Allô Bonaparte! Commemorating Napoleon

David Tresilian , Friday 8 Oct 2021

A major Paris exhibition is commemorating the bicentenary of the death of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, including his campaigns in Egypt and the Middle East.


“News arrived that the French had reached Damanhour and Rosetta, bringing about the flight of their inhabitants,” wrote the early 19th-century Egyptian historian Abdel-Rahman al-Jabarti in his account of the French invasion and occupation of Egypt from 1798 to 1801. “They printed a large proclamation, calling on the people to obey them,” he added, reproducing the Arabic text.

“On behalf of the French Republic, which is based upon liberty and equality, general Bonaparte, commander-in-chief of the French armies, makes known to all Egyptian people that for a long time the Mamelukes who lorded it over Egypt have treated the French community basely and contemptuously… The hour of punishment has now come.”

“These Mamelukes, imported from the mountains of Circassia and Georgia, have acted corruptly for ages in the fairest land to be found upon the face of the globe. However, the Lord of the Universe, the Almighty, has decreed the end of their power.”

The French general, later emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign, later extended into Palestine, was the only one he led outside Europe. Arriving off Alexandria with a force of 40,000 soldiers in July 1798, he returned to France a year later, having abandoned his troops to be picked off by English and Ottoman forces in Cairo. He then had himself declared first consul in a 1799 coup d’état in France and subsequently French emperor in 1804 in a ceremony that did a lot to disillusion any lingering admirers he might have had abroad.

The story of the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven crossing out the dedication to Napoleon on his famous Eroica symphony is only the best-known example of a more generalised disgust at Napoleon’s apparent betrayal of the ideals of the French Revolution.

But Napoleon was already a problematic figure even before his coronation in Paris, as accounts of his Egyptian and other expeditions reveal. Anyone setting out to commemorate him today, 200 years after his death in 1821, will need to present a nuanced portrait, perhaps setting Napoleon’s reputation as a proselytiser for the ideals of the French Revolution, not least in what at the time was still semi-feudal Europe, against his role as their gravedigger, eventually leading France to military disaster and the restoration of reactionary rule.

Whatever his faults, Napoleon certainly shook things up. As al-Jabarti says of the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon’s brief irruption into Egyptian history ended the country’s anachronistic Mameluke regime and suggested new ways of organising state and society, as well as education and scientific research. Subsequent historians have largely agreed that the campaign pulled Egypt into the mainstream of 19th-century history and ushered in the reforming regime of the country’s first modern ruler, the originally Ottoman soldier Mohamed Ali.

Something similar can be said of Napoleon’s impact on Italy and Germany, his campaigns ridding both of many semi-feudal excesses and rationalising political rule. Their modern history more or less begins with Napoleon’s campaigns, even if the full impact of these did not become apparent until later. Much the same thing is true of Napoleon’s campaigns in Spain, though the latter proved a harder nut to crack. His invasion of Russia in 1812 sowed the seeds for challenges to absolutist rule, even if it ended in French military disaster.

The balance sheet is thus a complex one, with debits and credits needing to be carefully weighed. While for some Napoleon is a heroic figure, notably owing to his campaigns against ancien régime Europe, for others he is a tyrant who went a long way towards establishing a prototype for later military and police regimes.

The main event in the bicentenary year in France is an exhibition at the Villette exhibition ground in Paris, which, postponed owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, finally opened to the public at the end of May. There are also smaller exhibitions on Napoleon’s final hours in exile on the Atlantic island of St Helena and on Napoleon in contemporary art at the city’s Invalides Museum, which also houses his tomb.

The exhibition begins with a film placing Napoleon against the background of his time, chiefly the French revolutionary years of 1789 to 1794 and the need of the new republican regime to defend itself against internal and external enemies. Napoleon, it explains, was both a product of the new system following the breakdown of aristocratic rule in France and a major beneficiary of it.

At first there was his brusque way with the regime’s domestic opponents, rather glossed over in the exhibition, which does not dwell on Napoleon’s violent methods. Then there were his campaigns in Italy as part of the War of the First Coalition, by the end of which Napoleon had established himself as France’s most-celebrated general. It was at this point that the ruling Directory, the ad hoc committee that then ruled France, decided to send Napoleon to conquer Egypt.

Napoleon in Egypt

The exhibition is chronological, following Napoleon’s career from the young military cadet of the 1780s to the broken man living out his final years on St Helena after the 1815 Battle of Waterloo.

There are many highlights, notably Napoleon’s coronation as French emperor and the beginning of the imperial system, illustrated by a panoramic analysis of the famous picture by French painter Jacques-Louis David. There is an area dedicated to Napoleon’s best-known battles and military campaigns, illustrated by a massive projection of a sequence from the 1994 film Le Colonel Chabert, an adaptation of Balzac’s novel, showing the French cavalry charge at the Battle of Eynau, part of the War of the Fourth Coalition.

The exhibition also picks out various themes, notably the operation of the imperial system, Napoleon’s legal, educational, and other reforms, his attitude to women, and the ways in which Napoleon’s campaigns, though focused on Europe, had important ramifications worldwide. It shows how the Napoleonic Wars, fed by ideology and nascent nationalism, became the kind of global conflict not otherwise experienced until a century later.

Britain was Napoleon’s most important enemy throughout, eventually securing his downfall in the battles of the War of the Sixth Coalition and being involved in every hostile grouping of European powers, either directly or by financing them behind the scenes. British power depended on interests overseas, and so Napoleon, by training a land commander, was forced to think strategically about how to defeat Britain at sea and outside Europe, notably in Egypt.

The Egyptian campaign, beginning with the invasion in July 1798 and ending in defeat and withdrawal in September 1801, is important in multiple ways, only some of which are touched on in the exhibition. It was the extension of a conflict fought out in Europe to North Africa and Asia, with Napoleon, or his Directory masters, being as aware as France’s ancien régime forebears of the sources of British power. Subjugating Egypt, then part of the former Ottoman Empire, could be a way of extending French power across the Mediterranean and striking at Britain in India.

But it was also more than that, since Napoleon took 167 French scientists with him who produced what is probably the first major European study of a non-European society, done on a massive scale and eventually published as the Description de l’Egypte. This publication, not finished until after the end of the Napoleonic regime, came in at 26 volumes of text in its second edition covering every aspect of Egypt from its antiquities to its natural history to the organisation of the modern state. There were a further 11 volumes of plates.

The exhibition does not have room for more than a glance at this or at the details of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, though it does include evocative objects from the time, including Mameluke weapons of the type used at the Battle of the Pyramids in July 1798, the decisive encounter in the French conquest of Egypt, among them the sword of Mameluke leader Murad Bey. There are portraits of members of the divan, or governing council, set up by Napoleon in Cairo to rule Egypt in cooperation with the country’s French occupiers. It is fascinating to see the faces of these men, whose names are known to us through al-Jabarti’s account of the divan’s doings under Napoleon’s direction.

Some aspects of the presentation may bring visitors up short. It would probably have come as news to Murad Bey that he was an “ally of the English” in his struggle against Egypt’s French invaders, even if it was British power in collaboration with the Ottomans that eventually expelled the French. A British naval force commanded by Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet off Alexandria in the Battle of Abu Qir in August 1798, trapping the French forces in Egypt and cutting them off from support from home.

The rebellion that began in October 1798 in which the population of Cairo rose up against the French occupiers is not given space in the exhibition, though it involved the French bombardment of the city and the deaths of an estimated 2,500 people. According to al-Jabarti, the events led to a significant hardening of French attitudes as well as changes in the operation of the divan. However, the scientists who had accompanied Napoleon to Egypt also then set up a research institute, the Institut d’Egypte, in a former Mameluke palace in Ezbekiyya, and he has admiring things to say about their library and scientific experiments.

The reasons given in the exhibition for Napoleon’s campaign in Palestine, during which French forces crossed northern Sinai to engage Ottoman forces at Jaffa and then lay siege to Acre, do not seem quite right. Napoleon’s intention was to march his army back through Anatolia to Europe, it says, but even he, constitutionally given to day-dreams, must have seen that this would not work. The intention was probably more to pre-empt an impending Ottoman invasion of Egypt.

The Palestine campaign was marked by atrocities on the French side, not mentioned in the exhibition, along with Napoleon’s failure to defeat Ottoman governor Ahmed Jazzar Pasha at Acre and the deaths of hundreds of French soldiers of the plague. It was a bedraggled French column that re-entered Cairo on 14 June 1799, and subsequent attempts to conquer Palestine and Syria from Egypt had to wait for Ibrahim Pasha’s campaigns some 30 years later.

Overall, the exhibition, well-designed and elegantly conceptualised, makes for an unfailingly thought-provoking show. It has something like the appropriate scale for a commemoration of Napoleon, or rather it is able to move convincingly between the individual scale, focusing on Napoleon the man and some of those around him, not least the soldiers who followed him in the field, and the gigantic events in which he, and they, were involved.

*Napoleon, Grand Halle de la Villette, Paris, until 19 September.

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