On August 1, 1686, at eight in the morning, a small ship dropped anchor off the Dover shore. Among those who hobbled onto the beach was a 26-year-old Calvinist Frenchman from Calais, Isaac Minet. Minet had finally succeeded in leaving his native country alongside his 65-year-old mother, Susanne, his younger sister Elizabeth, and 15 other men, women, and children. In the Calais region, the accession of Louis XIV, that most Catholic of monarchs, to the French throne heralded an increase in state persecution of the Protestant minority.

In 1685, Louis XIV officially outlawed Protestantism. And so, to avoid being condemned to the galleys, French Protestants had no choice but to abjure or run away. In Calais, religious persecution was particularly fierce. Between October and December 1685, the Minets were put under house arrest and then imprisoned in a dungeon. They eventually yielded to their captors and converted to Catholicism, but their troubles were not yet over. Flight seemed a rational choice, as did the decision to head for Dover. French Huguenots, as Protestants in France were called at the time, generally opted for the closest Protestant country that would have them: between 40,000 and 50,000 Frenchmen migrated to England after 1685.

Minet’s escape was well prepared. To begin with, he knew Dover very well and spoke English; as a teenager, he had spent two years with the family of a merchant in Dover, as was customary in Europe for sons of affluent traders. Further, this was what sociologists call a “chain migration,” dependent on a sending network in France and a receiving network in England. Other members of the family had preceded Minet on the same journey. In fact, six of his brothers and sisters were already living in Dover or its vicinity when he made his great escape.

Best-laid plans aside, as in all such stories, chance also played its part. Surveillance was tight, but Isaac and his fellow passengers slipped past the detachment of soldiers patrolling the French coast. A cruiser from Dunkirk that was detailed to board and inspect vessels carrying runaways also failed to catch sight of the Minets. Bribes to mounted customs officers also helped their cause. And so, at one in the morning Minet finally left Calais behind, never to return until his death in 1745. He did not go very far, relocating a mere 21 miles from his birthplace.

Migrants sit by a roadside as darkness falls, near to the Eurotunnel site in Calais, France, August 4, 2015.
Migrants sit by a roadside as darkness falls, near to the Eurotunnel site in Calais, France, August 4, 2015.
Peter Nicholls / Reuters

In many ways, the Minets’ exile is not original: thousands of French Protestants devised similar strategies to find a better fate abroad. The success story that followed, however, is far less common. While 90 percent of their coreligionists only passed through Dover, the Minets stayed there. Their prosperity was built on their ability to retain and develop their connections in France while firmly anchoring themselves in England. Isaac Minet’s grandson Hughes became mayor of Dover in 1765. At the same time, the Minet firm became a leading international trading company for over a century. Cross-channel packet boats were the heart of their business. Neither storms nor wars put an end to their activities. In both directions, their ships transported letters, corn, brandy, horses, Huguenots on the run, prisoners of war, British tourists, and Italian peddlers. The Minets reaped the benefits of their situation, one foot on each side of the Strait of Dover (or the Pas de Calais, depending on your viewpoint).

As the Minet saga shows, it is impossible to understand Calais’s role in international migrations without looking to its symbiotic relationship with Dover. Events on one side of the English Channel always create a ripple on the other. Still, if Calais and Dover enjoyed a privileged partnership, their similarities should not be pushed too far.

At least one thing that Calais had was a flourishing hotel industry, catering to every budget.
Dover reigned supreme on the southeast corner of England. It was the main port of entry into the British Isles from the continent, and its proximity to London was a major asset: already in the thirteenth century, a Benedictine monk, Matthew Paris, called it “the key to England.” By comparison, from a Parisian perspective, Calais was peripheral, suffering from competition with two powerful regional rivals, Dunkirk and Boulogne. In fact, before the nineteenth century, Calais was merely a stopover town on a migrant’s journey, a place of transit between England and the continent. The contrast between its modest size and its role in international relations is striking. Calais, including its suburbs, totaled 5,000 inhabitants in the eighteenth century and around 7,000 at the turn of the nineteenth. It was described in an 1814 travel guide (The Entertaining Magazine; or, Repository of General Knowledge for the Year 1814) as “a well-fortified town” that “does not abound with many lively looking or showy shops” and “has rather a monotonous and spiritless appearance” .

At least one thing that Calais had was a flourishing hotel industry, catering to every budget. In 1807, there were 78 inns and hotels in the town. Their names say something about their target clientele and their owners: the Kingston Hotel, the Golden Inn, the Hôtel d’Angleterre, and so on. Advertisements for the most luxurious ones were published in the British press as well as in local English-language papers, such as the Pas-de-Calais, or the British Continental Mercury. This daily traffic encouraged some acculturation to English tastes and ways of life. In 1772, a Dr. Daignan, who worked at the Calais military hospital, disapprovingly singled out the “excessive use of hot drinks, such as tea and hot water mixed with milk: this excessive consumption is general . . . and is able to cause the degeneration of the human species.”

As the eighteenth century wore on, European states became increasingly suspicious of international migrations, and they devised different means to monitor the movements of people across their borders. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the requirement to carry identification and the development of state bureaucracies specializing in migration issues certainly made traveling more burdensome but also gave future historians a treasure trove of details about the identities and whereabouts of migrants.

Thus, even throughout the wars, “useful” and “respectable” migrants, such as sailors, qualified workers, merchants, or soldiers, were to be attracted or retained. By contrast, “idle” or “dangerous” individuals, such as vagrants, servants traveling without their masters, single women, or peddlers, were to be kept at bay and, if possible, expelled.
For a brief period between the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, in 1802–03, France and Great Britain were at peace for the first time in a decade. Although illicit migrations had never stopped during the war, thousands of migrants now legally flocked between Calais and Dover. Their names, gender, occupation, and national origins were patiently recorded in passport registers. Many were smugglers laden with French silks, watches, jasmine oil, or British-manufactured goods and machinery who were stopped at the British or French customs. Others were British celebrities eager to (re)discover France after a decade of war. Among them were the Francophile and opposition politician Charles James Fox, the economist Jeremy Bentham, and the painter J. M. W. Turner. But the vast majority of these travelers were unknowns: Italian servants, Swiss merchants, American gentlemen with their spouses, Danish lawyers, and German clergymen.

In Calais as in other ports, the maritime world was cosmopolitan. As early as the start of the eighteenth century, a third of the seafarers living in the town were born outside France, and most, including subjects of the British crown, served on the privateers that preyed on British or Dutch merchant ships. Calais is half as far from London as from Paris, and the London labor market acted as a magnet to people from all over the region and beyond. North Sea ports such as Ostend in today’s Belgium or Flushing in the Netherlands were also within striking distance. Depending on the changing economic legislations of these countries, Calais, Boulogne, or Dunkirk merchants, fishermen, and workers would move their activities along the maritime edges to more lucrative ports.

Thus, even throughout the wars, “useful” and “respectable” migrants, such as sailors, qualified workers, merchants, or soldiers, were to be attracted or retained. By contrast, “idle” or “dangerous” individuals, such as vagrants, servants traveling without their masters, single women, or peddlers, were to be kept at bay and, if possible, expelled. In 1765, for instance, the French monarchy adopted an ordinance that prohibited national artificers and workers from leaving the country, subject to imprisonment. Conversely, Italian or British artisans and manufacturers were encouraged to immigrate to France thanks to government bounties. These distinctions still held in the nineteenth century: despite official restrictions on the emigration of skilled workers that were in place in Britain until 1824, thousands immigrated to Calais with their families, attracted by higher salaries in the tulle and lace industries.

National migration policies became reality in border towns, and Calais customs and police officers were given a central role in monitoring the flows of migrants. But corruption was rampant, and low-grade officials were torn by contradictory imperatives: distinguished travelers were not to be harassed; the dangerous ones had to be stopped at all costs. Ultimately, the categorization and labeling of migrants, far from being a straightforward and objective bureaucratic procedure, remained a matter of local and personal discretion. Besides, local communities often helped migrants pass through the net of state surveillance. During the French Revolution, many British subjects trapped in Calais prisons escaped thanks to local help. On the migrants’ side, one could always employ a fake passport or bypass the Channel altogether and cross the land border to Ostend if Calais was unsafe.

It is remarkable that, more than two centuries later, migrants are using the same itineraries and strategies that carried Minet to a not-so-distant shore. As the history of Calais demonstrates, the fears and hopes of immigrants have also endured.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • RENAUD MORIEUX is on the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Channel: England, France and the Construction of a Maritime Border in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
  • More By Renaud Morieux