What did Napoleon Bonaparte think of China?

Slave driver Napoleon: Why cowboys don't speak French

We owe right-hand traffic on Europe's roads today to Napoleon Bonaparte. And a lot more - the entire civil law, for example. But the most illustrious of all French people also had its downsides. In Paris, the left likes to call him "l'ogre", the ogre: in France alone, more than a million soldiers lost their lives in the course of the Napoleonic War. Napoleon I remains as popular with the French people as he did in 1815, when he returned from his first exile on the island of Elba and triumphantly moved to Paris before experiencing his proverbial Waterloo. The illustrated "Paris-Match" formulates the mixed feelings of the French in times of the Covid crisis as follows: "Napoleon was a tyrant. But he would have vaccinated us within a month."


Now, on the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's death on May 5th, another aspect is coming to the fore from the USA: the reintroduction of slavery in the French colonies by Bonaparte, as he was then still called. Louis-Georges Tin, honorary president of the umbrella organization of black organizations in France (Cran), recently declared that there was "not just a flaw but a crime" in the life's work of the future emperor. Even conservative politicians like ex-interior minister Jean-Louis Debré admit that Napoleon's "big dreams caused a lot of misfortune".

The historian Marlene L. Daut from Haiti writes in the "New York Times" that Napoleon deserved no commemoration. With reference to the US Black Lives Matter movement, she explains that for Napoleon "black lives counted less" than his conquests and civil achievements.

Also dark-skinned in the general rank

Was Napoleon a colonialist, a racist, even a slave driver? Definitely a child of his time. "Quite simply, I am for the whites because I am white," he said, to mock the Africans that they are so uncivilized that they do not even know "what France is".

The Bonapartists point out that their idol also promoted dark-skinned people to the rank of general in his armies, such as the father of the writer Alexandre Dumas. But that weighs little compared to the reintroduction of slavery in 1802. The French Revolution had only abolished it eight years earlier, giving hope, if not freedom, to hundreds of thousands of servants around the world. Bonaparte even tightened the terrible "Code Noir" (Black Law), which equated imported slaves with furniture.

Effect underestimated

In retrospect it can be said: Napoleon punished himself with it. He completely underestimated the effect of his arrangement. Countless African slaves were set free in Haiti and other French possessions in the Antilles in 1794. It was the most beautiful, most visible and most effective implementation of the equality law of the French Revolution.

There were solid economic and geostrategic reasons why Napoleon had the chains brought out again in the colonies. Saint-Domingue - today Haiti - was considered the jewel of the French colonial empire; it produced almost half of the world's production of cotton, coffee, and sugar.

Inhuman conditions

More specifically, so did the 450,000 slaves of Saint-Domingue. This half of the island in the Antilles was the main slave market in America at the time, fed by the inhumane conditions - 36,000 Africans had to be shipped here every year due to deaths. Mainly because of the profitable sugar cane, the planting dynasties - from which Bonaparte's wife Joséphine de Beauharnais came from - had a powerful lobby in Paris.

The future emperor also had a personal motive to allow slavery again. Haiti was the focus of his America plans, which he rolled over after the failure of his Egypt campaign. He wanted to transform the entire Gulf of Mexico into a "lac français", a French lake. These included the prosperous Haiti, other Caribbean islands such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, but also the French foundation of Nouvelle Orléans, now New Orleans. This city was considered by the French as the gateway to the endless Mississippi catchment area in the north.


But just: seized by the revolutionary breath of freedom, the slaves of Saint-Domingue no longer allowed themselves to be subjugated. Despite terrible threats of punishment, they organized the uprising. Bonaparte, on the other hand, sent over 20,000 men to the Caribbean island. They massacred the rebels, hounded bloodhounds, and even developed actual gas chambers in the ship's belly in which prisoners were killed with sulfur dioxide.

With a betrayal, Bonaparte's officers managed to arrest the black general François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture. The freedom hero was transported to France and died a year later in a dungeon in the Jura. In Haiti, meanwhile, yellow fever wiped out the French troops. At the battle of Vertières in the north of the island, a poorly equipped slave army gave them the rest. The last of the French sailed home.

Haitian independence

This battle is hardly mentioned in the chronicles of the Napoleonic Wars. In doing so, it had huge, even global, consequences. After the first successful slave rebellion in modern times, Haiti became independent in 1804, and coveted slaves from Brazil to the USA.

Napoleon, in turn, broke off his North American adventure: he sold Nouvelle Orléans and all of "Louisiane" - which corresponds to an area of ​​14 US states up to the Canadian border - for the ridiculous amount of 15 million dollars to the young USA.

With the money in today's equivalent of 250 million dollars, the restless French wanted to finance his next campaigns in Europe. From the Eurocentric point of view at the time, that was perhaps understandable. But imagine if Napoleon had been satisfied with what had been achieved in continental Europe and had secured and developed the vast territory west of the Mississippi in return. Some cowboys would speak French today ...

Unthoughtful American dream

But the Frenchman had given his American dream too little thought. By reintroducing slavery in 1802 and driving the enslaved into revolt, he finally lost not only a strategic colony, but also the two million square kilometer "Louisiane". Not exactly a sheet of fame. Defeated by an army of slaves after he had lost Egypt and then North America, Bonaparte did not even let criticism arise in Paris: in 1804, one year after the "Louisiana Purchase", the sale of the North American possessions, the little Corsican crowned himself in Paris himself to the emperor.

In the following years he also lost his European conquests; In 1821 he died on Sankt Helena. Part of his legacy is that slavery was finally abolished in France a quarter of a century later. (Stefan Brändle from Paris, 4.5.2021)