By Gwynne Dyer - 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 short-lived conquest of Egypt. At one time, he even contemplated following in Alexander the Great’s footsteps and invading India.
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 (May 5) will be exactly 200 years since he died, so maybe we could make an exception just this once.
People often compare Napoleon to Adolf Hitler, another dictator who allegedly tried to “conquer the world,” but that’s just wrong. Hitler never wanted to conquer the world. It’s doubtful he even expected to conquer all of France, although he ended up doing just that.
Hitler’s real ambitions were all in Eastern Europe, where he would get “lebensraum” (living space) for the German population and access to strategic resources, especially oil. The European part of Russia was also on his list because he loathed “Jewish Bolshevism,” but that was all.
Napoleon, on the other hand, 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 short-lived conquest of Egypt. At one time, he even contemplated following in Alexander the Great’s footsteps and invading India.
As Napoleon explained to Dr. Barry O’Meara, the Irish doctor who looked after him during his final years in exile on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena (1815-1821): “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.”
France’s only enemy in Europe at that time was Britain, all the other powers having been temporarily defeated, and Napoleon had at least 46 line-of-battle ships available. He had arranged an alliance with the Mahratta Confederacy, then the strongest challenger to British power in India and he was going to load each ship with 800 soldiers and send them there.
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.
What would have taken its place? Who knows?
Nevertheless, Napoleon was responsible for millions of unnecessary deaths. About three-million soldiers and a smaller number of civilians were killed in 20 years of the Napoleonic Wars, most of which could have been avoided if not for his addiction to conquest.
By the end, France was back to its original borders and its losses were enormous. And 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 legalized 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 from 1803 to 1805 had come to pass.
Napoleon told O’Meara in St. Helena that, with the British fleet having been decoyed away, that would have left him master of the English Channel. Four days would have brought him to London.
“I have no doubt that your troops would have done their duty, but one battle lost, the capital would have been in my power,” he said. “I would have offered you a constitution of your own choice. I would have called upon … popular leaders to organize one according to the wishes of the people.”
Napoleon claimed he would have declared the end of the monarchy, abolished the nobility and proclaimed liberty, freedom and equality.
““Your principal people have too much to lose by resistance and your masses too much to gain by a change,” Napoleon said. “If they supposed that I wanted to render England a province of France, then indeed [patriotism could have worked wonders in a guerrilla 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.