- Mark Taylor
Napoleon Bonaparte is one of history’s enigmatic characters. Britons study him through British history teaching with maybe a biased and conditioned view. Your man and woman in the street would recoil at his name. Ask any historian and the view is more complex….I feel a grudging respect for a military mastermind who eventually ran out of rope, embroiled in corruption and nepotism.
Dad’s Army’s Chief Air Raid Warden, Hodges, played by Bill Pertwee in the classic BBC sitcom has the typical lazy Napoleon putdown, constantly referring to Captain Mainwaring as Napoleon, belittling him as small of stature and authoritarian.
France being a republic is often compared to its close neighbour Great Britain where the constitutional monarchy system is juxtaposition. I get the feeling this is one of the factors in the Brexit debate….
So let’s try to look at Napoleon a little more objectively in a few short paragraphs.
Birthplace of Napoleon visited by yours truly in May 2017
Born in Ajaccio Corsica in 1769 the young Napoleon was a bright pupil and avid reader. He went through military academy rising quickly and defended the French Revolution which began in 1789. His standing in French society grew quickly. As fortunes in the revolution ebbed and flowed Napoleon quelled a royalist uprising in Paris on the 5th October 1795. He downplayed the brutality he used calling it a whiff of grapeshot. This was a General with a sound bite in addition to a tactical brain. The Revolution saw support across the political board with the Jacobins on the left and the Girondins on the right.
LIBERTY EQUALITY FRATERNITY
In 1804 he orchestrated a coup at the time of the First French Republic. Declaring himself Emperor, a benevolent dictator would possibly be how he viewed himself, but as a military dictator he had wider plans for the French Empire and his family members over the next decade….
Brother Joseph became King of Naples and Sicily, and later King of Spain. Brother Louis, King of Holland and brother Jerome King of Westphalia. Sister Pauline was a Duchess in Italy and Napoleon’s mother Letizia was retained on a monthly income of 25,000 Francs. Keep it in the family right….
Despite this, he established a number of constitutional rights and the Napoleonic Code during times of violence and repression. His eyes were on invading England, famously calling it a nation of shopkeepers. Although some historians doubt this quote, but Napoleon is referring to a nation of commerce with few precious natural resources.
He was an admirer of Oliver Cromwell and the short lived British republic.
Voltaire had written that 18th century France had more laws than Europe put together: Whomever had to travel from Bretagne to Languedoc, Voltaire wrote satirically, changes laws more often than changes horses. Is it not absurd and dreadful that what is true in one village maybe found false in another? By what strange barbarity is it possible fellow countrymen do not live under the same law.
The Napleonic Code swept this aside. In education he gave opportunity to many more children establishing the Lycee system still running today. The influence of these reforms is still in use across Europe now. Your present day French man or woman will probably be ambivalent about Napoleon but will acknowledge these progressive social reforms. Also they will be mindful of the horrific military blunder in trying to take Moscow where 250,000 troop’s lives were lost. Russia replied hard taking control of Paris in 1814. One year before Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo by Sir Arthur Wellesley latterly the Duke of Wellington assisted by the Prussians and Austrians.
Captured by the British, Napoleon was held captive on a ship off the Devon coast. His presence close to the south west of England drew large crowds trying to catch sight of the world’s most famous person. Around this time the French tricolour could be seen flying in England. Sightings have been recorded in Bethnal Green and Clerkenwell where republican sympathies lay and the opportunities afforded to poor were seen not to be as just as in France. Napoleon worried and rocked the British government, establishment and monarchy.
Napoleon was exiled to one of the remotest places on the planet, St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, four days by boat from Cape Town. He lasted around five years there, learning English from the daughter of the island’s governor and tending the gardens before dying. He had tasted exile before in 1814 spending ten months on the Italian island of Elba. He had to abdicate as Emperor and was sent to Elba where he had 600 men to aid him. His economic and social reforms were a great success. He then escaped back to France and was welcomed for a final few months before the Battle of Waterloo….
History does not put Napoleon in the same deranged league as Hitler. He appears to fare better than Mussolini or Franco. He was interested in doing good for people. When in North Africa he engaged with Islam during campaigns there, respecting the religion and keen to learn more culture and lifestyle. His legacy for London is the two thousand year old Rosetta Stone. Discovered by a French soldier in 1799, the British took it from them in the Capitulation of Alexandria in 1801. The hieroglyphic stone like many other items from around the world is in the British Museum. It is said to be the top attraction.
The British also have a nude sculpture of Napoleon in Apsley House, famously known by the prestigious address of Number One London; the colossal nude by Antonio Canova is called Mars the Peacemaker, white marble gilded with bronze made in 1802 to 1806. Fitting for the Wellington family who have the upstairs apartment…..Or maybe not….