Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Plymouth Remembers Napoleon's 1815 Visit

"Napoleon on HMS Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound" by Jules Girardet (1)

"It was known that he always appeared on deck towards five o'clock. A short time before this hour, all the boats collected along-side of each other; there were thousands, and so closely connected, that the water could no longer be seen between them; they looked more like a multitude assembled in a public square than anything else." (2)

I find, to my surprise that it is almost seven years since I wrote about Napoleon on the Bellerophon and the reaction of the crowds who turned out to try and catch a glimpse of him in Torquay and Plymouth. This bicentenary year I have largely ignored these events, instead focusing on the background to the Government decision to exile Napoleon to St. Helena.

The City of Plymouth is currently mounting an exhibition Napoleon in Plymouth Sound, 1815, the centre piece is the romantic Girardet painting of the crowds that surrounded the "Bellerophon". A member of the Bonaparte family has even been to see the exhibition. In its description of the exhibition the Museum says Napoleon was a folk-hero to the lower classes of all nations, even those he fought against. An interesting judgement, which even I find rather sweeping.

Apparently the City intends to build some kind of memorial commemorating its Napoleonic association. The structure will incorporate a stone that came originally from Longwood House on St. Helena, and will bear a plaque relating the circumstances of Napoleon's arrival.(3) The idea of the French Consul, designed to be a celebration of two centuries of Anglo-French amity, the proposal has raised the ire of a few patriotic Englishmen who have complained that there is no memorial of Nelson in the city. I am cynical enough to imagine that Plymouth is happy to cash in on its Napoleonic association!
1. Jules Girardet(1856 to 1938), a French historical painter, produced a number of pictures of Napoleon, often showing him in a domestic setting. The picture of him on the Bellerophon is in the possession of the Plymouth City Council. It was of course painted long after the events it depicts.
2. Memorial de Sainte Helene - Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by the Count de las Cases, Volume 1 page 29
3. The Plymouth Herald is wrong to claim that Napoleon was held in Plymouth Hoe whilst his fate was decided: the Government had decided to send him to St Helena before the Bellerophon had even arrived in Torquay. It was the implementation of the policy, and the readying of the Northumberland , which had just returned from a long voyage, which took the time.

Friday, 17 July 2015

not only one, but two or three Buonapartes

Richard Whately(1787-1863),Professor of Political Economy at Oxford and Archbishop of Dublin

Napoleon's career divided contemporaries as it still divides scholars.(1) Perhaps the first to recognise, or at least to write about conflicting Napoleon narratives was Richard Whately, an Oxford academic, later to become Archbishop of Dublin.

A defender of a literal reading of the Bible, the aim of his Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte, first published anonymously in 1819, was to demonstrate that if one applied the critical methods used by David Hume to challenge the probability of biblical miracles one would come to doubt Napoleon's very existence.

.. those on whose testimony the existence and actions of Buonaparte are generally believed, fail in ALL the most essential points on which the credibility of witnesses depends: first, we have no assurance that they have access to correct information; secondly, they have an apparent interest in propagating falsehood; and, thirdly, they palpably contradict each other in the most important points.

To Whately it was doubtful whether any history (exclusive of such as is confessedly fabulous) ever attributed to its hero such a series of wonderful achievements compressed into so small a space of time, and even the scale of his defeats stretched the bounds of improbability:

Another peculiar circumstance in the history of this extraordinary personage is, that when it Is found convenient to represent him as defeated, though he is by no means defeated by halves, but involved in much more sudden and total ruin than the personages of real history usually meet with; yet, if it is thought fit he should be restored, it is done as quickly and completely as if Merlin's rod had been employed.

As an example of the contradiction of the accounts of Napoleon's career Whately highlighted the battle of Borodino,represented as one of the greatest ever fought and unequivocally claimed as a victory by both parties:

We have official accounts on both sides, circumstantially detailed, in the names of supposed respectable persons, professing to have been present on the spot; yet totally irreconcilable. Both these accounts may be false; but since one of them must be false, that one (it is no matter which we suppose) proves incontrovertibly this important maxim: that it is possible for a narrative—however circumstantial—however steadily maintained—however public, and however important, the events it relates—however grave the authority on which it is published—to be nevertheless an entire fabrication!

Whateley then moved on to conflicting views of Napoleon himself:

According to some, he was a wise, humane, magnanimous hero; others paint him as a monster of cruelty, meanness, and perfidy: some, even of those who are most inveterate against him, speak very highly of his political and military ability: others place him on the very verge of insanity. But allowing that all this may be the colouring of party-prejudice, (which surely is allowing a great deal,) there is one point to which such a solution will hardly apply: if there be anything that can be clearly ascertained in history, one would think it must be the personal courage of a military man; yet here we are as much at a loss as ever; at the very same times, and on the same occasions, he is described by different writers as a man of undaunted intrepidity, and as an absolute poltroon.

So Whateley suggested, tongue firmly in cheek,

What, then, are we to believe? If we are disposed to credit all that is told us, we must believe in the existence not only of one, but of two or three Buonapartes; if we admit nothing but what is well authenticated, we shall be compelled to doubt of the existence of any.

1. One recent academic reviewer admitted to his loathing of the little corporal and his review brought an apt rejoinder from one of the authors he was reviewing: Every Napoleonic scholar is familiar with Geyl’s Napoleon: For and Against ... In many respects .. Geyl did the field an enormous disservice. The subtitle stuck. Ever since scholars of the period (and especially biographers of Napoleon) have been categorised as either being ‘for’ or ‘against’ the man. As a biographer of Napoleon, I struggled with this concept for a long time. I am at pains, moreover, to find another historical figure whose biographers fall so neatly into that black and white dichotomy. Personalities like Alexander, Caesar, Hitler, or Mao continue to fascinate because they are larger than life, powerful characters that resonate with modern readers. And yet biographers of those individuals are not conveniently divided into ‘for’ or ‘against’. Philip Dwyer, Reviews in History.