A French view of the Channel Islands, 1849: more allies than subjects

An excerpt from the Magasin Pittoresque, 17, of 1849: 'Les Iles Anglaises de la Manche.'

Situated in the Channel between the mouth of the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, between the Cap de la Hougue in Normandy, and Cape Fréhel in Brittany, are a group of islands which, although they should by dint of their geographical position be part of France, have belonged to England since the 12th century.


The Governor of Cherbourg in 1781, in a report to the cabinet at Versailles, made the following remarks, which may possibly indicate that a straightforward attack on the islands was under serious consideration:

Every time there is a war, Jersey and Guernsey cause us a huge amount of trouble through their extremely vigorous and effective privateering activities. Their constant sea-faring makes them very brave; they are good shots, and have a well-disciplined militia which is pretty nearly good enough to repel an enemy attack single-handed. They have a very strong attachment to the British government which alters according to their own interests. They are good neighbours to France in peacetime, with strong and lucrative ties through smuggling to the Normandy and Brittany coast, but in wartime they become extremely dangerous.

The same considerations are still today almost as valid. The French language, or rather a hotch-potch mixture of English and Norman dialect, is spoken in the Channel Islands; but it is not used in conversation, business, or the written word. All that is left to it are the courts, political meetings and religious services. In short, it is only used in the Channel Islands as an official—that is to say, dead—language.

Otherwise, society itself, in its hierarchy and class, is completely English. At the top we find the ecuyers, or squires, also called in Guernsey 'the sixties,' from the name of a club they formed for themselves; next come the gentilshommes, or gentlemen, known as 'the forties;' then the sieurs (sirs), and last the ordinary folk, known as maîtres (masters).

The islanders love their meat and drink, just the same as in England. The thousand sects of the Anglican church are to be found there. Norman and feudal law are as rigorously adhered to in Jersey and Guernsey as in the English shires. Only in the centre of the capital of Guernsey itself do eldest sons receive no preciput. Elsewhere thoughout the island the right of eldership applies.

The islands are, moreover, more fortunate than Ireland or Scotland, whose annexation to the English crown was a result of conquest, in that they are more allies than subjects of Great Britain. They happily embraced their good luck; and, in freeing themselves from the French crown, they kept their privileges, rights, freedoms, and institutions; they govern themselves and are responsible for their own defence. The only representatives of central government in the island are the military Governor, the Bailiff, and the Royal Procureur, and any law issuing from the British parliament cannot be enacted in the islands without the sanction of the local States. The Bailiff is usually a native islander, chosen from amongst the jurats. He presides over a rather odd mixture of two very distinct elements, the legislative body and the judicial.


Will these liberties and privileges, these sorts of local parliament, this self-possession that might have saved Ireland, always be allowed to the English Channel Islands? Will the ability to impose their own taxes and make free use of the income from such taxes be long left to them? Will British taxation never come to constrain the freedom of their ports, and the full enjoyment of the advantages their fertile soil and the hard-working nature of their inhabitants brings them? One may well doubt it, especially if one considers how many millions the islands cost Britain annually, without their giving anything back.

[From the French].