One of the seemingly inevitable outcomes of any revolutionary period is the creation of refugees. We are reminded of this daily with news of the ongoing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, as thousands of persecuted or forgotten migrants flee from North African and Middle Eastern regimes in turmoil. Just recently a ship of Libyan refugees were denied asylum by Malta and Italy before finally making their way to succor in Valencia, Spain.
Our present crisis bears a curious symmetry to an earlier era of Mediterranean instability, when coalitions turned their backs on those displaced by revolution. In the early months of 1794, over 3000 displaced Toulonese struggled to find refuge. The cause of their displacement was the brief counter-revolutionary interlude in Toulon from September to December of 1793. This short-lived period of British control over Toulon failed for a litany of reasons, not least of which was the inability of the First Coalition to coalesce, as Neapolitans, Piedmontese, British, and Spanish continually deferred responsibility for defense and supply to one another. In December, the First Coalition evacuated Toulon, but what was to be done with the Toulonese who had welcomed the British into the city and now risked revolutionary vengeance?
Gilbert Elliot, the Civil Commissioner at Toulon, certainly felt responsible for the Toulonese under his care, despite his short tenure. From December 15th – 18th Elliot filled the British ships with refugees. When there was no more room on the Navy ships, he appropriated every other vessel in the harbor of Toulon, commercial or otherwise, for the refugees. The Spanish ships also took some in, though they were reluctant to accept responsibility for any part of the Toulon fiasco (as we will see). The Neaopolitans, too, took on a few refugees, but they had largely abandoned the city prior to Elliot’s efforts.
On December 21st, Elliot wrote to London explaining the situation and his intent to find asylum for the refugees, noting that if they withheld aid, “it could not reasonably be expected from any other quarter.” On the December 29, he estimated over 3000 refugees spread across various ships. Elliot’s first reaction was to turn to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Though Tuscany had only recently and begrudgingly joined the First Coalition, Elliot felt confident that they would grant asylum. Ideally, he hoped for permanent residence somewhere in the Tuscan regions, acknowledging that dumping 3000 Toulonese into the port of Leghorn would be problematic. Should permanent asylum be too much to ask, Elliot imagined that a temporary asylum could be arranged until further accommodations were arranged. If nothing else, he requested permission to disembark at Porto Ferraio, a small island off of Leghorn, and it was this last solution that the Grand Duke finally allowed.
By the time the refugees were able to disembark, the number had now risen to close to 4000, with the most notable addition being 300 from the Neapolitan Admiral Forteguerri. As it became clear to Elliot that there was no quick solution to the impending refugee crisis, he passed responsibility for the refugees off to John Augustus Hervey, the British minister to Tuscany. By February 21, there were still 2000 refugees in the town at Porto Ferraio, as well as over a thousand still on boats unable to disembark due to lack of space. There were even some fifteen ships stranded in the port at Leghorn, since they were forbidden to land the 550 refugees on board. In response to the recalcitrance of any of their supposed allies to care for the Toulonese, Elliot exclaimed, “They are hunted from place to place…everywhere I have found the prejudice of the people set so strongly against everything that bears the French name.”
To make matters worse, in late March, two Spanish vessels arrived at Leghorn filled with the refugees the Spanish had taken from Toulon. They asserted the Toulonese wanted to be reunited with their families – a claim that resonates with our current headlines. At Leghorn, the Spanish were flatly denied permission to land the refugees. They countered by complaining that they had sick persons onboard, and these few were given permission. However, instead of only landing the sick, the Spanish promptly landed all of their refugees and left.
As with most refugee crises, there was no clean end or durable solution to the plight of the Toulonese. Initially, Piedmont agreed to take 1000, but then scaled back to only accepting 500 at Oneiglia. Rome initially agreed to take 1200 refugees, but this number was then scaled back to around 500. Some 300 found passage and succor in various other parts of Europe. Some who were capable of sailing were offered positions in the East India Company. Elliot was instrumental in finding homes for others in the newly formed Anglo-Corsican Kingdom, though this solution was short-lived. Several hundred even made their way to England, where they lived off of the generosity of the Crown for months, evidently refusing to work or contribute to their own upkeep. Eventually, they were threatened with a shift from refugee status to prisoner of war status, at which point the refugee camp dispersed.
There are ample conclusions and comparisons to make between 1794 and today. It is tempting to look at this situation and conclude that there is nothing new under the sun, or that the Mediterranean has a predisposition towards these types of refugee crises due to so many different cultures interacting in such close proximity. It is tempting as well to look for heroes and villains, though where the British, Tuscans, or Spanish fall on that spectrum is unclear. Questions concerning international politics and law, humanitarian action, and citizenship also abound, and interrogating the crises of the past for perspective on the present is certainly a valuable exercise.
However, in my research of this incident, another conclusion struck me with troubling implications for the present. Despite the records on the problems and difficulties of dealing with the refugees, I could find depressingly little concerning the stories of the refugees themselves. The stories of the institutions that failed them dominated the narrative. And while stories of failure are critically important, it must be at least as important for those of us observing the human condition, whether as historians or as contemporaries, to look beyond the institutions and recapture the stories of those failed by their states, rejected by asylums, and forgotten on ships.
Joshua Meeks is an Assistant Professor of History and the Director of the Honors Program at Northwest University. He specializes in the history of the Mediterranean during the Age of Revolutions, and is currently working on several projects in the Napoleonic era.
Joshua Meeks, France, Britain, and the Struggle for the Revolutionary Western Mediterranean, Palgrave, 2017.
Greg Burgess, Refuge in the Land of Liberty, Palgrave, 2008.
Malcolm Crook, Toulon in War and Revolution, Manchester University Press, 1991
Jennifer Mori, Britain in the Age of the French Revolution. Harlow: Longman, 2000
Jennifer Mori, “The British Government and the Bourbon Restoration: The Occupation of Toulon, 1793,” The Historical Journal 40, no. 3 (Sep 1997): 699-719;
Paul Kelly, ‘Strategy and counter-revolution: the journal of Sir Gilbert Elliot, 1-22 September 1793’, English Historical Review, XCVIII (I983), 334
J. Holland Rose, Lord Hood and the Defence of Toulon. Cambridge University Press, 1922.
 Crook, Malcolm. 1991. Toulon in War and Revolution. Manchester University Press. See especially ch. 6.
 British National Archives, FO 20/2, Dec. 21st, Elliot to Dundas.
 Ibid, Dec. 25th, Dec 29th, Elliot to Dundas
 NA FO 20/2, Dec. 26th, Elliot to Hervey; NA FO 79/10, Jan. 3rd, Hervey to Elliot
 Ibid, Jan. 6th, Elliot to Dundas; Jan. 7th, Cooke to Elliot
 NA FO 20/2, Feb. 21st, Elliot to Dundas
 NA FO 79/10, March 30th, Udney to Elliot. See as well Archives Nationaless, AF III/87, 3 Floreal for the French minister’s gleeful report on the incident.
 NA FO 20/2, Mar. 18th, Elliot to Dundas; April 6th, Elliot to Dundas
 NA HO 528/15, June 11th, Dundas to Elliot