Elisée Reclus (1830-1905)

Elisée Reclus devoted his life to exploring the globe and publishing books to celebrate it. He is known also for his defence of the ideals of anarchism.

A life of commitment

  • Élisée Reclus (1830-1904) a geographer and a propagandist for the anarchist party © Collection privée

Elisée Reclus was born in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande (Gironde) into a numerous family : his father, at first a minister then a teacher at the Sainte-Foy Protestant Secondary School (collège de Sainte Foy) had fourteen children.

He first attended the Sainte Foy school. Then, at the age of 12, he travelled – as his brother Elie did – to the International Moravian Brethren School, in the German Rhineland. He then began reading theology in Montauban but was expelled after a few months because of his lack of discipline and fervent republican opinions. He travelled to Berlin to study geography.

At the time of Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851, Elisée and his brother Elie upheld republican ideas and wished to create a group of opponents to the new regime ; shortly before being arrested they fled to England. Elisée even went to the United States where he worked as tutor in a planter’s family near New Orleans.

He returned to Paris, where he joined the Société de Géographie, and travelled across Europe. He wrote numerous books, amongst others : La Terre (The Earth). He established contacts with the Russian anarchist Bakunin and publicly adheres to anarchism.

In 1871, after fighting on the side of the Paris Commune, he was captured and sentenced to deportation. However, foreign scientists took his defence ; faced with long lists of signatures on petitions, the French government commuted the sentence to ten years’ banishment. He was exiled to Switzerland, where he met Elie again and started his opus : La Nouvelle Géographie Universelle (The New Universal Geography) in 19 volumes.

In 1880, thanks to an amnesty for acts committed during the Commune, he came back to Paris. Later, he was appointed to the chair of Geography at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He died in Brussels in 1905.

His writings are deeply influenced by his republican and anarchic ideals

He subscribes to an ideal of free thought and fraternity which he applied to science and politics. He wishes for mankind to be organized in small, independent groups.

In his letters, lectures and books, he campaigns for the anarchists : he helps Bakunin publish his books ; in 1897 he writes in L’évolution, la révolution et l’idéal anarchique : « our destiny is to reach a state of ideal perfection whereby nations will no longer need to find themselves subjected to a government : such is anarchy, the utmost expression of order ».

He rejected Christianity, but ethics are the basis of his political and social thought.

He believed in the brotherhood of all individuals, and the fraternity of all peoples of the world. In 1864, with his brother Elie, he founds a workers’ bank, the Crédit du Travail.

Bibliography

  • Books
    • GONOD Roger, Élisée Reclus, prophète de l’idéal anarchiste, Presses de Covedi, Paris, 1996

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