Book review - Exiles: Three Island Journeys by William Atkins, Faber

Throughout history, dissidents have faced the punishment of exile. Ovid was sent to Tomis (now ConstanČ›a, Romania) by the emperor Augustus, while Shakespeare’s plays suggest Elizabethans greatly feared the penalty. Deporting “undesirables” to a remote region ensures they are out of the public eye, curtails their influence and cuts them off from their supporters. In Exiles, William Atkins examines the lives of three 19th-century dissidents shipped to distant realms. Louise Michel was a teacher and figurehead of the socialist government known as the Paris Commune who later became an anarchist; Zulu king Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo was deemed an enemy of British colonialism for fighting to retain his territory; and Lev Shternberg was punished for being a member of the People’s Will, an anti-tsarist organisation. 

The book is a thrilling combination of travelogue, history and biography. Atkins follows in their footsteps: to Michel’s New Caledonia in the South Pacific; Dinuzulu’s St Helena in the south Atlantic; and Shternberg’s Sakhalin off the far-east coast of Siberia. “One reason stories of exile move us is that they seem to acknowledge the unhealable ruptures in our own lives — separation and loss, bereavement . . . ” suggests Atkins, who, we learn, made his journeys while his father was dying. 

 Atkins first conceived of his book as “a reflection on exile” but it became as much “about empire, because the two have always gone hand in hand”. He explores the psychological effects that “imperial exile” had on the three and how they forged new lives for themselves to keep despair at bay. 

Atkins decries the British government’s obsession with sending asylum seekers to Rwanda and admits a ‘nostalgia’ for a country that was once seen as ‘a safe harbour’ In 1873 Michel was deported to the Ducos peninsula on the principal island of New Caledonia, where she remained for seven years and befriended the indigenous Kanak people. In 1889, Shternberg was exiled to the Sakhalin penal colony to serve a 10-year prison sentence. 

 As a political prisoner he did not have to endure hard labour, but after protesting about the treatment of a subset of convict exiles called the tachechniki, who were chained for life to wheelbarrows, Shternberg was sent to the isolated settlement of Viakhtu, where he began ethnographic fieldwork on the Nivkh people. 

As Atkins observes: “Deportation and coerced settlement have always been part of the arsenal of empire . . . Sometimes the colonised and the exiled found common cause.” After they had annexed the coastal plains of Zululand, the British “removed” Dinuzulu to their island colony of Saint Helena in 1890. He was only released when his land was formally incorporated into Natal in 1897 and he became the British government’s salaried induna (headman). 

Atkins also considers modern-day exiles — people displaced by war, poverty or persecution — and recognises that they share the same loss and longing for home as these earlier political deportees. For most of the 19th century, as revolutions swept through Europe, Britain was a haven for political exiles and “neither refused entry to, nor expelled, a single foreigner, however menacing their political affiliations”. Michel visited London on her release from exile in November 1880, arriving by mail barque with five of her cats from New Caledonia, which she had smuggled aboard, “crammed into a parrot cage”. 

When Michel finally returned to Paris she was greeted at Saint-Lazare station by a crowd of 20,000 supporters. If the French state hoped to have tamed Michel’s behaviour through exile, they were to be disappointed. She immediately resumed her revolutionary activities with renewed zeal. 

In an epilogue, Atkins decries the British government’s obsession with sending asylum seekers to Rwanda and admits a “nostalgia” for a country that was once seen by Europe’s proscrits as “a safe harbour”, where “those escaping war or revolution could flee without expectation of being sent back or confined to a ‘detention centre’ or ‘offshore processing hub’”. 

As an interesting footnote, Atkins describes how French activists equipped a naval vessel to be used as a search-and-rescue boat for those attempting to cross the Mediterranean. They named the boat the Louise Michel.

Originally published by the FT