‘Republicans seeking asylum’

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Volume 26

An ambitious scheme to build a ‘New Geneva’ on the Waterford coast in 1782 attracted a number of Swiss exiles, but ultimately floundered.

By Isadore Ryan

The story starts during the night of 1 July 1782, when the bourgeois citizens of Geneva decided not to oppose an expeditionary force sent by France, Bern and the kingdom of Sardinia to restore the oligarchic regime that controlled the city-state. The leaders of the bourgeois faction, who had wrested power from the oligarchic families in the previous months, were banished from the city. They included the banker Etienne Clavière, the former attorney general Jacques-Antoine du Roveray and the young lawyer François d’Ivernois. Vexed by the restrictions on their democratic rights that the restoration of the old regime implied, a few hundred other Genevans, often watchmakers and other skilled workers, along with their families, joined their leaders in exile, predominantly in the city of Neuchâtel.

Above: Map of Geneva in 1777. (Bibliothèque de Genève)

Contacts in the British establishment

With no illusions of ever restoring the republican regime for which they had struggled in Geneva, the bourgeois leaders conceived the idea of creating a ‘New Geneva’ elsewhere. To this end, d’Ivernois quickly reactivated his contacts in the British establishment, including Earl Stanhope (Charles Mahon), a member of parliament with republican leanings, and Lord Mountstuart, the British ambassador in Turin, both of whom had studied in Geneva. D’Ivernois then set out for London, where his plan for a Genevan colony was greeted with interest by the British authorities but ultimately rejected, in part because of opposition from English watchmakers. Nonetheless, the Dublin-born prime minister, the earl of Shelburne, recommended d’Ivernois to the lord lieutenant in Ireland, Lord Nugent Temple.

D’Ivernois met Lord Temple in Dublin in September 1782, telling him of the willingness of a ‘considerable number of artists in watch-making manufacture to come settle in Ireland if they find the right encouragement’. He explained to Lord Temple why, among all the offers that the Genevans were receiving from around Europe, Ireland stood out:

‘… [Ireland’s] destiny is now fixed, thanks to the eloquent patriotism of the famed Grattan. Its independence is recognized. The terrible burden of national debt that is crushing England does not touch Ireland … A new law calls foreigners from all lands, naturalizes them the moment they set up home, grants them all the same rights as other inhabitants; the fiscal burden is light; the laws assure individual, civil and political freedom. This freedom is protected from all attacks because it is defended by a parliament that acts ceaselessly to preserve it. Such is the present state of Ireland; it is well suited to seduce republicans seeking asylum.’

Recently appointed and anxious to make his mark, Lord Temple expressed his enthusiasm for d’Ivernois’s scheme, and on 27 September the privy council pronounced that it was well disposed toward the idea of a Genevan colony, convinced of ‘the advantages to be secured to this kingdom by the considerable accession of a body of respectable citizens and to its commerce by the introduction of a manufacture so extensive and beneficial’.

Intoxicated by the legislative independence bestowed upon ‘Grattan’s parliament’ by the Repeal Act and the April 1782 constitution, the Irish ruling class leapt at the idea of promoting industry in Ireland while at the same time helping their fellow Protestants from Geneva. The earl of Ely was of the opinion that ‘the duty of every free-born Protestant is to contribute everything within his power to make the future happiness of the first and most enlightened people in the world his entire object’, while the duke of Leinster offered land to the exiles in County Kildare.

In his discussions in London, d’Ivernois had determined that £50,000 was the minimum amount required for the establishment of a Genevan colony in England, with half to go on removal costs and the other half on actual construction. D’Ivernois agreed with Lord Temple on a similar sum for Ireland. The money was to go to ‘one thousand emigrants who shall be merchants, watch-manufacturers, or persons recommended from particular circumstances; amongst whom shall not be more than 200 children or servants not employed in the manufactory’. The two men agreed on a land grant of 1,100 Irish acres (710 hectares), and even on the building of a replica of the Geneva Academy, an educational establishment of considerable repute in Europe at the time. Of special importance to the Genevans was the right accorded them to continue working on 18-carat gold, compared with the 21-carat gold standard that prevailed in the British Isles. Last but not least, the lord lieutenant proposed to grant a ‘charter of incorporation, which will secure to them the election of their magistrates, and the power of making regulations for their interior government not inconsistent with the laws of this kingdom’.

Doubts began to emerge very quickly, however. Sir Samuel Romilly, a London solicitor and legal reformer of Huguenot origins, wrote in December 1782 that ‘I augured very ill of the project when my dear sister was asked whether coals were burned in Ireland, whether wine was drunk there, and was importuned with other such minute and frivolous inquiries’. More seriously, the particularities of Genevan watchmaking were such that some Genevans thought it unrealistic to transfer it to a terra incognita without industry and far from the centre of Europe. In any case, the political climate back in Geneva was already cooling down to such an extent that many exiles were thinking of going home.

New Geneva, Co. Waterford

Above: A drawing of the former attorney general of Geneva, Jacques Antoine du Roveray (left), and a silhouette of François d’Ivernois (right)—among the leaders of the bourgeois faction banished from the city in July 1782 and promoters of Waterford’s ‘New Geneva’.

None of this prevented an eight-man committee formed in Neuchâtel from making a journey to Ireland in February 1783 to inspect the site finally chosen by the authorities for ‘New Geneva’—in the townland of Crooke near Passage East, Co. Waterford. The site chosen was in the old barony of Gautier, where a group of Huguenots had settled at the end of the previous century. After being fêted by various organisations and naturalised subjects of the Crown, committee members set about organising the arrival of Genevan emigrants in Ireland.

Ami Melly was a member of the committee that visited Waterford in early 1783. Unlike most of the other members (such as Clavière, du Roveray and d’Ivernois), Melly was not a member of the professional class but rather a forthright representative of the Genevan watchmakers’ guild. Instead of heading back to Neuchâtel after the inspection, Melly made the mistake of going to see his family, still in Geneva. There he was arrested, accused of organising the exile of highly skilled workers and put on trial. He managed to escape, however, after bribing one of his guards.

At this point things seem to have taken on a momentum of their own, involving difficult-to-meet deadlines and slow-to-be-fulfilled promises. The first phase of the construction of New Geneva was meant to be finished by September 1783, less than nine months after the Genevan committee’s visit. In reality, little was built by this date—in part because of the fall of Lord Shelburne and Lord Temple’s recall to London in the spring of that year, which deprived the Genevans of their two most important supporters. Their successors were to prove far less enthusiastic about the project.

Nevertheless, in the early months of 1783 several dozen Genevans (including the newly married parents of one of Switzerland’s national heroes, General Guillaume Henri Dufour) struck out for County Waterford, confident that the new colony would soon emerge. Alas, their hopes were quickly dashed. In February 1784, d’Ivernois and du Roveray wrote to Lord Thomas Orde, chief secretary for Ireland, requesting £10,000 out of the £50,000 pounds that had been allocated to support the Genevans who had already arrived. The Irish administration insisted, however, on following parliamentary formalities to the letter, leading to delays in paying out even the smallest sum that Orde explained were ‘the consequence of unavoidable circumstances’.

Although the Swiss who had already arrived there were growing impatient, d’Ivernois and du Roveray did not give up all hope. They explained to Lord Orde that the success of the project now depended on the prompt establishment of the replica of the Geneva Academy, which ‘would attract well-off Genevans’, but the idea was rejected by the Irish authorities, who thought that this was putting the cart before the horse. In any case, they thought, was it reasonable to allow a bunch of foreigners—and republicans to boot—to settle at a location as strategic as the mouth of Waterford Harbour? Questions began to arise, too, about the amount of autonomy the Genevans were claiming. Orde told the Genevan leaders that the government he represented could not countenance some of their proposals, which were ‘contrary to the present laws of the land, containing an immediate surrender of an undefined portion of the public revenues, granting exemptions from duties which would operate as a monopoly, and extending privileges to the citizens of New Geneva which do not belong to any of His Majesty’s subjects’. At the same time, Charles Saladin, the Genevan oligarchs’ emissary to the court of George III, did all in his power to dissuade the British from supporting the new colony, while Etienne Clavière suspected that ‘the French ambassador, for whom Genevan emigration would drive home the shame he should feel for his actions against the city, probably plotted … to ensure that this matter died from delays’.

The end

Given the slow progress in building their colony and the lack of financial support, the Genevan watchmakers already settled in Ireland steadily lost faith in New Geneva, stating in a letter to d’Ivernois and du Roveray on 5 May 1784 that ‘we now find ourselves reduced by sad necessity to quit Ireland … It is no longer possible to maintain [manufacturing facilities] in a state of inactivity that has already caused us large losses.’ Ironically, some progress on building New Geneva was about to be made. The first stone was laid on 7 July 1784 and buildings began to be erected throughout the summer and autumn of 1784. By then, however, most of the Genevans had gone back to continental Europe. According to contemporary accounts, of the 40 families that had settled in Waterford by the beginning of 1784, only one was left in autumn 1785.

It was eventually decided that a military barracks should be established on the site. Large numbers of insurgents from the 1798 Rebellion were imprisoned there, in some cases before deportation to Australia. Subsequently, the complex was sold to a local entrepreneur, who torn down most of what had almost become New Geneva.

Epilogue

The Genevan leaders moved on to new projects. Etienne Clavière made a fortune in banking in Paris. Unwavering in his hostility to the Genevan oligarchs who had banished him from the city-state in 1782, he pushed for its take-over by the forces of the French Revolution ten years later. Caught up in Robespierre’s reign of terror, Clavière committed suicide while awaiting sentencing by a revolutionary court in December 1793. After long negotiations, Jacques-Antoine du Roveray ended up rallying behind the Genevan government, only to be kicked out of Geneva for his trouble when it was overthrown in the revolution of 1792. Eight years later, after engaging in espionage for the British against France, he emigrated to London, where he died in 1814. François d’Ivernois, only 25 when he helped to devise the New Geneva scheme, eventually re-entered public life back in Geneva and was elected to its legislative assembly. Like his friend du Roveray, he was banished from the city for opposing the French-backed revolution of 1792.  D’Ivernois tried to interest the American Founding Fathers in building a new Geneva Academy, but with as little success as he had in Ireland. Solidly anti-French, he offered his services to the British Crown and was knighted in 1796. He returned to Geneva after Napoleon’s downfall and died there in 1842. The intrepid Ami Melly was part of the community of Genevan watchmakers who made their way back to Lake Constance in 1784. He died in Geneva in 1804 at the age of 63.

Above: New Geneva barracks today.

Geneva resident Isadore Ryan is the author of No way out—the Irish in wartime France (2017).

FURTHER READING

Bolton Manuscripts, National Library of Ireland.

  1. Butler, ‘New Geneva in Waterford’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 77 (2) (1947).
  2. Fornara et al. (eds), Révolutions Genevoises, 1782–1798 (Genève, 1989).
  3. Jupp, ‘Genevese exiles in County Waterford’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 75 (1970).
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