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; lawgiver and architect of the institutional foundations of the modern European state as we know it today. We are referring to the magnificent Napoleon Bonaparte of France (1769—1821).
On Wednesday 5 May, President Emmanuel Macron and the French nation celebrated the bicentenary of his death, 200 years to the day, on 5 May 1821. 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.
Macron, who, like Bonaparte, came to power in his thirties and similarly married an older woman, eulogised him: “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.
He was born Napoleone Buonaparte in Ajjacio, the capital of the island of Corsica, on 15 August, 1769. His parents were impoverished members of the minor nobility. From 1779 to 1784 he attended a minor military school where he excelled in history and geography; in addition to discovering Plutarch and the greats of antiquity. He subsequently enrolled into the prestigious Ecole Militaire Champs-de-mars in Paris. He graduated in 1785 and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in an artillery regiment.
He distinguished himself in several military battles, eventually becoming a full General at the remarkable age of 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. He also met the formidable Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson who led the British navy. Napoleon lost more than 5000 of his troops even as disease and loss of morale took their toll on his troops. It was a disaster.
To forestall the post-revolution terror in France, Napoleon seized power through a military coup in 1799 and 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. 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 younger brother of King Philippe, the current monarch of Belgium and his wife, a beautiful German Countess. It was in Waterloo Bonaparte was defeated by a coalition of British, Belgian, Dutch and Prussian forces led by the Duke of Wellington and the Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher of Germany. 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 and was 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 acrypt in Les Invalides, a burial ground for French military heroes.
Sadly, his dream of universalism, liberty and equality did not include we Africans.
Ironically, his first wife — the only woman he ever truly loved — was a mixed-race mulatto aristocrat. Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (1763–1814). Fate paired her with the younger Napoleon; a man she tragically despised.
Of Egypt, he noted: “From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us.” It was said that his troops practised sharp-shooting with the sphinxes of Egypt; blunting their noses to erase their African features. But in fairness, one of the scientists he brought with him, Jean-Francois Champollion, decoded the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone, thereby creating the new discipline 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; sending his brother in-law General Leclerc to battle 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.”
Despite his foibles, he was an original – an extraordinary military commander and statesman. When he gasped his last breath, according to the story, his dying words were, “Oh Josephine!” Thus ended the extraordinary legend of one of the architects of the modern world.