Empathy with the past…

It’s always, well, if not a shock then a surprise when it happens.

There I’ll be, reading along in a history of early 19th century Italy…or in a book of essays examining aspects of Napoleon’s civil administration and taxation policies…

(I know, it’s not exactly what one would consider sexy, is it?  Certainly not a place I’d be expecting to be stopped in my tracks.  And I’m not precisely a novice in the field of Napoleonic studies, either…)


There I am, reading along in a fine essay about popular resistence to Napoleon, etc. and the author makes a comment about Napoleon’s disastrous stranglehold of an economic policy, a.k.a. the Continental Blockade, and the British Navy’s patrol of the seas, which brought the European ports to the point of ruin.

And suddenly I get it.  I see what I have been failing to comprehend for years.  I understand just a little more fully the human disaster that was the Napoleonic era. 

There are how many port cities in Europe?  Dozens?  Hundreds?  I don’t know.  Places like Marseille and Toulon, Le Havre and Calais, Genoa and Naples, the many Dutch ports, Copenhagen and all those coastal cities on the Baltic too…

All those cities–the ports and places that were at the forefront of exploration of the New World and trade with the Orient–all of them, no longer bustling with the business and noise of sailors and lumpers and agents, harbours full of vessels of every description, their dock yards laden with goods for export and those just imported (the stuff of trade and industry) their streets lined with inns and ale-houses where the rope-makers, the sail-makers and sailors spent their pennies and told their news from across the world…

No, none of that.

Instead, all of it, all of them, still, but for the screeching of the unsilent seagulls.  The ships permanently at anchor, their timbers creaking, their hulls rotting, ropes smacking against the masts, the warehouses stripped bare, the inns empty of travellers and sailors and drinkers, as the tides swelled the harbours then ebbed away.

And in the place of what was once all this industry and commerce, this melee of noise and activity?

Unemployment.  Years of unemployment for merchants and seamen and dockworkers alike.

Hunger.  Homelessness.


Perhaps migration away from the places their families had lived and worked for centuries to take up work as…well… there wasn’t any work to be had really.

There was brigandry.  (Yes, that’s right.  And tens of thousands were reduced to that.)

Or, there was the army.  Napoleon’s army.  Where the non-French could expect to be bullied and beaten and not come home again.  (Out of 52,000 Westphalian troops who served in the Grande Armee only 18,000 survived…)

But think of it.  All those ports…All those lives.

Even now, I’m struggling to grasp the full implications of it.


One comment on “Empathy with the past…

  1. Awful, devastating, cruel comes to mind.
    One of the reasons, probably, one should be glad to live now instead of back then.

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