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 thought never crossed Hitler’s mind. His real ambitions were in eastern Europe, where he would get ‘lebensraum’ (living space) for the German population and access to strategic resources like oil. 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 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 St. Helena, “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.”
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.
Napoleon was certainly responsible for millions of unnecessary deaths. Around three million soldiers and a million civilians were killed in twenty years of the ‘Napoleonic Wars’, but by the end France was back to its original borders. 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 re-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: “Four days would have brought me to London….One battle lost, the capital would have been in my power….I would have said ‘Assemble in London deputies from the people to fix upon a constitution….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?…”
“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.