The History Woman's Blog

Being a refugee

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, News, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on February 14, 2016
Shipwreck_IoP

Woodcut illustration from The Isle of Pines (1668).

It’s weird to be writing a book about English republican exiles in the seventeenth century while thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa make their way to Europe every day. I’ve been wondering a lot what it might feel like to be a refugee and if there are experiences that might link these two very disparate groups of migrants – or indeed migrants at all times, everywhere – such as feelings of displacement, isolation or fear.

One of the things that keeps coming back to me when I read about the present refugee crisis is a letter Algernon Sidney wrote to his father from Italy some 350 years ago, in which he describes his exile experience as that of ‘a broken Limbe of a Ship-wracked Faction’, while also often feeling ‘naked, alone, and without Help in the open Sea.’

The shipwreck metaphor

I think it’s the maritime metaphor that gets me. Even though Sidney was for the most part travelling on horseback over land, he decided to describe his exile situation through the metaphor of shipwreck. The republican faction that he was part of had failed to maintain its power base in England and was replaced by the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. It was shipwrecked and had to start all over again.

Shipwreck was a common metaphor used in England as a maritime country, part of an island surrounded by the sea. It had also been a common metaphor for the exiles of antiquity, who were part of a world of seafarers and adventurers.

Being at sea

It seems that ‘being at sea’ was one of the scariest experiences during times in which humans were much more exposed to the elements and regularly at their mercy, when every sea journey could end in death, and yet had to be undertaken for the purpose of trade, or warfare, or necessary overseas travel.

It is interesting too that Henry Neville in his exile dystopia The Isle of Pines uses the topic of shipwreck to start his narrative about the discovery of an unknown island that holds up a mirror to Restoration England. Here, shipwreck too is an end but also a new beginning and a call for the English republicans to reinvent themselves.

Luckily, the English republican exiles in Europe and America in the later seventeenth century had places to go to and friends to support them. They were shipwrecked, scared, and often isolated and in need of money, but they also had allies, political and religious connections, in republican countries and protestant communities on the Continent and across the Pond.

Who to rely on?

It is strange and heart-breaking to see that human beings in the twenty-first century still have to expose themselves to the dangers of the elements on ramshackle, overcrowded boats, in conditions that nobody in the present day should have to suffer, to flee warfare and persecution.

Unlike the seventeenth-century English republican exiles, many of whom were gentry with influential connections in all the right places, most of the present-day refugees chance their lives in the hope of a new beginning with nobody in particular waiting for them at the other end. In the process, too many suffer shipwreck, and those who arrive on our shores often have no one to rely on but us.

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