Researching Revolutions: A Staff-Student Collaborative Project

Reflections on Researching and Teaching a History of the French Empire: A Staff-Student Collaborative Project at the University of Exeter 

This multi-authored blog post details a collaborative project run by Dr Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley since January 2020. Seven History students at the University of Exeter (single and combined honours) were selected to work as Project Advisors alongside Alex as he researched and wrote a journal article on connections between the revolutions in France and the French colony of  Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) during the 1790s. Alex and the Project Advisors have also developed a series of teaching resources linked to the journal article. These will be made publicly available once the article has been published. The Project Advisors are Isaac Avery, Nick Collins, Ella Kennedy, Lizzie Laurence, Eleanor Lionel, Jessica Lloyd and Arlen Veysey. 

The French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the Caribbean, here outlined in green, was a plantation economy that became the world centre of sugar production in the eighteenth century. The sugar (and other products including coffee and indigo) was produced by the ruthless exploitation of the colony’s slave population. Detail from Guillaume Delisle, Carte de l’isle de Saint Domingue (1725) (source: gallica.bnf.fr/BnF)

Project overview 

Ella Kennedy writes: I applied to be a Project Advisor because this area of history really interested me. The project is centred around the idea of a ‘Dual Revolution’: the symbiotic influences of the infamous French Revolution and the Saint-Domingue slave revolution across the Atlantic (which is not so engrained in the public historical consciousness). The application process also declared an interest in making academic research more accessible for students. For me personally, the social foundations of this historical research were engaging. Alex’s work uses the proliferating French pamphlet culture during the mid-1790s as evidence for competing domestic French discourses about revolutionary events in Saint-Domingue, as well as underlying issues such as slavery. The project’s transatlantic approach helps explore a number of themes, including changing values within French Revolutionary society, public engagement with and education about revolutionary events (both in France and in Saint-Domingue), and the impact of empire on the issue of equality within France.

Inevitably, the project’s focus did evolve. For example, the original and expansive timeframe that we had intended to focus on (covering much of the 1790s) has narrowed, and a month from the middle of the period (Fructidor Year II in the French Revolutionary calendar, or August/September 1794) became more prominent. However, the educational purpose of the project has prevailed, with the group producing a set of learning resources to accompany the article for student readers. Hopefully, these resources will help to guide undergraduate students through the complexities of understanding the primary source material on which it is based (via worksheets with translated pamphlet extracts) and the dual historical contexts (via a timeline and biographies of key historical actors). These resources are intended to equip student readers with the tools necessary to tackle this and similar articles. Continue reading “Researching Revolutions: A Staff-Student Collaborative Project”

Centre Interview: Fairfax-Cholmeley on the French Revolution, Print Culture, and the Terror

Inside the revolutionary committee
Anon., ‘Inside the revolutionary committee. Final scene’ (c.1794). An idealized version of local events during the Thermidorian Reaction against the Terror. The inner circle around the table are members of a local ‘revolutionary committee’, disheveled, drunk and (in one case) foreign.

In this centre interview, Professor Richard Toye and Dr. Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley (University of Exeter) discuss the French Revolution, print culture, and the Terror.

Q1. [Toye] You’re currently working on print culture during the French revolutionary era. It’s well known that this was a period that saw an extraordinary explosion in the publication of pamphlets and newspapers. But who was producing them, and why?

[Fairfax-Cholmeley] It is true that the Revolution saw a remarkable rise in the quantity and variety (but not necessarily the quality!) of printed material available to the French population. In the late 1780s, a creaking system of censorship broke up completely in the face of the huge excitement generated by the call for the first Estates-General (the French equivalent of Parliament) since 1614. From 1789 onwards, many Revolutionaries would draw a close association between freedom of the press and the wider political and social liberties the Revolution was supposed to be securing. The printing press therefore always had a certain revolutionary cachet that encouraged its use – especially in Paris.

Who exactly was producing pamphlets, newspapers and other printed material (broadsides, petitions, plays…the list is endless) clearly varies a great deal. The Revolutionary press attracted ambitious members of the political elite, for obvious reasons, but overall production involved a much broader constituency. For example, part of my PhD research focused on the use of print by victims of repression during the Terror of 1793-1794 as a tactic to extricate themselves from any number of sticky situations, and also to restore their revolutionary standing afterwards. Just as the Terror targeted men and women from right across the social spectrum, so the petitions, legal briefs, letters and other material printed in response were not just authored by a narrow elite. My current British Academy postdoctoral fellowship was partly inspired by this research. I am investigating the activities of surviving victims of the Terror in the next phase of the French Revolution (1794-1799), including their use of print to mount public campaigns against those they alleged to have been their former oppressors. You also see those accused of being former Terrorists printing their own defences in return. Continue reading “Centre Interview: Fairfax-Cholmeley on the French Revolution, Print Culture, and the Terror”