1812: How Napoleon and Paul I were about to conquer India
When people speak about Napoleon Bonaparte they usually recall his military campaigns in Europe and do not pay attentions to the fact that the dream of all his life was the conquest of India.
His famous Egyptian campaign in 1798 was to become the first step towards the conquest of India. But after the catastrophe in Aboukir Bay when British admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet and the failure of the Syrian campaign Napoleon returned to France where he took power. But even during his political struggle he continued to dream about the East.
In 1800, Napoleon signed a military and political alliance with the Russian Emperor Paul I, known as a hotheaded ruler. Napoleon managed to talk Paul I into the idea of a joint campaign against India. Bonaparte took active steps to make his dream come true. It was only the assassination of Paul I in March 1801 which ruined his Eastern plans. In this program we will tell you how it all happened and in particular how Russia made its first attempt to establish itself in Central Asia long before this region came under its influence.
Napoleon confessed that France had started the Egyptian campaign in order to conquer the British India. To establish itself in North Africa and the Middle East was the minor goal of that campaign. In fact France planned to turn the international basin of the Mediterranean Sea into the French Lake.
When Napoleon came to power and solved the main domestic affairs he focused on France's foreign policy. One of the first political tasks for France was to continue the French expansion in West Asia and to push the British fleet from the Mediterranean Sea. According to the official version, on returning from Egypt Napoleon left that country occupied by his troops and made Malta part of France. In Africa the French army was headed by of General Klebert.
He was in charge of 17,000 French soldiers and up to 5,000 Arabic and African mercenaries. On Malta the French garrison of 3,000 soldiers was led by General Vobois. These figures show that Napoleon was serious about the resumption of his expansion to the East. He was dreaming about the Eastern Empire of Alexander the Great and wanted to drive the Brits away from the Mediterranean Sea. But this task turned to be a hard nut to crack for Napoleon.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, French, 1824–1904
Napoleon in Egypt, 1867–68
Oil on wood panel
© Princeton University Art Museum