The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History 
by Alexander Mikaberidze.
Oxford, 936 pp., £25.99, April 2020, 978 0 19 995106 2
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Oneof the strangest stories from the Napoleonic Wars involves several hundred soldiers from the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. Some of these men had originally arrived in chains from Africa, and nearly all of them had lived in slavery until the massive, dramatic slave revolt of 1791. In 1801, they were serving under the charismatic, ambitious and independent-minded black governor Toussaint Louverture when Napoleon dispatched a military expedition to reassert full French control over the colony. The French forces, commanded by Napoleon’s brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, had some initial success. They captured Louverture, and shipped him back to France, where he died in captivity in 1803. But an epidemic of yellow fever killed many of the Europeans (Leclerc died of it) and opened the way to a black victory. On 1 January 1804, the new state of Haiti declared its independence.

The Haitian soldiers weren’t able to enjoy this turn of events. During the campaign, Leclerc’s troops had taken them prisoner and secured them on vessels offshore. After the defeat, they were simply brought along to France. There, Napoleon forcibly enrolled most of them in a new unit of the French army that he called the Black Pioneers, commanded by white officers. He sent some of them to France’s surviving Indian possessions, and later to Mauritius. The others he gifted to his brother Joseph, when Joseph became king of Naples in 1806. Renamed the Royal Africans and briefly commanded by Joseph Hugo, father of Victor, they fought Calabrian guerrillas before joining Napoleon’s campaigns in Germany and Russia. A strange and bitter journey, which took men from Africa to the Caribbean, to France, to Italy, and then to the retreat from Moscow in 1812, each time against their will.

As this story indicates, the Napoleonic Wars were in no sense purely European events. They involved individuals from around the world and had worldwide ramifications. They left a stamp on everything from the westward expansion of the United States to the independence of the Latin American nations to the geopolitical dominance of the British Empire in the 19th century. Napoleon’s own ambitions reached far beyond the European continent. ‘I wanted to rule the world,’ he told Benjamin Constant in 1815. ‘Who wouldn’t have done, in my place?’

Historians have always been aware of these ramifications. It’s familiar knowledge that the westward expansion of the US began when Napoleon decided to sell it the vast Louisiana Territory and that Latin American independence movements took off after his invasions of Portugal and Spain, which meant they could no longer control their colonies. But the wars in Europe already make for a dauntingly complex subject. They involved six separate coalitions, scores of treaties, hundreds of battles, and major alterations in either the government or the borders (or both) of virtually every European state. Understandably, most historians of the wars have preferred to remain largely within the bounds of the Urals, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

In the past few decades, though, the pace of globalisation, and its accompanying inequalities, have increased historians’ sensitivity to global connections in the past. ‘Global history’ as a field has burgeoned. It is even altering the way the profession understands the centuries before Columbus – see for example Valerie Hansen’s impressive new book The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalisation Began.* Its practitioners have mostly been careful not to tell a story in which Europeans act and the rest of the world is acted upon. Although attuned to inequalities of power, the new global history emphasises interconnections, mutual influences, and the multidirectional flows of people, goods, ideas and capital. Sometimes this scrupulous attention to the manifold complex dimensions of events becomes a weakness, making it difficult to produce a clear narrative, still less to explain cause and effect.

The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History is Alexander Mikaberidze’s first venture into the field. A Georgian and fluent Russian-speaker, his prolific publications have hitherto focused on Napoleon’s Russian campaign (at least in English; he has also written several books in Georgian on relations between that country and the rest of the world). He has an admirable command of Napoleonic military history, and a remarkable linguistic range: the book cites sources in at least ten languages, including Georgian, Russian, Swedish, German and Portuguese.

Mikaberidze offers a clear, accurate, up-to-date and richly detailed narrative of the Napoleonic Wars. If you want a thumbnail sketch of the Battle of Austerlitz, a quick explanation of the reason the Franco-British Peace of Amiens broke down in 1803, or to learn how many horses Napoleon lost in Russia (200,000), look no further. The style is very much that of traditional military and diplomatic history. Statesmen and generals make plans, issue orders, and vast armies begin to march. Mikaberidze gives little sense of how ordinary people experienced the wars, or of how their actions influenced the outcome. Figures like the Haitians who fought under the flag of Naples are essentially absent. Even the principal actors of the story get little in the way of introduction. A figure as important and colourful as Napoleon’s pompous, brilliant, massively avaricious and decidedly treacherous foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, receives barely anything in the way of description or biography. With so little to modulate 642 pages, readers may sometimes feel on a bit of a forced march themselves, and Mikaberidze’s penchant for commonplaces doesn’t help (e.g. ‘India has been described by 19th-century contemporaries as the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire’).

The book has a genuinely global scope. Mikaberidze follows diplomatic intrigues in India and Rio de la Plata, combat in South Africa and the Mascarene Islands. By encompassing the War of 1812 between Britain and the US he is able to add Canada and New Orleans to the theatres of operations. He has revealing material on North African pirates and on a French scientific expedition to Australia which the British believed was a scouting mission for an invasion. He gives particular attention to intercontinental trade, on which both the French and the British economies depended. The centrepiece of Napoleon’s strategy – his ‘Continental System’ – was an attempt to deprive Britain of Continental markets for products originating, in many cases, in Asia and the Americas. In all these cases, Mikaberidze has drawn on and synthesised a vast quantity of source material. His notes and bibliography alone run to 240 pages.

The most useful and interesting parts of the book are those that deal with the regions of the globe that traditional histories of the wars have neglected. One fascinating chapter, for instance, follows Iran’s attempts to protect itself against Russian aggression. For a time, it cultivated close relations with Napoleon, who sent military advisors to train and equip three Iranian battalions. Napoleon fantasised about using Iran as a base from which to attack British India. But the alliance frayed when France proved unwilling to restrain Tsar Alexander I, at that time also an ally, from attacking Iran. The shah gave a prescient warning to Napoleon’s envoy: ‘Do you still think of Russia as an ally of France when it has a secret liking and an old friendship for England? Do you not see its contempt for your sovereign?’ The British took advantage of the break to establish their own ties with Iran, only to double-cross the shah in their turn a few years later.

In the end, Mikaberidze does less than he might have done with all the material he has collected. The book does not have much of a thesis, beyond the statement that ‘the Napoleonic Wars … had far greater long-term impact overseas than within the European continent itself.’ This claim itself is essentially impossible to evaluate. Complex historical processes like US westward expansion had a host of causes, of which Napoleon’s decision to sell Louisiana was only one, and perhaps not the most important. Might the aggressive young American republic have found a way to expand westward even if Napoleon had not willingly ceded it the vast, thinly populated and largely undefended Louisiana territory? Quite possibly. Latin American independence would probably have come about as well, even without the trigger of Napoleon’s Iberian adventures. Mikaberidze plays down the long-term impact of the wars on Europe at the start of the book (‘Napoleon was, after all, defeated and his empire erased from the map’), but then plays it up in his final chapter. As he points out, the wars involved devastating demographic losses (up to four million people); the permanent redrawing of the map of Central Europe; the stimulation of nationalist movements; the triumph of reactionary conservatism in country after country; the implementation of a fundamentally new international order with the Congress of Vienna; and, not least, the projection of the legend of a charismatic hero over European politics and culture for much of the next century.

Mikaberidze also misconstrues the way that the Napoleonic Wars connect to their global context. He notes that by 1811 Napoleon had lost all of France’s remaining overseas colonies, most of them island settlements which proved incapable of holding out against British naval attacks. As he might have added, this marks the absolute low point of France’s overseas presence in the four hundred years from the early 17th century to the present (even after 20th-century decolonisation, the country retained several ‘overseas départements’, including Martinique and Guadeloupe, and a slew of other overseas possessions). ‘France had lost a global war,’ Mikaberidze writes, ‘and now could only hope to win a regional one.’ The next year, Napoleon invaded Russia.

But how much did Napoleon really engage in global warfare? Compare his wars to the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63. During that conflict, France and Britain sent large land armies, at vast expense, to duel for supremacy in North America. They made tens of thousands of indigenous recruits and allies fight for control of large South Asian territories. The naval theatres of operations stretched from the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. This was a genuinely global conflict, fought for genuinely global stakes. Under Napoleon, the French sent only two large-scale expeditions to non-European destinations, both of which quickly ended in disaster. The first, led initially by Napoleon himself, conquered Egypt in 1798, only to surrender three years later once British control of the Mediterranean had made resupply and reinforcement impossible. The second was the ill-fated attempt to restore full French control in what became Haiti. Napoleon may have dreamed of following Alexander’s example and invading India, but he never took any serious steps in that direction. Nor did he attempt to re-establish a French empire on the American mainland. His imperialism was mostly a continental European affair. A year after he lost France’s last overseas colonies, the land borders of France swelled to their greatest ever extent, with the Low Countries, northwestern Germany, northwestern Italy, Catalonia, and even the Adriatic coast of Croatia divided into French départements.

The reason for France’s retreat from the pursuit of global dominance after the 1760s was simple: the Royal Navy. During the 18th century, Britain’s comparatively robust financial system, its powerful maritime tradition, and its ability to do without a large land army allowed it to build a navy which outmatched its French rival in the Seven Years’ War, sealing France’s loss of Canada and Louisiana (Napoleon got Louisiana back in 1800, thus enabling him to sell it). During the American Revolutionary War, the French did score one impressive naval victory over Britain: the Battle of the Capes in 1781 cut off General Cornwallis in Virginia and doomed Britain’s efforts to retain its 13 wayward colonies. But a decade later, the emigration of nobles during the revolution had deprived France of some of its most experienced naval officers. Napoleon desperately tried to rebuild the French navy during his first years in power, recognising that he could never conquer Britain if he was unable to protect his invasion flotilla in the Channel. In 1805 these efforts ended in catastrophe at Trafalgar, off the Spanish coast, when Lord Nelson decimated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet.

Mikaberidze, anxious to show that ‘global war’ continued throughout most of the Napoleonic period, does everything he can to downplay Trafalgar’s importance, arguing that it did not produce ‘decisive consequences’ (time to take down Nelson’s column?). Indeed, though he initially says it ‘consolidated British mastery of the seas’, he directly contradicts himself just two pages later, writing that it failed to ‘secure British command of the sea’. In one sense, the latter argument is correct, but only because Britain had already achieved effective naval superiority long before Trafalgar. The battle itself shows why. Villeneuve, the French admiral, failed first to break the British blockade of Brest, with the result that much of the French fleet remained bottled up in port. At Trafalgar, he arranged his ships in a single long file, while Nelson deployed his in twin phalanxes that broke through the French formation. Mikaberidze attributes this tactic to Nelson’s boldness and fails to note that only the British officers and sailors were experienced enough to carry off such a complicated manoeuvre. Many of the French sailors at Trafalgar had never been to sea before. Mikaberidze argues that Trafalgar did not put an end to Napoleon’s maritime aspirations. To be sure. But it crushed his ability to realise them.

In fact, Napoleon’s final hope of waging global warfare had evaporated the moment that the remnants of the Leclerc expedition weighed anchor off the shore of Haiti in 1803, taking their Haitian prisoners with them. With the loss of its largest and wealthiest colony (before the slave rebellion it had produced more than 40 per cent of the world’s sugar and coffee), France had no incentive to hold onto the much larger, but undeveloped Louisiana Territory. Britain’s naval superiority, meanwhile, made it impossible for the French to establish overseas footholds elsewhere. While the Napoleonic Wars would continue to have massive global repercussions, the actual fighting remained concentrated in Europe to a greater extent than in the Seven Years’ War. Napoleon could only fight Britain by trying, despairingly, to deprive it of its European markets. And that strategy in turn led him into the disastrous attempts to subdue Iberia and Russia, in which his human and material resources bled away, leaving him vulnerable to defeat. He did not, in short, lose a global war. Rather, because he was powerless to fight on a global scale, he lost a European one.

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Vol. 43 No. 2 · 21 January 2021

David A. Bell writes of Nelson’s triumph in the Battle of Trafalgar (LRB, 3 December 2020). Nelson’s tactics – precipitous attack in two columns – were indeed revolutionary, but they were also inherently dangerous, as they exposed the leading Royal Navy ships to the concentrated fire of the enemy line, to which they could not reply. The poor handling of the Franco-Spanish ships actually increased the danger, as their line had become doubled, increasing the concentration of guns. In the words of an unknown officer who witnessed Trafalgar (probably from Conqueror): ‘Victory, Téméraire, Sovereign, Belleisle, Mars, Colossus and Bellerophon were placed in such situations in the onset, that nothing but the most heroic gallantry and practical skill at their guns could have extricated them.’

Joseph Conrad, from personal experience of the winds around Cape Trafalgar, concluded that Nelson had placed the British fleet where it might well have been becalmed under fire. Brian Tunstall pointed out long ago that when in 1816 the Admiralty issued a revised Book of Signals & Instructions it did not incorporate Nelson’s tactical approach. When in the middle of the 19th century navies began to acquire ironclad battleships Nelson’s tactics enjoyed a revival, and it was to lay the ghost of Trafalgar that in 1913 the Admiralty authorised its study of those tactics. In 1805 Nelson, like Admiral Jellicoe in 1916, was the one man who could have lost the war in an afternoon, and he very nearly did.

Nicholas Tracy
Fredericton, New Brunswick

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