Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Napoleon and the British

So beg the bones of Bonaparte! the Frenchmans pride.
Oh! bring him back again 'twill ease the Frenchmans pride.
And in a tomb of marble we will lay him with his son,
we will decorate him with his son
We will decorate his tomb with the glories he has won,
And in letters of bright gold inscribe Napoleon.

(British song circa 1840 reproduced in Semmel, Napoleon and the British)

For some time I have been intending to develop one of the sub themes of this blog - the attitude of the British/English to Napoleon. (1)

I have finally been spurred to do so after reading a letter sent by Michel Martineau to the St. Helena Independent and reproduced on his blog.

The Napoleonic sites on the island are the most explicit monument to the friendship between two great nations: the United Kingdom and the French Republic. To work towards that goal is not easy as I walk on an extremely fine cord. Of course, I upset some French who are nostalgic of an era, which has long since gone, and I irritate some British who cannot stand the idea that we preserve the memory of the one who they still call “General Bonaparte”. I respect both attitudes but do not share their opinion. I find it much more rewarding to work together rather than against one another. The European flag flying next to the French one at Longwood House is not only a reminder of our common past but of our common future.

Michel is right in his perceptions of the discomfort and even hostility which some English people instinctively feel about the celebration of the life and achievements of Napoleon. For many, particularly those on the political right, Napoleon remains "the Ogre of Corsica" as depicted in early nineteenth century Tory propaganda. As Stuart Semmel has pointed out, Second World War propaganda which compared the threat of invasion after Dunkirk with that in the Napoleonic era had the unintended and totally unhistorical effect of cementing Napoleon in the popular imagination as a proto-Hitler. (2) For those brought up in this climate it is difficult to comprehend that Queen Victoria actually told the young Prince of Wales to bow down before the "Great Napoleon" when she visited Les Invalides in Paris in 1855, or even that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth chided the French Government for the sad state of Longwood House after their visit to St. Helena in 1947!

Yet there is another side to the story. As E. Tangye Lean suggests, no enemy of the United Kingdom, ever received so much support and admiration from the British people as Napoleon did in his life time and in the years following his death. (3) This was undoubtedly a concern of the Government, which was exercised about the influence of radicals on the mass of a downtrodden population which was unrepresented in Parliament, was subject to a harsh penal code, endured appalling working and living conditions and whose young men were subject to the continuous threat of impressment into the navy. Also, as some radicals noted, soldiers in the "tyrant" Napoleon's army were not subject to the flogging which was a feature of life in the British army.

In my blog of February 11th 2008 I recalled my surprise at coming across Walter Runciman's account of the great admiration for Napoleon which he found among the sailors of the merchant navy in the mid nineteenth century. A reading of Semmel indicates that Runciman's experience was not atypical. There was a tremendous outpouring of songs and plays about Napoleon in Victorian Britain. E. Tangye Lean also confirms that there was a great deal of respect for Napoleon in the British Navy even during Napoleon's time.

On subsequent blogs I have covered some of Napoleon's British contemporaries who were most sympathetic to him - Lady Holland, Capel Lofft, Samuel Whitbread - and as anyone who dips into the literature will find, these represent the tip of a surprisingly large iceberg. I have also covered Napoleon's reception in Torbay and Plymouth, where, to the consternation of Government supporters, large crowds greeted him with the utmost respect. One recent author, a former Editor of the Times, has devoted his energies to try to prove that the sympathisers with Napoleon were in the minority. (4) Given the weight of official propaganda and the fact that France was Britain's traditional enemy and that Napoleon had threatened to invade Britain, it would have been very surprising if it were otherwise! Even Tom Paine, who earnestly wished the overthrow of the British oligarchy, and at one point hoped that Napoleon would invade, emphasised that this must be as a liberator, not as a conqueror.

An important chapter in the story, which has not been covered in my blogs, is that of Napoleon and the Romantics. Previous blogs have touched on Lord Byron - particularly in his association with Holland House, but the subject of Byron and Napoleon deserves fuller treatment than I have been able to give it.

Undoubtedly the best treatment of the complex topic of British attitudes to Napoleon is provided by Stuart Semmel's Napoleon and the British which has already been referred to; a good review is available online. The older book by E. Tangye Lean,The Napoleonists: A Study in Political Disaffection 1760/1960. is an excellent source of material, but is conceptually flawed.

The final section includes some contemporary quotations drawn from both these sources, of people who were to varying degrees sympathetic to Napoleon.

Some Contemporary Views

Tom Paine, I know Bonaparte, I have served under his Government, and he allows as much freedom as I wish or anybody ought to have.

Mrs Inchbald: Our great enemy is less wicked than most heroes and politicians have been; at the same time a vast deal wiser than them all.

Sir Robert Wilson, (Parlt 1810) - I join in none of the vulgar calumnies against the great ruler of the French nation, who I consider as the greatest statesman and ablest general of ancient or modern times; and I higly esteem the nation at whose head he has had the good fortune to be placed

The Duke of Bedford (1814) - everything I hear of this most extraordinary man, increases my desire to see him, Rely on it, he will again be numbered on the great scene of history

Lord Byron - His overthrow from the beginning was a blow on the head to me. Since that period we have been the slaves of fools.

1. The usage of "English" and "British" is worth a blog on its own. Suffice it to say than many English people routinely regard both terms as synonymous. The Scots and Welsh have a different view. If a foreigner wishes to insult a Scot then the easiest way is to describe him as English. I myself try to avoid the the term British, although it seems appropriate for this blog entry.

2. Semmel, Stuart, Napoleon and the British. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ., 2004, page 239. Pieter Geyl, a Dutch historian and fierce critic of Napoleon who played a formative part in the post world war II re-evaluation of Napoleon nevertheless made this comment: .. even when as in my case one had hated the dictator in Napoleon long before the evil presence of Hitler began darkening our lives, one almost feels as if one should ask the pardon of his shade for mentioning his name in one breath with that of the other '' Pieter Geyl, Napoleon For and Against , preface to first Dutch edition, 1944.

3. E. Tangye Lean, The Napoleonists: A Study in Political Disaffection 1760/1960. OUP 1970.

4. Frank Giles, Napoleon Bonaparte: England's Prisoner, The Emperor in Exile 1816-21. Basic Books, 2001

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