Tag Archives: France
In 1765, a young, peasant woman left a remote corner of rural France where her impoverished family had scraped a living for generations. She set out on a journey that would take her around the world from the South American jungles and Magellan Strait to the tropical islands of the Indo-Pacific.
Jeanne Barret (also Baret or Baré) was the first woman known to have circumnavigated the world. Abandoning her bonnet and apron for men’s trousers and coats, she disguised herself as a man and signed on as assistant to the naturalist, Philibert Commerson on one of the ships of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition around the world.
During that voyage, Jeanne helped Commerson amass the largest individual natural history collection known at the time. Thousands of the plant specimens can still be found in the herbarium of the Paris natural history museum, although few bear Jeanne’s name.
Despite Jeanne’s singular achievement, she left no account of her journey or her life. She might have been entirely forgotten were it not for a dramatic revelation on a Tahitian beach in 1768.
Bougainville’s voyage famously promoted Tahiti as a utopian paradise of beautiful women and sexual freedom. But the Tahitian men were equally keen to meet European women and, despite her disguise, they swiftly identified Jeanne as one.
This revelation caused consternation on board and Bougainville was forced to intervene. He described Jeanne’s confession briefly in his best-selling narrative of the voyage. Having nothing but praise for her work, Bougainville ordered she be left alone to continue her work as a man.
Jeanne had done nothing wrong. French naval regulations did not forbid women from embarking, but there were penalties for men who brought a woman on board. Both Jeanne and Commerson insisted he was unaware of Jeanne’s ruse and that they did not know each other prior to the journey. As soon as the voyage reached French territory, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Jeanne and Commerson disembarked.
Jeanne’s adventure was soon retold in a book on celebrated women and in the philosopher Denis Diderot’s famous Supplement to the Bougainville voyage. She was ultimately awarded a French naval pension for her services.
The only known image of Jeanne appeared in a book of famous voyages, drawn long after her death. The image is probably allegorical. Loose sailor’s clothes represent her voyage, a bunch of flowers represents botany and the red cap presents her as Marianne, an iconic revolutionary symbol of liberty and the new French republic.
In reality, a servant and botanist like Jeanne would have worn gentleman’s clothes, carrying an assortment of pins, knives, bags, weapons and papers for collecting. Plants were pressed in the field in a portable plant press.
Despite such early renown, details of Jeanne’s life beyond her famous voyage were scarce. For many years, little was known about her past, what happened when she left the expedition in Mauritius in 1768, how she returned to France or what she did with the rest of her life.
Writing the biography of a woman about whom we knew so little was always going to be challenging. I found myself searching for a pre-existing model to base Jeanne on — in fiction or in history. But in literature, as in reality, women, the poor, the illiterate, the nonconformists and those from other cultures and languages are poorly represented.
When they appear, they are simplistic stereotypes — supporting characters for a lead role reserved for a wealthy, white man. A woman like Jeanne could be a peasant or a servant, a wife or a fallen woman — there was no conventionally acceptable opportunity for her to be an adventurer or an independent woman of her own means. She had to create that opportunity for herself.
Initial accounts of Jeanne focused on her work, appearance and sexual conduct. She was described as being indefatigable, an expert botanist and a beast of burden who carried heavy provisions while plant collecting. Men noted she was neither attractive nor ugly, but she behaved with “scrupulous modesty”.
Commerson suffered from an incapacitating leg injury during his journey, which limited his mobility. Jeanne was probably responsible for collecting most of the South American plants, of which over a thousand are still found in herbariums today.
When museum scientists began posthumously publishing some of Commerson’s species descriptions, pioneering evolutionary biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck was the only one who mentioned Jeanne’s contribution and courage. She was a servant, after all, so hardly warranted acknowledgement.
Commerson himself rarely mentioned Jeanne. It was not until after they left the voyage that he named a plant after her: Baretia bonafidia (now known as Turraea rutilans).
In his description of this plant, Commerson recognised her “thirst for knowledge” and that he was indebted to “her heroism, for so many plants never before harvested, all the industrious drying, so many collections of insects and shells”.
Nineteenth century accounts of Jeanne appeared as footnotes in the biographies of great men. Avoiding all impropriety, she was presented as Commerson’s “faithful servant”, like Crusoe’s Man Friday, or Phileas Fogg’s Jean Passepartout. An early biographer, Paul-Antoine Cap recounted a family story in which Jeanne loyally cared for Commerson on his deathbed in Mauritius and that she returned to live in his hometown in France.
“By way of remembrance and veneration for her former master, she left all she possessed to the natural heirs of the famous botanist,” he wrote. It was a story of boundless devotion much repeated in subsequent accounts.
It has been left to female researchers to uncover the details of Jeanne’s life. Attention has shifted to Jeanne as an individual, rather than an addendum to Commerson’s or Bougainville’s story.
In the 1980s, a local historian from Burgundy, Henriette Dussourd, uncovered the parish record of Jeanne’s birth in 1740 to a poor peasant family in the town of La Comelle. She also found a declaration of pregnancy (obligatory under French law) signed by Jeanne when she was 24-years-old. When she was five months pregnant, Jeanne had fled to Paris with Commerson, travelling under a new surname, as his housekeeper.
The circumstances are suspicious. Jeanne had presumably been working as a servant for the recently widowed Commerson and they moved to Paris to escape a local scandal. Early Parisian parish records were destroyed in the Commune fires of 1871, but Dussourd suggests a son was born, left in the Foundling Home and died young.
Since then, I have found that Jeanne had a second son while in Paris, who appears to have died while she was away on her voyage.
More recently, a biography in English has attempted to fill in the gaps left in the archival record. Glynis Ridley’s popular biography has been criticised for scientific errors and speculation, but her version of Jeanne’s story has propagated widely across the internet.
Unlike the loyal servant trope of the 19th century, Ridley utilises a modern cautionary tale to fill out Jeanne’s story – the well-rehearsed narrative that adventurous women inevitably come to a sticky end.
Ridley’s biography seeks to give Jeanne an agency that she lacked in 18th and 19th century accounts. She argues Commerson sought Jeanne’s advice as an expert herbswoman. Was an unsigned list of medicinal plants among Commerson’s archives, she asks, actually Jeanne’s work?
Appealing though this idea is, Commerson was, however, renowned for his medicinal teas, and herbal remedies were a staple of medical treatment at the time.
Nor is there any evidence Jeanne was taught to read and write by her mother, as Ridley suggests. My archival research found her mother died when Jeanne was 15- months-old. It seems more likely Commerson taught her to write and trained her in botany.
More controversially, Ridley contends that the story of Jeanne’s revelation as a woman in Tahiti was a cover for a gang rape on New Ireland, off Papua New Guinea. And that Jeanne fell pregnant and gave birth to a son in Mauritius.
This story originates from a description by the doctor on board Jeanne’s ship, Francois Vivez. Vivez disliked Commerson and intended to publish a salacious account of his servant when he returned to France.
In his manuscripts, Vivez describes Jeanne being attacked by her crew mates and her gender exposed after her identification by the Tahitians. While Vivez greatly embroiders his accounts, there is enough confirmation from other journals to suggest they are based on facts. On balance, it seems likely that Jeanne was identified as a women in Tahiti and some of the crew decided to confirm this for themselves when they were next ashore.
But was there a rape? It is difficult to interpret these 18th century accounts, written in either French or Latin and laden with historical contexts and classical metaphors that have long since lost their associations for modern readers.
Bougainville had ordered that Jeanne was not to be harassed. Rape was punishable by death in the French navy. Could a naval commander tolerate such a serious crime and insubordination to go unrecorded and unpunished?
It seems unlikely. In his only comment on the subject, Commerson noted Jeanne “evaded ambush by wild animals and humans, not without risk to her life and virtue, unharmed and sound”.
In any case, there is no evidence that Jeanne, suffering from scurvy and malnutrition, conceived a child on the voyage, nor of the obligatory declaration of pregnancy, or a child born in Mauritius.
A woman of means
Jeanne’s life in Mauritius and her return to France were actually more interesting than dramatic denouements that fulfil conventional expectations. The adventurous woman did not come to a sticky end.
She was not the faithful servant, comforting Commerson on his death bed. She was not left “alone, homeless, penniless” after his death, waiting for a man to rescue her. She did not return to Commerson’s hometown or remember him in death.
The archives tell a different story. I found Jeanne was granted property in her own right in Mauritius. When Commerson died, Jeanne was running her own profitable business. She bought a license to run a lucrative bar near the port.
By the time she married Jean Dubernat, a soldier in a French colonial regiment, she was wealthy enough to require a pre-nuptial contract. Her husband brought 5000 livres to the marriage while Jeanne brought a house, slaves, furniture, clothes, jewellery and a small fortune of 19,500 livres – two thirds of which would remain in her control. She was a woman of means.
Further research by Sophie Miquel and Nicolle Maguet in Dordogne, where Jeanne lived out her life after her return to France in 1775, has revealed more details. She purchased various properties including a farm, which is still recognisable today.
Her husband signed another legal document acknowledging these properties were shared equally with his wife. Jeanne gathered her family around her, including her orphaned niece and nephew, and ran a successful business as a landowner and trader – a far cry from her illiterate, impoverished childhood in Burgundy.
If we need a conventional story arc for Jeanne’s life, it should be rags-to-riches, rather than the loyal servant or road-trip tragedy. But better, surely, to construct Jeanne’s story with an objective attention to the archival record.
Jeanne was full of contradictions. She was a devoted aunt, yet left her own children in Paris to an unknown fate. She struggled to escape the constraints of France’s rigid class system and patriarchy, but also owned slaves. Her life does not always fit a comfortable familiar narrative structure.
What we do know reveals Jeanne as a confident, capable, resilient woman — neither victim nor hero but a complex, inspiring and unconventional role model.
Danielle Clode’s new biography of Jeanne Barret, In Search of the Woman who Sailed the World, is published by Picador Australia.
Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, ruler of France from 1848 to 1870, was “the most enthusiastic supporter of photography in all of Europe”. He stocked his libraries with countless photographs of bridges, parks, army camps, railways, and palaces. These structures were his most important achievements and he commissioned a panoply of photographers to celebrate them.
First publicly demonstrated in 1839, photography was a modern, scientific marvel – its realism, accuracy, and truthfulness astounded 19th-century viewers. In the 1850s, these associations primed it to become an essential propaganda tool. Even medical photography became political.
Yet, as the photographer Charles Nègre discovered when he visited the Asile impérial de Vincennes – a convalescent hospital for working men founded by Louis-Napoléon – bodies were more difficult to politicise than bridges. Disabled by amputation and infected with typhoid, the asylum’s patients did not fit easily into Louis-Napoléon’s self-aggrandising propaganda. To win official approval, Nègre had to censor their afflictions.
Louis-Napoléon inherited a cramped, crumbling and crime-ridden capital. Paris’s one million inhabitants lived cheek-by-jowl in a vast tangle of densely packed buildings. There was even a slum in the courtyard of the Louvre.
Modernising Paris promised more than practical benefits: “I want to be a second Augustus”, wrote Louis-Napoléon in 1842, “because Augustus … made Rome a city of marble”. It meant glory. So, he hired a ruthlessly efficient administrator, Baron Haussmann, to knock down the old slums.
The city became a building site. Charles Marville’s photographs record the squalor of the slums, the chaos of their transformation, and the spectacle of their rebirth. Thousands of men were drafted into an army of construction, battling away on this new “field of honour” for the glory of the nation and its increasingly power-hungry leader.
In December 1851, Louis-Napoléon overthrew the Second Republic and made himself Emperor Napoléon III. Liberal democracy was replaced by populist authoritarianism. To compensate, Napoléon III promised a bounty of progress and benevolence, especially for the working-class – as he put it: “those who work and those who suffer can count on me”. The legitimacy of his rule depended on his being believed. Any evidence to the contrary put him in real danger, not least from the rebellious Parisian workers. As one commentator put it: “A week’s interruption of the building trade would terrify the Government”.
Napoléon III and his ministers called upon photographers to help him walk this tightrope. In addition to Marville, they commissioned Édouard Baldus to record the renovation of the Louvre, Auguste Hippolyte Collard to document Paris’s new bridges, and Delmaet and Durandelle to showcase the city’s new opera house. Their photographs offered tangible proof of progress.
Collard’s view of the rebuilt Point du Jour bridge is typical for its emphasis on the superhuman scale and clean geometry of its subject. Other photographers approvingly compared Napoléon III’s bridges to Roman aqueducts – Collard instead contrasts the structure to the workers erecting it. Their tiny bodies, “trapped in the labyrinth of scaffolding”, are visually dominated by the bridge, which, stamped with the imperial “N”, is a tangible artefact of Napoléon III’s achievement. The photograph’s political message is clear: work for the masses, glory for the Emperor, modernity for France.
Yet, as Napoléon III’s interior minister knew, “industry has its injured like war” and the rebuilding of Paris too had its “glorious war-wounded”. In 1855 Napoléon III ordered the construction of a convalescent asylum to care for workers injured during the building works.
Charles Nègre visited the asylum around 1858 to photograph its buildings, patients, and staff. To get paid, Nègre knew he had to toe the party line. Yet, the bodies he encountered had been wounded in the war for Napoléon III’s self-aggrandisement, giving the lie to his image of populist benevolence. Nègre’s challenge was to celebrate Napoléon III’s care for their suffering without revealing his culpability for it.
Nègre began his album with a scene of the patients and staff of the asylum paying homage to their benefactor. Nègre organised the patients into two geometric blocks, angled to draw our attention towards Napoléon III’s marble bust, placed in the centre, and away from individual patients, whose stoic faces and discreet walking sticks blend into a seamless whole.
These working men are visually subsumed within a superhuman structure akin to Collard’s bridge. While the bridge symbolised progress, this unified mass of bodies offers a metaphor of social cohesion and “national gratitude” towards the Emperor.
In other photographs, Nègre focused on the asylum’s modern architecture and efficient staff. Patients are shown eating, playing and reading, as if on holiday. Nègre dared to show medical care only once but even then ensured the patient was so tightly bandaged as to disappear. The visibility of Napoléon III’s benevolence depended on the invisibility of his subjects’ illnesses and disabilities.
In the 1850s photography was typically used to discover, rather than disguise, illness. In England, Dr Hugh Diamond photographed his “lunatic” patients because he trusted photography’s minute detail to capture hidden diagnostic clues. During treatment, he showed patients these portraits, believing the medium’s inherent truthfulness and arresting novelty would shock them into recognising their own illness.
Nègre broke from this emerging medical consensus under political pressure and his meagre finances made him desperate for state subsidy. His photographs, in trying to tell us so much about Napoléon III, tell us so little about the asylum’s patients. Photographs, even of bridges or hospitals, are never neutral: they are a tissue of the choices made by the photographer. In choosing to tell one truth, photographers can obscure many others.
Much of the reparations debate has revolved around whether the United States and the United Kingdom should finally compensate some of their citizens for the economic and social costs of slavery that still linger today.
But to me, there’s never been a more clear-cut case for reparations than that of Haiti.
I’m a specialist on colonialism and slavery, and what France did to the Haitian people after the Haitian Revolution is a particularly notorious examples of colonial theft. France instituted slavery on the island in the 17th century, but, in the late 18th century, the enslaved population rebelled and eventually declared independence. Yet, somehow, in the 19th century, the thinking went that the former enslavers of the Haitian people needed to be compensated, rather than the other way around.
Just as the legacy of slavery in the United States has created a gross economic disparity between Black and white Americans, the tax on its freedom that France forced Haiti to pay – referred to as an “indemnity” at the time – severely damaged the newly independent country’s ability to prosper.
The cost of independence
Haiti officially declared its independence from France in 1804. In October 1806, the country was split into two, with Alexandre Pétion ruling in the south and Henry Christophe ruling in the north.
Despite the fact that both of Haiti’s rulers were veterans of the Haitian Revolution, the French had never quite given up on reconquering their former colony.
In 1814 King Louis XVIII, who had helped overthrow Napoléon earlier that year, sent three commissioners to Haiti to assess the willingness of the country’s rulers to surrender. Christophe, having made himself a king in 1811, remained obstinate in the face of France’s exposed plan to bring back slavery. Threatening war, the most prominent member of Christophe’s cabinet, Baron de Vastey, insisted,“ Our independence will be guaranteed by the tips of our bayonets!”
In contrast, Pétion, the ruler of the south, was willing to negotiate, hoping that the country might be able to pay France for recognition of its independence.
In 1803, Napoléon had sold Louisiana to the United States for 15 million francs. Using this number as his compass, Pétion proposed paying the same amount. Unwilling to compromise with those he viewed as “runaway slaves,” Louis XVIII rejected the offer.
Pétion died suddenly in 1818, but Jean-Pierre Boyer, his successor, kept up the negotiations. Talks, however, continued to stall due to Christophe’s stubborn opposition.
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“Any indemnification of the ex-colonists,” Christophe’s government stated, was “inadmissible.”
Once Christophe died in October 1820, Boyer was able to reunify the two sides of the country. However, even with the obstacle of Christophe gone, Boyer repeatedly failed to successfully negotiate France’s recognition of independence. Determined to gain at least suzerainty over the island – which would have made Haiti a protectorate of France – Louis XVIII’s successor, Charles X, rebuked the two commissioners Boyer sent to Paris in 1824 to try to negotiate an indemnity in exchange for recognition.
On April 17, 1825, the French king suddenly changed his mind. He issued a decree stating France would recognize Haitian independence but only at the price of 150 million francs – or 10 times the amount the U.S. had paid for the Louisiana territory. The sum was meant to compensate the French colonists for their lost revenues from slavery.
Baron de Mackau, whom Charles X sent to deliver the ordinance, arrived in Haiti in July, accompanied by a squadron of 14 brigs of war carrying more than 500 cannons.
Rejection of the ordinance almost certainly meant war. This was not diplomacy. It was extortion.
With the threat of violence looming, on July 11, 1825, Boyer signed the fatal document, which stated, “The present inhabitants of the French part of St. Domingue shall pay … in five equal installments … the sum of 150,000,000 francs, destined to indemnify the former colonists.”
French prosperity built on Haitian poverty
Newspaper articles from the period reveal that the French king knew the Haitian government was hardly capable of making these payments, as the total was more than 10 times Haiti’s annual budget. The rest of the world seemed to agree that the amount was absurd. One British journalist noted that the “enormous price” constituted a “sum which few states in Europe could bear to sacrifice.”
Forced to borrow 30 million francs from French banks to make the first two payments, it was hardly a surprise to anyone when Haiti defaulted soon thereafter. Still, the new French king sent another expedition in 1838 with 12 warships to force the Haitian president’s hand. The 1838 revision, inaccurately labeled “Traité d’Amitié” – or “Treaty of Friendship” – reduced the outstanding amount owed to 60 million francs, but the Haitian government was once again ordered to take out crushing loans to pay the balance.
Although the colonists claimed that the indemnity would only cover one-twelfth the value of their lost properties, including the people they claimed as their slaves, the total amount of 90 million francs was actually five times France’s annual budget.
The Haitian people suffered the brunt of the consequences of France’s theft. Boyer levied draconian taxes in order to pay back the loans. And while Christophe had been busy developing a national school system during his reign, under Boyer, and all subsequent presidents, such projects had to be put on hold. Moreover, researchers have found that the independence debt and the resulting drain on the Haitian treasury were directly responsible not only for the underfunding of education in 20th-century Haiti, but also lack of health care and the country’s inability to develop public infrastructure.
Contemporary assessments, furthermore, reveal that with the interest from all the loans, which were not completely paid off until 1947, Haitians ended up paying more than twice the value of the colonists’ claims. Recognizing the gravity of this scandal, French economist Thomas Piketty acknowledged that France should repay at least US$28 billion to Haiti in restitution.
A debt that’s both moral and material
In May 2015, when French President François Hollande became only France’s second head of state to visit Haiti, he admitted that his country needed to “settle the debt.” Later, realizing he had unwittingly provided fuel for the legal claims already prepared by attorney Ira Kurzban on behalf of the Haitian people – former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had demanded formal recompense in 2002 – Hollande clarified that he meant France’s debt was merely “moral.”
To deny that the consequences of slavery were also material is to deny French history itself. France belatedly abolished slavery in 1848 in its remaining colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Réunion and French Guyana, which are still territories of France today. Afterwards, the French government demonstrated once again its understanding of slavery’s relationship to economics when it took it upon itself to financially compensate the former “owners” of enslaved people.
The resulting racial wealth gap is no metaphor. In metropolitan France 14.1% of the population lives below the poverty line. In Martinique and Guadeloupe, in contrast, where more than 80% of the population is of African descent, the poverty rates are 38% and 46%, respectively. The poverty rate in Haiti is even more dire at 59%. And whereas the median annual income of a French family is $31,112, it’s only $450 for a Haitian family.
These discrepancies are the concrete consequence of stolen labor from generations of Africans and their descendants. And because the indemnity Haiti paid to France is the first and only time a formerly enslaved people were forced to compensate those who had once enslaved them, Haiti should be at the center of the global movement for reparations.
Modern Britons associate The Great Escape with the 1963 film of that name starring Steve McQueen, reffering to, of course, a mass escape by Allied prisoners during the second world war. But this title might more appropriately be applied to the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4 1940.
As the UK marks the 80th anniversary of that escape, we shall hear much of the author JB Priestley’s first “postscript” for BBC Radio on Wednesday June 5. That broadcast coined the phrase “Little Ships” and even acknowledged Priestley’s own part in shaping understanding of Dunkirk. He asked listeners: “Doesn’t it seem to you to have an inevitable air about it – as if we had turned a page in the history of Britain and seen a chapter headed ‘Dunkirk’?”
But there was nothing inevitable about it.
Before pledging to “fight them on the beaches”, Winston Churchill himself reminded the House of Commons in the same speech that “wars are not won by evacuations”. He acknowledged that the BEF had courted disaster before depicting its escape as “a miracle of deliverance”. That the British public regards it as a triumph owes much to the work of British newspaper journalists and the Royal Navy press officers who briefed them.
How the ‘miracle’ came about
Dunkirk was not reported in eyewitness accounts from the beaches. The few war correspondents who struggled back with the retreating armies had no means by which to communicate. Reports, such as Evelyn Montague’s The Miracle of the BEF’s Return for the Manchester Guardian of Saturday June 1 1940, were penned by journalists invited to witness the Royal Navy’s delivery of evacuated soldiers to the ports of south-east England. There, they were briefed with patriotic fervour and naval pride as well as facts.
The first sentence of Montague’s piece gives a flavour of the mood that was inspired:
In the grey chill dawn today in a south-eastern port, war correspondents watched with incredulous joy the happening of a miracle.
The reporter – a grandson of the famous Guardian editor and owner C.P. Scott – did not fail to give the Royal Navy credit. Having described a waterfront hotel in which “every armchair held its sleeping soldier or sailor, huddled beneath overcoat or ground sheet”, Montague turned to the scene in the port:
As the rising sun was turning the grey clouds to burnished copper the first destroyer of the day slid swiftly into the harbour, its silhouette bristling with the heads of the men who stood packed shoulder to shoulder on its decks.
Back in 1940, the Times did not award reporters bylines. Its report of the BEF’s return on June 1 was by “Our Special Correspondent”. He too witnessed the scenes in a south-eastern port (security censorship forbade more precise identification). The men, he wrote, were “weary but undaunted”. Protected by “the ceaseless patrol maintained by British warships and aeroplanes in the English Channel”, men who had displayed “steadiness under a cruel test” were “pouring onto the quays”.
The Daily Mirror’s Bernard Gray, writing in its stablemate, the Sunday Pictorial, gave his verdict in a column on June 2 headlined simply “The Whole Magnificent Story”. “There have been many glorious episodes in the history of Britain”, he opined, “but, if that great English historian Macaulay were able to select from 2,000 years the most glorious week in the annals of the British Empire, this last seven days would surely be the week he would have chosen.”
Gray did not hesitate to offer comparisons:
Never mind the defeat of the Armada. Forget even the Battle of Waterloo, the epic of Trafalgar. For this week has seen the British Empire at its mightiest – in defeat.
Standing “in the streets of an English Channel Port”, G. Ward Price of the Daily Mail was similarly enthralled in his front-page piece, Rearguard Battles On, on June 1: “It is a picture of staggering heroism, fighting spirit and determination that never weakened in the face of overwhelming odds in men and material.”
A defeat, however ‘glorious’
It took Hilaire Belloc, the Anglo-French author of Cautionary Tales for Children, to recognise in his column for the Sunday Times (The Evacuation and After, June 2) that the withdrawal from Belgium and the collapse of Britain’s key ally, France, constituted a “catastrophe”.
In his defining examination of the elements that comprise Britain’s “received story” of 1940, The Myth of the Blitz, Scottish historian and poet Angus Calder noted that elements of the way the story was reported were misleading. However, Calder agreed that “Dunkirk was indeed a great escape”.
I celebrate the work British newspapers did to stiffen resolve and sustain morale at this time of grave national peril. In a democracy fighting totalitarianism, newspapers must balance their obligation to hold power to account and their duty to the national cause. The newspapers surveyed here certainly colluded in the creation of myths about Dunkirk, but their readers might not have welcomed any efforts to report Dunkirk any other way.
After all, myths are not lies and this one was studded with harsh facts. In Bernard Gray’s words for the Sunday Pictorial, Dunkirk was glorious despite the truth that: “The British Army has not won a battle. The British Army has retreated. The British Army has had to leave the Battlefield.”
For me, David Low captured the prevailing mood in his famous “Very Well, Alone” cartoon for the Evening Standard just a few weeks later on June 18. It depicts a British soldier alone before a raging sea and gesturing with a raised fist towards the Nazi-occupied continent from which German troops were expected to arrive at any moment.