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NAPOLEON

Napoleon skewered in new British exhibition

A colourful new exhibition about French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is opening in London on Thursday, showing how artists and cartoonists shaped the way the British perceived "The Little Corporal".

Napoleon skewered in new British exhibition
A hand-coloured etching, published in 1803, shows Napoleon "Little Boney" in the hand of King George II. Photo: AFP
Published in 1808, "The Corsican spider in his web" by Thomas Rowlandson is one of dozens of drawings, posters and other prints on display at London's British Museum until August 16th.
 
The exhibition, "Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon" charts the rise of the young general, ending with the downfall of the Emperor who once had Europe at his feet.
   
Bonaparte, who lived from 1769 to 1821, was a "charismatic enemy" with a reputation as a short, angry man: an irresistible subject for caricatures, according to historian Tim Clayton, a Napoleon expert.
   
"He had the misfortune to come along at exactly the wrong moment," Clayton said.
   
"I don't suppose anybody in history had been vilified and ridiculed in the way that Napoleon was vilified and ridiculed ever before."
   
Flattering portraits and memorabilia collected by British admirers in the 1790s gives way to mockery, as Napoleon becomes more of a threat to Britain.
   
By the time the two countries are at war in 1803, British cartoonist James Gillray portrays Napoleon being roasted over a fire by the devil in "The Corsican pest or Belzebub going to supper".
   
Mocking Napoleon as "Little Boney" and perpetuating the idea he was small in stature helped diminish the feeling of threat.
   
"Because you were frightened of him, you had to belittle him, make him seem not so frightening," said curator Sheila O'Connell.
   
"So you made him a little tiny person. And that is how he's remained in the British consciousness ever since."
 

The lobby of the British Museum in London. Photo: Mohammed Alnaser/Flickr

 
– Propaganda tool –
 
"Little Boney" appears again in 1812 as Napoleon's Russian campaign turns into a disaster.
   
A cartoon by William Elmes called "General Frost shaving Little Boney" shows the cold as a monster crushing the French armies and trapping Napoleon's feet in ice.
   
Sold for an average of between 1 and 4 shillings each, the drawings were particularly popular in shops frequented by the London elite.
   
Used as a propaganda tool and sometimes controlled by the government, the satires helped forge a sense of British unity and shaped the way Napoleon was perceived through generations.
   
"They do have an influence on shaping people image of Napoleon. The idea that Napoleon is a little, angry chap sticks," Clayton said.
   
"The fact that he was actually of average height seems to have escaped everybody's attention."
   
Cartoonists are kinder when Napoleon is less of a threat, and at times some Britons displayed admiration for the emperor.
   
One example is a bronze bust of Napoleon, carved in the style of a Roman emperor with idealised features, and installed in 1818 in a British aristocrat's garden.    
 
Featured at the entrance to the exhibition, the bust has a call for the emperor to return from exile in Saint Helena engraved at its base.
 

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RACISM

Hero or villain: Why France is divided over Napoleon

He's one of the world's most famous Frenchmen, but France is divided over whether the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte should be marked in any way. Here's why.

Hero or villain: Why France is divided over Napoleon
The deposed emperor may not be getting much of a celebration on the 200th anniversary of his death. Photo: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP

Wednesday, May 5 marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death on the Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he had been exiled by the British after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. 

But while he is undoubtedly famous, Napoleon is far from un-controversial in France.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s account on his victory during the Battle of Austerlitz and a map of the battle.  Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP

Why mark it?

Napoleon is best known for his military prowess, he fought over 70 battles and was only defeated in eight, making France the greatest military power in Europe during his reign. 

The ruler also famously created the Napoleonic Code, which remains the basis of French civil law today. 

A reformist, Napoleon also introduced several features into French life that are still used. 

These include the metric system, the lycée secondary school system and the system of meritocracy in the government and army (where you are promoted on ability, not background. Theoretically, anyway). 

Asked to name the greatest general on Earth, his British rival the Duke of Wellington said: “In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon“.

“Part of French society has always been impressed by the glory,” Peter Hicks, of the Napoleon Foundation, told AFP.

“That was the currency of the Napoleonic Empire: la grandeur. He was grandeur writ large.”

Why not mark it?

But there are plenty of aspects to Napoleon that make him not the kind of guy you would want to celebrate.

He overturned the French republic and crowned himself Emperor, giving his family lavish privileges and important jobs.

His wars also inevitably brought about a lot of death, estimated to be between 3.5 to 6 million people. Cities were destroyed, victims left without a roof over their heads and women raped as he often favoured conflict over peace. Napoleon was also behind the brutal Siege of Jaffa in 1799.

But undoubtedly the most problematic part of his reign was the reintroduction of slavery in 1802, less than a decade after it was abolished following the Revolution.

For historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, who has written a book on the slave trade, this reflects Napoleon‘s heartless pragmatism, rather than outright racism, as he sought to dominate the Caribbean and its sugar trade.

“He gave into the pressures of colonial plantation owners in the Assembly. The fate of the slaves themselves no doubt bothered him very little,” she told AFP.

Ex-prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Foundation for the Abolition of Slavery, agrees: “Napoleon acted as he did in all things: without emotion or morals,” he told AFP.

Napoleon was a cynic.”

The monument leading to the crypt where the body of late French Emperor Napoleon I rests, with an inscription reading “I want my ashes to rest on the banks of the river Seine among the French people that I loved so much”, under the dome of the Hotel des Invalides, in Paris. Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP

Not a new controversy

And if this sounds like the rewriting of history with a 21st-century slant, it’s not really – Napoleon has long been a controversial figure in his homeland.

While it is hard to open Google Maps anywhere in France without seeing the names of Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur or Charles De Gaulle running down a major street, there are but a handful of side streets dedicated to L’Empereur.

For many, he was a war-monger who left millions dead across Europe, and a despot who turned the ideals of the revolution into a vehicle for his personal ambitions, ultimately leaving France bankrupt and occupied.

Former President Jacques Chirac refused to involve himself with any commemoration festivities of the Battle of Austerlitz in 2005 and François Hollande did the same two years later on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

Ex-prime minister Lionel Jospin, meanwhile, published a book titled The Napoleonic Evil.

So what will happen?

The 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death was meant to be celebrated in France by a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Putin would have brought the remains of a Napoleonic marshal identified thanks to DNA in 2019 who had been recovered from the Battle of Valutino. However, Covid-19 curtailed those plans.

There have been several exhibitions dedicated to his place in history – from his private boudoir at the Chateau de Fontainebleau to the Army Museum’s gathering of Christ-like portraits that proliferated after his exile – but the closure of museums and tourist sites until at least May 19th means that few have seen them.

A major exhibition in the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris aims, once visitors are allowed back, to tackle the problematic aspects of the Emperor’s life as well as his legacy – putting on show for the first time his order reinstating slavery.

Emmanuel Macron, known for his “en même temps” (at the same time) approach to thorny questions, has typically indicated he will take a nuanced approach.

Facing election next year, it is a delicate balancing act. Macron’s office says he will address “this major figure in our history… with open eyes”.

The president will be attending an event at Les Invalides on the anniversary itself and will lay a wreath.

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