Raynal, Guillaume Tomas François

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Raynal, Guillaume Tomas François (1713-1796): French Historian.

Raynal, historian and philosopher, was born in Saint-Geniez, educated by Jesuits in Pézenas and ordained. However, he disliked strict ecclesiastical discipline and parish work. Freed from Church obligations, he chose to live as a man of letters. A royal grant enabled him to live comfortably. Publication of a series of minor historical works made him welcome in Parisian salons.

For over twenty years he labored on successively expanded editions of his Philosophical and Political History of the European Settlements and Trade in the East and West Indies, first published in 1770 in 4 volumes. In this endeavor he had help from other philosophes; his friend Diderot, Denis is credited with having written entire passages.

Raynal’s work was a philosophical history of European expansion in the West Indies and Asia. Travelers’ accounts had awakened his interest in far-away lands where mankind purportedly lived happily and in greater accord with natural morality. What charmed Raynal was the alleged innocence of primitive peoples.

He denounced colonization and slavery as contrary to the laws of nature. He emotionally described the greed and violence which led European slave traders, rulers, and churchmen to oppress and massacre natives. He urged kings to disassociate themselves from church hierarchies which used religion as a tool to perpetuate their power, and to pave the way for democratic government. He warned that armed expansion could be as dangerous for contemporary European powers as it had been for the Roman Empire.

This was not seen as harmless humanitarianism. The Parlement of Paris condemned the book in 1781 and Raynal’s arrest was ordered. He fled abroad. In 1787 he was allowed to return to France, though not to Paris. In 1789 he was elected to the states-general, but refused to serve, pleading old age. In 1791, eager to separate his philosophy from the actions of the Constituent Assembly he publicly deprecated the Assembly’s violence, accusing it of having misinterpreted his and his friends’ philosophy. Roberspierre saved his life, but his property was confiscated. In 1795, under the Directory, he was honored and made member of the Institute of France.

Today’s public no longer reads Raynal’s rambling text. Today’s historian condemns his failure to distinguish legend from fact, his neglect of dates, his oratorical tone and emotional appeals. Yet, his opus remains a major cultural phenomenon because of its spectacular success in the Eighteenth Century. Raynal echoed the main themes of the Enlightenment. His tale of virtuous natives and of the suffering imposed on them by European conquerors was appealing. Greatly appreciated were also his defense of civil liberty, political equality and the right to happiness, as well as his faith in progress. Revised three times the History ran to 20 editions and 54 counterfeit printings before the end of the century and was translated into the principal European languages.

Further Reading:

Gilles Bancarel & François-Paul Rossi, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal: philosophe des lumières, 1996.

Natalie Sandomirsky

Southern Connecticut State University