He was a force of nature. He subdued kingdoms and shook down ancient monarchies; including the Holy Roman Empire that was neither fully Roman nor actually holy. He was the lawgiver and founder of the institutional foundations of the modern European state. That force of nature is none other than the enigmatic Napoleon Bonaparte of France (1769-1821).
On Wednesday, May 5, President Emmanuel Macron and the French nation celebrated the bicentenary of his lonely death on the island of St. Helena on 5 May 1821. Napoleon remains a figure of controversy. For some, he was a military hero and great leader; for others, a reckless warmonger who plunged Europe into chaos in which more than 2.5 million souls perished.
Like Napoleon, Macron came to power in his 30s and similarly married an older woman who introduced him to high society. According to Macron; “Few destinies have shaped so many lives beyond their own…If his splendour resists the erosion of time, it is because his life carries in each of us an intimate echo. Napoleon is a part of us.”
A journalist once asked President Ibrahim Babangida about his favourite military commander. “Napoleon Bonaparte”, Babangida responded unhesitatingly. More books (300,000) have been written about him than about any other figure in history. In 1997 Bill Gates paid €1 million for a love letter from Napoleon to Josephine. In 2014 a Korean businessman paid €1.8 million for one of Napoleon’s two-cornered hats.
British historian Andrew Roberts, sums up his legacy as follows: “Napoleon Bonaparte was the founder of modern France and one of the great conquerors of history. He came to power through a military coup only six years after entering the country as a penniless political refugee. As First Consul and later Emperor, he almost won hegemony in Europe, but for a series of coalitions specifically designed to bring him down. Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment, over the course of his short but eventful life he fought 60 battles and lost only seven. For any general of any age, this was an extraordinary record. Yet his greatest and most lasting victories were those of his institutions, which put an end to the chaos of the French Revolution and cemented its guiding principle of equality before the law. Today, the Napoleonic Code forms the basis of law in Europe and aspects of it have been adopted by 40 countries…Napoleon’s bridges, reservoirs, canals and sewers remain in use throughout France.”
He was born Napoleone Buonaparte in Ajjacio, the capital of the island of Corsica, on 15 August, 1769. His parents were impoverished minor nobility. From 1779 to 1784 he attended the minor military school at Brienne, in the Champagne region; excelling in mathematics, history and geography. He also discovered Plutarch and the greats of antiquity. He subsequently enrolled into the prestigious Ecole Militaire Champs-de-mars in Paris; graduating in 1785. He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the La Fère artillery regiment.
He distinguished himself in several military battles, eventually becoming a full General at age 24. One of his most famous victories was at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, where he resoundingly defeated the combined forces of Russia and Austria. As a commander, he paid meticulous attention to the planning of every military battle. He famously declared that “an army marches on its stomach.” He knew thousands of his troops by name.
In 1798, at age 28, he set sail for Egypt with 335 ships, 40,000 troops and hundreds of scholars and scientists. He subdued the Mamelukes with little effort. But he failed to provide adequately for logistics supplies. And then there was Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson who led the British navy. Napoleon lost more than 5000 of his troops as against a mere 200 from the British side. Disease and loss of morale took their toll on the French and they had to beat a retreat.
The post-revolution terror in France was bloody beyond words. It consumed the likes of Danton and Robespierre. To stabilise a bleeding nation, Napoleon seized power through a military coup in 1799. He was crowned Emperor in 1804 at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When His Holiness the Pope brought the crown to put on his head, he seized it and crowned himself. He was sending a message to the whole of Europe that he was going to be his own man.
In December 1805, he defeated the combined armies of Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz. But he suffered heavy losses at the ill-advised 1812 Battle of Borodino with the Russians.
After endless wars and so much bloodshed, the French eventually got tired of him. He was forced to abdicate in April 1814 and was exiled to the island of Elba. Before the year had ended, he had, however, escaped. His dramatic re-entry forced King Louis XVIII to flee. In June 1815, he invaded Belgium.
I remember the blissful summer when I visited the Napoleon Memorial in Waterloo in the outskirts of Brussels. I had lunch of foie-gras and mashed potatoes with the brother of King Philippe of Belgium and his wife, a beautiful German Countess. Waterloo is mostly marshy flatland; where Napoleon faced a coalition of British, Belgian, Dutch and Prussian forces. The British were led by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington and the Germans by Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt. It was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of European warfare. Napoleon lost more than 33,000 troops. The allied forces lost 22,000.
On 22 June, 1815, he finally abdicated; exiled to the British-controlled island of St. Helena. He died of stomach cancer on 5 May, 1821, age 51. In 1840, his remains were returned to Paris where they were interred in a crypt in Les Invalides, a burial ground for French military heroes.
His dream of universalism, liberty and equality seemingly did not include we Africans.
Ironically, his first wife — the only woman he ever truly loved — was a mixed-race mulatto. Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (1769–1814) was an aristocrat and high society woman. Fate paired her with the younger Napoleon; a man she tragically despised. Remarkably, it has been said that when he breathed his last at that lonely island of St. Helena, his dying words were, “Oh Josephine!”
Some of my gentle readers would have noted that many photographs of Egyptian mummies show blunted noses. Whist some archaeologists say this is due to natural erosion; others believe that it was the work of Napoleon. The idea was to obliterate the negro-African features of those noses. In his own words: “From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us.” But in fairness, one of the scientists he brought with him, Jean-Francois Champollion, decoded the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone which has opened the floodgates into the field of Egyptology.
In 1802, Napoleon reinstated slavery which had been abolished since 1791. He fought bitterly against the antislavery uprisings in the Caribbean colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti. He sent his brother in-law General Leclerc to confront Toussaint Louverture and the leaders of the Haitian revolution. He infamously declared: “My decision to destroy the authority of the blacks in Saint Domingue (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of commerce or money, as on the need to block forever the march of the blacks in the world.”
Luckily for us, Leclerc was defeated by Toussaint and the indomitable leaders of the Haitian revolution; the first successful slave revolt in modern history. But Napoleon still imposed a 100-year reparation that consumed about 50% of the GDP of Haiti. It was not until 1848 that France passed another law abolishing slavery.
Chaired by Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich, the Congress of Vienna 1815 enshrined the principles of a new international political order following the fall of Napoleon; helping to preserve the global equilibrium for almost a century, until the outbreak of WW1 in 1914. It was the subject of a Harvard doctoral dissertation by the remarkable Henry Alfred Kissinger who became U.S. Secretary of State. It was later published as, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812—1822 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).
Despite his foibles, Bonaparte was undoubtedly one of the architects of our modern world.
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