Napoléon Bonaparte (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821). The painting is “Napoleon Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole” by Antoine-Jean Gros

Napoléon Bonaparte (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821). The painting is “Napoleon Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole” by Antoine-Jean Gros

The 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death

By Gwynne Dyer

Napoleon Bonaparte doesn’t come up much in conversation these days, which is hardly surprising given that he has been dead for two centuries. On the other hand, this week it will be exactly 200 years since he died, so maybe we could make an exception just this once.

People often compare Napoleon to Hitler, another dictator who allegedly tried to ‘conquer the world’, but that’s just wrong. Hitler never wanted to conquer the world. It’s doubtful that he even expected to conquer all of France, although he ended up doing just that.

Hitler’s real ambitions were all in eastern Europe, where he would get ‘lebensraum’ (living space) for the German population and access to strategic resources, especially oil. The European part of Russia was also on his list, because he loathed ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, but that was all. Whereas Napoleon thought much bigger.

Apart from Britain and Scandinavia, there was hardly a country in Europe that didn’t get a visit from Napoleon’s armies. The campaign that made Napoleon famous in France was his (short-lived) conquest of Egypt, and at one time he even contemplated following in Alexander the Great’s footsteps and invading India.

As he explained to Dr. Barry O’Meara, the Irish doctor who looked after him during his final years in exile on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena (1815-1821), “Had I known in 1806 or 1808 [that a ‘ship-of-the-line’ can carry 80 tons of drinking water in tanks], I would have sent an army of 38,000 men to invade India.”

France’s only enemy in Europe at that time was Britain, all the other powers having been (temporarily) defeated, and Napoleon had at least 46 line-of-battle ships available. He had arranged an alliance with the Mahratta Confederacy, then the strongest challenger to British power in India, and he was going to load each ship with 800 soldiers and send them there.

The plan was abandoned because nobody told Napoleon that those warships could carry enough drinking water for such a large army. He thought they couldn’t, and he never asked. So he wasn’t infallible, but he was certainly ambitious – and if the plan had succeeded, it might have ended British rule in India 140 years early. (What would have taken its place? Who knows?)

Nevertheless, Napoleon was responsible for millions of unnecessary deaths. Around three million soldiers and a smaller number of civilians were killed in twenty years of the ‘Napoleonic Wars’, most of which could have been avoided if not for his addiction to conquest.

By the end France was back to its original borders, and its losses were enormous. And yet it’s not only the French who still see him in a positive light.

Hitler was a squalid fascist who built death camps; Napoleon was a child of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution who believed he was bringing liberal values to the people he conquered. He shamefully legalised slavery (banned by the Revolution), but wherever he went in Europe he overthrew the feudal order and enforced religious tolerance and secular education.

Consider his plans for England, if the cross-Channel invasion he was preparing in 1803-05 had come to pass. He told O’Meara in St. Helena:

“Your [ British] fleet having been decoyed away…would have left me master of the Channel….Four days would have brought me to London….I have no doubt that your troops would have done their duty, but one battle lost, the capital would have been in my power….

“[Having taken London], I would have offered you a constitution of your own choice, and have said ‘Assemble in London deputies from the people to fix upon a constitution.’ I would have called upon… popular leaders to organise one according to the wishes of the people. I would have declared the [end of the monarchy], abolished the nobility, proclaimed liberty, freedom, and equality.

“Think you, that in order to keep the [king on his throne] your rich citizens, merchants, and others of London, would have consented to sacrifice their riches, their houses, their families, and all their dearest interests, especially when….I only came to [get rid of the king] and to give them liberty? No, it is contrary to history and to human nature….

“Your principal people have too much to lose by resistance, and your masses too much to gain by a change….If they supposed that I wanted to render England a province of France, then indeed [patriotism could have worked wonders in a guerilla war]. But I would have formed a republic according to your own wishes….”

But what would England be without the royal soap opera and Clown Prince Boris Johnson? It would be like America without Donald Trump. Alternate history sucks.

Wednesday, 5 May, is the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Just Posted

It happened this week in 1914

May 9 - 15: Compiled by Dave Humphrey from the archived newspapers… Continue reading

Doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine are seen being prepared on Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Decatur, Ga. Hundreds of children, ages 12 to 15, received the Pfizer vaccine at the DeKalb Pediatric Center, just days after it was approved for use within their age group. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)
One death, 60 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The death is connected to the outbreak at Spring Valley long-term care in Kelowna

The Salmon Arm RCMP seize hundreds of grams of drugs in a raid in Sorrento on March 20, 2021. (Black Press file photo)
RCMP have suspect identified in rash of local thefts

Police have a suspect in a rash of recent thefts from local… Continue reading

Rotary Way is being repaved from 4th Street South to the second bridge, just past St. Mary’s School. (Barry Coulter photo)
Rotary Way being repaved along Joseph Creek

The Rotary Club is having a portion of its namesake trail repaved.… Continue reading

The Libby Dam on the Kootenai River in Montana. The dam created the Koocanusa Reservoir, which straddles the B.C./Montana border. (photo courtesy Wikipedia)
Outflow at Libby Dam to be increased

Volume increase to aid migration and spawning conditions for endangered white sturgeon in the Kootenai River

Prince Rupert was one of the first B.C. communities targeted for mass vaccination after a steep rise in infections. Grey area marks community-wide vaccine distribution. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. tracks big drop in COVID-19 infections after vaccination

Prince Rupert, Indigenous communities show improvement

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking on a remote forest road in Naramata on May 10. (Submitted)
Kamloops brothers identified as pair found dead near Penticton

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking

Municipal governments around B.C. have emergency authority to conduct meetings online, use mail voting and spend reserve funds on operation expenses. (Penticton Western News)
Online council meetings, mail-in voting option to be extended in B.C.

Proposed law makes municipal COVID-19 exceptions permanent

A nurse prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
British Columbians aged 20+ can book for vaccine Saturday, those 18+ on Sunday

‘We are also actively working to to incorporate the ages 12 to 17 into our immunization program’

The AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
2nd person in B.C. diagnosed with rare blood clotting after AstraZeneca vaccine

The man, in his 40s, is currently receiving care at a hospital in the Fraser Health region

Brian Peach rescues ducklings from a storm drain in Smithers May 12. (Lauren L’Orsa video screen shot)
VIDEO: Smithers neighbours rescue ducklings from storm drain

Momma and babies made it safely back to the creek that runs behind Turner Way

Signage for ICBC, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, is shown in Victoria, B.C., on February 6, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
$150 refunds issued to eligible customers following ICBC’s switch to ‘enhanced care’

Savings amassed from the insurance policy change will lead to one-time rebates for close to 4 million customers

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Most Read