To be killed and yet alive

Nearly 2,000 years ago, while banished to an unwanted perch in the city of Tomis in what is now Romania, the Roman poet Ovid wrote the founding texts of exile, Tristia and the Black Sea Letters. He feared that he would die “unmourned, unhonoured, in a barbarian land”, and compared his fate to that of the warlord Mettus in Virgil’s Aeneid who, as punishment for betraying Rome, is bound to two chariots and torn limb from limb. In William Atkins’s finely crafted and lyrical meditation on exile, Ovid’s writings are kind of a source code for the ensuing “cleaving in two,” the “literal dislocation.” Blending biography, history and travel writing, Exiles explores the fates of the French anarchist Louise Michel, the Zulu prince Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo and the Jewish-Ukrainian revolutionary Lev Shternberg. Each put themselves on a collision course with the French, British or Russian Empires, only to suffer defeat. Their punishment was to be deported on that icon of nineteenth-century imperialism, the steamship, across thousands of miles of ocean to the islands of St Helena, New Caledonia and Sakhalin.

Drawing on memoirs, letters, trial transcripts and press reports, Atkins reconstructs the worlds that molded Michel, kaCetshwayo and Shternberg and propelled them into rebellion. Michel, who grew up in a ramshackle château 170 miles east of Paris, was marked by her exposure to the casual cruelty inflicted on animals. As an adult, she remained haunted by the still-tottering, blood-spattered body of a goose whose decapitation she had to witness as a child. Her political radicalism led her in 1871 to the doomed barricades of the Paris Commune, and the massacres that destroyed the revolutionary government and turned the city, in her words, into “an enormous charnel house”. A defiant appearance in court earned her a prominent place in the ranks of the 4,000 Communards, “a vast traumatised army, appalled by its defeat”, who were deported to France’s South Pacific colony of New Caledonia.

kaCetshwayo grew up in the shadow of defeat and dispossession, heir to the Zulu kingdom in Southern Africa that had been partitioned by the British. His determined defense of his diminished patrimony incurred the wrath of the British army and, captured and convicted of high treason, he found himself in 1889 on a steamer bound for the island of St Helena, a pinprick of land and the site of Napoleon’s final exile in the interminable expanse of the South Atlantic. The decision to separate a king from his people and to move him, like “a chess piece”, across the globe was, Atkins writes, “to flaunt a frightening and demoralizing imperial supremacy”.

Growing up in the Jewish community of what is today Ukraine, the young socialist Lev Shternberg was “steeped in the messianism of the Hebrew Bible as much as any theory of class struggle”. He joined the People’s Will in the wake of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, just as a barrage of arrests was destroying the revolutionary organization, and thousands of men and women accused (often on the flimsiest of evidence) of sedition were being deported to Siberia. Arrested in 1886, Shternberg was locked up in solitary confinement for three years before being banished to the feared penal colony of Sakhalin in the Sea of ​​Okhotsk. As Shternberg readied himself for a long voyage by steamship from Odesa, through the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean, his father Iankel summoned the Jews’ own narratives of expulsion to offer his son solace and strength: “You will travel across the same sea the Jews crossed on foot when the Pharaoh chased them with his chariots.”

Believing that “the trace of any presence somehow endures”, Atkins wanders the islands haunted by Michel, Shternberg and kaCetshwayo. He summons their distant voices and walks in the shadows they cast, even as he vividly renders life, with its bustling contrasts of wealth and squalor, domination and subjugation, in the globalized world of the twenty-first century. This toggling between historical excavation and contemporary travel writing – a folding of time back on itself across a century and a half of dramatic change – might invite some scepticism. But Atkins’s finely turned prose successs in assembling a vivid kaleidoscope of overlapping chronologies which illuminates legacies of imperial power and native dispossession that have endured long after the penal settlements were abandoned.

In 1878, Michel witnessed the doomed insurrection of the indigenous Kanaks against French rule in New Caledonia, which carried echoes of her own rebellion in Paris. Indeed, the French government “viewed the Communards and the Kanaks alike as different species of Barbarian to be tamed” and turned to its own customary instruments of repression, the guillotine and deportation. Hundreds of Kanaks were deported to France’s colonies in Tahiti and Indochina. Atkins is drawn to the “solidarities that formed between those twin victims of empire: the déporté and the indigene, the banished citizen and the colonized subject”, but history rarely confirms the sympathies and allegians that supposedly flow from shared victimhood. Atkins acknowledges in passing that Michel was almost unique among her fellow exiles in her outspoken support for the Kanaks’ cause. Most Communards sided with the French, championing white European civilization; many took up arms to crush the rebellion. Republicanism and imperialism were after all not so incompatible.

The colonial powers shunted successive waves of men and women across the globe, and “one people’s displacement instigated another’s and so on in chain reaction: deportation begat exile”. If the exiles were strangers in a foreign land, the indigenous became strangers in their own land. Today, New Caledonia is a destination for cruise liners, and luxury hotels shield their guests from malnourished islanders; a native movement for formal independence struggles to cast off the financial ties to France that bind. On Sakhalin, the Stalinist state – a colonial power far redder in tooth and claw than anything tsarism could muster – savaged the island’s indigenous people, the Nikhv, in the decades after the Revolution. It murdered them in their thousands, dispersed their communities and language, and forced them into sedentariness. Atkins observes how the Nikhv now live amid the wreckage of their fishing industries in the shadow of the drilling platforms and pipelines that have tapped the island’s huge oil and gas fields, only to siphon off the resulting wealth into Moscow’s coffers. A neglected shed in Jamestown on St Helena holds the bones of 325 “liberated Africans”, unearthed by the construction of a road to the new airport, who now awaits reburial. They are a fraction of the almost 8,000 who died on the island following the passage, in 1839, of the Act for the Suppression of the Slave Trade. British expats still rotate on and off the island; The population of what is now a “dependent territory” are, as the French honorary consul on St Helena acidly remarks, “proud citizens of Britain … which treats them like shit”.

The exiles’ homecomings were bittersweet affairs. kaCetshwayo “had been lifted out of his life” by his banishment and, when the British authorities finally acceded to lobbying for his release in 1895, the home he returned to was no longer home. Zululand had been shattered into bickering chieftancies impoverished by British taxes and subjected to expropriations that pushed the Zulu into another round of doomed rebellions and mass incarcerations. kaCetshwayo was tried in a proceeding dubbed by his defense lawyer “a judicial outrage” and found guilty of high treason twice over, banished this time to a farmstead on the Natal coast. “What is grievous to me”, he wrote to the South African novelist Olive Schreiner, “is to be killed and yet alive. To die outright is nothing.” Decades after kaCetshwayo did eventually die in 1913, the apartheid regime in South Africa was still wielding the weapons of its erstwhile British overlords – deportation and banishment – ​​in its own struggle against the liberation movement. It removed the political leaders of the resistance and confined them in Bantustans, a decapitation strategy that also saw Mandela imprisoned on Robben Island.

In his memory Speak, Memory (1951), Vladimir Nabokov, whose own family fled the Russian Revolution, claimed that “the break in my own destiny affords me in retrospect a syncopal kick that I would not have missed for worlds”. Exile was never simply a dismembering of the self but rather its reconstitution. Of all William Atkins’s subjects, Shternberg was most palpably reset by his banishment. Only twenty-six when he first set foot on Sakhalin, he discovered an affinity with the Nikhv and underwent an “ethnographic baptism”. From his desolate base on the island’s northern shores – an exile within exile – he studied the role of kinship in structuring Nikhv society, later writing what would become one of the foundational texts of Russian ethnography, which launched his subsequent career on his eventual return to St Petersburg. Michel’s banishment “forged her into a global citizen” whose response to the dislocations of exile was “to live as if you are not French or Kanak, not Russian or Zulu or English, but as if the whole world, the universe were your native city.” , even if the price is “perpetual homelessness”.

Daniel Bear‘s most recent book is The House of the Dead: Siberian exile under the tsars2016

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