Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Emperor's Last Campaign - A Review

The Emperor's Last Campaign: A Napoleonic Empire in America - Emilio Ocampo

This is a fascinating and important book which provides a totally new perspective on Napoleon's captivity on St Helena. Based on a tremendous amount of research, notably in diplomatic archives, the author puts Napoleon's captivity on St Helena within an international context. Here it is not a footnote on a history written by the victors of Waterloo, but the symbolic centre of a liberal struggle against hereditary monarchy, reaction and oppression in Europe and the Americas.

From it one appreciates again that none of the great powers trusted each other, not least the Bourbon monarchy, restored to France by British and Prussian arms, yet fearful that the ancient enemy, Perfidious Albion, seemingly unperturbed at harebrained plots to free Napoleon, might connive at his escape to further its imperialist ambitions in Latin America.

The only thing they all had in common was fear of revolution, and a determination that the trouble maker in chief, as they saw him, should remain on his island in the South Atlantic. Thus Metternich, the Austrian chancellor and arranger of Napoleon's marriage to Marie Louise, which had given Napoleon the heir whose very existence gave the Bourbons sleepless nights, blamed Napoleon for the discontent of the lower orders in Europe: by fleeing Elba and setting himself at the head of a constitutional monarchy in 1815 he had betrayed his previous work and "set free the Revolution which he came to France to subdue."(1)

The book provides a mine of information from which the author attempts, perhaps not totally satisfactorily, to weave together a number of intersecting narratives:

the conflict in England between Loyalists and the Tory Government on the one hand and radicals, reformers, and some Whigs on the other, over reform at home and the fate of Napoleon;

the interaction of Bonapartist soldiers, refugees, adventurers and filibusters assembled largely in the United States with the independence struggles in Latin America;

the rather desperate speculations of Napoleon on St Helena as recounted by those around him; the thoughts and views of the Austrian, French and Russian commissioners who never saw Napoleon but kept themselves and their Governments very well informed; the suspicion and fear of the hapless Sir Hudson Lowe, whose career would be finished if Napoleon escaped, but as it turned out was finished even though he didn't.

Perhaps most interesting from the perspective of this blog is the light it throws on Napoleon's sympathisers and supporters in England. The author has done research in a number of private archives in the UK, and here one can read about the activities of General Sir Robert Wilson and his Bonapartist sister Fanny Wallis in France and England, and Wilson's planned but ultimately aborted adventures in the Americas.

Here along with the George IV's estranged wife, Queen Caroline, and his brother, the Duke of Sussex, appears a future Whig Prime Minister, Earl Grey, trying to hold the disparate Whig factions together, cautioning Sir Robert Wilson about the company he was keeping and particularly against involvement with the mad schemes of Lord Cochrane, but himself apparently privately sympathetic to the plight of the fallen Emperor.

"My son - the sailor - sails for St Helena next week on the Conqueror", Wilson wrote to Grey in December 1816,"I presume you have no commissions to execute in that part of the world as yet, but I hope and believe before three months that you will." (2)

Little wonder perhaps that Napoleon, isolated on St Helena and fed scraps like this, lived in hope and expectation that the Government would change and the Whigs, or even Queen Caroline, would come to his rescue.

The book is of course full of shadowy schemes to help Napoleon escape by submarine, balloon, steam-powered ship, oak barrels or more conventional means. There is not the slightest bit of evidence that Napoleon entertained serious interest in any of them.

The author is to be commended for having brought together so much fascinating material, although at times the evidence could have been treated more critically. As an example anyone reading it not too carefully might perhaps come away with the idea that Napoleon, Queen Caroline and Napoleon II were all poisoned. Doubtless there were, and maybe are, people who believed that all three were victims of a conspiracy, and certainly there were good reasons why those in power wanted all three of them dead, but the nature of the evidence, or maybe the lack of it, needs careful treatment.

Likewise there are a few "maybe" comments which at times undermine the overall quality of the work e.g. "Maybe she knew something we don't know" , re Napoleon's mother's belief that Napoleon had already left St Helena and therefore couldn't have died, or "Maybe he had heard the bad news about Brayer", an attempt to link Napolon's reported change of mood to events in the Americas.

One ought perhaps also point out that the title of the book is misleading: there is no evidence that Napoleon played any part in planning the various campaigns that his supporters waged alongside other adventurers in the Americas, and there was certainly no centralised campaign coordinated by him, by his brother Joseph in Philadelphia, or indeed anyone else.

These though are minor criticisms. The author is to be commended for having laboured so hard, for having brought together so much material and for getting us to look at this period in a rather different way.


1. Emilio Ocampo, The Emperor's Last Campaign, A Napoleonic Empire in America(University of Alabama Press, 2009 p. 359)
2.Ocampo p. 103 Admiral Plampin and his lady were also on board the Conqueror.

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