Ian Coller

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Two Hundred Years and a Week after Waterloo

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2015 at 8:17 pm

On 18 June 1815, one of the most famous battles of world history was fought in a field near the Belgian town of Waterloo. Two centuries later, the mystique of a distant and glorious campaign clings more to the defeated than to the victor. Sure, the Duke of Wellington has cities, pies and boots named after him, but he has been eclipsed in the global mind by his nemesis, Napoleon Bonaparte. Millions of litres of ink have been spilled worshipping this exasperating egomaniac as a French saint or vilifying him as a Corsican ogre. Both images were part of the propaganda that he carefully cultivated – spin, the greatest of all his conquests.

Scarcely a thought will be spared in the hullaballoo about Waterloo for the dead and atrociously injured who fought hand-to-hand in the mud under the rain of falling artillery. Even less will be said of one of Waterloo’s consequences, far away on France’s Mediterranean coast.

In the days preceding June 25, 1815, rumours of the defeat in the North began to filter into the city of Marseille, simmering in the heat of summer. The Bonapartist commander in the city, General Verdier, became nervous for the safety of his troops. In Avignon General Brune was ambushed and murdered by the crowd. Verdier decided to evacuate Marseille without hesitation. The hastily reassembled royalist committee met during the night, and declared to the people that the soldiers should be allowed to leave, and that property in the city was under the protection of the restored Bourbon government. They said nothing about the lives of those civilians who might be in danger in the roiling atmosphere of revenge and reprisal. One historian compared this moment to the vicious score-settling at the end of the Second World War.

In many cities across France, crowds targeted individuals compromised by Napoleon’s regime, particularly those who had joined the Emperor after his return from exile on the island of Elba. But Marseille was different. The town had become the location of the “dépôt” of refugees who had departed Egypt at the end of the French occupation in 1801. These people were, in a sense, the first “post-colonial” migrants on French soil. The wealthier members lived in areas like La Plaine, away from the reach of the crowd gathering on the Old Port. But just a short distance away, along the Rue de Rome was the Place Castellane, and around it were small courts where the poorer members of the “Egyptian” community—in fact a variety of Egyptians, Syrians, Sudanese and others—had built makeshift houses, and gardens for growing their own familiar foods. These people, a mixture of Muslims, Copts and Arab Catholics, were an easy target for the enraged crowd.

The first murders happened on the Old Port itself, where two black women, who may have been Sudanese from Egypt, or equally former slaves from the Caribbean, were targeted and lynched, eventually dying under a hail of bullets in the water of the port. It is said that one of the women continued to cry “Vive l’Empereur” with her last breath. The crowd continued through the streets, slaughtering more people of colour. This was a “White Terror” in more than name. The lynch mob eventually arrived at the Cours Gouffé, where the Egyptians were already in terrified flight. The sick and elderly were unable to flee in time. At least a dozen more were killed during the pursuit, and their names recorded in the official records. How many more were killed in the mountains, or thrown into the sea, it is difficult to say. It was said that the beach at Montredon was littered with corpses.

No monument, and scarcely even a footnote exists today to remember the death of these men and women : Tutungi, Sidarious, Mattar, Soliman, Elaaraj, Nazo, Koudsy. What can these names tell us? They can remind us that the Napoleonic empire was more than just a glamorous, empty epic of battles, bicorn hats and heroic poses. It was a period in which many of the achievements of the Revolution of 1789 were actively reversed, when Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were sidelined, slavery was reintroduced, Jews and Protestants put back into distinct categories, the rights of women in divorce and inheritance radically scaled back. The racial violence of 1815 cannot simply be blamed on a “royalist mob”: it was the consequence of the policies and politics of Napoleon’s empire. It is time to let Waterloo fade into the past, and examine the history it hides, a history that has much more to say to the multi-ethnic France of today.


Consulates and Colonies: France’s “overseas” archives now online

In Uncategorized on November 10, 2013 at 10:41 pm


France’s national archives have a special building in Aix-en-Provence to hold all their former colonial archives, nicely retitled “overseas” archives. The content is now largely consultable on line.

Etat des Fonds

Here are the archives of Algeria

Fonds Territoriaux: Algérie

Moniteur Universel online through GoogleBooks

In Uncategorized on September 24, 2012 at 5:00 am

The Napoleon Series has produced a useful page where all the volumes of the Moniteur Universel (in the re-issue of 1871) can be accessed. Note that the Moniteur only began publishing on 24 November 1789, but later the editors produced 71 issues covering the period from May to November.



Walking in Arab Paris

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2011 at 10:19 am

A new article in Saudi Aramco World discussed these tours of Historical Arab Paris – the journalist interviewed me, though she got my name wrong in the print edition.

French description of the tours:

Les liens entre le monde arabe et la France – et plus particulièrement, sa capitale –, pour être très anciens, se sont surtout instaurés à partir du début du XIXe siècle et concernent, plus précisément, la rive gauche de la Seine où se trouvent sis tant la Mosquée de Paris, que l’Institut du monde arabe, que d’autres institutions, bâtiments et lieux qui rappellent aux promeneurs les étapes et les grands moments de ces différents échanges.
Il a paru intéressant, dès lors, de proposer au public de l’IMA, une visite-conférence – entièrement circonscrite au cinquième arrondissement de Paris –, qui permette à celui-ci de prendre la mesure de cette présence arabe et d’évoquer les destins de ceux qui ont joué un rôle important dans cette relation privilégiée.

Ce parcours comporte quatre étapes principales qui jalonnent une promenade d’environ deux heures, riche en découvertes :

La première partie, entre le Collège de France et la Sorbonne, évoque les premiers enseignements de l’arabe sous François 1er, la curiosité française pour l’Orient au XVIIIe siècle et sous l’Empire ;

La deuxième partie se rapporte aux lieux de cultes des chrétiens arabes de France avec la visite d’une des plus anciennes églises de Paris, Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre ;

La troisième partie rappelle l’attraction que Paris a exercée sur le monde arabe, ainsi que les débats d’idées qui ont agité les réformateurs et érudits arabes au XIXe siècle. Le quartier a alors abrité les premières imprimeries et les premiers journaux en langue arabe en France. Les nombreuses librairies arabes sont l’héritage de cette période ;

La quatrième partie est consacrée à la visite de la Mosquée de Paris.

La promenade s’achève à l’Institut du Monde Arabe, symbole architectural moderne du dialogue entre la culture occidentale et le monde arabe.

Informations pratiques

Tarif 15 € – Tarif réduit 13 € – Tarif enfant 7 €
Tous les samedis à 15h – Départ en face du Collège de France (rue des Ecoles) – Durée 2h30

Réservation au 01 40 51 38 14
Visites de groupe à la carte en appelant le 01 40 51 39 50

Achetez vos billets

Mercure François

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2011 at 7:37 am

Free consultation  of Le Mercure François, an important 17th century French publication that is extremely difficult to access, even in libraries that hold the full set

Mercure de France


General Ya’qub’s letter to Napoleon fetches 187,500 euros at auction

In Uncategorized on June 21, 2011 at 12:53 am

Egypt news reports:

PARIS: A 29-line missive by Egyptian general Ya’qub Hanna to Napoleon fetched a staggering 187,500 euros at an auction in France Sunday.

The document was concerning the end of the French expedition in Egypt and had been valued at between 6,000 and 8,000 euros.

Written in gold and black ink, the sale was perhaps the biggest surprise of the auction.

Meanwhile, Napoleon’s first English lessons while he was banished to exile on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena fetched more than 93,000 euros, several times more than they had been valued.

Three lots of text in English and French, as well as drawings, by the fallen emperor had been valued 7,000 to 9,500 euros, said the Osenat auction house.

“Qu’es qui étoit arrivé. What was it arrived,” Napoleon wrote in his first stumbling efforts to grasp the language of his adversaries.

In other exercises he wrote: “Combien etoint-ils. How many were they” and “Comment se portoient-ils. How do they do”.

The private Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris paid 93,125 euros for the lots, which it said it would put on display from June 21.

The same museum paid 53,750 euros for manuscripts that Napoleon edited at Saint Helena for his memoirs, including his account of his victorious Battle of the Bridge of Arcole in 1796.

It also bought a list of assembly member votes during the French Revolution on the sentence for Louis XVI, who was eventually sent to the guillotine in 1793.

The manuscript of about 20 pages is one of several copies, with the original held in the Archives of France. It nonetheless fetched 35,000 euros after being estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000 euros.

After his defeat to the British at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was imprisoned and then exiled to Saint Helena where he died in 1821 age 51.

Welcome to the French Historian

In Uncategorized on April 27, 2009 at 4:32 am

Electronic Resources for French Historians

If you love history, but karate-chopping monks chasing each other around the Louvre is not your thing, this site is probably right for you. French history is endlessly fascinating: war, revolution, empire, not to mention the food…There are incredible resources available on the net today, in English and French. This blog brings a few of those elements together in one place: I hope it will be helpful for students, teachers and researchers. Don’t hesitate to contact me with contacts and/or suggestions!