On the 1st of July 1782, in the early hours of the morning, most of the leaders of the popular government at Geneva fled their city by boat, landing on the Neuchâtel shore of Lake Geneva, then governed by Prussia. The action shocked the abandoned inhabitants of the small republic, who had been preparing to face invading troops from France, Savoy and Bern. Republican patriotism was rife in the city, and the populace was ready for death in the name of liberty. How did this come to pass?
Geneva had long been a city divided into warring factions. A commercial town at the centre of ancient trade routes, and the Rome for Protestants, Geneva was famous not only for the piety of its inhabitants but also for the production of watches and fine smith-work. As in so many small states across Europe, a number of rich families emerged to dominate the ruling councils of the city, whose male members served also as leading magistrates. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they built splendid houses in the upper town, away from the artisans of the lower town. Often having additional property beyond the city walls, and extensive investments in French commerce, accusations were levelled that such families were forming a patrician class, ruling for themselves rather than the public good.
The group of Genevans making such a claim became known in the 1750s as the représentants, because they repeatedly made representations or complaints to the General Council of all citizens and bourgeois that morality was collapsing, and that the ruin of the city was imminent because of the influence of France over the chief magistrates, themselves corrupted by a lust for luxury and lucre. Divisions became acute between représentants and magistrates in the early 1760s, and especially after the représentants recruited Geneva’s most famous son, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to their cause. Rousseau, characteristically, was so independently minded that his Lettres écrites de la montagne satisfied few of the représentants, but he was presented by their enemies as demagogue in chief, whose works were designed to put an end to government and religion. Just as at Paris, Rousseau’s Contrat social and Émile had been burned at Geneva in 1762. As soon as his Lettres began to circulate in the city in December 1764, arguments were being made that Rousseau’s deadly doctrines would bring anarchy to Geneva.
The magisterial party at Geneva, called négatifs in the 1760s and constitutionnaires in the 1770s and after, reached a compromise with the représentants by agreeing to constitutional reforms in 1767. By the early 1780s, however, the représentants were demanding further change, and once more were branded as Rousseauists, advocates of an ideology that, if brought to power, would see an end to civil order and possibly civil war. For the magistrates, precisely this happened on 5 April 1782 when the people rebelled. The représentants had not fomented revolution but they took control of the city, imprisoned several magistrates, and initiated projects intended to create a new constitution and greatly increase equality at Geneva. One of the reasons the représentants had not wanted to take power by popular revolution was that they knew they risked the wrath of France. France’s foreign minister, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, was close to numerous magistrates, and of the view that a popular republic on the borders of France could not be stomached. Vergennes was cunning, and he put together a combined invading force that included Geneva’s traditional ally among the cantons, Bern, and Geneva’s traditional foe, Savoy. By the end of June, twelve thousand troops had reached the walls of the city, erected bulwarks for their cannons and mortars, and prepared for siege. The besieged were branded anarchists and terrorists, who had put an end to the legitimate government of the city state and replaced it with a wild democracy in which neither property nor life was safe.
Within the city, since the April revolution the people of Geneva had rebuilt the walls and put gunpowder in the cathedral of St Pierre and in the houses of deposed magistrates. Their goal was not victory. Everyone knew that they could never stand against France, and especially against a France supported by the most powerful canton in addition to Savoy. Rather, the people considered themselves to be preparing for martyrdom. The intention of the inhabitants was to send a message to the wider world. Through their deaths and the accompanying destruction of the city of Geneva, which would be set aflame as soon as the invaders used mortars, they would reveal the extent to which both Protestantism and republicanism were in danger in the 1780s. Someone in another part of Europe might listen and take action against the forces of oppression and corruption; the Genevan martyrs would then not have died in vain.
In fact, many people within the city awoke on the morning of the 1st of July to find that the invading troops were already inside the walls. The représentants who remained in the city had opened the gates and surrendered as soon as their friends had left by boat. Resistance became futile and Geneva was saved. The price, many contemporaries felt, was that Geneva was no longer independent, having become a French protectorate. As a theatre was built within the city in order to entertain the invaders, many also embraced the view that Geneva was no longer a bastion of Calvinist morality. Republicans and Calvinists who remained at Geneva tended to be particularly despondent about the future in the early 1780s.
What happened to the now exiled représentants who had fled to Neuchâtel? This is where the story becomes interesting and remains little-known. The représentants had strong links with Britain, in part because the politician Charles Stanhope, known as Lord Mahon, had lived at Geneva in the 1760s and considered himself to be a représentant. Stanhope put the représentants in touch with William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne between 1761 and 1784, who became prime minister soon after the Genevan revolution was crushed, on the 4th of July 1782. Shelburne was facing crisis at home because Britain had been defeated in war by the new North American republics, who were fighting against Britain alongside France, the Dutch Republic and Spain. Peace negotiations had commenced and many felt that Britain, like Geneva, was another Protestant state on the edge of collapse.
A young lawyer called François d’Ivernois, who was one of the editors of the Geneva edition of Rousseau’s collected works, travelled to London to meet Shelburne and Stanhope. The représentants had a plan. They promised the British government that the industrious half of Geneva, hating the restored magistrates and French dominion, were willing to leave the city, taking their wealth and manufacturing skills to another place, where they might enjoy peace and liberty. A community of watchmakers could be established, bringing prosperity to a New Geneva on foreign soil. Shelburne and his friends embraced the project. Lands were offered to the Genevans in England, but the preferred location became Ireland because of the quality of the ports, but also because Ireland was deemed ripe for improvement. Rebellious tendencies in Ireland, in the midst of the volunteer movement demanding economic and political reform, might be assuaged by the creation of New Geneva.
The location that was ultimately chosen was a substantial tract of land at the confluence of the ‘Three Sisters’ rivers – the Barrow, Nore and Suir, just outside Waterford. Funds were granted to the Genevans to the level of £50,000 and a city was mapped out. Land was purchased, buildings were erected and around a hundred families made the move from Geneva to Ireland. Most of the leaders of the April revolution at Geneva in 1782 took an oath of allegiance to George III and became Irish subjects of the crown in 1783. Then things began to go wrong. The first disaster was Shelburne’s fall from power, accused by members of parliament and the country of signing up to an ignominious peace. The ongoing crisis in Britain and in Ireland meant that his successors were less interested in New Geneva. This meant that the complaints of the Genevans who had made the journey, that funds to help them were not being released, that no further buildings were being erected and that life in Waterford was as poor and as miserable as it had been at Geneva, fell on deaf ears. The Genevans, seeing conspiracy everywhere, expressed the view that their enemies in France and in the old city also had friends at Westminster and at Court, who were promoting their view that they were dangerous extremists who would bring terror and anarchy to Ireland, just as they had in Geneva. By 1785, just as the buildings were finished, the Genevans gave up. They were convinced that the Protestant noblemen responsible for the project in Ireland were taking the funds for themselves and would never allow New Geneva to become a reality.
The final chapter of the story is more bizarre still. The buildings of New Geneva were turned into a barracks for regiments serving in Ireland or en route for foreign climes. In 1798 New Geneva, now called Geneva Barracks, became a prison for United Irish rebels against the British crown. It became infamous for the dreadful conditions suffered by the prisoners and the executions that occurred within its walls. Ballads such as Carole Malone’s ‘The Croppy Boy’ restated contemporary assertions that rebels were illegitimately massacred at Geneva in Ireland. Although New Geneva was constructed as an asylum for exiled republicans, it became a place for the imprisonment and extermination of Irish republicans. Like the Genevans before them, they too were accused of being anarchists and terrorists.
– Richard Whatmore
Richard Whatmore’s ‘Terrorists, Anarchists and Republicans. The Genevans and the Irish in time of revolution’ will be published by Princeton University Press in August 2019.