We generally learn about bygone eras through the eyes of historians. However learned and professional they may be, historians still have their own view of events, so it’s always refreshing to get a look at original historical material firsthand.
Until June 1, the National Library is hosting the “Napoleon Was Here” exhibition, which offers a rare glimpse of source documents relating to Napoleon’s time in these here parts.
Curated by historians Dr. Milka Levi-Rubin and Dr. Stefan Litt, “Napoleon Was Here” offers some fascinating ground-level insight into what made Bonaparte tick, as well as some of the behind-the-scenes machinations that took place between the military-political elite of the day – and not just from the French side – as well as further down the hierarchy line.
Like all definitively megalomaniacal conquerors, the French emperor had plenty on his hands, what with countries to take, ethnic groups to subdue and the like. And there was the matter of the pesky English and that Lord Nelson, who weren’t overly pleased with Napoleon’s expansive designs.
One thing the English and French shared back then was an interest in the Middle East. In 1798, when Napoleon was “merely” the chief-of-staff, he set sail with an enormous armada to Egypt.
Nelson was aware that something was in the offing, and had his fleet strategically stationed in the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately for the English, the weather became extremely inclement, forcing a number of ships to limp their way to a friendly port for repairs while Napoleon and his force snuck out to the East.
Actually, considering the size of the French expedition, “snuck out” is something of a misnomer of scale. “Napoleon came with around 35,000 soldiers, around another 10,000 sailors, with about 400 ships,” explains Litt. “He also brought scientists and researchers and such.”
In terms of the exhibition, the last detail may be most pertinent. In addition to geographers, mathematicians, a musicologist and even a watchmaker, the contingent included an artist by the name of Dominique-Vivant Denon.
Denon’s inclusion added much to Western knowledge of Egypt and Palestine at the time, and he produced numerous aesthetically fetching drawings of various sites that subsequently drew the interest of archeologists, as well as entertaining and informative representations of day-to-day scenes.
Napoleon’s eastern excursion was a formative event in the development of Western education and culture, as it incrementally enhanced the so-called civilized world’s knowledge about the Middle East. It also literally left its indelible and irreversible imprint on this part of the world.
“Napoleon had to bring technology with him because he knew there was nothing there,” says Levi-Rubin. “The technology he brought had far-reaching local implications after he left. For example, he brought printing to Egypt.”
The latter had political and fiscal ramifications for various parties, including the scribes of the day, but also for the powers-that-be who wanted to maintain control of who knows what.
“The guilds of transcribers saw printing technology as a threat to their means of making a living. Eventually, they reached an agreement that printing could be used, but only for lithographs. You have books printed in Egypt in lithograph form.”
There are some lovely pictorial items in the exhibition, but the original written documents are particularly alluring.
Almost all the letters and other manuscripts are in French, with some in Arabic, and explanatory notes in Hebrew and English.
As the French and the English jostled for world domination, other countries, each with its own interests, aligned themselves accordingly. The Irish, who at the time were about to endure over a century of iron-fisted British rule, were happy to help Bonaparte’s efforts to get his foot firmly in the Middle Eastern door.
This comes across loud and clear in a letter sent by Thomas Corbette, a high-ranking Irish army officer, to Paul Barras, a senior French politician who served in the National Convention, the third government of the French Revolution.
Corbette was clearly a wily character and he suggested exploiting the national pre-Zionist interests of the European Jewry to get them to cough up funds to support French designs on the Middle East.
In the epistle, which is dated February 17, 1799, Corbette writes: “It cannot be a matter of doubt to anyone who reflects on the position of the Jews, scattered as they are over the different countries of the world without enjoying in any of them the full rights of the state, still less of the citizen, that this proud and haughty people, thus degraded and persecuted, resents the debasement of their position.”
The Irishman makes the point that the disenfranchised Jews are generally a well-heeled bunch – a matter which could be leveraged to the benefit of Monsieur Bonaparte and his expansionist yearnings.
“Their riches do not console them for such hardships,” Corbette continues.
“They await with impatience the epoch of their re-establishment as a nation.”
He eventually gets down to brass tacks. “Moreover, as they [the Jews] have in their control a large part of the finances of Europe, their efforts could not fail to be of great consequence if only they were properly directed.” Not exactly the subtlest of inferences.
“NAPOLEON WAS HERE” may seem like a simplistic, almost graffitiesque, title, but it alludes to the fact that, long-term effects notwithstanding, Bonaparte’s sojourn in Egypt and the Holy Land was very brief – hardly three years. After failing in his bid in Acre, en route to trying to wrest control of Syria from the Ottoman Empire, he retreated, and it wasn’t long before the English took matters into their own hands in Egypt.
Bonaparte saw the lay of the military land and, one night, simply absconded, hurrying back to France with just his own ship and his tail firmly lodged between his legs. That left the leaderless French at the mercy of the English, and capitulation soon took place.
One of the letters exhibited at the National Library, written by English general John Hutchinson to the supreme French commander, Jacques-François de Menou, spells out, in no uncertain terms, who was calling the shots.
Hutchinson told the French that they were in no position to make demands, and instructed them to hand over some of the archeological artifacts they had purloined in Egypt, particularly the Rosetta Stone.
This was a British precondition for transporting the defeated French troops back to France aboard the British fleet.
In the no-nonsense letter, Hutchinson goes on to rudely point out that, in demanding the artifacts, the British were simply following the example of the French, who looted rare works of art from museums and collections in Europe to upgrade the art collection at the Louvre in Paris.
Betwixt the upper echelon correspondence, there are some slightly whimsical items, such as a public notice in Arabic informing residents of Cairo about a celebration to mark the end of French renovations on the nilometers – devices measuring the quality and level of the water of the Nile and canals.
On the flipside of the page, there are instructions from Gen. Jean-Baptiste Kléber to print 600 copies of the announcement.
It was, of course, a political ploy which Bonaparte used as a PR exercise to endear himself to the local population.
The exhibition also features some maps from the time, which display varying degrees of accuracy, and there are a couple of outsize prints of Denon drawings.
Given the limited space for the exhibition, Levi-Rubin and Litt did a fine job at conveying regional Napoleon-related events from a couple of centuries ago.
One looks forward to visiting exhibitions in the National Library’s new, far roomier home, whose construction is due for completion in 2020.