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Photograph of Élisée Reclus by Paul Nadar, ca. 1900.
Élisée Reclus. Photograph by Paul Nadar, ca. 1900. Digitally retouched, Wikimedia Commons.


Élisée Reclus

(1830 – 1905)

When Élisée Reclus contributed an article, “La Cité du Bon Accord,” to the second number (Autumn 1895) of The Evergreen, the magazine of which the founding editor was the Scottish intellectual Patrick Geddes, he was already in his sixties and celebrated world-wide as a geographer. Reclus was also known as an anarchist, a participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, after which he was briefly imprisoned, and had for over twenty years been in semi-permanent exile from France, on political grounds. In the mid-1890s, he was based in Brussels, teaching at the breakaway Nouvelle Université. The footnote attached to his Evergreen article describes Reclus as “the foremost geographer in Europe” and “the joint-apostle with Tolstoï of the higher Anarchism” (104). The article was published in French, as were several contributions to The Evergreen, as an indication of the magazine’s cosmopolitanism.

It was the Frenchman’s fellow-geographer, anarchist, and companion in exile, the Russian Pyotr Kropotkin (1842–1921), who provided the link between Reclus and Patrick Geddes. When Kropotkin visited Edinburgh in 1886, he met Geddes and wrote to Reclus, praising the Scottish polymath’s renovation project for the Old Town and his social work with students (Boardman 87, 105). Geddes was already an admirer of Reclus as a geographer, and invited him to lecture at his educational Edinburgh Summer Meetings in the 1890s (for context on the Summer Meetings, see the Critical Introduction to Evergreen, Vol. 2, in which they are specifically linked to Reclus’s article). Élisée Reclus is recorded as having attended the Meetings in 1893 and 1895, cementing the friendship between the two men. On 16 August 1895, Reclus wrote home:

In a few minutes, I am going to give my lecture. The first [on geography] went off very well, before a sympathetic audience made up of people who really seemed to understand French. My fourth lecture will have to be in English and will be for an audience mostly made up of anarchist workmen. This will be the difficult part of the campaign. (Correspondance, 188–9, author’s translation)

It must have been on his second visit that Reclus was drawn into contributing to The Evergreen.

To reach this point, Jacques-Élisée Reclus had led an unusual life by any standards. He was born on 15 March 1830 in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, in the Gironde département of south-west France, one of fourteen children of a Protestant minister and his wife. Several of his siblings also became well-known in their fields. Élisée was originally destined for the ministry: after two years at a Lutheran college in Prussia, and study for the baccalaureate in a local school, he enrolled with his older brother Élie (1827–1904) in the faculty of theology at Montauban. Influenced by the socialist ideas of the time, however, Élisée lost his faith and abandoned the course. The real turning point in his education was a spell in Berlin, where he studied for at least a semester under the geographer Carl Ritter (1779–1859), a major intellectual influence. But it would not be inaccurate to describe Reclus as a partial-autodidact, whose expertise was based on travel, observation, and experience. Following the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851, which Reclus opposed, he spent several years travelling outside France, working in a variety of occupations in London, Ireland, Louisiana, and Colombia, and developing his ideas, especially his deep antipathy to slavery, on which he wrote several influential articles. Returning to France in the 1860s, he was reunited with Élie, alongside whom he founded the first French cooperative society. Élisée also became an adherent of the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), who both advocated anarcho-socialism, and via Bakunin’s group joined the International Workingmen’s Association (founded in London in 1864), later known as the First International. At the same time, he was contributing articles on geography to the Revue des Deux Mondes, and was recruited by the publishers Hachette to write a series of guide books (the “Guides Joanne”) which led him to travel widely in western Europe. He thus began his career as a geographer, publishing his first major and well-received book, La Terre (The Earth), in 1868–69.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Reclus originally joined the National Guard as a simple soldier, but went on to support the insurrectionary Paris Commune in 1871, and was captured by the Versailles government. He subsequently spent almost a year in various prisons before being sentenced to transportation to New Caledonia. An international petition in his support, signed by scientists including Charles Darwin, secured the commutation of the penalty to ten years banishment. Reclus consequently spent most of the 1870s in Switzerland with his family. He was a passionate supporter of free union rather than marriage; his first wife had died, leaving him with two young daughters, and he had two further partners in free union thereafter. In Switzerland, he joined the Jura Federation, the anarchist wing of the First International and became a close friend of James Guillaume (1844–1916), a leading member of that Federation. There too, in 1877, he first met Kropotkin, who was to write of him that he was “a real Puritan in his everyday way of life, and from the intellectual point of view, an eighteenth-century French encyclopedist philosopher” (quoted in Cordillot, n.p.).

Throughout his exile, Reclus continued to compose the geographical works on which his international reputation was built, in particular the Nouvelle Géographie Universelle, (NGU, 1876–1894) published by Hachette in 19 volumes. This encyclopaedic study of the world by region, while a striking work of popularization, has also been regarded as pioneering for its time: a best-seller, it influenced progressive opinion by locating humans within their physical environment. Politically, it took a less Eurocentric approach, and a more nuanced one on colonial expansion, than some of the more nationalism-based geography of the time. Reclus wrote that Europe claims to be “the centre of the universe, imagines itself to be the most perfect representative of humankind.” He had taken Europe as a starting point “not based on such prejudice [but only because] the European continent is the only one whose surface is already covered and explored scientifically” (NGU, i, 5–6). His aim was to represent all the peoples of the globe according to the principles of human unity and brotherhood. His posthumous work L’Homme et la Terre (1905–1908) is seen as a clearer formulation of his political approach to geography and a precursor of environmental thought: its preface describes his aim to write a “new book in which the condition of the soil, the climate and the entire surrounding atmosphere in which historical events took place is set out, and in which the agreement (l’accord) between Men and the Earth would be demonstrated, in which the doings of peoples would be explained, by cause and effect, by their harmony with the evolution of the planet” (Vol. 1, i).

The offer to Reclus of a teaching post at the Université Libre de Bruxelles had been withdrawn in the particular atmosphere of the 1890s, when a wave of violent attacks in France—mostly by isolated individuals claiming to be anarchists—had prompted a tough legal backlash. While Reclus did not condone the attacks, neither did he actually condemn them; he was associated with them by the anarchist label, and therefore remained an exile in Brussels for the rest of his life, teaching instead at the informal but popular Nouvelle Université, which had been formed as a breakaway establishment. His nephew Paul, son of Élie, was put on the wanted list on this occasion, and went into exile under an assumed name, thereafter becoming Geddes’s close associate, forming a link between the two families which were later further united through marriage.

Following their Edinburgh connection of 1893–95, Élisée Reclus and Geddes once more collaborated on an ambitious project, never realized, but of particular importance to both of them: the construction of a Great Globe, designed to be a major feature of the Paris World’s Fair of 1900, at which Geddes ran an international summer school. With some official support, initially from the Paris municipal council, Reclus outlined a relief Globe of the Earth on the scale 1:100,000 (on anything smaller the relief would almost disappear), particularly destined for the young. Geddes’s role was as a fund-raiser, although, intellectually, the project had much in common with his Outlook Tower in Edinburgh. But the huge costs proved too much in the end, and the Globe remained a reality only on paper (National Library of Scotland, MSS 10625, and Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Manuscrits, NAF 22916). Patrick Geddes was later to write in praise of Reclus that, alongside “the great work of his life,” the “encyclopedic endeavour” of the Nouvelle Géographie Universelle (which Geddes thought should be compared to Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle and Humboldt’s Cosmos), the utopian Globe project was special. “Fascinating as it was to listen to Reclus upon some great theme, [. . . ], warmed with moral glow or vivid with poetic fire, it was on his globe that he surpassed himself.” Having met “every imaginable requirement of science, special and general, educational and popular,” Reclus with his “vivid phrase” would have brought all the mass of detail together as “the most monumental of museums, the microcosm of the macrocosm itself” (Geddes, 8–9).

Bearing this in mind, it is easier to appreciate Reclus’s short essay in The Evergreen. His “Cité du Bon Accord”— literally the “City of Good Agreement,” though perhaps “fellowship” is a better translation—was a vision of an organic future community in which people would be united by friendship, not in the abstract, but engaged in a common endeavour. “There, an entire microcosm, a summary and at the same time a hope of the human race, would function effortlessly, handling the thousand tasks of daily life, tasks that would be attractive because chosen” (106; author’s translation). Artists would decorate people’s homes, education would be mutual within laboratories, children would be free to play. The Evergreen’s editor, in a footnote, characterizes the piece as full of “generous hopefulness.” In fact, it reads rather more as a virtual utopia than as a practical outline. Indeed, there was a downside to Reclus’s utopianism. The French historian Gabriel Monod (1844–1912) included him among the “dogmatic minds who want to apply immediately institutions suitable only for perfect people, and who never dream of adapting the forms to facts” (quoted in Gottmann 229).

But there is a key to the piece, which may indicate that it was inspired by the reality of Geddes’s Edinburgh Old Town project. At about the same time, the Reclus brothers, Élie and Élisée, jointly authored a pamphlet called Renouveau d’une Cité (1896), which is devoted to Edinburgh. A geographical, historical, and sociological introduction precedes an analysis of the Old Town as physically and socially neglected. It goes on to praise Geddes’s several-years-old achievement of student residences in refurbished old buildings, and the social benefits thereof. It further projects into the future developments arising from his other plans (the Social Union, an arts centre, gardens in the city) which it describes as a potential Abbaye de Thélème, a reference to the Utopian community in François Rabelais’s novel Gargantua (1535). Geddes and Victor Branford, in turn, explicitly connected their “open and growing group, with its many activities” to the Cité du Bon Accord in the “Prefatory Note” to the same volume of the Evergreen (8). While the pamphlet expresses (quite reasonable) concern that the funding by benevolent backers may run out, it concludes with an anarchist credo: “We have had enough of Mammon and the Golden Calf: let us at last have a human society that will at least be worthy of other animal societies, like the republic of the ants and the bees, the cranes and the swallows […] We need fraternity, fraternity between nations and fraternities between men!” (author’s translation).

Reclus died in Brussels in 1905. Although he was seen as an eminent geographer in his time, his reputation was subsequently eclipsed on account of his politics and his freelance status: academic geography in France was dominated for many years by his contemporary, Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845–1918), whose name was attached to the wall maps in every schoolroom in France and whose school of thought is (perhaps a little unfairly) associated with ideas of nation and patriotism (Giblin 125-129). But Reclus’s constant concern with the environment and human impact, and his distance from colonialism, has led present-day geographers to see him as a proto-ecologist and forerunner of geopolitics, and his reputation is today, though not uncontroversial, much enhanced. He was certainly a man who lived his own philosophy. In his obituary of him, Patrick Geddes wrote that “Reclus not only kept free from all personal bitterness, even to the immediate authors of his pains, and lived to the last unsoured, and in unfailing gentleness and courtesy to all men, but remained kindly and hopeful, indeed trustful and generous, almost to excess” (10).

© 2022, Siân Reynolds, Emerita Professor of French at the University of Stirling, Scotland, United Kingdom

Siân Reynolds is the author of Paris-Edinburgh: Cultural Connections in the Belle Époque, (Ashgate, 2007) and a contributor to Patrick Geddes: the French Connection, edited by Frances Fowle and Belinda Thompson (White Cockade, 2004). She is one of the editors of the New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

Selected publications by Élisée Reclus

  • “La Cité Du Bon Accord.” The Evergreen, vol. 2, 1985, pp. 103–106. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.
  • La Terre: description des phénomènes de la vie du globe, 2 vols. Hachette, 1868–1869.
  • Histoire d’un ruisseau. Hetzel, 1869.
  • Nouvelle Géographie Universelle : La Terre et les Hommes, 19 vols. Hachette, 1876–1894.
  • L’Homme et la Terre [with Paul Reclus], 6 vols. La Librairie Universelle, 1905–1908.
  • Renouveau d’une Cité [with Élie Reclus]. Éditions de la Société Nouvelle, 1896.
  • Correspondance, vol. 3. Costes, 1925.

Selected Publications about Élisée Reclus

  • Boardman, Philip. The Worlds of Patrick Geddes: Biologist, Town Planner, Re-educator, Peace Warrior. Routledge, 1978.
  • Cordillot, Michel. “Reclus, Élisée (Reclus [Jean Jacques], Élisée).” Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français. Editions de l’Atelier, 2009 [online edition].
  • Dunbar, Gary S. Élisée Reclus: Historian of Nature. Archon, 1978.
  • Ferretti, Federico. “‘They have the right to throw us out’: Élisée Reclus’ New Universal Geography. » Antipode, vol. 45, no. 5, 2013, pp. 1337–1355. doi: 10.1111/anti.12006
  • —. Anarchy and Geography: Reclus and Kropotkin in the UK. Routledge, 2018.
  • Fleming, Marie. The Geography of Freedom: The Odyssey of Élisée Reclus. Black Rose, 1988. [updated version of: The Anarchist Way to Socialism: Élisee Reclus and Nineteenth-Century European Anarchism. Croom Helm, 1979].
  • Geddes, Patrick. “A Great Geographer: Élisée Reclus, 1830-1905” [obituary]. The Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 21, no. 9, 1905, pp. 490–495.
  • — and Victor Branford. “Prefatory Note.” The Evergreen, vol. 2, 1895, p.8. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.
  • Giblin, Béatrice. “Élisee Reclus 1830-1905.” Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies, vol. 3, edited by T.W. Freeman & Philippe Pinchemel. Mansell, 1979, pp. 125-129.
  • —. “Élisee Reclus: an exceptional geographer.” Hérodote, vol. 117, no. 2, 2005, pp. 11–28.
  • Gottmann, Jean. “Review of Gary Dunbar, Élisée Reclus. Historian of Nature.” Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 6, April 1980, pp. 228–229.
  • Vincent, Jean-Didier. Élisée Reclus: Géographe, anarchiste, écologiste. Laffont, 2010.

MLA citation:

Reynolds, Siân. “Élisée Reclus (1830-1905),” Y90s Biographies. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2022,