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Napoleon: biography of the emperor of the French

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Thomas Jefferson, who knew Napoleon Bonaparte personally during his time as First Consul, called him a maker of other people's suffering and a “maniac.” For his part, the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand called him “the incarnation of the spirit of evil,” a tyrant who had sacrificed his homeland, France, to his excessive ambition. However, others considered Napoleon a true national hero, and the empire he built after the chaos of the Revolution, the true resurgence of the French nation.

Who, really, was this character, born on the remote island of Corsica and who became general at only twenty-six years old? What are the lights of it, but also the shadows of it? What did its passage through history mean for France and Europe?

In today's article we review the life and career of Napoleon Bonaparte, from his arrival at the summit to his fall from grace and his final exile on the island of Saint Helena, where he died sick and forgotten by everyone. Join us on this journey through the biography of the Great Corsican.

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Brief biography of Napoléon Bonaparte: the lights and shadows of a myth

Few characters in history have obtained such varied judgments. In France, he has traditionally been considered a kind of hero (not in vain, his remains are still in Invalids, a colossal monument that goes hand in hand with the emperor's egomania), despite the fact that, fortunately, in recent times his figure has begun to be reviewed. On the other hand, the English and Spanish have nurtured a kind of “black legend”, common in most notable historical figures. Admired and even idolized by some, reviled by others, Napoleon stands as a myth full of contrasting lights and shadows.

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The little Corsican soldier

The petit caporal (the little corporal); That is what his soldiers began to call him when Napoleon reaped his first victories in Italy. And our character only measured 168 centimeters, although in these small dimensions there was room for a large ego that grew larger as he accumulated military and political successes.

He had been born in Ajaccio, a small Corsican city in August 1769, just months after the island passed to the French crown.. In fact, his father, Carlos María Buonaparte, was engaged for quite some time with the island nationalist movement, which rose up against France and claimed its culture and autonomy. Ironic that one of his eight children (born with María Letizia Ramolino, an authoritarian and intrepid woman) was crowned, much later, Emperor of the French.

At the age of seventeen, young Napolione (his real name) finished his studies at the Military Academy of Brienne, in France, where his family had moved after the end of nationalist hostilities Corsicans. Apparently, Carlos María had questioned the usefulness of continuing to support the insurgents and the convenience of “going over to the French side.” In any case, and be that as it may, shortly after his departure from the academy we find Napoleon converted into a soldier, installed in the Valence garrison. We are already at the gates of the French Revolution, an event that was going to change the trajectory of history and also the life of our protagonist.

The advantages and disadvantages of being revolutionary

The outbreak of the revolution coincides with new anti-French insurrections in Corsica. But Napoleon is very clear about his preferences; Probably seeing the advantages that it represents for his military career, he aligns himself in favor of France and supports that revolution that is beginning to take its first steps. Specific, one of his main supporters will be Robespierre's brother, under whose auspices he will go to Toulon and contribute, through his evident talent for military strategy, crush an anti-revolutionary revolt promoted by the English, staunch enemies of France Jacobin.

Thanks to his success at Toulon, Napoleon is elevated to brigadier general at only twenty-seven years old, making him one of the youngest generals in history. However, the unpredictable turn of revolutionary events will throw him from the top into the mud. In July 1794 the Thermidor coup took place, in which Robespierre was deposed, arrested and sentenced to the guillotine. In this way, the horrible regime of Terror that had begun just a year before and that had shed so much blood in France ended.

As a Jacobin (not even by convenience) in Robespierre's inner circle, Napoleon is imprisoned, and his neck is saved by a pure miracle. But After the violent shock of the Jacobin terror, a calmer period begins, at least in appearance, which history has called the Directory., in which the inhabitants of that sunken Paris rise from its ashes and dedicate themselves body and soul to fun. It is the time of the incroyables and the merveilleuses, young men and women, most of them narrowly escaped the guillotine, who dress and behave in the most extravagant manner.

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Josephine de Beauharnais, the great love

Among these merveilleuses is a thirty-one-year-old young woman from Martinique, Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, whom the guillotine has recently made a widow. Napoleon meets her on a curious occasion, in which the woman's son, Eugène, then only a boy, claims for "family honor" the sword of her dead father.

Marie-Josèphe Rose is at that time the lover of one of the most powerful men in the Directory, Paul Barras (1755-1829); She is beautiful, she is intelligent and has indisputable savoir faire. Napoleon falls at the feet of the Creole, and it seems that she is also attracted to the little general. They both contract a civil marriage in 1796 and, from then on, he begins to call her Joséphine, Josephine, a name that she finds more appropriate for her status. This couple's relationship had its ups and downs (both had lovers, and quite a few) but, even so, it seems that their complicity lasted until Josefina's death., who died in May, 1814, aged fifty-one. Curiously, the same age at which Napoleon would die, but almost ten years later.

Despite the affection that he felt le petit caporal towards his brilliant wife, once he became emperor of the French and faced with the need urgent to give France an heir (a mission that Josephine seemed incapable of fulfilling), the Great Corsican had no choice but to divorce she. It was January 10, 1810; They had shared almost twenty years of existence. Josefina moved to the Malmaison mansion, near Paris, where she dedicated herself to taking care of the magnificent gardens (especially the roses, a hobby which seems to honor his middle name, Rose) and also to happily squander the not inconsiderable income that his ex-husband had assigned to her. Even so, the couple continued to correspond until her death, which demonstrates, once again, that bond that united them and that nothing seemed to be able to annihilate.

“The Revolution is over”

Upon his return from the Italian campaign, Napoléon is already a national hero. Suspicious of his success, the Directory, with Paul Barras at the head, sends him to Egypt, to repel the English.

Napoleon's life

The Egyptian campaign is perhaps one of the best known of the general (who, by the way, at that time had already changed his Corsican surname, Buonaparte, for the more French Bonaparte); although it was a real failure (Admiral Nelson swept the French without any mercy) Napoleon He knew how to exploit his stay in Egypt through careful propaganda, which exalted the incursion as a success. cultural.

To tell the truth, he was right, because it was in this campaign that the famous Rosetta Stone was discovered, which years later allowed the scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

It is the year 1798, and the Directory is practically finished. The French people feel really tired of ten years of revolution, and long for someone to put order to that “chaos”. Napoleon, who is still in Egypt, receives sporadic news of the situation in Paris. Aware that his great opportunity has arrived, he embarks for France (at the risk of being accused of desertion) and arrives in time to participate in the famous coup d'état of 18 Brumaire, or, what is the same, of November 9, 1799. He ends the Directory, begins the Consulate.

In this new political reality, Napoleon was the strong man. Although officially he shared responsibilities with two others (in a kind of Roman triumvirate), in practice it was an almost autocratic government, in which he was the First Consul. The slogan of this new regime, sponsored by the Constitution of 1800, was “the Revolution has ended.” A way of saying that a single strong man had arrived who would be the one to hold the reins of the state from now on. And that man, of course, was Napoleon Bonaparte.

Emperor of the French

Although Napoleon is highly criticized (and rightly so) for the war disaster to which he led Europe, it is no less true that as The politician carried out a series of very positive reforms for France, some of which still continue today current. For example, He provided the State with new institutions that proved to be highly efficient, he cleaned up the public treasury and ended the accumulated deficit..

The star of the corsican reached its zenith. In 1804 he was offered the crown of France, a fact that was ratified in the ceremony on December 2, that same year, where the First Consul was crowned Emperor of the French in the presence of Pope Pius VII. We say “in presence” because, in fact, the pontiff did nothing more than bless the act, since Napoleon had the audacity to crown himself. He then extended the empress crown over the head of his wife Josephine. The colossal ceremony, which took place in the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, was immortalized by one of the greatest painters of Neoclassicism, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825).

The first Napoleonic empire witnessed a series of war campaigns that put all of Europe in check and put the other powers on guard. In 1808, Napoleon entered Spain through a notorious ruse that cajoled the king and his prime minister (he asked for free passage to invade Portugal); In this way, the War of Independence began, which would bring a series of defeats to the Gran Corso that would really be its first military failures.

On the other hand, Napoleon began the Russian campaign in 1812, immortalized by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) in his magnum opus War and Peace. The raid was a disaster, in part due to the terrible Russian weather (winter fell upon them when they left Moscow) and also to the soldiers who, in small groups, intermittently ambushed the French. Upon his return to Paris after the disaster in Russia, Napoleon was no longer the same as before.

Napoleon's star goes out

Possibly it did not help his mood that, two years earlier, he had been forced to separate from his beloved Josefina. That same year of 1810, after the divorce, Napoleon married the Archduchess Marie Louise, daughter of the Emperor of Austria., with which he finally managed to have the expected offspring: a child who would also bear the name of Napoleon and who would sadly die at the age of twenty-one.

In those years, Napoleon's star had faded. After the Russian campaign, the European powers were fully aware of the danger the ambitious emperor posed to their political integrity. On the other hand, the Napoleonic incursions had fueled the flame of nationalism, especially in Spain and Russia, and all nations rose up against the usurper. In 1814, representatives of the European powers met in Vienna to decide what to do with the political and geographical sweep that the Napoleonic Wars had caused on the continent. The Congress of Vienna met after the definitive defeat of the emperor who, annihilated by the coalition of states against him, abdicated in April 1814.

After his abdication, the former emperor was sent to the island of Elba, and normality seemed to return to Europe. A final shake was still missing, however. Because in 1815, just a year after his exile, Napoleon managed to flee from Elba and return to Paris, acclaimed by the crowds. Thus began what was known as the Empire of the Hundred Days, in which the Corsicans tried to recover their lost power. Nothing to do. In Waterloo, present-day Belgium, he received the final blow from him.

Exiled to the remote and inhospitable island of Saint Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Napoleon spent his last years forgotten by everyone.. He could no longer even write letters to his beloved Josefina, who had died a few months before. With the only company of a few faithful officers and a few servants, in accommodation of dubious comfort and with a poor diet, the former emperor's strength gradually faded, until he was finally exhausted on May 5, 1821; officially, for stomach cancer.

Suspicious of the English doctors who cared for him, Napoleon wrote in his last will that he wished for a thorough autopsy to be performed. This was done by one of the French doctors expressly sent by his family, who did not rule anything out of the ordinary. Many years later, however, a rumor spread that the emperor had been poisoned, since, in the hair that was pulled out after his death, very high doses of arsenic. An unproven theory, but completely plausible if we take into account that neither the English nor the monarchist supporters of Louis XVIII were interested in a possible return of the conqueror.

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