Creating an empire

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© Bob Denton 2014

Having achieved a general peace in Europe and given the positive reception he had received for his enlightened reforms at home, Napoleon rewarded himself by arranging that a change to the Constitution meant that he was appointed as First Consul for Life in 1802.

The members of the Senate were appointed by him, but this did not stop some criticism of him by the deputies during 1802. This inspired him to arrange a major ‘reshuffle’. Thereafter most government officials became much more guarded in their public statements.

Haitian Revolution – the slaves in the French colony of Saint-Dominigue rebelled. At the time of the French Revolution the island was responsible for 60% of world coffee and 40% of world sugar supplies, it was therefore the most valuable French colony.

There were almost half a million slaves on the island controlled by 32,000 whites and 28,000 gens de couleur (free people of colour, mulattoes and freed blacks). Deaths outnumbered births on the island so there was a constant need for fresh African-sourced slaves.

From their remote location the serpentine changes back in France were difficult to follow. But they recognised the potential in the new thinking of the French Republic and the Enlightenment. They had also followed developments in the United States with interest.

In 1791, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the slaves rebelled against their white masters and by the next year had control of a third of the island. The Revolutionary Legislative Assembly in Paris responded by granting rights to the gens de coleur. The progress of this rebellion sent ripples around the New World, all sustained on the back of slavery.

The plantation owners responded by appealing for the British to take sovereignty. Robespierre by 1794 had abolished slavery, the constitutions. Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1801 to sustain their colonies and sent his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc, with 30,000 troops to quell the rebellion. Having to pursue the rebels in to the jungle the French force was severely stricken by yellow fever, reportedly up to half of their number died as a result.

Leclerc proposed peace talks with L’Ouverture, but when the rebel leader agreed he was arrested and sent to a prison back in France. Leclerc then succumbed himself to yellow fever. Further forces were despatched and were no more successful. With war against England renewed Napoleon lost interest.

In 1804 the leader of the island rebels, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared the island was now to be Haiti and ruled as a Haitian Republic. This made them the first independent Latin American nation; the first black-led nation in the world. He presided over the massacre of any residual white residents, most had already fled the island.

The loss of the Haitian revenues threw the control of Louisiana in to sharp relief, it became impractical for Napoleon to support what was a large area with little current chance of revenues.

Napoleon concluded that any New World expansion of his Empire was now unlikely and so he sold Louisiana to the Americans. He achieved a sale price of 68 million francs ($15 million) for a territory that had not as yet entirely been transferred to France from Spain.

Britain was not keen or expeditious in fulfilling the terms of the Treaty of Amiens, most specifically in Malta. British interests in the Caribbean were further disturbed when Napoleon sent a force to seek to quell the Haitian Revolution. In May 1803 Britain declared war on France.

Napoleon had intended the proceeds of the sale of Louisiana to be applied to building new canals in France, but diverted these funds for a planned invasion of Britain.

In May 1804 Napoleon had the Senate add the position of an Emperor to become the ruler of the Republic. In December Napoleon had himself crowned as that Emperor of France. He deliberately avoiding linking himself to the past as a mere king and saw this new role as the way to get more international status for his future objectives.

This was a grand occasion that was a mish-mash of Roman, Merovingian and Holy Roman Empire allusions. It was held at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris and, as final proof of his rapprochement with the Catholic Church, the ceremony was performed by Pope Pius VII. Official government records showed that he spent 8.5 million francs on the event.

Behind the scenes things were not quite as they seemed when first Napoleon was crowned as emperor and then Josephine as empress. Just prior to the event Josephine had discovered Napoleon in the room of one of her ladies-in-waiting. He responded by saying that he would need to divorce her as she had provided no heir. Hortense managed to calm things so the ceremony could proceed.

To mark his ascension all of the French regiments were awarded Imperial Standards, aka Eagles.

In March 1805 Napoleon performed the same transformation in Italy (this was not of course Italy as we know it today but merely the north-eastern parts consisting of the Duchies of Mantua, Milan and Modena, part of the Republic of Venice, the province of Novara and part of the Papal States).

The Italian Republic that he already ruled established that it should have a king and that its government structures be reconstituted as a Council of State with seven members, but that would be merely advisory.

The French Franc became its currency and the Napoleonic Code was to be implemented as the legal basis of the government. Italian was confirmed as its language, but French was to be used in ceremonies and in any contact with the French government.

In May he was formally crowned in Milan’s Duomo as the Empereur des Français et Roi d’Italie (Emperor of the French and King of Italy). He also declared that his sons would succeed him. In his absence he appointed Eugène de Beauharnais (Josephine’s son) as his Viceroy.

This latter move proved to be the final straw, now a Third Coalition was forming against him as Austria and Russian joined up with Britain and Sweden to seek to stem his ambitions.

Forward to Third Coalition – Back to Building the military base
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014