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Reclus, a colonialist?

Reclus : un colonialiste ?
Axel Baudouin
Traduction de Hilary Green


Le géographe et anarchiste Elisée Reclus est considéré comme un anti-colonialiste. En analysant ses écrits, plusieurs auteurs n’ont cependant pas pu ignorer que tout en critiquant les méthodes colonialistes, Reclus était partisan de la colonisation. Cet article tente de traiter le sujet en utilisant du matériel d’archive et des publications, ainsi qu’en se penchant sur la position de Reclus au cours de la deuxième moitié du 19ème siècle.

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  • 1 Several works (Mikesell 59, Giblin 1971 , 1976, 1980, 1981-a, 1981-b, 1981-c, 1986, Dunbar 1978, Fl (...)

1Elisée Reclus has been the subject of a great many studies in the last few decades1 so it is no longer the case, as I stated in 1988 (Baudouin 1988), that Reclus was a forgotten author and geographer. The colonial question is one of the aspects of his work to interest analysts. Béatrice Giblin (1981, a) was the first to open the debate. Other authors have added new elements to the dossier (Liauzu 1994, Bataillon 1994, Nikolai 1986). While recognizing that Reclus was a critic of colonialism they have found apologies for colonization in his works. There are contradictions or at least ambiguities in Reclus’s position on the colonial question. I wanted to explore this theme in greater depth and my aim is to take up this discussion of the analysis of the rapport upheld by Elisée Reclus, anarchist-geographer, with the colonial question, to place it in the 19th century context of anti-colonialism, and then to present my own reading. For this I will bring to the discussion little or otherwise unknown documents from his lifetime. I hope thus to clear up any ambiguities and contradictions and to reconstruct the inherent logic of Reclus’s position. A new reading on the subject will make it possible to modify interpretations suggested to date. It concerns his position on the colonial question and his anarchism.

2The first part of the text talks about the definition of colonialism, a difficult to define and multifaceted concept, then retraces the major lines of anti-colonial opposition up to the end of the 19th century, and the role played by geographers. In the second part I will present Reclus’s position on the colonial question through several documents and compare them to other interpretations put forward. I will analyze the similarities between his position and those of his contemporaries as well as demonstrating his originality.

Definitions: colonism, colonization and colonialism

3The concept of colonist and colonies dates from as far back as Ancient Greece. Contemporary colonists and colonies are related to these ancient concepts, but have acquired other dimensions in size and scope. Since the end of the 19th century, the word colonialism, generally with a negative connotation, has replaced the former “colonism”. According to Marcel Merle (1969:8) “an originally English word, colonialism was forged and popularized in France in a brochure signed by the socialist Paul Louis, which appeared in 1905. But in the 19th century they were already talking about the quarrel between colonists and anti colonists.”

4Charles Robert Ageron cites the economist, Molinari, as the author of the word in 1895 (Ageron 1978: 27). As for the word colonization itself, according to George Hardy (1933:25) “it has been in current usage since the Restoration”.

  • 2 “colonies d’enracinement”
  • 3 “colonies d’encadrement”

5When we talk about colonies we also talk about different kinds of colonies. Elisée Reclus distinguished between populated colonies and exploited colonies. According to him, the former were legitimate while the latter were to be proscribed. Béatrice Giblin states that this distinction was linked to Reclus’s libertarian convictions (Giblin 1981, a:57). This is also a “classical” distinction which later appears in the 20th century in very similar terms - René Hardy distinguishes between established colonies2 and managed colonies3. Hardy adds a subsidiary category, strategic colonies, which he called colonies of position (Hardy 1933). At first glance these distinctions appear justified, but after closer examination can be questioned on what actually makes the difference between simple conquest and colonization on the one hand and between the different kinds of colonies/colonization. Colonization is not specific to western civilization, but a recurrent form of expansion, through war and conquest, accompanied by diverse forms of human implantation.

6George Hardy (Hardy 1993:25) distinguishes between the establishment of agricultural colonies and a broader meaning of the word colonization as the systematic development of countries under European domination and responsibility for “improvement of native life”, not a simple task:

7The greatest difficulty is to impose regular and stable working habits on a population preferring a nomadic life to a sedentary effort […]. As these populations represent infant societies, […] it is admissible to apply the same treatment we apply to our own children, that is to submit them to a compulsory system (Hardy 1933: 121).

8His definitions and the methods he envisages reflect the opinion of the elite and public opinion throughout the 20th century and sometimes even nowadays about the benefits of colonization. In Hardy’s conclusion he modifies this by saying that although limited it has a broader influence:

9Whether it is a case of European settlement or simple management of the natives, the occupation of an inhabited country or takeover of a deserted land, colonization appears essentially as the transformation of a backward or neglected area in the interest of humans (Hardy 1973: 63).

10What changed with our modern epoch which began with the discovery of the Americas and especially the 19th century, was the shape and size taken by colonization as a continual phenomenon of expansion, assured by an obvious technological and logistical superiority and used as a weapon to take land and gain political domination. Technical development, especially in communications and armament; productivity and demographic expansion gave colonization a globally unequalled scale. The argument for improvement of captured territories serves as legitimization. For modern colonization, “backward” countries must be developed and by the same token the only and real civilization brought to the native population either willingly or by force. In fact, modern day colonization can be considered as the first step in the on going globalization. It demonstrates the opening up of the rest of the world to modernity, qualified in this instance as civilization.

The colonial question in the 19th century

  • 4 (Brunschwig 1949, Ageron 1973, 1978, Merle 1969, Girardet 1972)

11Works of historians like Brunschwig, Ageron, Merle, Girardet and Rébérioux retrace the origins of the colonial question in French society4. This began before the Revolution through the writings of philosophers on the question of the human rights and humanitarian positions attached to the idea of “the noble savage”.

12At the time of slavery and trade in black peoples, colonialism had severe critics among men of courage and the enlightened. It was at this time that the anti colonial theses we know today were developed. All philosophers condemned the colonial system and its consequence, slavery, in the name of the rights of man and equality (Ageron 1973: 6).

13This continued with the anti-slavery movement and with the opposition to colonial adventures for political and economic reasons, especially after the conquest of Algeria. This stance was also taken by Monarchists and liberal reformists (Benjamin Constant, Lamartine, Schoelcher) economists (Jean Baptiste Say, Bastiat), republicans, socialists (Marx) and anarchists (Proudhon).

14However, the anti colonial position is at the least ambiguous. For Romanticists, the “noble savage” ceased to be a model offered by nature to civilized man and became a “primitive” to be used by the concerned and patronized by people holding the key to knowledge and prosperity (Merle 1969: 32). Victor Considérant wrote in the journal La Démocracie pacifique on 2 January 1848, cited by Ageron (1978 : 18-19) in the spirit of this time : For many years we have invited France to re-engage its colonial mission with grandeur and we call upon Europe to organize its expansion and civilization of the uncivilized and barbaric countries in a fraternal manner.

15Saint-simoniens, while criticizing colonization, were not against it, in fact they were very active in the colonization of Algeria. Early socialists were also very ambiguous on the colonial issue as Girardet says (Girardet 1972: 41-42):

16Fourier, Cabet, most of the early French socialists were in favor of the main principals of new colonization, - “the conquest of the uncivilized world by humanity”, according to Cabet’s formula, produces of an excess of wealth and is likely to encourage new forms of social organization. Their teaching… inspired several philosophical or cooperative experiments on Algerian soil.

17Marx himself favored colonization “an absolutely essential step on the road to transforming the world. While bringing new methods of production, capitalism breaks down the archaic structures of colonized societies; it prepares for the arrival of an economic system founded on the exploitation of man by man, clearing the way for universal revolution” (Merle 1969: 40).

18Looking for texts on colonialism in Bakounine, (Oeuvres completes, Editions Champ Libre, in the 1970s) I found nothing on the colonial question. It is the national question which is a preoccupying, omnipresent question. It seems somehow that the right of self determination existed only for enlightened peoples with an already strong sense of national identity. Similarly, in a work on the Premiere Internationale written by Labrande (Labrande 1976) relating successive debates in the Internationale’ congress, there is no reference to the colonies, though the national question has an important place.

19There was little change in this situation up to the end of the century. Analyzing French socialists at the turn of the 19th century through different opinions expressed in two militant newspapers La Guerre Sociale and Le mouvement socialiste, Madeleine Rébérioux (Rébérioux 1964) concluded that the colonial question held second or even episodic place in these newspapers. In fact, anti colonialism more or less reached its peak with the opposition to the republican government of Jules Ferry in the 1880s. Then both party and general opposition was seldom heard until 1914 because “apart from a few voices from the desert, the success of colonial policy progressively reduced opposition” (Ageron 1973:20). At the end of the 19th century the anti colonial movement took a step back and confined itself to the marginalized extreme left.

20Ambiguities in anti colonial opposition appear even more when confronted with the determined partisan opinions on colonization like Paul Leroy-Beaulieu. Leroy-Beaulieu, economist, was the son-in-law of another economist trained in the saint-simonien theory, Michel Chevalier. In 1874 he published an essay: De la colonisation chez les peuples modernes, a very successful work which was added to and re-issued up to 1908 becoming more and more substantial (Leroy-Beaulieu 1874, 1908). He analyzed existing colonial systems and developed a general theory of colonization.

21Leroy-Beaulieu differentiated between emigration of people and emigration of capital, one leading to populated colonies, the other to exploited colonies. He used more or less the same categories as Elisée Reclus. He also introduced a third category, trading colonies, limited to trading posts on sea routes. As we will see and contrary to Reclus, he was hostile to populated colonies. He preached economic colonization through emigration of capital, considering this a primordial element for economic, social, intellectual and moral progress. He believed it benefited all humanity through the development of latent or unexplored resources. Like his contemporaries, he had faith in progress, in economic development and in the superiority of western civilization. Apart from the fact that Leroy-Beaulieu presents a full and coherent theory of colonization, it is interesting to note that most of the time he uses economic and rational arguments. He excludes the use of any coercion, any slave, forced or hard labor. This for humanitarian and moral reasons, but especially because all these coercive methods created more disadvantages than advantages from an economic view point. Leroy-Beaulieu also criticized the colonization methods used in Algeria, as much for the spoliation of land as for the judicial system for the natives, who were judged by colonists. Leroy-Beaulieu justified colonial intervention in some countries in his vision of the world:

22A large part of the world belongs to barbarian or savage tribes, some given over to never-ending wars and murderous customs; the others having so little knowledge of the arts, being so little accustomed to work and invention that they are unable to take advantage of natural wealth, live miserably, in disseminated small groups, on huge territories which could easily feed numerous people. This situation in the world and of its inhabitants implies that civilized people have the right to intervene,… intervention by civilized people… is justified for education and guardianship (Leroy-Beaulieu 1908: 685-686). And to do this he gives an eminent role to the State: It is to be noted that Leroy-Beaulieu was opposed to traditional liberal economists who only recommended free trade between peoples.

Geographers and colonization

23Geographers, essentially through geographical societies, were at the forefront of the colonial adventure and made up an essential part of the colonial lobby from 1870 onwards. They supported the colonization movement. Their role has been emphasized by Numa Broc (1975, 1978), Berdoulay (1981), Heffernan (1994), Bruneau and Dory (1992), Soubeyran (1994), Lejeune (1988, 1993), Godlewska (1994), not forgetting the article of the precursor: McCay (1943). Attempts to establish colonial geography as an academic subject in the 19th century failed, in spite of Marcel Dubois’s efforts (Dubois 1894, Broc 1978). This was the result of a lack of interest in colonies by geographers in university institutions, like Vidal de la Blache. So it was outside universities that geographers worked on the colonial question. Elisée Reclus himself was an example. In the academic world this lack of interest in the colonies did not end before 1890 when the subject of colonization was added to the baccalaureate curriculum (Lejeune 1993: 127). This was when national opinion rallied around the colonial idea, whereas up to then it had been reticent or indifferent. In 1933, in his conclusion to his work Géographie et colonisation, George Hardy deplored that even if geography played an important part in training colonial personnel through the curriculum of the Colonial School, it was more or less absent in universities. He spoke about the lack of “ university posts for the geography of colonies… unfortunately there is only one post of this kind in France, - the North African chair and a few annual conferences at the Geographical Institute” (Hardy 1933: 206-207). There was, however, a subject in tropical university geography in the 20th century, which took over from colonial geography.

24Is it possible, provisionally, after this short summary and before analyzing Elisée Reclus’s case, to reach a conclusion on the content and existence of anti colonialism in the 19thcentury. Anti colonialism seemed to exist. Colonial actions were denounced through political divide, but, however, almost all partisans or opponents accepted the principal of the western world’s intervention in the so called “backward” countries. Some opponents could see there was a moral duty and civilizing mission to accomplish. It was essentially the shape taken by colonization, the methods used (massacres, spoliation and other violence, coercion, shameful exploitation) the anti colonialists denounced.

25They used arguments linked to the cost of colonial expansion and morals. Regarding cost, it was either human, economic or material. Moral criticism came generally from democratic men of standing, in the name of freedom and equality for mankind as heirs of the Revolution and/or Christianity.

26Karl Marx’s anti colonialism is similar to other anti colonialisms, except that he does not see colonization as a duty for advanced peoples, but as a necessity for a faster path to Revolution. Altogether there is a lack and poverty of texts from the extra-parliamentary anarchist socialist left, which confined itself to a moral denunciation of colonialism. What of the anarchist opinions expressed by Elisée Reclus?

Reclus’s anti colonialism

27Béatrice Giblin has already stated, taking into account the context of the period, what she considered to be the ambiguities and limitations of Reclus’s position on the colonial question:

28Reclus does not directly attack the principal of colonization by people, he accepts without question colonial domination of Algeria. Among men “of the left” he was not alone. What he did criticize, were certain particularly shocking colonial methods used for this end, because for him it represented one of the procedures for man’s mastery of the Earth (Giblin 1981, a: 66).

29Giblin also linked Reclus position to anarchist ideas she saw as naïve:

30In fact, they (the anarchists) sincerely think, and basically very naively, that it is possible for colonists and natives to be equal in the beneficial development of nature, some kind of union of colonists and the noble savage (Giblin 1981, a: 57). Reclus sees in the colonial enterprise a means to realize the goals of the anarchist movement, a society based on community.

31So, according to Giblin, Reclus is against colonial methods, not colonization by people itself, he is completely against colonization by exploitation or conquest. She also states (Giblin 1981, a: 81):

32He really insists on the multiple contacts which exist between colonizers and colonized, on the contradictory effects born from civilization shock, on the brutal penetration of the industrial revolution in a craft society, on the development of international trade accompanied also by cultural exchanges.

33She also notes, and is obliged to admit, that Reclus’s texts about this really concern India and not Algeria, but they could also be applied to the latter. This is what she calls contradictory judgments, an ambiguity. In her conclusion, Giblin notes, however, that at the end of his life Reclus had evolved and had “lost his illusions about peopled colonies” (Giblin 1981, a: 79).

34A libertarian author, John Clark, in an apology to Reclus, takes up Giblin’s arguments and arrives at a difficult to defend and opposing conclusion that:

35His colonial vision coincided with his general view of social phenomena, requiring attentive analysis of progressive and regressive aspects. It would be false, however, to see in this dialectic analysis any apology for colonization. (Clark 1996: 116).

36The contradiction Giblin already noted on Reclus’s positions has been developed by Claude Bataillon in an analysis of Reclus’s texts on Latin America which appeared in Géographie Universelle. Bataillon opposed Reclus’s saint-simonien view on the progress and transformation of the world by colonization and crossbreeding, according to him, of savage, happy, proud tribes, but menaced by this same colonization. Otherwise, Reclus strongly criticized Iberian colonization because of its violence and clericalism.

37The customs and ways of life Reclus meticulously described with tales of exploration… appeared to him as realities (of peoples) unable to adapt to a modern technological world, this would only destroy fundamentally different civilizations (Bataillon 1994: 127). Bataillon deals here with a crucial aspect of colonization and the eventual impossibility of coexistence between different cultures and unequal power.

38Liauzu was the first to state clearly and plainly that Reclus could be considered as a colonialist:

39Anti-colonialist, Elisée Reclus? No. If he condemns the abuse of power and the rule of the sword, he does not repudiate colonization any more than the majority of progressive thinkers and revolutionaries of the time (from Marx to Jaurés). It seems inevitable and positive because it opens new possibilities for the history of man (Liauzu 1994: 132).

Reclus’s colonial experience

40Originally Reclus was preoccupied with the question of slavery. The first articles he published in the Review des deux mondes were broadly dedicated to this question. Reclus was ardently anti-slavery and that without concession. Reclus was 18 in 1848 when slavery was abolished, so it was very important for “committed” young people of the time. He demonstrated this when he abandoned his work with a planter’s family in Louisiana for several reasons, one of which was a refusal to live, even indirectly, through the work of plantation slaves, another reason was his taste for adventure.

  • 5 Revue des deux mondes, 1st December 1859 « Les côtes néogrenadines », 1st February 1860 : « Ste Mar (...)

41Leaving Louisiana, Reclus set off in search of adventure. He decided to travel and set up as a colonist in New Grenada. The story is known through his articles in the Revue des deux mondes in 1859 and 18605, then published by Hachette in 1861 and 1881 and called Voyage à la Sierra Nevada de Sainte Marthe. The difficulties created by the topography and other problems like cattle and horse-killing insects, fevers are described there. In his preface, Reclus poses as a determined colonialist in spite of the setbacks he had suffered.

42“After a two-year stay, I returned without having realized my colonization plans or geographic exploration” (Reclus 1991: 19). His adventure finished in defeat. Reclus returned to France ill, he almost died of fever, was ruined, cheated by his associates, he had encountered every possible difficulty. How did the young Reclus see colonization at that time, during his stay on the Sierra Nevada in New Grenada, known nowadays as Columbia?

43Reclus saw in South America a continent where his dream of crossbreeding and harmony could happen. It is obvious in the following lines that South America represented for him the place to accomplish a social and political project: The harmonious, peaceful and happy fusion of all peoples, the question of natives being rapidly dealt with: “Apart from some Indian tribes which will be easily absorbed as have millions of aborigines, all Spanish-Americans will share the same nationality”(p.21). The every present preoccupation of over population in the old world appears here too:

44“When the over populated old world sends its children by the million to the solitude of South America, will this flux of emigration trouble the union of races already accomplished in the Spanish-American republics, or even will the population of southern America be able to unite in a single nation all the elements arriving from outside? This last alternative which seems the only probable one, will cause a final reconciliation of all peoples of diverse origins, and the birth of humanity and an era of peace and happiness. You need a new continent for a new social State” (p. 22).

45But we will see that he is nonetheless hesitating: meeting with San Blas Indians in the Muletas archipelago at the beginning of his journey, he was concerned with their future faced with “civilization”:

46These peoples are happy: trade as it is understood today, will it not, in exchange for their peace, bring them nothing less than disguised servitude, misery and wildness drawn from alcohol? Too often already, the beautiful word civilization has served as a pretext for the more or less rapid extermination of whole tribes. Let us wait until we are able to bring along with our buildings more happiness, justice and liberty before we carry these people to the commercial world”.

47Later, Reclus described in some 15 pages (pp.158-172) a tribe of Goijares Indians from the Rio Hacha whose relationship with the surrounding colonists were often violent. This was a semi-nomadic tribe, moving around their territory and not allowing colonists to penetrate, but ready to receive temporary visitors like Reclus himself. Reclus admired this free and proud people, refusing to be converted, a perfect example of the good but sometimes cruel savage:

48“the Goijares are handsome, and I do not think you will find in all the Americas aborigines with a prouder look, a more imposing bearing and a more sculptural shape”(Reclus 1991: 162).

49Even though he noted the continued refusal of the Goijares to be absorbed into the society that surrounded them, Reclus had to say:

50Up to the last few years, they were free from racial mix, but the many contacts created through trade have recently and noticeably produced some mixed race families. Little by little this twenty or thirty thousand Goijares, attracted by neighboring towns whose population is growing daily, mingle with the black and white inhabitants of the region and the ferocious antagonism between races is disappearing…Without doubt, their language, very poor and adapted to their simple existence, will gradually disappear and be replaced by Spanish [….] The type of soil has forced the Goijares to take turns at traders or nomadic herdsmen and has not allowed them to make any great progress in agriculture; nevertheless recently some of them have established themselves here and there on the right bank of the Rio de Hacha [….] little by little, they are settling and will become real farmers.

51It is clear that aboriginal populations are destined to assimilate, lose their language, become farmers and mix with other population groups. This is also a means to reach the anarchist ideal of free peasant producers living in harmony. In spite of the doubts he expressed, Reclus continued and would always continue to see in this assimilation of peoples the solution for the future which he vowed he would pursue, and a goal to attain in agriculture.

52At the end of his journey, sick and with the Aruaques, not so pleasant natives, where trade in alcohol was important, and clearly less picturesque and less proud than the Goijares, Reclus once more dreamed of an ideal colonization. This time he himself wrote of it as the product of vain illusions:

53A thousand vain illusions, in part fever-induced, float around my head; already I could see mountain slopes covered with coffee and groves of orange trees; a free and happy Aruaques, founding flourishing communities; schools for the Indian children; colonies of Europeans clearing virgin forest, roads cleared in all directions (Reclus 1991: 230).

54When he criticizes colonization, it is when land is seized by capitalist concession and stays unexploited or becomes the site of brazen exploitation of natives. It is also when traders exploit the Indians and push them to drunkenness. It is when religion is used against the peoples the better to subdue and exploit them. When he defends colonization, it is for the creation of agrarian free and happy fraternal societies. An agrarian utopia, freeing old and overpopulated Europe, created in virgin areas where socialist utopia can at last be attained. This is the dream he attempted to realize alone, without exploiting anyone, but which ran into difficulties with both the environment and man.

Correspondence between Reclus and Elisée Gauguet, colonial entrepreneur

  • 6 NAF, 22917, f66, 67 letter dated 1 February 1884.
  • 7 Société de géographie commerciale de Paris.

55More than 20 years later, Reclus, by then well known and esteemed, was once more confronted with the colonization of New Grenada when he received a letter from Elie Gauguet6 in February 1884. Gauguet, a member of the board of the Society of Commercial Geography of Paris7, sent him the statutes of a “société anonyme de colonisation de la Sierra Nevada” which was being set up. Gauget wanted Reclus’s patronage:

56Bearing in mind the Panama Canal will be finished in 6 years, it is time for France to take up a position in this naturally rich land…this new company would, Sir, like to be under your patronage and hopes you will agree.

  • 8 NAF, 22917, f69, 20 February 1884.

57The letter was accompanied by the description of the project (over 2,500 hectares) with extracts from Reclus journey to Sierra Nevada that had been published in the 60s. Reclus’s answer8 to Gauguet was full of good sense. He warned Gauguet of the dangers of an enterprise managed from afar. He gave him a list of the difficulties he would encounter and the lack of means of transport:

58I understand and share your admiration for this marvelous land and my opinion has not changed in terms of the immense wealth now lying dormant in these lands and which will be exploited sooner or later, however… If I was perfectly confident in the initiative of intelligent natives or acclimatized foreigners, I do not believe in the success of an enterprise managed from afar, be it from Paris, Carthagen or the Rio Hacha using workers who are not owners. I do not know of any exploitation of this kind which has been profitable. When your project becomes definite, you must not forget to present the other side of the coin to shareholders, difficulties of acclimatization, the plague of mosquitoes and the lack of roads. Exploitation of wood is impossible as long as there is no road from Voladoreito to the nearest port.

59The essence of Reclus’s response is his refusal of a capitalist enterprise, of colonial plantations, and his ever affirmed preference for individual and agricultural enterprises.

60On 4 March 1885, Gauguet sent a new letter comprising a summary of questions posed to the colonial enterprise, where he also spoke of ownership deeds, coffee and tobacco growing and the establishment of a trading post as well as the opportunity to learn local languages and the installation of a hospital:

  • 9 NAF, 22917, f70, 4 March 1885.

61According to your book, the climate in Rio Hacha is not unhealthy. The inhabitants will be easy to trade with, and the Goijares themselves not unapproachable. Can we count on developing good relations with the latter and use them for our work? Would it be useful to study their language, and how would it be possible. Would it be useful to use women and children as much as possible? Without claiming to civilize9 these Indians, do you think we could become friends by doing some good for them, for example, by building a small hospital at Rio Hacha where their sick would receive free treatment.

62This passage is remarkable, it contains the essential elements for colonial exploitation, that is to put the natives to work in a capitalist enterprise, including women and children (as much as possible!); procure medical services and learn native languages to facilitate persuasion of Indians to collaborate in the enterprise.

  • 10 NAF, 22917, f72-3, 6 March 1885.

63In his answer Reclus10 does everything to discourage his ambitious correspondent. He considered the site badly chosen because of the climate and marsh fever, they would need a landing stage at Dibulla and a road needed to be built across marshland:

64“Only Indians could undertake this work without great danger in a formidable bay and across marshy regions. But there are not many of them and they would not be ready to undertake this kind of work”.

65Reclus advised Gauguet to choose sites for plantations in “a site that is not menaced by ants and with easy access”; and on the question of the installation of a trading post he said “Rio Hacha is too far from the mountains for this operations post. Besides, you must not forget that the meager trade from the mountains is in the hands of a few merchants who you would have to fight straight away and generously compensate. It is a great undertaking…” Then he proves his knowledge of the local environment, and his capacity as a geographer-ethnographer by using the concept of life-style, taking into account the culture of the people considered: Certainly the Goijares are not unapproachable, but they live on the plain stretching from the East of Rio Hacha and their style of living does not allow them to go into wooded areas. Racial hostility would oppose their moving.

66If there is an area where Reclus takes a radical stand for the natives, it is about the relations to the greedy local merchants he knew well during the period of his stay:

67Certainly we could do good for the natives: saving them from the merchants who ruin them by making them pay 300 for 100.

68In conclusion, Reclus attempts to discourage Gauguet, not for the colonial enterprise itself, nor for his employment of natives, but in establishing himself in that precise place, essentially because of the physical difficulties and the lack of infrastructure:

69Act as if the 2,500 hectares were not yours already, they could be useful later, but I do not think that at the moment exploitation could be profitable. First choose a more favorable place, either at mid slope of the Sierra Nevada, or even in the Sierra at San Pablo, towards the source of the river Enea. There, I think, you will have more chance of finding suitable land with easy access.

70Reclus’s response is essentially technical, professional. It is not a response against the main idea. He does not refuse colonization itself, nor the principal of anti colonialism. Reclus only contrasted his model of individual colonization with Gauguet’s planned capitalist model. He is eager to protect the natives from mercantile exploitation, and all his remarks are the fruit of good sense and harshly acquired experience.

Reclus faithful to his colonial vision

  • 11 Edited by Jean Grave, entitled Patriotisme et colonisation (Jean Grave 1903).

71In the last texts from Reclus, around the end of his life at the beginning of the 20th century, L’Homme de la Terre, published in part posthumously, and in a militant text, Reclus’s opinion on the colonial question is to be found once more. There is no significant evolution. In the preface of a collection of militant texts11 there is a reaffirmed profession of faith in colonialism without ambiguities:

72It is also great to set yourself up as a colonist in a far country and to clear the land with the sweat of your brow… I have to say that I am personally a very ardent patriot and that in my youth I very conscientiously tried to be a colonist; even now, living far from my town of birth and earning a living in a foreign country, I am still a colonist in my own way and without the least regret…

73He contrasts good and bad colonization and denounces civilizing arguments and the methods employed by the latter.

74Acts by Europeans on foreign peoples are made by the best or the worst at the same time. The best, the most valiant, the most audacious and at the same time the most anxious to learn, sometimes also those fleeing oppression and proudly bearing their love of independence, these elite men are carrying the torch and are civilizers; thanks to them ideas spread, trade and the arts learned, awareness of humanity becomes closer and closer. But when it concerns real or supposed colonies obtained through brutal conquest, by cowardly aggressions of the strong against the weak, then these are the worst kind, vomiting the conquered nation and taking possession of its pillaged territory. It calls itself “the mother country”.

75He unmasks the motivations and goals of the entrepreneurs, the merchants and colonial bureaucrats:

76To fool the naïve they hypocritically claim, “to bring civilization” or even to “propagate the great principals” for remote peoples, but the incontestable aim, disguised in the most honorable of forms, remains to steal and pillage: the only objective of the colonial is to take, either treasures or lands and the men that inhabit them, that is power in the name of advancement. On the whole this is bad and the agents employed to accomplish it suit this planned work as they are themselves bad. Along with these civilizing bureaucrats are merchants with a special mission to create needs in natives until then accustomed to a simpler life. The efforts of these would be colonizers compound to give birth to new demands, especially for liquor… Even worse is the “free” worker! He has targets and if he does not accomplish them, if he does not bring ivory, or rubber, or copal gum, or the expected bag of millet, beware the whip, the stick, or even the knife. (Grave 1903: V-VII).

Good and bad colonialism: France in Algeria or British colonization

77Béatrice Giblin was right in her statement that Reclus was a lot less critical of Algerian colonization than the British colonization of India. Reclus’s criticism of British colonization is much more radical. This difference should be put down to the then fashionable Franco-British rivalry. Reclus started to develop some ideas about the effects of colonization on the people concerned in his writings on India. Nevertheless, he draws back from systematic criticism because he is fundamentally attached to the idea of a European mission to bring civilization to the rest of the world.

78In the 6th volume of l’Homme et la Terre Reclus (1905: 6) does not fail to attack British colonization in India, presented as a colony of exploitation, and which he shows results in imperialism:

79The gradual acquisition of the colonial empire, grown so formidable today with its population standing at tenfold the dominating country, penetrates little by little in the British spirit the idea that the entire world will sooner or later be their victim. To their peaceful insular superhuman pride is added the awareness of global domination, the imperialism the lavish Disraeli was a protagonist for when he crowned Queen Victoria Empress of India.

Good and bad agricultural colonization according to Reclus. The case of North Africa

80When he compared French colonization in Tunisia with Algeria, it was the capitalist side of Tunisian colonization which allowed him this criticism. Reclus called on his hopes for a colonization operated by individuals, themselves farmers living in harmony with the natives; a colonization “based on mutual respect and observation of the rights of one by others” (Reclus 1886, vol 11, p. 301), here he rejects capitalist forms of agricultural colonization like the large domains of absentee landlords:

81But if French ownership in Tunisia is being developed more rapidly than in Algeria, it essentially less democratic. Algeria has real colonists, men who work the land themselves, bringing up their children in the field, guarding their harvest. It is they, rather than the soldiers, who make up the real strength in French Algeria, … they are there of their own free will and they have made it their home. But Tunisia does not have these colonists, smallholders…there the buyers are representatives of European financial houses, agents of capitalists who remain absent; or in the worst case, business men supervising vast stretches cultivated by foreign hands (Reclus 1886, vol 11, p. 281).

82He is not completely credulous about the way these land cessions were made, even in Algeria:

83There is unfortunately little doubt that in many circumstances, speculators benefit from the ignorance of natives and take their land while at the same time keeping within the law: According to French law “ignorance of the law is no excuse” but the Arab knows nothing of it, all co-ownership of a collective domain has the right to pronounce division. Those versed in the Code benefit from this rule to ruin whole tribes. After having found the means to acquire one share of a communal property, they claim division, then start legal proceedings against those who cannot defend themselves and the litigation ends to their benefit (Reclus 1886, vol 11, p. 615-616).

84In spite of these few lines, Reclus as a supporter of populated colonies, does not cite the official spoliations of native lands by the French following the revolts which broke out in Algeria in 1870. As he was in favor of Algerian colonization he does not mention it, and it is difficult to believe that he was not informed when you look at the abundance and quality of the information he collected on each country.

85In spite of his personal experience as a colonist, at Rio Hacha in the Sierra de Ste Marthe, in spite of the fact he was not blind to the injustices and cruelties, different spoliations accompanying colonization and even when he thrashes out all these injustices committed; he believes in Europe’s role as responsible for bringing these savages to a state of higher civilization. He believes in humanistic colonization and he firmly believed in this all his life. His preface to his writings in 1905 proves it (Louis Paul 1905). The colonial question is reduced to a moral problem, the colonial presence is not contested.

Anarchists and colonization

86Up to the end of the 19th century, the anarchist movement was hardly preoccupied by the colonial phenomena with the exception of the writings of Reclus. I have found absolutely nothing on the colonial question to date in the great founding literary anarchist works. We have seen with Bakounine, for example, that if the nationalist question is present, there is nothing specifically about colonization. All social phenomena, like workers struggles and especially national struggles, are analyzed through the “europeocentrist” filter. It seems that the radical left, anarchist and communist alike, was not capable of analyzing the phenomena of colonization as a phenomenon in itself.

87Even in militant texts like Patriotisme et colonization (Grave 1903), Paul Louis’s, already published in 1901 in the Revue Blanche, or Severine, a “committed” journalist of the time, where there is virulent criticism of colonization, it remains based on the usual moral criticisms. It is clear that at that date, the anarchist critic was focused on the militant colonial right, texts are more a criticism of militarism than of colonization itself.

88Adhering to anarchist principals according to which each individual being free, is also free to establish himself where he desires, Reclus justifies all “individual” migration. The following text is premonitory when you think of population movement towards the different “sun-belts” and of the migration from south to north which preoccupies our contemporaries so much. In fact, Reclus developed along the lines of an “isostatic” theory assuring a world demographic balance through migration and colonization.

89The population tends to spread itself more and more around the planet following any advantage presented by the different countries, from a climate, work resources, ease of life, even the beauty of the landscape. Thanks to this easier and easier understanding between man and the globe, because each individual can now plan, hasten and even live from the first day he establishes himself in a chosen land, on land which he “promised” to himself, a balanced distribution of men is being made in different parts of the earth in proportion to elements of available space. The exodus of some 20 million Europeans to North America was the most important result of man’s mobility. But other temperate and even tropical regions of the New World are also peopled and will certainly become even more peopled…: the human genre, like the sea, finds its own level and now it can find it without trouble, through the at least partial disappearance of the obstacles that were in the way (Reclus 1905, vol 5: 327).

90It would be good to be able to follow him in what seems should remain a difficult to attain ideal when he wrote:

91The full union of civilized with savage and with nature cannot be made without the destruction of frontiers between casts, as well as that between peoples. It must be that each individual should be able to address himself to any person as an equal, in brotherhood and speak freely with him “of all that is human” as Terence said. Returned to its initial simplicity, life would be made up of the full and cordial liberty of trade with men (Reclus 1905, vol 6: 538).

  • 12 NAF 22912, ff 373-374, Bibliothèque Nationale.

92Reclus, son of a strict pastor, grew up in a very Christian atmosphere and even if as an adult he rejected all clericalism and did not miss the opportunity to attack priests and missionaries when he had a chance, the constant presence of Christianity is clearly visible in his social and moral stance. He said himself in 1904, in an undated letter sent to Brussels to Mr. Roch, pastor at Orthez12 .

93Certainly Christianity still gives you faith in divine personages, belief is a defined dogma, acceptance of revealed morals, all things which seem to me to be contradicted by the long human experience and by reason. It seems impossible for us to find common ground for the discussion you have invited me to. Nonetheless, we both have an ardent desire to live to be useful to all our brothers… libertarian socialist, or to be even more precise, communist anarchist, in many senses it seems I must be closer to the Evangelical Christians. Thus I need call no one “master” and be called master by no one. I am searching to live in equality with all, Jew or Greek, owner or slave…

94It is impossible to avoid putting Christian morals and anarchist morals in parallel. Christian religious universality, just like Jewish universality is found in the 19th century revolutionary messiah-isms, communism and anarchism. It is this same explicitly Christian messiah-ism that is responsible for human destiny, giving the European colonizer the duty of guiding other cultures towards progress.

Similitudes and originality

95At the end of this rapid tour there are a certain number of questions to answer on the similitudes between Reclus’s anti colonialism and his contemporaries while at the same time underlining the originality of Reclus’s thinking. Reclus showed himself definitely partisan to a humanist colonialism. The roots can be found in Christianity, faith in human progress, in scientific progress and the mission of Europeans vis à vis “backward” peoples. He shares these conceptions with many other anti colonialists and even with declared partisans of colonialism like Leroy-Beaulieu. With the exception of the place he gives to the State and to missionaries in the work of colonizing and without sharing the ideal of planetary racial mix and colonization, Leroy-Beaulieu, champion of colonization; is close to Reclus. He also advocates unlimited relations between “civilized” and “savages”, he repudiates slavery and forced labor. He wants to protect other peoples from the appetite and covetousness of commerce and other traffickers.

96Reclus can be distinguished from other critics of colonialism by his project for universal harmony to be realized through racial crossbreeding. He is also different from other critics of colonization by his constant preoccupation with the future of “savage” peoples. All his work bears witness to this. He draws back nonetheless before the conclusions he could have made faced with the abundance of facts he relates. Even when he criticizes more violently the effects of colonization on “traditional” societies, it is in the chapters on India, dominated by Great Britain, the great rival of France.

97In his writings he regularly stands against the ambient social Darwinism justifying the use of force and to thwart it does his utmost to bring to the forefront (especially in l’Homme et la Terre) the advantages of social cooperation. In this way he creates an ideal image of man built on religious and Rousseau-like sources. He carries a general idealism, a naïve goodness some would say, an idealized and generous vision of humanity, but condemned to be perpetually negated through the less harmonious reality of social relations. This is also a contradiction he never resolved, because he was not blind to existing battles of power and violence.

98The revolutionary/anarchist trade union left was more directly anti colonialist than the republican left; but all, born in a century when millions of emigrants left Europe, never questioned the establishment of Europeans under other skies and in another people’s environment, fascinated as they were by their work to improve the globe, authorized by the progress of science and technology. Together they were persuaded of the superiority of their civilization. Examples can be found of the way colonizing ideals circulated in society, feeding dreams of glory to the youth of the time. I have still not forgotten the Aventures de Capitaine Corcoran (Assolant 1918), great propagator of republican ideas defeating British pretensions in an Indian kingdom. Even if on the whole the French population remained generally and manifestly indifferent to the colonial question, it was not indifferent to the colonial gesture, tales of adventure, the thirst for unexplored countries. This appetite for knowledge and adventure are inseparable elements of our civilization in themselves.

99It is true that Reclus was a lame colonist. His attempt in Columbia was a failure. Environmental difficulties and illness played a great part. To this can be added his repugnance for the exploitation of his fellow man, because he could never resolve himself to the exploitation of others, to his great honor. We could have expected him to draw other conclusions concerning his failure just like his other pertinent observations, and also that he could have ended with a belief in something other than individual peasant colonization. Throughout his life, Reclus encountered difficulties in his attempts to set up in business. On his return to France, he took part in the cooperative movement, a new failure. It is only when he decided to earn his living through his pen that he succeeded. He suffered his last commercial failure in Brussels, when the cartographic company he started became bankrupt. It seemed that all his attempts in business suffered from over confidence in his associates. Reclus’s nature, the goodness so often affirmed by those who knew him, must have also contributed to some of his failures in his practical life.

Impossible to find: anti colonialism

100In the first place, I interpreted the lack of basic texts by anarchists on the colonial question as a concealment caused by the phenomena of the national question, which it is true, obsessed militants and theorists at the time. This is easy to verify in the accounts of meetings of the International Congress for Peace and in texts by Bakounine. Reclus is almost unique, among analysts, to take up the colonial question in writing. On analysis, these texts contain but few ambiguities. The position of Reclus is clear, rational and logical and in line with his democratic convictions; his morals and his anarchism. Reclus believed in the expansion of western civilization, even if he could see its flaws and defects, he believed in the mission of a West, armed with science, to transform and improve the globe. The globe had to be improved to relieve a Europe stifled by demography; at the same time it was possible to create the anarchist ideal of harmony between all men in a general racial mixed breeding.

101It could be said that anti colonialism seemed to have been transmuted into a colonialism with a human face. It was only one of the two faces of colonialism. And the whole of colonialism was in fact the expression of the conquering dynamism of western civilization launched in a movement of globalization opened by the great discoveries of the 16th century, upheld by universalistic religion and by technical progress. Just like Marxism, anarchism could take part in these messiah-ism issues rooted in judo-Christianity which support our societies. Critics or upholders of colonization, all share the same relationship with Nature and the world, whether to exploit or improve it. All share the same sentiment of superiority of western civilization and all give it a role in the education and guardianship of primitive peoples.

102This is why left wing party anti colonialism analysts are so ill at ease with their discoveries: there is no clear refusal of the expansion of European civilization from the extreme left. Anarchists, like communists and socialists could not really fundamentally criticize colonialism. They could criticize the abuse and this is to their honor. Marxists see this as a necessity. Either willingly or by force peoples of the earth are abruptly or gradually integrated in the modern world. Of course, colonization is a complex phenomenon, and if we want to avoid Manichaeism, it should be admitted that contact with the outside world for these isolated peoples is not only accompanied by abuse, horrors, exploitation and domination. It is also accompanied by real progress and undeniably positive changes. It is, however, utopian as Reclus seemed to think, to be able to clean up trade between nations, because it is based on a balance of power where traders possessing information about the market and customers face producers who are ill informed and divided. It is utopian to believe that this balance of power between men or between societies will disappear. Reclus, was opposed to all social Darwinism, and did well to emphasize all the examples, in Géographie Universelle and in l’Homme et la Terre, on cooperation and mutual aid; a balance of power will continue, for the time being, to dominate relations between societies.

103The most flagrant contradiction Reclus made between his ideas and the observations he made and the information he collected, concerned the question of inequality in the balance of power between “savages” and “the civilized”. On many occasions Reclus broadcast his doubts about the capacity for survival of native societies faced with colonization. In a text on Oceania, Reclus even recognized that the contact with Europeans had been catastrophic for some peoples:

104It was then all the changes brought by the civilizers which took Oceania to death road, much further along than whatever changes, good or bad, indispensable or accessory were even more numerous. You can sense how right was the response made to the honest Gordon by a people he had regretted having initiated to civilization: “What can I do for you?” “Nothing, we do not need anything. Go away, it is the only thing we ask” (Reclus 1905, vol 6: 164).

105In spite of this, entangled in his dogma of the harmonious union of individuals and peoples, he continued to believe in the possibility of good colonization and could not escape from this contradiction.

106All in all, Reclus’s colonialism or anti colonialism, was like that of the explorers who shared his human qualities: Heinrich Barth, Savorgnan de Brazza or Duveyrier, could not escape the dominant idea of progress, of improvement or of a civilizing mission and this is born out in the title of an article by Michel Heffernan (1989, b) the limitations of Utopia. Reclus believed in a humanistic project for planetary improvement. He was an apostle for a globalization begun centuries before.

107Whether within the population, geographers and explorers, there was no anti colonialism in the 19th century. There had been a group of ambiguous and contradictory criticisms clearing the path to “anti colonialism” in the following century. It would be interesting to know if the 20th century also inherited the contradictions and ambiguities that were characteristic of the preceding century.

108In the 20th century, a new ideology of development was born. It would draw on its ideological resources to develop, improve, help societies to progress, a role devolved in the developed world based on “anti colonialist” ideas or as they should be called “humanist colonialists” of the 19th century. The ideology of development appears thus to be the heir of the ideology of humanist colonization. The reticence of current beneficiaries of development aid, with its ever present air of colonialism, is understandable.

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1 Several works (Mikesell 59, Giblin 1971 , 1976, 1980, 1981-a, 1981-b, 1981-c, 1986, Dunbar 1978, Fleming 1979, 1988, Sarrazin 1985, Revue Belge de Géographie 1986, Itinéraires 1988, Roques 2001) demonstrate renewed interest in Reclus in the last quarter century.

2 “colonies d’enracinement”

3 “colonies d’encadrement”

4 (Brunschwig 1949, Ageron 1973, 1978, Merle 1969, Girardet 1972)

5 Revue des deux mondes, 1st December 1859 « Les côtes néogrenadines », 1st February 1860 : « Ste Marthe et la Horqueta », 15th March 1860 : « Rio Hacha – Les indiens Goajires et la Sierra Negra », 1st May 1860 : « Les Aruaques et la Sierra Nevada ».

6 NAF, 22917, f66, 67 letter dated 1 February 1884.

7 Société de géographie commerciale de Paris.

8 NAF, 22917, f69, 20 February 1884.

9 NAF, 22917, f70, 4 March 1885.

10 NAF, 22917, f72-3, 6 March 1885.

11 Edited by Jean Grave, entitled Patriotisme et colonisation (Jean Grave 1903).

12 NAF 22912, ff 373-374, Bibliothèque Nationale.

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Axel Baudouin, « Reclus, a colonialist? », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Epistémologie, Histoire de la Géographie, Didactique, document 239, mis en ligne le 26 mai 2003, consulté le 29 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Axel Baudouin

Geografisk Institutt
NTNU, 7491, Trondheim, Norway,

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