Getting it wrong…

Funnily enough, I was just reading a blog by multi-novel historical fiction author, Allan Massie, about strong opinions and how too often they’re based on knowing or understanding less than we might before we blast our mouths off.


So anyway…recently I’ve been dipping into the research on the build-up to the War of 1812 again–reading the speeches given by those early presidential icons, Jefferson and Madison, for example, reading histories of the period written both by American and British historians, as well as various eye-witness accounts, plus the American press coverage of events and comparing those to the British reports…

…and spending quality time with the percentages of British sailors employed aboard American merchant ships at the time…and analysing other data, such as tax receipts…

(I know, I know…the wild and crazy world of an historian!  Where do I get the energy?)

And in the midst of all this, I have been forced to conclude that I have got something (many things) completely and utterly wrong.

And when I say wrong, I mean wrong.

assassination3You see, I had always, always, always believed and been wholly convinced in my mind that had the Americans in Congress known at the time of Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination on 11 May 1812 (which of course they didn’t due to the length of time it took for news to travel), they would never, ever, ever have launched into war so precipitately in June.

They would have respected our loss, respected the gravity of the situation, appreciated that we were in the midst of an existential struggle against the most powerful military dictator the world had ever known, and stepped back from the brink, or at least out of deference to the grieving nation, postponed their decision…and maybe sent flowers to the grieving widow.

Or something.

Well, I’m here to say today, I got that wrong.

And not just a little nibbling about the edges wrong.  We’re talking very wrong.

Because you see, I–like probably most people–had completely and utterly swallowed all the Anglo-American political PR that grew up during the 20th century, during two world wars, in which we were the firmest of friends, the most devoted of allies, that we had a special relationship…

Yet I have to tell you–what I have found is precisely the opposite.  And it has shocked the socks off me.

There were a great many reasons why I got it so wrong.

One, of course, was that I failed to realise the depth of Jefferson’s hatred of the British. And the same goes for Madison.

I failed to comprehend Jefferson’s absolute conviction that British commerce was corrupting the morals of the New England merchants and that he saw the moral purpose of the US to be in building an agrarian republican superstate, wholly independent of the sordid aspects of commerce and trade, ruled by those who agreed with him.  (No, I am not making this up.  If only…)

Equally, initially, I failed to read far back enough, and to note that the War Hawks in the Republican party had been making a vehement case for war against the British at least as early as autumn session of Congress which commenced in November 1811.

freetradequiltI also failed to understand just what a nonsense the whole “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights” slogan was.

I thought–in my quaint little Japanese fashion, said Yum Yum–that the concept of stopping ships for deserters was some nasty-wasty thing the Brits had devised to annoy the Americans and that the Yankees were rightfully protesting.


And those stats I was telling you about?  Yes, well, it transpires, according to those stats, that some 50% of the seafaring workforce on American ships in the early years of the 19th century were in fact British.  And the American shippers were fully aware that they couldn’t function properly without British manpower.

hmsleopardMoreover, the law allowing the vessels of the Royal Navy to stop foreign ships in time of war and search for British sailors who by rights (I’m sure we’d all agree, if we think of it in terms of WW2, say) should be serving their country…that law dates back to the Seven Years’ War in the 1750’s.

It wasn’t something the British government hastily cooked up to vex their colonial cousins.

Furthermore, the American shippers and captains knew very well that Britain was at war with the French Empire and that it was a near run thing.  They may have lived on the other side of the world, but they weren’t stupid.

There’s another tricksy bit to this and that’s the matter of nationality.  Until the fledgling US introduced the idea, nationality and citizenship rested entirely on where one was born.  Full stop.  It was a non-topic.  If you were born in France, you were French.  If you were born in Britain, you were British.

However, the Americans introduced the idea of taking citizenship and made it possible for those coming from other parts of the world to take up American citizenship.  Fine, okay…

But this, unsurprisingly, gave rise to a nifty little scam in forged documents, which were cheap and easy to come by for sailors who’d prefer to work for better wages on American merchant ships, rather than be subject to the discipline, etc. of life in the Royal Navy. And come by them they did.  In droves.

So, when the Royal Navy stopped and searched ships looking for deserters (it was a time of war, no doubt about that), and these (often known to the Navy by name and description) tars then protested that they were Americans and here were the dodgy papers to prove it…well, I think you can see, it wasn’t really something one would go to war over.  Was it?  And everybody knew it.

Also, the number of genuine Americans (if I may designate them as such), taken from American ships in this way–well numbers indicate that not more than 10% of those taken were actually the people they said they were…

nap meissonierWhat I also failed to realise was just how chummy the American statesmen were with France and Napoleon.

I kept assuming–wrongly as I now know–that they were being naive, that Bonaparte was hoodwinking them as he had everyone else.  That they didn’t realise that Bonaparte would say one thing and do another and that he didn’t give a bean about anyone but himself.  Yup, got that wrong too.

Jefferson was a confirmed Francophile.  But so was Joel Barlow, who was sent as Ambassador to Paris in 1811.

And the fellow that the French sent over to be Ambassador in Washington, D.C., Serurier, well he was as honey-tongued a manipulator as ever there was and he smooth-talked anyone who would listen–a carefully regulated steady dripfeed of anti-British venom, plus suppression or denial of what the French were really up to, all wrapped up in a cherry-flavoured sugar coating of French endearments and protestations of eternal love and admiration.

Bonaparte pulled the strings and they all danced.

From 1808, he was telling the Americans that they must ‘defend their flag’ as he urged them to make war on the British.

He and his minions were constantly ragging the Americans–Jefferson, Monroe and Madison–to take on the British for their many anti-free market activities, whilst at the very same time he was ordering American ships and their cargoes seized, held, and confiscated, even as Barlow pressed for indemnity payments and Napoleon’s ministers hemmed and hawed.

shannonAnd every time Barlow was convinced he was reaching some sort of agreement for compensation payments and hammering out a trade agreement that would open up the European market to American trade, the French apparatchiks would dither, and Bonaparte would order stricter adherence to the Continental System particularly as regards the Americans.

Even the emollient language of American historian, P.P. Hill, cannot disguise the fact that the American policy was to turn a blind eye, no matter how egregious the French behaviour.  Even when in February 1812, French privateers burnt at sea the American ships laden with wheat and bound for Spain to feed Wellington’s troops there…

Here’s the recap written by Captain Philip Broke, who got his info from the American newspapers at the time:  “The war party are certainly a wicked and perverse set of men and acting in downright enmity to the welfare of all free nations as well as their natural allies–the mass of the party are sordid, grovelling men who would involve their country in a war for a shilling percent more profit on their particular trade and are perfectly indifferent whether they league themselves with honor or oppression–provided they get their mammon.  Some of their leaders wish for a war only to get places and commands…”

John Randolph wrote:  “Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war…a war of rapine, privateering, a scuffle and scramble for plunder.”

And even in April 1812, when the French produced what the Americans knew was a fraud–the so-called St Cloud Decree–in which Napoleon claimed to have ended the trade embargoes against America a year earlier.  (He cunningly had it backdated, by hand…but one gathers the ink was barely dry on the page…)

Even then, when they knew they were being had, when Napoleon’s contempt for American compensation claims and their anger against extortionate French tariffs were at an all-time high, even then, they did not turn from their course.  Indeed, the Republican politicians suppressed all talk of the fraud and various other French cons.

napo-creepBecause, you see, the outcome had already been decided.  The Americans knew that Bonaparte planned to invade Russia; they expected him to triumph there, and then, they anticipated that he would turn the full might of his military Empire upon Britain.

And they wanted to be on the winning side, the side that would give them Canada, no questions asked, the side that would overlook their land-grab in Spanish Florida…And that side, they believed, was with Napoleon and his Empire.

Added to which, they firmly believed that with the troops tied up in Spain, Britain would lack the troops to send to defend the Canadian border, and they meant to enjoy that freedom by strolling up there and taking the place over.  (Just like they’d done in the Spanish territories of Florida…)

The British government, for their part, couldn’t believe it when Congress declared war. They were convinced–despite the tide of vitriolic abuse which had been pouring out of American newspapers for the past two-three years–that the American people did not want war, they wanted fair trade.

They also believed–knowing as they did just how costly a war actually was–that no one in their right mind would go to war over a principle such as “Free trade and Sailors’ Rights”.

So…I got it wrong.  The American Congress of 1812 wouldn’t have halted their determined march to war had they learned of Prime Minister Perceval’s death.  Indeed, it saddens me greatly to say, I think they may have held a party…


Napoleon as Romantic Hero? Let me think…

Poor, poor, poor, poor Napoleon.

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauI mean, look at him, poor fellow, sent by that nasty-wasty British Government (what a pack of Grinches, eh?) to that pestiferous outcrop of black rocks in the middle of bally-nowhere, a.k.a. the island of St. Helena, and all because he’d been just a little naughty and had the bad luck to lose at Waterloo.  I mean, are they a bunch of bad winners or what?  Meanies.
Yes, yes, yes…of course I’ve made the mistake (again) of reading a blog by someone or other about poor, poor, poor old Boney.  And how he was forced into surrendering to the Brits, blah-di-blah…
Uhm, could we just go over a fact or two here?  Like about how he came to be in that position in the first place?
napoleon1814So, in the spring of 1814, after having run rampant over the Continent since roughly 1796, slaughtering some 5-6 million people in the process, all the way from the coast of Portugal in the west to the Kremlin in the east, Napoleon (poor fellow) had been beat to a standstill by the Allied forces of the Prussians, Russians and Austrians at the gates of Paris.
And following the Battle of Paris, when the Russians whooped those French troops who were meant to defend the capital, having drained the country of every ounce of anything resembling food or fodder or hard cash, Napoleon who was hanging out at Fontainbleau, was urged, advised, encouraged by his advisors and marshalls and generals, for the sake of the country, to abdicate power.
Which he did.  But not before he had attempted suicide, swallowing a delicious concoction of opium, belladonna and white hellebore, which he’d carried on his person for some time.  But he apparently had the constitution of an ox.  Or the poison had lost its viv during the disastrous Russian campaign, so he, er, was soon found sitting at the table (which I have seen) signing his name to the abdication papers.
So, what to do with the troublesome teen, eh?  Bootcamp?  Outward Bound?  Betty Ford?
alexander 1814The Tsar of all Russia, Alexander I, because he still rather liked and admired Napoleon, conceived of the clever plan to ship him off to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, where he could still have his own little kingdom and be happy making daisy-chains and frolicking in the sunshine and things.
The French, like Talleyrand, thought it was a bad idea.  The Austrians thought it was a disastrous idea.  The Prussians wanted him executed by firing squad.  And the British refused to have anything to do with it because they heartily disapproved–they thought it was asking for trouble.
Nevertheless, it fell to the Brits to get him there and keep him there by virtue of the fact that the Royal Navy rules the waves of the Mediterranean and elsewhere and nobody else had any ships to speak of.  So on 4 May 1814, HMS Undaunted delivered him to the 16-mile-long island of Elba.
Hence, during the ensuing months, everyone across Europe heaved a collective sigh of relief, ate food, slept in their beds without worrying about their villages being pillaged and shelled, and then met in Vienna to try and sort out some kind of modern peace plan for the much-trampled-on peoples of Europe.  This lasted for months.
During which time, Napoleon, down on his island poverty-dise constructed a new palace, furnished it, taxed the population, came up with various schemes, waited for his wife and son to arrive (they never did) and got bored.  So, on 26 February 1815, Napoleon slipped his lead, boarded the 16-gun brig, Inconstant, and made for France.
Where he proceeded to raise a new army.
The restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII eventually skedaddled and headed for Belgium.
wellingtonThe Duke of Wellington, who’d been busy at the Congress of Vienna, also headed for Belgium where he was to be Commander in Chief of the Allied Army; the Prussian Army under General Blucher also got moving in that direction.
Meanwhile, the crowned heads of Europe had put together a statement which read “The Powers declare that Napoleon Buonaparte has placed himself outside all human relations and that, as the enemy and disturber of the peace of the world, he has delivered himself up to public justice.”  And for good measure they claimed that he had forfeited “his sole lawful right to exist.”
It was the 1815 equivalent of the United Nations declaring someone an international war criminal, really.
And some 100 days following his escape, Napoleon was beaten, rolled up, squashed, creamed and otherwise defeated at the 4-day event now known as the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815).
But what happened then? you ask.  Didn’t poor, poor, poor Napoleon just get snatched up by those clamouring bullies the English and thrown higgledy-piggledy onto the HMS Bellerophon without so much as an embroidered imperial hanky?
Er, no.  Not really.
The British were kind of busy, er, mopping up at Waterloo and in Brussels, you might say.  Total casualties of the days’ fighting were something in the region of 115,000 men.  Napoleon’s losses were approximately 41,400 killed or wounded, 7000 captured and 10,000 missing.
Those are big numbers.
Nevertheless, having just inflicted this new grievous loss upon France, Napoleon headed back to Paris, determined to raise yet another army–he had a plan to use General Grouchy’s troops as a core, combine them with the reserves of the National Guard and…and…impose a new round of conscription (also known as the blood tax) in order to take on the Allies with a new army of 300,000 in order to avenge Waterloo.
(I kid you not.  That was his new plan.)
But others in France…well, this time they weren’t so keen.  Or maybe they’d finally worked out that he was stark, raving bonkers and a power-junkie megalomaniac.  So, these fellows, including many within his own government, got to work to undermine him.  They included his former minister of police, Fouche, and several prominent men in the French legislature, including the Marquis de Lafayette, a former Bonapartist and hero of the American and French Revolutions.
Napoleon’s brother Lucien spoke to defend his brother as did the author of the novel, Manon Lescaut, Emmanuel Sieyes.
But it was Lafayette’s words which carried the day in response to a cry to rally the French to “drive the barbarians from our country.”
“Have you forgot where the bones of our sons and brothers whiten?  The deserts of Egypt, the snows of Russia, and now the plains of Belgium–Will it also be the streets of Paris?  France,” Lafayette lamented, already had a few million victims “of this one man who wanted to fight all Europe!  Enough!”
While the French legislature debated, Napoleon’s friends and advisors (including brother Lucien) were urging him to send in the army in order to seize power.  Advice that, for once, he did not take.
napo-creepOn 22 June–four days after the catastrophe at Waterloo–the French legislature ordered him to step down from the throne of his own free will or they would remove him.  They gave him an hour to make up his mind.  At 3.00 in the afternoon, therefore, for the second time, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated.
And with the Allied powers now heading for or encamped in Paris, Napoleon decided the best plan was to scarper.  Note that–it was his idea.
He first headed out to Malmaison, the home he’d shared with Josephine on the banks of the Seine, until he’d divorced her.  And now she was dead, though he felt her presence there…
Still, with the Prussians closing in–for the Prussians, whom his troops had brutalised for years and years, it was payback time–and the French unable or unwilling to guarantee his safety, the government ordered him out of France.
Ever the helpful one though, Napoleon offered to resume his post as general and rally the remaining army, then defeat the vicious invaders and cast them out, etc.
Strangely, this generous offer was declined.   So he left for the port of Rochefort secretly, where he trusted he would find a ship bound for the United States, or barring that, one bound for Mexico or South America.
He’d been told that there were two French frigates awaiting his pleasure, but, uh, when he got to Rochefort, they’d been joined by two of the Royal Navy’s finest, including HMS Bellerophon.  Ehem.  He toyed with the idea of escape, possibly in a barrel or on a small fishing boat, but then decided it was beneath his dignity, and so, on 15 July, he surrendered to the British and boarded the Bellerophon.
He still had a plan.  This time it was that the British would offer him asylum.  (He seems to have missed that all that stuff about killing 5-6 million people and being a war criminal.  Or maybe he thought it was irrelevant.)
The British Government declined to take him up on this–I can’t possibly imagine why–and since the island-paradise-close-to-Europe plan hadn’t worked out so well for them, they opted for the island-hell-as-far-away-from-civilisation-as-possible (nearest neighbour 700 miles away) plan.
And so, on 17 October 1815, still protesting that he’d been tricked and cheated by the British Government (yuh, like that’s credible) he was landed at Jamestown, St. Helena…where he died, in May 1821.  But not before he did his best to rewrite history and claim that all he’d ever really wanted was peace…
Yuh, right.  Poor baby.
Romantic hero?  I don’t think so…

Viscount Castlereagh, Sorley Maclean and the January glums…

Of late, I’ve been a complete git.  A foul-tempered grumbletonian.  And morose.  (Though I can’t decide if I want to sit in a corner and sulk, or if I’d prefer to thunk my head against the wall over the limitations of my pea-brained intellect.)

Because here’s the thing.  I’ve been reading Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny, John Bew’s new and rather fine biography of Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary from 1812-1822the man whom Andrew Roberts called “perhaps the greatest of all Britain’s foreign secretaries”.

(Yes, yes, the thing’s the size of a doorstop for woolly mammoths.  But I like books that fat, they’ve got some meat to ’em.)

And I’m now more than half way through…thus well into his lordship’s stint as Foreign Secretary in 1812–my personal comfort zone, you might say–during the final push to oust Napoleon from power in Europe.

But what’s striking me on page after page is just how much I don’t know.  How much I haven’t really considered or thought through.  How many connexions I hadn’t before seen.

Now normally, I don’t mind that.  In fact, I relish it.  I love having my eyes opened so that I see and understand.  (Though in the case of Lord Castlereagh, it’s not because of any lack of effort on my part.)

I’ve read several of the previous biographies of the fellow–sometimes more than once–as well as various histories of the Congress of Vienna and works about foreign policy and I’ve used them as reference when writing.  I’ve read some of his letters and his speeches given in Parliament too.

I’ve read the newspaper accounts of everything he did and said when the Prime Minister was assassinated.

And still, there is so much I don’t know.  And that vexes me.  Because I want to understand.

Now a great deal of this is down to the general ignorance about the fellow.  Castlereagh lived and worked in a world where truth in newspapers didn’t matter so much (if at all) and the radical press was vituperative, blood-thirsty and venomous.  There were few, if any, checks.  (So it’s been interesting to be reading this while the Leveson inquiry into the abuses of the Press are going on in London.)

Castlereagh lived in an age when Parliamentary discourse–for want of a better term–was often the most scurrilous and vitriolic abuse.  Unprintable stuff, much of it.

And Bew, bless him, spends much of his page-space separating out the lies, the packs and packs of ’em, wading through the criticism and countering it with facts, especially with excerpts from his lordship’s vast correspondence.  (The fellow wrote letters much as I drink cups of tea.)  Though there are also many revealing letters from his brother, Charles Stewart, too.

And what emerges from these pages is not the insular Irishman cum Englishman, unfamiliar with Continental developments and out of his depth with the wily Europeans, nor the corrupt or cold minister loathed and despised by those with Jacobin/radical agendas.

What’s emerging is this soft-spoken (though he did have an Irish slur when he spoke) affable though reserved, genuinely thoughtful, highly intellectual fellow who spoke and voted with his conscience as much as possible–a moderate man who eschewed all the extreme points of view while he worked step by step for the betterment of his fellows.  A loyal friend.  A devoted husband and elder brother.

Unlike that view promulgated by the radicals and his loud-mouthed political enemies, Castlereagh was a reader, especially of Scottish and French Enlightenment authors, and his study floor in St. James’s Square was littered with books, French books, novels by Edgeworth and Rousseau, and international newspapers.

He’d been in France as a young man in 1791 as the French Revolution was really getting underway and what he’d seen concerned him, though he was no Edmund Burke.  And he was once again on the Continent, in 1792, when he remained in Holland as the news of the September Massacres was hitting the headlines, stunning the world with details of a Paris gone mad and revelling in scenes of the most unthinkable torture and atrocity.

He was on the headland at Bantry Bay in Ireland, when the raging gales and blizzard conditions prevented a French army of more than 40,000 troops from landing and bringing the French Revolution to Ireland.

He was in power too as atrocities committed by those devoted to French Jacobin ideals spread across Ireland–slaughter which reads like something out of the Serbian war or the civil war in Rwanda.

It’s no wonder that he never ceased in his fight against French domination of the Continent.  It’s no wonder that he never stopped working for Catholic Emancipation.  It’s no wonder that he stood against radical extremism and Jacobinism in every form–he’d seen how its call to sacrifice everything for political ideals turned into a programme of extermination for anyone who held a differing point of view.

(It’s occurred to me many times in the course of reading this biography how little we understand the horrors of the French Revolution today.  How easily we dismiss it as if it were no more than a ripple in time, of little import, when in fact to minimise it and its effect on Europe and those who lived through it, would be like laughing off Pol Pot’s murderous regime in Cambodia, or dismissing the Bolshevik Revolution as child’s play–incidentally, the French Reign of Terror provided the template for both Lenin and Pol Pot…)

But this, I fancy, is what really winds me up:  Here was this man, this titan of thoughtful, incisive international policy who saved not just Britain’s but Europe’s backside… (Did I mention Castlereagh reorganised the army too, so that Wellington would have the troops and supplies he needed when he needed them?)  And I hate, hate, hate seeing  him trivialised and dropped into novels as though he were a male Regency version of Paris Hilton.

Yet what I hate even more is that as hard as I tried to capture him in both my previous novels–the suavity of his manners, his habitual courtesy, his refusal to meet invective with invective, his wry and self-mocking sense of humour, his love of music and his absolute devotion to his friends and family–all alongside his towering intellect–I’m not convinced I managed it.  Not truly.  Not as I would have been able to had this work been published five years earlier.  I worked like the clappers at it, but I couldn’t do enough, not nearly enough to bring him fully alive on the page.

And that depresses me no end.

(If I have any complaint about Mr. Bew’s work is that there’s not enough of it.  Even at 587 pages of text, I think he’s just scratched the surface.  And I want to know more.  Details, Mr. Bew, details.  Lots of ’em.  So, Mr. Bew, if you’re reading this–how about an expanded two-volume biography on the fellow?  Because I want to be able to understand the pattern of his days as Foreign Secretary, you see, and you haven’t touched on the matter of international espionage at all either…)

Anyway…at the same time…I’ve been reading the Selected Poems of Sorley Maclean, the great 20th century Scots poet.  And I came across this, (this is the English translation from the Scots Gaelic) which made me think, well…perhaps…I shouldn’t give up just yet…

Dogs and Wolves

Across eternity, across its snows
I see my unwritten poems,
I see the spoor of their paws dappling
the untroubled whiteness of the snow:
bristles raging, bloody-tongued,
lean greyhounds and wolves
leaping over the tops of the dykes,
running under the shade of the trees of the wilderness
taking the defile of narrow glens,
making for the steepness of windy mountains;
their baying yell shrieking
across the hard barenesses of the terrible times,
their everylasting barking in my ears,
their onrush seizing my mind:
career of wolves and eerie dogs
swift in pursuit of the quarry,
through the forests without veering,
over the mountain tops without sheering;
the mild mad dogs of poetry,
wolves in chase of beauty,
beauty of soul and face,
a white deer over hills and plains,
the deer of your gentle beloved beauty,
a hunt without halt, without respite.

Nationalism or honest history…

The teaching of history to children often or usually involves blaming all or most of one event on one person.  This is done in the name of simplifying things so that they’re easily understandable.  For American children, one of those figures is George III.

His truculent and tyrannical behaviour is credited with causing the American Revolution and losing for Great Britain her prosperous American colonies.

He was used as a figure of hate at the time too–so perhaps this isn’t surprising.

And all sorts of stories are trotted out in support of this theory, and no doubt they will go on being trotted out for decades to come.  Proof of his incalculable stupidity is found in his not learning to read until he was 16, for example.

Yet, (and I apologise if this comes as a rude shock to anyone) history is rarely so simple as to be entirely the making of one man.  Even a king.

And in George III’s case, although I was raised and taught to hold him in contempt, I found, when confronted by some facts that I had to rethink my conclusions and abandon my happy nationalist view of the man.  Continue reading

And behold, the focus is shifting…

When I began this writing odyssey, one of the main things that boggled my brains–and of which I’ve spoken at length–was how we’d got to the point of segregating our views of early 19th century British history almost by genre. 

On the one hand, we had the scenarios of domestic and romantic life which began with Jane Austen’s work and over centuries transmogrified into Regency romances.  And on the other hand, we had the world of the military derring-do–the naval and army glory of the Napoleonic wars–which has been celebrated in the works of such as Bernard Cornwell and Patrick O’Brian, among others. 

Beyond that, nothing.   Continue reading

A Froggie Forgery? Do you think?

Ha ha ha.

Well, following on from that charming little lecture on the Continental Blockade and Napoleon’s shifty behaviour which I posted the other day (The War of 1812…), I thought I would share this little bijou nugget-ette. 

You see, following the British Government’s announcement on 21 April that they would be repealing the Orders in Council, the American ambassador–a delightful poet by the name of Joel Barlow–hopped on a boat bound for Calais and made his way to Paris to tell the Frenchies that this had happened.  And to say, “Okay Monsoor, how about the Continental Blockade then, hmn?”  Or words to that effect. 

Joel Barlow

Diddled by the French?

But here’s the thing. 

When Barlow was finally admitted in to meet with the French Foreign Minister, the chappie handed him a decree, dated 28 April 1811, which said that Napoleon had revoked the Berlin and Milan Decrees.  Er, yes, that’s right–the thing was dated a year earlier.

And the oh-so-charming and effusive Minister went on to express his astonishment–“Nom d’un Nom!” etc.–that Barlow knew nothing about it, for he insisted that a copy of this had been sent to Washington on 2 May 1811. 

But Washington had never had such a document. 

Some American historians believe it a French forgery, cooked up no earlier than March or April, with the hope of hurtling the US into war with Britain.  (Perhaps as a distraction from the fact that Napoleon was about invade Russia?) 

The British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, Lords Liverpool and Castlereagh respectively, also believed it a forgery.  It was just a little too convenient, wasn’t it? 

But unable to prove it to be so, they promptly repealed the Orders in Council as they had pledged to do. 

But here’s the thing.  In order for it to be genuine, we would have to believe that: 

1-a letter of such diplomatic and commercial import was received in Washington, but nobody noticed.  Not anyone.   No one opened the letter.  No one saw it.  No one mentioned it.  Right…

2-that having ordered such a letter to be written and sent, with an announcement of such import, no diplomatic follow-up occurred.  No little billet doux was sent mentioning in that cozening Napoleonic manner, “Here we are, such loving keepers of the peace, and all we want is a tender relationship as between siblings, how come you have not responded to our generous offer of the 2 May…”  Something like that.  Because Napoleon was always sending such revolting tripe through the diplomatic pouch, even as he was arming his lads for some invasion or other.

3-that Napoleon, who as we all know was never one to keep quiet about how he outwitted the British (even when he had to make it up), allowed this one diplomatic coup to go unmentioned.  He didn’t blab about it to anyone.  He didn’t have it proclaimed (as a sign of his magniminity) in le Moniteur.  Nothing.   And that’s just spooky.

So…Froggie Forgery?  Probably.  

Can I prove it?  I wish…