of refugees. There were also large numbers of black or mixed-race women and men who were legally free, though in most cases politically discriminated against, and slaves, brought along by their owners or resettling as a means to gain freedom. These refugee groups moved across an increasingly complex and contradictory legal landscape. The project analyzes how the refugee movements impacted on and navigated this dynamic landscape of slavery and emancipation.
(4) Exile politics across borders
Starting with the refugee movements between the 1770s and 1820s, exile became an important site of national and international politics. Political migrants of all stripes engaged in what sociologist Stéphane Dufoix has termed “exopolity”: a political space shaped by groups who refuse to recognize the existing regime and whose paramount goal is return from exile. Out of wide-ranging correspondence networks, practices of sociability and forms of cohabitation, a transnational space of exile took shape that integrated diasporas across a number of host countries and involved multiple communities in one place. Political upheavals and imperial breakdowns throughout this period created a high degree of geopolitical uncertainty, which propelled certain exiles and other freewheeling actors to the center of messy international struggles. The project seeks to uncover how exile made them actors in the transnational arena who forged alliances with foreign state and non-state actors, set up risky military endeavors or obscure intrigues, maintained diaspora ties across borders and built networks between multiple communities in order to “engineer” exile and its politics.
Atlantic Exiles is geared toward pioneering and challenging archival work. Systematic research will be conducted in collections in the English- and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. The project will also draw on public and private collections in Europe, North and South America. As a result of the complex trajectories of exile groups and individual refugees during this period, important private papers and documents ended up in archives and libraries in both North and South America and in Europe. The public archives of the former colonial metropoles, of the refugees’ countries of origin and of non-Caribbean destinations in Europe and the Americas also hold relevant complementary collections.
The project includes four sub-projects linking different refugee movements and places across the Atlantic. While the project as a whole covers all major revolutionary settings (USA, France, Haiti and Spanish America), the selection of case studies takes into account the uneven state of the different historiographies brought together. First, in view of the more advanced scholarship on the American and the French Revolutions, particular attention is paid to refugee movements relating to the Haitian Revolution and Latin American independence. Second, the project puts emphasis on the Caribbean as a major, yet largely unexplored destination and transit region for refugees during this period.
Sub-projects 1–3 are defined following a regional approach. Each takes one or several well-connected Atlantic port cities as its point of departure: Kingston, Havana and Philadelphia. The selection of these cities is based on three criteria. First, all these cities were major hubs of political migrants and laboratories of migration policies throughout the revolutionary era. Examining the ways in which the different refugee movements, and the responses to them, interacted with and affected one another in each place allows the project to understand how, and with what ramifications, the age of refugees came about. Second, they were well-connected political, economic and social centers of different major states and empires. This allows each sub-project to look from the vantage point of these urban centers into broader contexts: into their hinterlands, the states and empires they were part of, and the Atlantic as a whole. The three locales provide unique windows onto how the refugee movements impacted on what were arguably the three major powers in the Americas during this period: the British Empire, the Spanish Empire and the early national United States. Each of these projects can be expanded, e.g. by including a case of a borderland/frontier city (e.g., Port of Spain (Trinidad), San Juan (Puerto Rico) and New Orleans (USA), respectively). Third, the cities provide excellent conditions for studying all four lines of inquiry. They were places in which fierce arguments over belonging and humanitarian assistance played out. They provided different conditions for struggles over emancipation and constituted major bases for cross-border exile politics. These conditions allow each of the sub-projects 1–3 to explore in depth the formative impact of refugee movements on the Atlantic world in one particular place and to lay the groundwork for broader comparisons.
Sub-project 4, carried out by the PI, differs from the regional approach. It puts the different areas of the age of revolutions into a broader geographic and chronological picture. The sub-project examines the evolution of Atlantic “counter-revolutionary” exile politics based on four case studies stretching from the 1780s through the 1820s and involving refugee groups from all major revolutions. It examines how exile as a transnational space of political action took shape and to what extent the agency of exiles changed over the course of the half-century of the age of revolutions. It will also explore how these exile activities intersected with other dimensions of the political, economic and migration history of the era: the history of land speculation, westward expansion and settler colonialism, inter-imperial rivalry, mercenarism, etc.
Jan C. Jansen and Simone Lässig (eds.), Refugee Crises, 1945–2000: Political and Societal Responses in International Comparison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Jan C. Jansen, “Brothers in Exile: Masonic Lodges and the Refugees of the Haitian Revolution, 1790s–1820,” Atlantic Studies: Global Currents 16, no. 3 (2019): 341-363.
Jan C. Jansen, “Flucht und Exil im Zeitalter der Revolutionen (1770er–1820er Jahre): Perspektiven einer atlantischen Flüchtlingsgeschichte,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 44, no. 4 (2018): 495–525.
Vue de l’incendie de la ville du Cap Français, 1793, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vue_de_l%27incendie_de_la_ville_du_cap_fran%C3%A7ais_f1.highres.jpg
Watercolour view of the harbour at Freetown, 1792, donation by Robert G. Kearns, Courtesy of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, a part of the Nova Scotia Museum, M2008.38.1
Emigrant Clergy reading the late decree, that all who returns shall be put to death, 1792, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6947534n.item
Edward Darlington, Reflections on Slavery; with Recent evidence of its Inhumanity Occasioned by the Melancholy Death of Romain, A French Negro (1803).
Carlos Paris, Acción militar en Pueblo Viejo, septiembre de 1829, 1835, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Acci%C3%B3n_militar_en_Pueblo_Viejo.jpg
This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 849189).