Thursday, 13 December 2012

"No man of sense ought to be ashamed of being called a shopkeeper" - Napoleon

Ronnie Barker as Albert Arkwright

I have recently been re-reading Inside Longwood, and came across an interesting letter in which Barry O'Meara quoted Napoleon's explanation of his description of England as "a nation of shopkeepers".

You were greatly offended with me for calling you a nation of shopkeepers. Had I meant by that that you were a nation of cowards, you would have reason perhaps to have been displeased, though it were ridiculous and contrary to a known truth. But no such thing was ever intended. I meant that you were a nation of merchants and that all your great riches, your grand resources, arose from commerce, and so it does. What else constitutes the riches of England? It is not extent of territory or a numerous population. It is not mines of silver, gold or diamonds. Besides no man of sense ought to be ashamed of being called a shopkeeper (1)

The description, which incidentally did not originate with Napoleon, is still seen as an insult, less specific now perhaps than the original perceived slight on England's military prowess.(2) Napoleon consistently maintained that England was not and never would be a land power, a proposition that few could argue with then or now.(3)

More than that though, the reaction reflects the low esteem accorded in our culture to being "in trade". It is a curious fact that the British upper classes, commercial in origin, beneficiaries of the plundering of the wealth of the Catholic Church, developed an almost feudal aversion to trade and industry as a profession, although as Napoleon rightly said, it was the sole basis of the nation's wealth and power.

Perhaps though Napoleon, like most of us, under-estimated the power of Banking which was assuming unprecedented importance in the world emerging before his very eyes.
1. Barry O'Meara to John Finlaison, 29th June 1817, reproduced in Albert Benhamou, Inside Longwood Barry O'Meara's Clandestine Letters, London 2012
2. Adam Smith used it, and others before him.
3. Even at Waterloo the majority of the troops under Wellington's command were not British.


Hels said...

Trade by itself seemed no more or less admirable than the church, the army, agriculture or academe as a source of income. But people involved in importing, exporting, port management, storage, markets and retail outlets were more likely to be thinking about architecture, music, literature, town planning, garden landscaping and the arts than were, say, soldiers fighting in the colonies.

It was all well and good for the landed aristocracy to sneer at jobs. They could afford stunning architecture without bothering to work themselves.

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Hels

I hadn't really thought of that, but the history of the Italian City states and the Netherlands support your point.

Anyone who really wanted to insult Britain would have pointed out the great wealth it had gained from the slave trade.



Bald Eagle said...

It's not 100 per cent relevant to this post but the following folk song might be seen as a suitable riposte from the 'shopkeepers'! (Tongue firmly in cheek of course!)

THE ISLE ST. HELENA 4/4 (Traditional)

Now Boney’s away from his warring and fighting.
He has gone to a place where nought can delight him.
He may sit now and tell of the sites he has seen, oh,
While forlorn he does mourn on the Isle of St. Helena.

No more in St. Claude will he appear in great splendor
Nor step forth from the crowd like the great Alexander
He may look to the east while he thinks on Lucana
With his heart full of woe on the Isle of St. Helena

The wild, rushing waves 'round our shores, they're a-washing
And the white billows heave on our rocks, they're a-lashing
He may look o'er the main to the great Mount Diana
With his eyes on the waves that surround St. Helena

Louise as she weeps, from her husband is parted
And she dreams while she sleeps and awakes broken-hearted
There is none to console her, though there's many would be with her
While alone she does mourn when she thinks of St. Helena

So all you that have wealth, beware of ambition
For there's some twist of fate could soon change your condition
Be steadfast in time, what's to come, change you cannot
For maybe your race will end on the Isle of St. Helena

John Tyrrell said...

OK Colin!

Far be it from me to censor one of your comments because it is not strictly relevant.

An interesting song anyway, particularly the last verse, telling the wealthy to beware! I also wonder how much Louise mourned her husband, at least she soon found solace in the arms of another. La Donna e Mobile.