By the 1800s, the British had occupied Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, and Northern Circars with the noble goal of personal enrichment. Large parts of the country still lay outside British control with the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad and Tipu Sultan. There was a nominal Mughal emperor who ruled over a vastly shrunk empire. Once forces under Arthur Wellesley, the man who would defeat Napoleon years later, eliminated Tipu Sultan in 1799, it opened up the path for British supremacy in India. While all of these was happening in India, another geopolitical game was being played in the Western hemisphere involving a Spanish playboy, a French emperor, an enlightened American President who kept slaves and actual slaves who defeated two empires. A fortuitous turn of events changed the history of United States and the colonial European powers shifted their gaze to the East.
When Napoleon evaluated the French position towards the end of the 18th century, it looked terrible. The Egyptian invasion had failed, so had the creation of the Mediterranean empire. The French position in India did not look promising and they had already lost the vast territories of Canada to the British. But much more important was the development in their colony Saint-Domingue — the richest colony in the Western hemisphere — where the slaves had revolted. The Austrians and the Russians formed an alliance to stop France and war was happening in Switzerland and Germany. From these data points he decided what had to be done: France needs to reclaim Saint-Domingue as well as create an empire in United States.
In 1800, Spain controlled a vast amount of territory which included large parts of what is now United States (Florida, Louisiana), Mexico, Central America, Cuba, and the entire Western and North parts of South America. In spite of this, Spain was seen as a weak empire due to misrule by Charles IV, who did not want to govern and was happy to delegate the responsibility to someone else. That someone was Manuel de Godoy who became the Prime Minister mostly because he was the Queen’s lover and thus was able to quickly become powerful and influence the King.
Among all the possessions of Spain, the port of New Orleans, was of special interest to Napoleon. During that period, when the United States did not have highways or railroads to transport goods across the nation, but they had rivers. American agricultural goods like wheat, corn and cattle were transported down Ohio river and the Mississippi to the port of New Orleans. At the port, the goods were moved to bigger ships and taken to the East Coast as well as to other countries across the Atlantic. Even though the port was under Spanish control, they had a relatively peaceful policy towards American shipping. No tariff duties had to be paid to Spain before the goods were moved to larger ships. Napoleon knew that if he controlled New Orleans with his new army, he could choke United States and control its fate.
To realize his vision, Napoleon came up with a three point plan.
- Make peace with Austria and Britain. He had problems with Britain during the Egyptian invasion and if he made peace with them, his fleet could cross the Atlantic without collateral damage.
- Create secret deal with Spain
- Assemble a large expeditionary force with hundreds of ships for the conquest of Saint-Domingue and holding on to New Orleans.
Everything went as planned. He made peace with Austria and Britain. Godoy wanted some property in Tuscany and in return he was willing to give Louisiana to the French. The Third Treaty of San Ildefonso was made in secret exactly as Napoleon wanted. The large force was assembled and Napoleon was ready to execute his vision. The United States under Thomas Jefferson was shocked as the country did not have an army to fight Bonaparte. Even though New Orleans was under the control of Spain, Jefferson was sure that he would not have the same business relation with a French controlled New Orleans.
Two events saved United States. First Thomas Jefferson threatened France that if such an event happened, they would join forces with Britain. This was a particularly bold statement because Britain and United States were fighting a war just more than a decade back. Maybe , he was borrowing the enemy of my enemy concept from Chanakya. Then Jefferson had no other choice; he had an army of 1500 men, an unreliable militia, and a navy which was no match against the French. For the security of the nation, he had to align himself with a bigger power.
Second and probably what sealed the fate of the French invasion were guns, germs, steel and something Jared Diamond would not have written about: slaves. When a 10,000 strong French army, under the leadership of Napoleon’s brother-in-law arrived at Saint-Domingue, the slaves gave them a good fight. Napoleon wanted to establish slavery in the colonies and for the slaves, it was a battle for their future. L’Ouverture, the slave leader, was captured through trickery and sent to France where he died in prison. But soon yellow fever stuck and the French army never recovered from it. Those who survived the machetes fell to the germs. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc, too died from the disease.
This was unexpected and Napoleon fell into despair. He had to make a critical decision. Should he proceed to the American mainland or does he withdraw back to Europe? Some of his advisors suggested that he go forward with his plans, but he decided to go back to Europe and continue his wars against the British there. If the United States aligned with the British, that would be a formidable power and in case there was such a battle, he could lose his Caribbean possessions.
What was surprising was another decision he made: he decided to sell Louisiana to the United States at a cheap price of 3 cents per acre. He could have returned it back to Spain, but instead he decided to sell it to the country he was coming to build his empire. There were few reasons for this strange decision. First, the secret deal he made with Spain got bogged down over details. Second, Godoy fell out of favor with the Emperor and compared to this fool, Napoleon found the Americans more palatable because New Orleans would make America more powerful and a powerful America would keep the British busy to his favor. Third, he needed money for his wars in Europe.
This turned out to be a blessing for the Americans. This video shows the population growth of United States through that period; with New Orleans secure, the country started moving from the Atlantic border to the West and the future of North America changed.
A decade earlier the British had made a bid to conquer Saint-Domingue, but they were defeated by the slaves and yellow fever. Then they tried to conquer Buenos Aires and that costly expedition failed as well. The retreat of the French, the stability of United States and Wellesley’s growing Indian empire made the British pay more attention to the East and shift the base of their operations. They would still fight the Americans in the War of 1812, but their shift to India paid rich dividends for them. Following the defeat of the Marathas, they had much of India under their control.
- Lecture titled “The Lucky Americans” by Prof. Philip D. Zelikow at the University of Virginia
- Lectures by Prof. Michael Parrish at UC San Diego on America and the World
- Keay, John. India: A History. Grove Press, 2001.
- Sivers, Peter von, Charles A. Desnoyers, and George B. Stow. Patterns of World History: Since 1750. 1st ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 2011.