Book review: Napoleon, the conqueror, the climate enthusiast

Who knew the Little Corporal was an environmentalist, aside from his conquests?

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By John Maxwell Hamilton

(About the author: John Maxwell Hamilton, the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor of Journalism at Louisiana State University, is a longtime journalist and author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda.) 

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Callaway Climate Insights) — Some people and events are of passing interest. Think, for example, of Hunter Biden and his paintings. The sooner we forget about him the better. No one is making room for his oeuvre in the Louvre.

On the other hand, cats, self-help advice, and Napoleon never seem to lose their appeal. On this last subject, Napoleon, we have enough basic biographies to fill an ocean-going freighter. These books are supplemented by narrower volumes on his various military campaigns, his theft of art while he went about conquering, his love life, his hemorrhoids, and his death in exile at St. Helena in 1821. As I was writing this, I remembered reading somewhere that the Little Corporal’s penis had been separated from him during his autopsy. I checked to see if there is a book on that, too, and there is. His personal item, incidentally, is in a jar in New Jersey.

All of which gets us to this month’s environmental book, Napoleon: His Life Told in Gardens and Shadows. Author Ruth Scurr, a fellow at Cambridge University, has made a name for herself with off-beat books, the most recent being an autobiography of the 17th century philosopher and journalist John Aubrey, which is cleverly made up of his letters and other writings. Scurr’s new book, too, has to be seen as a tour de force, given how surprising it is that she could pull it off.

In the very first pages, Scurr places Napoleon in a garden that the then teenager created at his school in Brienne-le-Chateau in the north of France. There, in his patch of nature, he read poet Jacques Delille’s Les Jardins. During a break in school, he was back in Corsica in a failed effort to save his deceased father’s mulberry nursery.

OK, just a couple of coincidences, you say, but page after page finds the ambitious Corsican in a garden setting: In August 1792, he stood in the Tuileries Palace Garden when Louis XVI left to resign his crown and hundreds of his guards were slaughtered. When he conquered Egypt, Napoleon appropriated a large garden and adorned it with paths and fountains, and engaged in large-scale tree planting in the surrounding area. As soon as he became First Consul, he reviewed the royal gardening projects. On the verge of becoming emperor, he began restoring Fontainebleau. 

Josephine, for her part, turned their palatial home at Malmaison into a garden wonderland, an enterprise Napoleon endorsed even though he occasionally grumbled at her lavish spending to do it. Napoleon made friendships with individuals like Andre Thouin, the head gardener of the Jardin du Roi in Paris. 

Napoleon’s exile in St. Helena was an anticlimax to his glittering life. His biggest challenge was to avoid the close supervision of his British jailers. The governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, detested the former emperor and did what he could to keep him isolated, even to the extent of stopping his mail. Napoleon’s chief activity was to build and rebuild his gardens, among other things adding a bamboo aviary with the help of a Chinese carpenter and a berm to give him a little privacy. He did some of the spade work himself in hopes of restoring his increasingly fragile constitution. There seems to be a pretty good case that he was slowly poisoned by arsenic, although Scurr does not go into this long standing mystery. 

There are messages in this story that have meaning for us. One of these is that Napoleon was at heart a proto-environmentalist, albeit in a way that seems strange to us today. In Alexandria he established an institute to study such diverse undertakings as improved bread baking and water purification and plant cultivation. He dispatched naturalists on collecting expeditions in Egypt and sent the seeds home. 

In 1803, he sent a scientific expedition to Australasia on the ship Le Naturaliste to conquer Australasia scientifically. The ship carried among its passengers two gardeners, two zoologists, a botanist, an astronomer, and a painter. Only a quarter of its human manifest returned alive, but their booty was of great scientific value — and continued his efforts to beautify La Belle France.

But there was a contradiction in these undertakings. Each came after what was often awful destruction. Scurr recounts what happened in the lovely chateau of Hougoumont, an important military objective during the Battle of Waterloo. The garden and orchard were decimated by Napoleon’s forces. Virtually every tree was riddled with musket balls. The building itself burnt to the ground. Wounded and dead soldiers from both forces littered the ground. More than 200 years later efforts are still underway to restore the flora, including rare varieties of apple tree, that were razed during the fighting. 

Today we see global warming and other insults to the planet as the most important battlegrounds that mankind faces. Where once grade school children learned to marvel at flowers and animals, today they learn to worry about their survival. This is no longer a fight against an enemy force, such as Napoleon did with arms, but against our own impulses. 

Napoleon did not have to consider this when he went on conquest. He could conquer and then engage in more sublime pursuits when he was done, all to burnish his reputation. Today we do not have such a luxury.

As a young man, Napoleon wrote a novel in which the protagonist starts out caring about war but finds himself more drawn to the woods and nature. And so, at the end of his life, he commented, “Man’s true vocation is to cultivate the ground.”

Scurr writes of the limits of seeing Napoleon largely in terms of war. “Gardens suited him, too,” she writes, “and the shadows he cast within them yield new ways of seeing his life.” And ours too, as it turns out.