One man’s hero is another man’s…

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the historical PR that dominated the latter half of the twentieth century recently.  In particular, the carefully fostered impression that the US and the UK were centuries’ long allies with a ‘special relationship’ and all that–a mindset that was, of course, born out of the vicissitudes of two World Wars…

It’s a thing I think about a great deal, actually.  Because the research I’ve been doing over the last two to three years has taught me that 200 years ago, the opposite was true.

And this makes things–all kinds of things–a bit tricky, because whilst I write historical fiction and very much appreciate my American readership, I do try to mirror the attitudes and mores of those who lived in the Napoleonic period as closely as I can.  And a great many of those attitudes and mores are simply not what my contemporary readers might expect or even approve of…

Equally, I’m often struck too by sets of circumstances which in one country led to one thing whilst in another these same sorts of events were glossed over or whitewashed.

Permit me to explain.

boston 1770On 5 March 1770, at the corner of King Street in Boston, Massachusetts, there was a bijou fracas-ette in which a mob of locals formed around a British sentry, giving him lip–was he a youngish lad?  Frightened by being surrounded and harassed?  Who knows?  At any rate, this crowd of mouthie Bostonians were just getting warmed up with the verbal abuse and then they started lobbing things.  Stones?  Rotten tomatoes?  Handfuls of muck?

At some point during the escalating row, another eight British troops joined our sentry, eventually firing into the crowd.  Three people were killed outright; several others were wounded.  And two more people later died of their wounds.

And this incident, also known as the Boston Massacre, is one of those seminal events that led directly to the American Revolution, proving as it did how viciously unfit and anti-liberty those nasty-wasty tyrants the British were.  I mean, it was an absolute gift in the propaganda war promulgated by all sorts of fellows including Paul Revere and friends.  And don’t we all cheer.

(It should be mentioned here that one officer, eight soldiers and four civilians were arrested, then charged with murder. Defended by John Adams, the lawyer and future president, six of the soldiers were acquitted, two were convicted of  manslaughter and given the reduced sentence of being branded on their hand.  Strangely, this part of the story is usually omitted by the pro-rebel propagandists…)

blucherAnyway, here’s the thing.  I’ve been reading the biography of Field-Marshal Prince Blucher, the Prussian general who fought alongside Wellington at Waterloo, defeating Napoleon, as written by Blucher’s own Chief of Staff, General Gneisenau–so plenty of eye-witness accounting here.

And when discussing the independent city-state of Hamburg, known before 1810 (when Napoleon decided to annex it) as the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburgh, Gneisenau writes:

“Enormous were the exactions which Napoleon imposed and levied; cruel and relentless the robberies and spoliations that were committed and justified by his Satraps so as utterly to destroy and undermine for a series of years, the opulence and prosperity of this venerable head of the House league…

“On the 24th February 1813, when the French authorities, both civil and military, made evident preparations to evacuate the place, and leave it to its fate, the populace were not backward in expressing their sentiments of freedom and detestation of their tyrants, both vehemently and loudly.  The arms of Napoleon were torn down, and treated with every mark of contempt, the custom-house offices sacked and demolished, and several other acts of popular fury were committed.  

“Six persons were, in consequence, arrested by order of General Carra St. Cyr, and dragged before a military tribunal; their trial was of the most summary kind, no witnesses were confronted, no counsel allowed, and, after a short hour of examination, they were sentenced to be shot as traitors, in having aided an insurrection…they were inhumanly hurried to the place of execution, and into eternity…Never were liberty, justice and the natural rights of mankind more flagrantly violated, than in this instance.

Hamburg 1812“Such are some of the infamous deeds of a few of those flagitious miscreants and followers of Napoleon, who have wantonly stained with innocent blood every city, and every river, from the Scheldt to the Elbe, and from the Rhine to the Danube; evincing in all their actions a marked disdain and mockery of religion, and an avowed opposition to every thing sacred in the laws, customs, and governments of other countries.”

Gneisenau also writes of Hamburgh:  “An official and moderate estimate states the total amount of the losses caused to this city and its environs by d’Avoust [whom Gneisenau calls one of Napoleon’s Satraps] at thirteen millions sterling.  

“The population was reduced from 120,000 to 40,000 souls; more than 1500 houses were either burnt or demolished; and by d’Avoust’s unnatural, stubborn, and vindictive cruelty, more than 1600 families were stripped of their bedding, furniture, and cattle, turned out to live under the canopy of heaven, in the midst of a severe winter, and, in short, became beggars on the high roads.”

I can also tell you that during this period the independent wealth and hard-earned prosperity of Hamburg was leveled to an unending prospect of lack, poverty and wretched unemployment:  At the beginning of the Napoleonic wars Hamburg had over 400 sugar factories.  By 1812, only 3 were left, the rest victims of the pernicious Continental System which prevented the importation of raw materials from outside Europe into any port under French control.

But, besides me and probably a handful of German historians, who knows of the wretched history of this wealthy vibrant city, the loss of their liberty and their lives, by acts such as this?

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauIs it a cause celebre universally recognised as fuelling the fight for German liberation against Napoleonic despotism?  Is there any recognition that atrocities and tyranny were the legacy of Napoleonic occupation across Europe, rather than being an aberration suffered only by the Spanish?

I don’t think so.  Quite the opposite even.  And curiously, at the time that these events were unfolding 200 years ago, those sons of liberty in the fledgling United States (which had just fought with such ferocity against the tyranny of George III, under the banners of “No Taxation without Representation” and “Don’t Tread on Me”) were allies of Napoleonic France–that nation referred to by Gneisenau as “a brotherhood of butchers”.

Nor that one would know any of this if one were to visit Paris–a city I love, don’t get me wrong–for there, one encounters the PR-perfect image of Napoleon the just, Napoleon the liberator, Napoleon the airbrushed uber-hero with all his jolly, merry, urbane marshals and men.  Quite the little imperial Robin Hood’s band, weren’t they?

Which therefore for me is a problem.  Because that’s not what he was, that’s not who he was, and that’s not how his contemporaries saw him.  At all.

And this was brought home to me rather forcefully in this letter, written by Horatio, Lord Nelson, hero of the Nile and Trafalgar, which recently went under the hammer…

HoratioNelsonNelson wrote: “I hate rebels, I hate traitors, I hate tyranny come from where it will. I have seen much of the world, and I have learnt from experience to hate and detest republics.

“There is nothing but tyranny & oppression, I have never known a good act done by a Republican, it is contrary to his character under the mask of Liberty.  He is a tyrant, a many headed monster that devours your happiness and property. Nothing is free from this monster’s grasp.  A republic has no affection for its subjects.

“A King may be ill advised and act wrong, a Republic never acts right, for a knot of villains support each other, and together they do what no single person dare attempt.  

“I pray God this war was over and a monarch placed on the throne of France, not that I like any Frenchman be he royalist or be he republican, but the French republicans have shown themselves such villains.  I form not my opinion, My Dear Lord, from others, no it is from what I have seen.  They are thieves, murderers, oppressors and infidels, therefore what faith can we hold with these people.”

He is considered the consummate Englishman of the period, the hero for all time…

And that, and those views as expressed by him and by his Prussian and Russian contemporaries, those are what they really thought.  No PR, no whitewash, no political correctness…

How will my modern readers cope?


37 comments on “One man’s hero is another man’s…

  1. cavalrytales says:

    Ah, that Gneisenau – he was a boy 😉

  2. Linda Root says:

    I for one think that political correctness may be noble in principle–or maybe not. There is something to be said for honest expression. It is also, I think, ill-advised to rewrite history to reflect a point-of-view acceptable to contemporary standards, because it is no longer history when we do that.

  3. Write what is right. If it causes controversy, so be it. And if I may just point out – controversy can have a very positive impact on sales. 😉

  4. TessQ says:

    If I am reading historical (or history-based) content and it is from the viewpoint of a contemporary of that period, then I don’t want any white-washing, I want what the prevailing attitude of the time would have been (or the attitude of the character’s POV based on that.)

    I believe most people who choose to read historical fiction want it that way.

    My two francs –

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Thank you. My dear friend, the late Dorothy Dunnett, often mentioned to me that in order to tell ‘the truth’ when writing historical fiction, one had to constantly have one’s protagonists “sailing very close to the wind” in terms of what was acceptable today. I know she was right. I’m just balking my fences a bit here…

  5. Debra Brown says:

    You show enough love and peace toward your American co-authors of today that I think we, at least, can cope with it. For those who do not know you, you can always have your most likeable character pine for the future date when the English and their American descendants will get along well again. 🙂

  6. Clearly, you will make all American readers hate you and you will sell no books in America…. 🙂 No, in all seriousness, I think it’s great that you write it the way it was. One of my favorite parts about the John Adams miniseries with Paul Giamatti (based on the book by David McCullough) was the first episode where it showed Adams doing the very unpopular thing of defending the British soldiers in court because it was the right thing to do.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      He was quite an interesting man, Adams. Didn’t he also defend the escaped slaves from the Amistad?

      • J.A. Beard says:

        That was his son, John Quincy Adams. The Amistad case wasn’t until 1841. John Sr died in 1826.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Thank you for telling me. I had no idea. So was the first John Adams also a Quincy Adams and how is a foreigner meant to know the difference? (Wigs–I should have looked at their wigs and then I would have KNOWN…)

      • J.A. Beard says:

        Actually, my mistake there, he’s not a John Jr. And JA is not a John Sr.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Okay. Now I’m lost.

      • J.A. Beard says:

        Okay, we have John Adams, second president of the United States and John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the US, and later Amistad lawyer.

        I was incorrect to use the ‘John Sr’ nomenclature since they don’t, in fact, share the same middle name, and I think, technically, you need to share the entire First, Middle, and Last name to be a junior/senior, right?

        Almost as thorny as George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. 🙂

        Incidentally, in regards to the original thread, in my Regency book, I actually had beta readers frowning at me over my “French bashing” in the novel by the main character and her sister (e.g., calling Napoleon a dangerous tyrant who wants to overrun all of civilized Europe, et cetera).

        Really? We can’t have Englishwomen dislike Napoleon in late 1811 now? 🙂

      • M M Bennetts says:

        We find the whole Jr/Sr thing mystifying as it is…So now at least I understand that they were different people. So that’s a start.

        Yes, I have Nappy-lovers making it clear that they find my word choice offensive–and I’m only quoting the non-expletive stuff from journals and letters. Heaven only knows what they’d do if I put everything in! And the French were no better. Reading their orders is an education in French obscenities…

  7. Robin Dalton says:

    Reblogged this on Josephine Robin Dalton and commented:
    I loved this post so much that I just had to share it with you.
    ~Lady Josephine

  8. francinehvr says:

    Sail close to the wind, m’ hearty, for “a spade is a spade” for where 21st century PC restraint is oft a tiresome affliction, the past is the past and has no such boundary. ,

    • M M Bennetts says:

      You’re saying I should write the way I ride, is that it? Ha ha ha.

      • francinehvr says:

        Ah, you get the measure of the game though your seat is of little import, unless you ride hard and true sabre drawn: the intimate versus remote in the killing stakes. So much easier to shoot than pig-stick or decapitate in passing, but when the blood lust is done the toll can go either way: guilt or indifference. Nelson was resigned, battle hardened, and possessed an inbred hatred of the enemy, neither guilt nor indifference, just bloody determination to win no matter the cost! Your 1812 is on my TBR list, 😉

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Ha ha ha! I’ve got some superb quotations from various Cossack leaders on the subject…which I won’t share now…they’re in the next book…You’ll love them!

  9. robinelevin says:

    Nothing is ever black and white. We are always choosing the lesser of evils. Mankind is a profoundly flawed species.

  10. rappleyea says:

    You have to be faithful to the truth. After all, you are writing historical fiction, not fictional history. History is written by the victors – and their white washing and corrections don’t do anyone any favors in the long run. I remember reading Frances FitzGerald’s Pulitzer winning Fire in the Lake: the Americans and Vietnamese in Vietnam when I was very young, and realizing that my government had lied to me all along about the Vietnam war. That book was a best seller so if that much more recent history didn’t cause public outrage and demonstrations, I doubt anything you write about the Napoleonic Wars will. 😉

    • rappleyea says:

      P. S. In answer to Nelson, I’d say, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – be it a republic or a monarchy.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Even at Nelson-loving conferences like those celebrating Trafalgar in 2005, there were a number among us who squirmed at Nelson’s more vociferous denunciations of the French. As for his belief that the only acceptable outcome of giving battle was annihilation of the enemy (a view which NB also held to), that just made grown men (with beards you could hide a badger in) squirm.

      • rappleyea says:

        I find this to be perhaps a positive comment on the evolution of the human race.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Curiously, there’s always an accusation or nine of Francophobia directed my way, over the way my English characters speak of the French. What those who accuse me of this don’t realise is that if anything I am softening, softening, softening what was actually said in the letters and journals of the period.

      Patrick O’Brian, bless him, often wrote for his character Jack Aubrey exactly what was being said at the time, and this made every historical peace-nik shudder and declare him “Too violent…” Which is why I felt impelled to write this post, I dare say, because those who wish to admire the cut of Bonaparte’s breeches seem always to want to minimise the scale of Napoleonic tyranny. (I haven’t even got the the volumes about what they did in Italy yet…) If they admit to its existence at all, it is always in the context of Spain, and, well, the Spanish guerillas provoked them, didn’t they? Which is why I’ve become so fascinated by Prussia, I imagine…

      Nelson saw the French regime for what it was–that letter was written shortly after he fought them at the Battle of the Nile–and his thoughts and sentiments reflect what he had seen of the French Republic’s activities over the last decade of the 18th century, including the Reign of Terror, the September Massacres, the sacking of Malta, the invasion of Egypt, etc.

      • rappleyea says:

        I hate, and always feel somehow “cheated” to find out all that I *wasn’t* taught in school. Granted, I wasn’t a history major, but I certainly took my share of history classes at university. Your books have opened my eyes to the horror that was Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign, and now you tell me that even that has been softened. And I imagine in the public’s mind, the centuries have done a great deal of softening as well. I shudder to think what another 100 years might do to whitewash even Hitler. Although I think what is allowing NB to be let off of the hook is that he was much more catholic and democratic in whom he wiped out. He didn’t ever focus on one particular ethnic group, did he? So it allows historians who would like to give NB credit to do so under the guise of “war” and “empire building”. In other words, all’s fair in love and war”!

      • M M Bennetts says:

        His glowing reputation stems not really from him, but from his brother and latterly from Napoleon III, both of whom did everything they could to resurrect the Napoleonic aura of glamour and victory from the 1830s onward. By the time of Waterloo, that monument we associate with NB, the Arc de Triomphe, was only about five feet tall. And that’s how it remained for decades–this forgotten stump of a monument. Just like all his other building projects which had been abandoned from lack of funding during his short reign; France was bankrupt after the war, and its male population would take 100 years to recover.

        It was his brother who wrote all the gooey gush that adorns the walls of the around Napoleon’s tomb, making him out to be a combination of Jesus Christ, Leonardo da Vinci and Abraham Lincoln. (And he did target a specific group–there’s been quite a brouhaha in France about his racism and his instructions for wiping out the rebelling slaves in Haiti. He, it was, who invented the idea of the gas-chamber–and Hitler admired him greatly for it.)

      • rappleyea says:

        I forgot that I had a question for you regarding this post: 200 years before the 24/7 news cycles, how aware would the Americans have been of NB’s atrocities? Or did they know and simply had Nelson’s mentality but toward the British?

      • M M Bennetts says:

        According to Andrew Lambert in The Challenge, and to Peter Hill in his work, Napoleon’s Troublesome Americans: Franco-American Relations, 1804-1815, the Americans were working as fully hand in glove with France as possible. They had the fullest representation in Paris and they were being double-crossed by NB all the time, and by his ministers, they knew he was lying to them, palming off forgeries, etc. and they didn’t even raise a ruckus when the French burnt their grain ships bound for Spain–at sea and with great loss of life. Madison was uber-chummy with the French ambassador–who was quite a slippery customer–in Washington too. Their special relationship was with France, not Britain, and they put up with all sorts of finagling and cheating by NB–he impounded their ships, their cargoes, their crews without compensation time and again–and were always listening to his admonishments that the US needed to go to war with Britain.

        There’s also the fullest evidence that they decided to go to war with Britain in 1812 because they were privy to NB’s plan to invade Russia and they believed he would achieve victory there, after which he would turn on Britain and wipe her out, and they intended to take advantage of Britain’s isolation to land-grab in Canada and clean up on the maritime stage too. They believed they were backing the winning horse…

        At the time that Napoleon returned from Russia, his army wiped out, the American ambassador, Joel Barlow, had been chasing all over Lithuania at the invitation of NB’s secretary, hoping to nail down a trade treaty–and he died there of pneumonia. The secretary in question knew there would be no opportunity for Barlow to see NB–he was just stringing him along as he’d been doing for years…

        Does this help?

      • rappleyea says:

        Yes, that helps quite a lot. Thank you! But it certainly begs the question of someone’s intelligence! Why in the world would America let NB get away with all of that? Or, is it like you already said, they thought they were backing the winning side and they hoped to wipe up the N. American spoils?

        And I’m surprised that there were any Haitians left to wipe out. From what I’ve read of the earlier European conquerors (Columbus, et al) they practiced some pretty gruesome genocide.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        There was a rebellion in 1802 (?), yes, I think it’s ’02 in Haiti and Napoleon wrote specific instructions to kill the rebellious black slaves and import new, more docile slaves from West Africa. The methods of extermination (his word, not mine) were as heinous as anything Hitler or his henchmen thought up–they were evil incarnate. But Napoleon already had form–there were the many massacres he ordered whilst ‘conquering’ Egypt, including poisoning his own men who had contracted plague so he wouldn’t have to transport them back to Egypt and from thence to France.

        As for why the fledgling US were backing France–France had bankrolled the American Revolution through the good offices of the playwright, Beaumarchais, which left him and the crown bankrupt–and Jefferson, Madison and Franklin were all profound Francophiles. Jefferson wrote most offensively about British commerce, he felt it was the devil’s work and that engagement with us had corrupted the morals of the New England shippers. He envisioned for the US an agrarian paradise stretching across the Continent, with limited international commerce…I confess, when I came across these letters of his, expressing these views, I was quite shocked. He was rabidly Anglophobic. But yes, the warhawks in Congress were expecting to wipe up the North American spoils…

      • rappleyea says:

        Thank you again, MM. I knew of course that France had helped bankroll the Revolutionary War, and that Jefferson et al were Francophiles, but I didn’t think that was enough to explain the acceptance of what you described above – the lies, forgeries, and burning of ships. But reading summaries and some excerpts from Peter Hill’s book, he talked about the “mixed diplomatic signals” being sent to France and GB regarding U. S. neutrality. Also, it seems the merchants were trading with both, which explains the French attacks on the U. S. merchant ships. Hill also writes that regardless of U. S. intent, the trade policies benefited the British more than the French.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Hill really did try to spin it; he really made the greatest effort possible to prove that the Americans were naive, trusting, but basically honest dealers. But when one read the number of times that Barlow “overlooked” that NB and his ministers had lied again, or had done just the opposite of what he was begging for, and the number of tete-a-tetes between Madison and the completely smarmy French minister (plus read said minister’s instructions as to what not to mention and what to say instead, even though it was a falsehood) you can’t escape the conviction that the American politicians were determined to collude with the French…They would have had to have been blind, dumb, deaf and very stupid indeed to have missed that they were being played. And played. And played.

        I mean, Barlow was a puppy coming back and back and back to be kicked. It was utterly disgraceful. And NB treated him and the Americans with contempt and derision. I’m not saying that NB was ever an honest dealer, but he did seem to know when kicking someone would produce consequences that he wouldn’t enjoy. But it’s clear that to him, the Americans were just disposable pawns to be used against the British. And there’s no way they couldn’t have had at least an inkling of this.

        So one could only conclude that they felt that it was in their best interests, or that a French alliance of some sort would have in the end given them what they wanted, which was, of course, more land…they wanted the Spanish Floridas, they wanted Canada, they wanted to expand to the West…

  11. […] One man’s hero is another man’s… […]

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