Napoleonic Impact on Imperialism in Asia

Napoleon Bonaparte, as Emperor of the French
Napoleon Bonaparte, as Emperor of the French

The Napoleonic Wars in Europe and imperial policy in Asia are generally discussed in isolation. It is, however, impossible to deny the impact of the former on the latter; namely, that Napoleon’s activities in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries accelerated and intensified imperial movement in the East. Whether or not one considers Napoleon a part of the legacy of the French Revolution or not, the statesman and his army define a period of political and economic thrust that transformed the world system. This article aims to show how the Napoleonic Wars as a concept influenced tension between imperial powers in Asia, for instance, between Great Britain and Russia in relation to the resource hub that was the Indian subcontinent.

Napoleonic Nightmare

Britain’s vested interest in India, and its appeal to other imperial powers, underlines most international relations everywhere east of Constantinople throughout the 19th Century. In fact, it is exemplary of the development of the global economy as a capitalist enterprise. What Napoleon represents is a heightened sense of distrust that would taint activity within the global economy pretty much until World War II and the age of decolonisation.

The French campaign in Egypt and Syria began when Napoleon landed in Alexandria in 1798, setting off alarm bells in Whitehall. The British had already defeated the French on the sub-continent 30-year previously, but the private enterprise that held some form of political power in India, the East India Company, did not dominate proceedings to such an extent as to be immune to attack. Hence a French move on the Middle East could only have been a worrying idea to the British, who immediately attempted to court the buffer lands in the rocky void between India, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Captain John Malcolm, a talented diplomat, entered into unofficial negotiations with Fath Ali Shah of Persia, returning with commercial and political treaties of friendship against the French and, although not in writing, the Russians. This played into the hands of the British, who therefore did not feel obliged to aid the Persians in their own war against Russia over the province of Georgia, due to complicated diplomacy on continental Europe.

Tsar Paul I of the Russian Empire
Tsar Paul I of the Russian Empire

Back-Stabbing Diplomacy

At the same time, Tsar Paul I of Russia entered in talks with Napoleon, proposing an alliance with a look to attack India. Napoleon was cautious of this tactic, but Paul was not, and set up a force to move through the Caucasus towards Persia. Only upon the assassination of Tsar Paul, and the ascension of the more level headed Alexander I, was the force recalled and relations neutralised.

Napoleon returned to Europe and, as Emperor of France, began to expand French territory on the continent. Victory over Russia in 1807 calmed down relations between the big 3 Europeans powers and Persia, allowing Napoleon to make his own diplomatic move on Fath Ali Shah. A new alliance was formed, which severed all Persian connections with Britain and promised the Shah military aid in his campaign to regain Caucasian land.

The key date among these complicated diplomatic manoeuvres is 1812, when the French army, on another ambitious campaign, was destroyed in the Russian wastelands. The Eurasian winter ate up Napoleon’s soldiers; a extract written by Peter Hopkirk indicates the severity of the matter: “In the Baltic town of Vilnius, through which Napoleon’s troops marched to their doom in the summer of 1812, there stands today a simple monument bearing two plaques. On the side with its back towards Moscow is written ‘Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way in 1812 with 400,000 men’. On the other side are the words ‘Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way in 1812 with 9,000 men’.

Concluding Implications

Although imperial policy in Asia became perhaps more bipolar and less complicated after Napoleon’s defeat and eventual exile from French politics, the impact of his exploits were felt deep into the 19th Century through to the World Wars of the early 20th. Britain realised the true nature of the threat to their economic assets on the sub-continent, and set about playing a complicated game of political chess against the Russians, which brought Persia firmly into the global economy and set it up for exploitation. The fate of the Ottoman Empire, especially after the Crimean War in the 1850s, was, too, tied up in the power politics between the imperialists, who referred to Constantinople as ‘the sick man of Europe’. These activities were sparked, fundamentally, by the military exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte between 1798 and 1812, proving the complexity of the development of the global economy beyond the legacy of imperial games.


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