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  • Killing Napoleon by Jonathan North

    The Plot to Blow up Bonaparte

    Are horseshoes lucky?

    An image of Napoleon, mounted, dating from the time of the Infernal Machine. He wears the uniform of a consul of France and, oddly, does so whilst directing troops in the field. (Killing Napoleon, Amberley Publishing)

    Not for the royalist plotters who tried to kill Napoleon on Christmas Eve 1800. Three of them, François-Joseph Carbon, Joseph Picot de Limoëlan and Pierre Robinault de Saint-Réjant, had loaded a barrel bomb onto the back of a cart and, hitching it to an old Parisian nag, had brought it into the centre of Paris. Their aim was to detonate the bomb as Napoleon’s coach passed by on the way to the opera. The bomb, dubbed the Infernal Machine, went off in Rue Nicasie, missing Napoleon by seconds but killing a dozen passers-by and wounding scores more. Paris was appalled by this first example of a terrorist atrocity. The press went wild with speculation as to who could be responsible whilst the police began the hunt for the actual perpetrators.

    Forensic science was in its infancy but the police had been astute enough to collect as much of the remains of the horse and cart as they could and transported them to the prefecture for examination. The chief vet of Paris, Jean-Baptiste Huzard, was able to put together a description of the animal and this was circulated amongst the yards and stables that fringed the northern suburbs of the capital. This piqued the curiosity of the blacksmith Jean-Baptiste Legros and he came in to take a look at the horse’s amputated hoof, paying close attention to the horseshoe that was still attached to it. He recognised his handiwork, having tended the horse for five years, and, even more importantly, called on his friend Jean Lambel, a grain merchant, who had recently sold that horse and a cart, and some lentils, to a mysterious stranger. Lambel confirmed the facts and gave a detailed description of a travelling cloth salesman who seemed to know little about cloth or selling and less about horses and carts. A man who, moreover, bore a suspicious scar. Before long the police had located the yard where the bomb had been prepared and the nosey neighbours told them that their suspicion had been triggered by three men locking an empty cart in a shed and the way these well-spoken men had dried out barrels in the forecourt. Following a tip-off that the salesman with the scar was a man called Carbon living in the Rue du Faubourg they mounted a raid on an apartment which instead woke the catty Marguerite Davignon who told the bemused officers that Carbon had moved in with his “sister and lover” at 310 Rue Martin. A second raid on the correct address revealed that Carbon had quit Catherine Vallon’s flat but that he had left behind a blue smock, some gunpowder and a sack of Lambel’s lentils. Before long the fugitive had been tracked down to a convent and was apprehended when the police broke into the nuns’ quarters. The horseshoe had proved unlucky for Carbon. He would now face the guillotine.

    An artist’s impression of the explosion. This is a reasonable attempt at accuracy, although the coach and escort was a little further away than suggested here. (Killing Napoleon, Amberley Publishing)

    His story, and that of the other plotters, and the men tasked with hunting them down, is told in my new book Killing Napoleon. It charts a critical moment in French history just after Napoleon had seized power in the autumn of 1799 and when various factions were manoeuvring to bring him down, or put an end to him altogether. The book focuses on the most dramatic attempt of all, the detonation of a bomb on 24 December 1800 as Napoleon was on his way to see The Creation. It examines the forces which conspired to kill, those men tasked with the deed and the lives of those who were caught up in the atrocity. But it also follows the work of the detectives as they piece together clues, bits of flesh and contradictory information in their attempt to bring those who wanted to kill Napoleon to justice.

    Jonathan North's new book Killing Napoleon is available for purchase now.

  • Nelson at Naples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799 by Jonathan North

    Admiral Nelson by Leonardo Guzzardi, an unusual portrait of how Nelson might have appeared in late 1799. (Nelson at Naples, Amberley Publishing)

    Nelson and his Crimes

    We live in an age when figures from the past are being called to account for sins against the morals of today. Last summer, on the other side of the Atlantic, there was a wave of anger directed at statues of Confederate generals. A spate of demolition from Maryland to North Carolina saw marble memorials to yesterday’s men bite the dust, or, perhaps more accurately, saw them turned to dust. Over here, with a capital in which Cromwell still stands opposite a bust of Charles Stuart (glowering over a doorway to the parish church of the House of Commons), there has been little appetite to move against the nation’s stone idols. Nevertheless, in August 2017, an indignant broadside by Afua Hirsch in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/22/toppling-statues-nelsons-column-should-be-next-slavery) asked us to question the commemoration of one particular British hero: Horatio Nelson. It pointed out the admiral had been an advocate of slave owners’ interests, and so, beneath an illustration of a Baghdad-style toppling of Nelson’s column, suggested we should cleanse the nation of memorials to this white supremacist. It was a challenge she repeated in her recent Channel 4 documentary on the same theme but, before these hints launched a fleet of revisionist bulldozers, Nelson’s admirers manoeuvred to the admiral’s support, defending the man they see as “a fundamental icon of British national identity. Inspirational leadership, duty – and humanity”.

    Both these extremes are misleading. The admirers of the admirable admiral ignore anything which seems critical, whilst the bold claims of Hirsch impose an anachronistic orthodoxy on a man incapable of understanding her sensitivities. However, of the two, Hirsch’s is the greater disservice to history. For by pushing her own agenda, she draws attention away from the one area where Nelson really should be held to account: the atrocities he helped carry out against the Neapolitan republicans in the summer of 1799.

    Sir William Hamilton had arrived in Naples in 1764 and, for the next 25 years, his time was divided between entertaining British Visitors and collecting Ancient artefacts. The French Revolution and the wars that followed placed a new and complex burden on his scholarly shoulders. (Nelson at Naples, Amberley Publishing)

    When I began my new book on this subject, Nelson at Naples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799, for Amberley, I did not set out to sully Nelson’s reputation. I was aware of his qualities, as most historians should be. He was a dynamic, aggressive commander, exactly the kind of man needed when your aim is to destroy the enemy’s fleet. And he excelled at it, again and again. However, my focus was on his conduct away from the fighting, more particularly when he became involved in the brutal suppression of a revolution in Naples in 1799. And the more I looked into this episode, the more horrified I became. For me, Nelson’s wrongs have nothing to do with white supremacy, a failing true of most Georgians, but rather revolve around his war crime which saw the betrayal of thousands of surrendering Italian revolutionaries.

    Nelson arrived in Neapolitan waters in the autumn of 1798 following his destruction of Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir off the coast of Egypt. In Naples he was swamped by an adoring coterie of fans who declared that the battered hero was their saviour. Each had their reasons for doing so. The British envoy, Sir William Hamilton, enjoyed the reflected glory and dubbed Nelson immortal. His wife, Emma Hamilton, was already a little in love with Nelson, and wanted him to support her friends, the king and queen of Naples, in their struggle against the rampaging armies of revolutionary France. Ferdinand IV of Naples, that Bourbon sex-pest in silk, hoped that Nelson’s presence would keep the French, then plundering Rome, at bay. His wife, the arch Maria Carolina of Austria, hoped for more. She wanted Nelson to persuade the king and his ministers to take the war northwards, and thus perhaps enable her cowardly husband to be proclaimed king of a united Italy.

    So it began. Nelson’s crime was preceded by a tragedy and a farce. The shambolic kingdom of Naples hoped to surprise a France shaken by the loss of her fleet and her Bonaparte, then stuck in Egypt, and so Maria Carolina sent her opera buffa of an army northwards to the Eternal City. It quickly ran into trouble in the shortest of campaigns and scurried home. The royals took Nelson’s ship for Sicily and the surprised French proclaimed a liberal republic in their stead. This new republic was governed by a remarkable set of scholars and reformers, men and women, who set about abolishing feudalism and dragging Naples into the modern age. However, their noble, revolutionary efforts were cut short by a royalist counter-attack in which Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, a warrior cleric leading a horde of bloodthirsty pilgrims, swept up to the gates of the capital. Trapped by this Holy Army of cut-throats and cannibals, the republicans agreed to surrender Naples on condition they be allowed to leave for France. Ruffo, seeing that this would spare the capital further bloodshed, agreed and granted them generous terms. Just as they were about to troop out and board ships taking them into exile, Nelson sailed in from Palermo. He lured the republicans out into the harbour on the pretext they could now depart, then tore up the act of surrender, and promptly handed thousands of unfortunates over to a merciless court. The betrayed republicans were subjected to the full force and barbarity of royal justice in the market places of Naples in that summer of 1799.

    King Ferinard IV of Naples and Queen Maria Carolina. The king had married his Austrain consort, sister to Marie Antoinette, in 1768. His interests were largely restricted to eating and hunting but the queen was an energetic politician, sworn to fight a French revolution that had killed her sister. (Nelson at Naples, Amberley Publishing)

    The royal family were again grateful, raising Nelson up to be Duke of Bronte, and Emma Hamilton, basking in reflected glory, completed her journey from Duke Street to a duke’s bed. Even so, the exultation in having placed Ferdinand back on his throne was of short duration and such a victory could not win many friends. The Loyal Opposition back home was even moved to condemn this bloody series of events and naval officers looked askance at the admiral’s vindictiveness. Southey, an early biographer of the admiral, would agree for he too lambasted Nelson for the betrayal of the Neapolitan republicans, calling it “a deplorable transaction, a stain on the memory of Nelson and upon the honour of England”.

    This series of unpleasant events forms the basis for my book on Nelson at Naples. I place much of the blame for the bloodshed on Nelson as he had the authority to make possible this royalist vendetta and, despite the subsequent Victorian smoothing of Nelson’s record, it is clear that Nelson had innocent blood on his hands. I have no doubt that I shall be dubbed a revisionist historian for attacking Nelson so directly, and for questioning his wider legacy. But, in my defence, there is nothing revisionist about my handling of this episode. The truth is that Italian historians have been accusing him of a betrayal ever after the Neapolitan hangman finished his bloody work. And, for a time, many of their British peers advanced similar critiques, although this was more muted whenever the empire felt it preferred heroes.

    A View of Naples in 1800 by Johann Ziegler. (Nelson at Naples, Amberley Publishing)

    That imperial triumphalism heaped on Nelson wiped away not only this stain on Nelson’s memory but what was the sordid life of the naval hero following his victory for the Bourbons. The butchery in Naples was followed by insubordination, infatuation and a fair amount of dissipation before a bitter though diamond-encrusted Nelson limped home with the Hamiltons. Only a hero’s death at Trafalgar saved his reputation.

    Trafalgar and a state funeral for his pickled corpse were followed by heroic biographies which paved the way for the erection of that immutable column so beloved of pigeons and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Nelson’s column overshadows the admiral’s crimes at Naples, and a monument is no replacement for nuanced debate. But perhaps, rather than demolishing it, and replicating the fate of Dublin’s Nelson’s Pillar, we should see it as a prompt for further enquiry. A starting point on a historical journey.

    Afua Hirsch may not agree, but, even after reading about Nelson’s bloody rampage in Naples in 1799, my view is that Nelson’s column should continue to sit in Trafalgar Square. There it can remind us that heroes and history are never black and white.

    Jonathan North's new book Nelson at Naples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799 is available for purchase now.

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