In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Napoléon Bonaparte and the Atlantic World

  • Introduction

Atlantic History Napoléon Bonaparte and the Atlantic World
Philippe R. Girard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0317


Napoléon Bonaparte (b. 1769–d. 1821), also known as Napoléon I after his 1804 coronation, served as general, first consul, and emperor of France during the era of the French Revolution. Though he is best known for his military exploits on the battlefields of Europe and his political reforms in revolutionary France, he took a keen interest in France’s colonial holdings, particularly in the Caribbean and North America. To that effect, he outfitted several large colonial expeditions, most notably during the period of the Peace of Amiens (1802–1803), when the French navy briefly regained access to French colonies overseas. His goals were generally in line with those of the Old Regime: to enforce direct French control over colonial agents, to impose mercantilist trade restrictions over French merchants and planters, to promote plantation agriculture, and to threaten strategic rivals such as Great Britain. Restoring slavery, which France had abolished in 1794, was also a goal in colonies like Guadeloupe, French Guiana (Guyane), and possibly Saint-Domingue (Haiti). Despite a notable investment in time, men, and treasure, Napoléon’s policies were generally a failure: Great Britain remained dominant on the seas, Napoléon sold the territory of Louisiana to the United States in 1803, and Saint-Domingue declared its independence in 1804. In the long run, his involvement in the restoration of slavery in parts of the French colonial empire in 1802–1803 also tarnished his reputation in France and the Caribbean, particularly as scholarly interest in the field of Atlantic history grew in the 1990s and modern historians revisited Napoléon’s policies in the context of the bicentennial of the French and Haitian Revolutions. By 2005, Napoléon’s reputation was so tainted that French president Jacques Chirac decided not to celebrate the bicentennial of his greatest triumph at Austerlitz. Instead, two of Napoléon’s main Atlantic victims, Toussaint Louverture of Saint-Domingue and Louis Delgrès of Guadeloupe, were honored with a plaque in the Paris Panthéon for their role in the struggle for emancipation, in an indirect indictment of Napoléon’s Atlantic policies.

General Overviews

The historiography on Napoléon’s involvement in the Atlantic World went through three distinct phases. The first wave of works, which coincided with or immediately followed Napoléon’s reign as first consul and emperor, was part of a larger debate within France over slavery and racial discrimination. It pitted liberal supporters of the French Revolution’s egalitarian ideals against advocates of the more conservative policies adopted by Napoléon in 1802. The second phase, which lasted until the 1980s, was marked by relative neglect: experts on Napoléon and the French Revolution generally ignored his colonial policies altogether, so the few publications on the topic were authored by scholars from the Caribbean (particularly Haiti), who criticized Napoléon for forsaking abolition, and by French colonial historians, who were more sympathetic but belonged to a field that was out of fashion among professional historians. The third phase coincided with the bicentennial celebrations of the French and Haitian Revolutions in the 1990s and 2000s: scholars on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in the United States and France, revisited this forgotten corner of Napoleonic history, which was now examined as part of the burgeoning field of Atlantic history so as to situate Napoléon’s policies within larger debates over race and the Enlightenment.

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