The Revolution devoured not only its own children. Many of those who fought against it literally were children. Carl von Clausewitz was twelve years old, and already a lance corporal in the Prussian army, when he first saw action against the French. A true warrior-scholar, Clausewitz survived the shattering Prussian defeat at Jena in 1806, refused to fight with the French against the Russians in 1812, and also saw action at Ligny in 1815. It was he who, better than anyone (including Napoleon himself), understood the way the French Revolution had transformed the dark art of war. His posthumously published masterpiece On War (1832) remains the single most important work on the subject to have been produced by a Western author. Though in many ways a timeless work, On War is also the indispensable commentary on the Napoleonic era, for it explains why war had changed in its scale, and what that implied for its conduct.

War’, Clausewitz declares, ‘is … an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will … [It is] not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.’ These are perhaps his most famous – and also most mistranslated and misunderstood – words. But they are not his most important. Clausewitz’s insight was that in the wake of the French Revolution a new passion had arrived on the field of battle. ‘Even the most civilized of peoples’, he noted, clearly alluding to the French, ‘can be fired with passionate hatred for each other … ’ After 1793 ‘war again became the business of the people’, as opposed to the hobby of kings; it became a ‘juggernaut’ driven by the ‘temper of a nation’. Clausewitz acknowledged Bonaparte’s genius as the driver of this new military juggernaut. His ‘audacity and luck’ had ‘cast the old accepted practices to the winds’. Under Napoleon, warfare had ‘achieve[d] [the] state of absolute perfection’. Indeed, the Corsican upstart was nothing less than ‘the God of War himself … [whose] superiority has consistently led to the enemy’s collapse’. Yet his exceptional generalship was less significant than the new popular spirit that propelled his army.

War, Clausewitz wrote, in what deserves to be his best-known formulation, was now ‘a paradoxical trinity – composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability … and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone’. True, the ‘wish to annihilate the enemy’s forces’ is a very powerful urge – the ‘first-born son’ of this new war of the nations. But, Clausewitz warned, defence is always ‘a stronger form of fighting than attack’, for ‘the force of an attack gradually diminishes … ’ Even in defence there is an inherent difficulty: ‘Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult … a kind of friction … lower[s] the general level of performance.’ For these reasons, an effective commander must always remember four things. First, ‘assess probabilities’.* Second, ‘act with the utmost concentration’. Third, ‘act with the utmost speed’:

The whole of military activity must therefore relate directly or indirectly to the engagement. The end for which the soldier is recruited, clothed, armed and trained … is simply that he should fight at the right place and the right time.

Above all, however, the juggernaut must be kept under control. What Clausewitz calls ‘absolute’ war therefore ‘requires [the] primacy of politics’ – in other words, the subordination of the means of warfare to the ends of foreign policy. That is the real message of On War.22

So what were Napoleon’s policy aims? In some respects, it is true, they acquired a reactionary patina: contrast Jacques-Louis David’s Consecration of Napoleon I (1804), swathed in imperial ermine in Notre Dame, with the romantic hero of the same artist’s Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass (1801), every inch the revolutionary Zeitgeist on horseback (in the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s phrase). This was the metamorphosis so repellent to Ludwig van Beethoven, the musical spirit of the age, that he angrily scratched out the original title of his Third Symphony – ‘Buonaparte’ – and changed it to ‘Sinfonia eroica’. Having crowned himself emperor in December 1804, Napoleon obliged the Austrian Emperor Francis II to renounce the title of holy Roman emperor and then married his daughter. With the Concordat of 1801, meanwhile, Napoleon made France’s peace with the Pope, sweeping away the remnants of the Jacobin Cult of Reason.

Yet there was little else that was backward-looking about the empire Napoleon sought to build in Europe. It was truly revolutionary. Not only did he enlarge France to its ‘natural frontiers’ and shrink Prussia. He also created a new Swiss confederation; a new forty-state western German Confederation of the Rhine, stretching from the Baltic to the Alps; a new kingdom of (North) Italy; and a new Duchy of Warsaw. True, these new states were to be French vassals; he even installed his spendthrift youngest brother Jérôme as the titular ruler of the new Kingdom of Westphalia and his dandy of a brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, as the equivalent in Naples. True, too, the vanquished paid a heavy tribute to the French victors. Altogether between 1795 and 1804 the Dutch gave 229 million guilders to the French, more than a year’s national income. Napoleon’s campaigns of 1806–7 were not only self-financing, but covered at least a third of ordinary French government expenditure. And in Italy between 1805 and 1812 fully half of all the taxes raised went to the French treasury. Nevertheless, the European map as redrawn by Napoleon transformed the old patchwork of hereditary territories into a new grid of nation-states. Moreover, French rule was accompanied by a fundamental change to the legal order with the introduction of the new civil law code he had sponsored – a change that was later to have lasting and positive effects on the economies of the countries concerned. French rule swept away the various privileges that had protected the nobility, clergy, guilds and urban oligarchies and established the principle of equality before the law.23 When Napoleon later said that he had ‘wished to found a European system, a European Code of Laws, a European judiciary’ so that ‘there would be but one people in Europe’, he was not entirely making it up.24 Simply because his empire did not endure does not mean he lacked a political vision. For Napoleon, war was not an end in itself. It was, as Clausewitz understood, the armed pursuit of a policy.

It was not Bonaparte’s goal that was at fault; it was the fact that sooner or later his enemies’ forces were bound to outnumber his, even if their commanders could never match his skill. Ravaged not so much by the Russian winter as by the Russian strategy of deep retreat and attrition (not to mention rampant typhus), the Grande Armée succumbed to superior numbers – in particular superior numbers of horses – at Leipzig in 1813.25 It was much the same story when the Prussians tipped the balance at Waterloo in 1815. Long before then, however, France had already lost the war at sea. At Aboukir Bay (the Battle of the Nile) in 1798, Sir Horatio Nelson won his ennoblement by craftily attacking the French fleet from both sides, dealing a death-blow to Napoleon’s dream of conquering Egypt. Seven years later, at Trafalgar, Nelson’s force of twenty-seven ships outmanoeuvred a larger Franco-Spanish flotilla by employing the ‘Nelson touch’ – the tactic of sailing at high speed through the enemy line, firing broadsides to the starboard side of one ship, the rear of another and then the second ship’s port side.

The significance of Napoleon’s defeat at sea was twofold. First, France was gradually cut off from its overseas possessions. Already in 1791 the hugely lucrative sugar colony of Saint-Domingue had exploded into revolution under the leadership of the freed slave François-Dominique Toussaint ‘Louverture’ (literally ‘the opening’) after the Legislative Assembly in Paris had extended the vote to free blacks and mulattos but not to slaves. The abolition of slavery by the National Convention in 1794 plunged the island into a bloody racial civil war that spilled over into neighbouring Spanish Santo Domingo and raged until Toussaint’s arrest and deportation to France in 1802, and the restoration of slavery by Napoleon. Altogether, between 160,000 and 350,000 people lost their lives in the Haitian Revolution. A year later the French opted to sell the vast North American territory then known as Louisiana (not to be confused with the present-day state) to the United States at a bargain-basement price: 828,800 square miles for $15 million (less than 3 cents an acre). Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, France lost the financial war. Despite continued sales of former Church lands, the introduction of a new currency and the squeezing of Dutch and Italian taxpayers, Napoleon could not get the cost of borrowing down below 6 per cent. Between Trafalgar and Waterloo, the average yield on French government rentes was two full percentage points higher than that of British consols. It was a fateful spread.

Mercantilist that he was, Bonaparte sought to weaken Britain’s economic position by banning trade between the continent and Britain. But British merchants were able quite quickly to switch to markets further overseas, secure in the Royal Navy’s dominance of the principal sea-lanes. It is sometimes mistakenly assumed that Britain’s earlier industrialization gave it an advantage over Napoleon. In fact it was commerce and finance that won the day, not iron and steam. Not only did trade hold up; crucially, Britain was able to run a current-account surplus in invisible earnings from shipping, insurance and overseas investment, plus the profits of empire (earnings from the slave trade and from the taxation of Indians by the East India Company). The UK’s services surplus amounted to £14 million a year between 1808 and 1815, far outweighing the merchandise trade deficit over the same period. This enabled Britain to make massive transfers abroad – at peak equivalent to 4.4 per cent of national income per annum – in the form of pay to its armies and subsidies to its allies. Between 1793 and 1815, the total amount Britain gave France’s continental foes was £65.8 million. The new spirit of the age, leaning against a pillar in the stock market, was a Frankfurt-born Jew named Nathan Rothschild – the Finanzbonaparte – who played a key role in furnishing the Duke of Wellington and his allies with the sinews of war.26

Napoleon had been defeated. France was now burdened with a huge reparations bill and the restored Bourbons in the form of the corpulent Louis XVIII. Yet neither the dream of revolution nor the dream of revolutionary empire died with Napoleon when he expired, almost certainly of stomach cancer, on the forlorn South Atlantic island of St Helena in 1821. The 1789 Revolution had given France a political script of unequalled drama. For the better part of the following century the temptation to re-enact the play was irresistible; it happened in 1830, in 1848 and again in 1871. The critical point is that, each time the barricades went up across the streets of central Paris, a shockwave – albeit one of diminishing magnitude – swept through Europe and the European empires. The red revolutionary promise of the Declaration of the Rights of Man could not simply be wrapped up in clerical black and forgotten, a point made with the utmost force in Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black (1830). Anyone, after all, could adopt both the terminology and the iconography of Revolution. The hastily armed civilians, the bare-chested warriors, the sprawling martyrs – these figures had long careers as clichés ahead of them.*

The revolutions of 1848 were even more widespread. People took to the streets in Berlin, Dresden, Hanover, Karlsruhe, Kassel, Munich, Stuttgart and Vienna, as well as in Milan, Naples, Turin and Venice. It was a revolution led by intellectuals disenchanted above all with the limits imposed on free expression by the royal regimes restored in 1815. Typically, the composer Richard Wagner and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin did their bit for the ‘world conflagration’ by plotting to write a blasphemous opera together. Britain was one of the few West European countries spared, not least because 35,000 soldiers, 85,000 special constables, 1,200 military pensioners and 4,000 police were on hand to make sure the Chartists – proponents of universal suffrage – behaved themselves. As a result, 1848 in London was a matter of speeches in parks, not blood in the streets.

But the so-called Springtime of the Peoples was not confined to Europe. Like so many other Western ideas in the nineteenth century, French-style revolution swiftly became a global phenomenon. Across the British Empire there was unrest – in Ceylon, Guiana, Jamaica, New South Wales, the Orange River Sovereignty, the Punjab and Van Diemen’s Land.27 Even more remarkable were the events in French West Africa. There, unlike in British colonies, radical political change had the backing of a revolutionary government in the metropolis.

All this serves to illuminate the most distinctive feature of French imperialism: its enduring revolutionary character. The British Empire was by instinct socially conservative; with every passing year its administrators grew fonder of local elites, more comfortable with indirect rule through tribal chiefs and ornamental maharajahs. But the French still cherished the hope that liberty, equality and fraternity – along with the Code Napoléon and canned food (another Napoleonic invention) – were commodities for universal export.28

France, like all the European empires, had based its overseas empire at least partly on slavery. But in 1848 France’s new republican government declared that slavery would again be abolished throughout the French Empire, including in the West African colony of Senegal. The British had already done this in their empire fifteen years before. But abolition was only the first part of this revolution in French Africa. It was also announced that the newly freed slaves would get to vote – unlike the natives in British colonies. With the introduction of universal manhood suffrage throughout the French Empire, the almost entirely African and métis or mixed-race electorate (whites accounted for only 1 per cent of the total) voted in the elections of November 1848 and chose the first man of colour ever to sit in the French National Assembly.29 Although the right to send a deputy to Paris was withdrawn from Senegal by the Emperor Napoleon III in 1852 and not restored until 1879, the practice continued of electing the councils of the quatre communes (Saint-Louis, Gorée, Rufisque and Dakar) on the basis of universal manhood suffrage.30 The first multiracial democratic assembly in African history met in what was then the colonial capital of Saint-Louis.

Contemporaries recognized what a huge departure this was. ‘The visitor to the Council’, wrote one British visitor to Saint-Louis, ‘will frequently witness a black president calling a European member to order for rowdiness … Black members have unmercifully criticised officials in Senegal. No British colony would tolerate the attacks which the natives make upon European officials in Senegal.’31 For the British, empire was about hierarchy in the same way that society at home was about class. At the top was Victoria, the Queen and Empress. Every one of her 400 million subjects was arranged below her in an elaborate chain of status, all the way down to the lowliest punkah wallah in Calcutta. The French Empire was different.

To the revolutionaries of 1848, it seemed self-evident that colonial subjects should be transformed into Frenchmen with the maximum possible speed. In the jargon of the time, Africans were to be ‘assimilated’. At the same time, intermarriage (métissage) between French officials and African women was positively encouraged.32 This progressive imperialism was personified by Louis Faidherbe, an experienced soldier who became governor of Senegal in 1854. In Saint-Louis Faidherbe oversaw the building of new bridges, paved roads, schools, quays, a fresh water supply and the introduction of a regular ferry service on the river. ‘Villages of Liberty’ were founded throughout Senegal for emancipated slaves. In 1857 Faidherbe set up a Senegalese colonial army – the Tirailleurs Sénégalais – transforming the African soldier from indentured military labourer to fully fledged regular infantryman. A school was established for the sons of native chiefs.33 Faidherbe himself married a fifteen-year-old Senegalese girl.

‘Our intentions are pure and noble,’ declared Faidherbe towards the end of his time as governor. ‘Our cause is just.’ Of course, his mission was more than to civilize. ‘The aim’, he declared in 1857, was ‘to dominate the country at as low a cost as possible and through commerce [to] get the greatest advantages’.34 He was under instructions to extend French influence inland and to achieve Senegal’s mise en valeur (economic development) by challenging the indigenous African control of the trade in gum arabic, made from the sap of acacia trees, and peanuts. Faidherbe’s strategy was to build a chain of French forts along the Senegal River, beginning at Médine below the Félou waterfall. This led inevitably to conflict with the predominant inland powers: the Trarza Moors in Waalo, the Cayor in the south and El Hadj Umar Tall, the Muslim ruler of middle Niger, who later established the Toucouleur Empire in neighbouring Mali.35 Gradually and inexorably, however, these African rivals were forced to retreat. In 1857 French forces overthrew the Lebu Republic, turning the capital Ndakarou into the new colonial city of Dakar. The city centre today remains a monument to the French colonial vision, from the white Governor General’s palais to the broad Avenue Faidherbe, from the boulangeries with their fresh, fragrant baguettes to the patisseries serving café au lait. To formalize the process of Gallicization, the entire country was divided up into arrondissements, cercles and cantons. By the time Faidherbe stepped down in 1865, a Frenchman could stroll around Saint-Louis and take real pride in his country’s achievement. The former slave markets had become proud outposts of Gallic culture. The erstwhile victims of imperialism had been transformed into citizens with the right to vote and the duty to bear arms. As the journalist Gabriel Charmes put it:

If in these immense regions where only fanaticism and brigandage reign today, [France] were to bring … peace, commerce, tolerance, who could say this was a poor use of force? … Having taught millions of men civilization and freedom would fill it with the pride that makes great peoples.36

Of course, the reality of French imperialism could not possibly live up to this exalted billing. The biggest challenge was to attract competent officials from France. Those volunteering to serve in West Africa, one of Faidherbe’s successors suggested bluntly, were generally ‘persons who if not compromised at home were at least incapable of making a livelihood’ there: if not petty criminals then drunks and bankrupts.37 As one settler put it in 1894, the colonies were ‘the refugium peccatorum for all our misfits, the depository of the excrement of our political and social organism’. When a man left for the colonies, recalled the director of the Ecole Coloniale, his friends asked: ‘What crime must he have committed? From what corpse is he fleeing?’38 A number of colonial officials became notorious for their brutality towards the natives; one man, Emile Toqué, celebrated Bastille Day in 1903 by blowing up a prisoner with gunpowder.39 Most colonial officials probably shared the view of at least one professor at the Ecole that their African subjects were all intellectually retarded. The indigénat code empowered them, if they saw fit, to jail fractious natives for up to fifteen days for forty-six different offences, most of which were not considered unlawful in France.40 There was no mechanism of appeal. Forced labour (the corvée) was an integral part of the tax system in West Africa; that was how the Dakar–Niger railway was built. For a worker in a rubber plantation, the head tax in the French Congo was equivalent to as many as a hundred days of work a year. Hostages were taken when villages fell behind with their dues. Some officials – like the one in French Sudan who was charged with multiple murders, at least one rape, grievous bodily harm, miscarriages of justice and embezzlement – appear to have taken the novelist Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz as a role model.41 One man, named Brocard, decapitated on ‘compassionate grounds’ a prisoner who had gone blind as a result of the filthy conditions in his cell.42 The culmination of such madness was the mission of Paul Voulet and Julien Chanoine to Lake Chad (1898–9), which left a trail of incinerated villages, hanged natives and even roasted children in its wake, until finally the African soldiers under their command mutinied and murdered both men.43

Nevertheless, the standard of French colonial administrators clearly improved, especially after the First World War, when the Ecole Coloniale attracted not only better students but also distinguished ethnologists like Maurice Delafosse and Henri Labouret. As the Ecole’s director, the saintly Georges Hardy personified the mission civilisatrice. At the same time, the French made a real effort to attract and train native talent. Faidherbe made his thinking clear in a speech he gave while awarding the rank of second lieutenant to a soldier named Alioun Sall:

This nomination … demonstrates that, even for loftier positions in our social hierarchy, colour is no longer a reason for exclusion … Only the most capable will succeed. Those who obstinately prefer ignorance to civilization will remain in the lowly ranks of society, as is the case in all the countries of the world.44

In 1886 the son of the king of Porto Novo (later Dahomey/Benin) joined a dozen Asian students at the Ecole Coloniale. Each year from 1889 until 1914 the ‘native section’ of the Ecole admitted around twenty non-French students.45 It was clearly thanks to the French idea of a civilizing mission that a man like Blaise Diagne, born in a modest house in the old slave trading centre of Gorée in 1872, could join the colonial customs service and rise through its ranks. Such an ascent would have been much harder – indeed, almost inconceivable – in British Africa. In 1914 Diagne ended up as the first black African (of unmixed race) in the French National Assembly, no mean feat for the grandson of a Senegalese slave. Compared with the ethos of the other European empires of the time, there is no question that the French Empire was the most liberal in design. In the communes of Dakar the Wolof song that was sung to celebrate Diagne’s victory succinctly summarized the new political situation: ‘The black sheep [has beaten] the white sheep.’46

The supreme back-handed compliment to French imperialism was paid in 1922 by one ‘Nguyen Ai Quoc’, in a letter to the Governor General of another French colony on the other side of the world: Indo-China. ‘Your Excellency,’ began the author, whose real name was Nguyen Sinh Cung, and whose fluent French he owed to his time at the Hue lycée:

We know very well that your affection for the natives; of the colonies in general, and the Annamese in particular is great. Under your proconsulate the Annamese people have known true prosperity and real happiness, the happiness of seeing their country dotted all over with an increasing number of spirits and opium shops which, together with firing squads, prisons, ‘democracy’ and all the improved apparatus of modern civilization, are combining to make the Annamese the most advanced of the Asians and the happiest of mortals. These acts of benevolence save us the trouble of recalling all the others, such as enforced recruitment and loans, bloody repressions, the dethronement and exile of kings, profanation of sacred places, etc.47

It was not only French that the Governor’s correspondent had learned at school. Under another pseudonym, ‘Ho Chi Minh’, he would later lead the movement for an independent Vietnam – pointedly citing the 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Man in his own declaration of Vietnamese independence, just as Vo Nguyen Giap, the victor of the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu (and an alumnus of the same lycée), had learned the art of war by studying the campaigns of Napoleon. Such was the inevitable fate of a civilizing mission that exported the revolutionary tradition along with boules and baguettes.48 It was no accident that the presidents of the independent Ivory Coast, Niger, Dahomey and Mali were all graduates of the Ecole William Ponty – as was the Senegalese Prime Minister.49

And yet all of this – the whole French mission civilisatrice – was threatened with defeat by one lethal foe – disease – which made large tracts of sub-Saharan Africa almost uninhabitable for Europeans.50 Life-spans a century and a half ago were short enough in the West. Life expectancy at birth in Britain in 1850 was still only forty, compared with seventy-five today. But in Africa the rates of infant mortality and premature death were appallingly high. Life expectancy in mid-nineteenth-century Senegal was probably in the low to mid-twenties.51 So Africa was to be the ultimate testing ground for the fourth killer application of Western civilization: the power of modern medicine to prolong human life.

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