12 February 2022: Interregnum

Apologies to everyone for the long interval between blogs.

Over the last six months, AJ and I moved from Johannesburg, South Africa to Vientiane, Laos, travelling via Australia to catch up with family and friends. Because of the Covid 19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns, quarantines and interrupted international travel, this has been a long, long process.

As well, I’ve been planning on working on a major piece on human evolution for some time, something I’ve slowly – and somewhat painstakingly – put together over the last 10 months. The piece is based on a book a friend, palaeoanthropologist Colin Groves, and I were writing together. From the short few chapters we managed to write before his death in 2017, from memories of our many weekly conversations, and from subsequent conversations with his wife Phyll and colleague Debbie Argue, that piece is now all but done. Although nowhere near as comprehensive as the book would have been, it’s still far too long to be viewed in one go, and will appear on this blog over the next few weeks in six sections.

Pha That Luang, Vientiane. Photo: courtesy of Creative Commons (photographer unknown)

Almost as a counterpoint to thinking about human evolution – dealing with relatively deep time – I’ve also been thinking about more recent human history, something spurred on by the pandemic, as well as crises in the Ukraine and the West’s fumbling, erratic handling of the inevitable rise of China. In the process, I came across this short piece I wrote for a workshop two years ago, arguing that the Napoleonic War (or perhaps more accurately, wars) were an essential ingredient in the making of the modern world.

So here it is, the first in what I hope is a much more regular series of blogs.

Napoleon and the modern world

I know … boring Euro-centric, male-centric, and military-centric history. Not really history at all, at least not as its understood these days. But still, the effects of this long conflict did two things that helped establish the world we now live in. First, it saw the creation of the most dominant modern European states. Second, it led to the rabid drive to colonise and exploit Africa.

The so-called First World War – the Great War of 1914-18 – was no such thing. The first true world war was the Seven Years War and occurred in the 1750s . It was fought in Europe, the Mediterranean littoral, west Africa, North America, southern Asia and the Philippines. The Napoleonic War was more of the same – the Second World War, if you like – but with extra countries thrown in and fought on a much more massive scale: bigger armies, bigger battles, greater civilian casualties and dislocation, and huge fleets of giant wooden ships sailing across all seven seas.

Artist: Paul Delaroche. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons (photographer unknown)

One thing you have to say for the Europeans, when they throw a party they make sure everyone’s invited, whether they want to join in or not.

The Napoleonic War involved military, economic and social mobilisation on a scale never seen before. Just two examples: between 1805 and 1813, Napoleon conscripted over 2,000,000 soldiers, and by the end of the war British national debt reached 200% of GDP.

Of course, Napoleon was a megalomaniac, but he also introduced dramatic reforms or consolidated reforms brought in by the French Revolution. Just three examples: the legal system, the Civil Code, influenced similar codes throughout Europe; the metric system is now used almost universally; and state-sponsored voyages of scientific discovery.

The Napoleonic War entangled the US in its first international conflicts: first against the French themselves (their previous ally during the American Revolution), and then, in 1812, against the British (their previous opponent during the American Revolution).

Prussia’s success resisting the French during the war cemented its position as the leading German-speaking country – a process begun 50 years before under Frederick the Great – leading to the creation of the German state itself under the direction of the Prussian Bismarck.

It’s hard to measure to the last centimetre or the last centime or the last degree Celsius the effect all of this had on the rest of the world. But when we talk about nation states, modern economies, science, art, culture and yes, even history, we are dealing with many ideas that had their origin or first great flowering during the Napoleonic era. When the wars were finally done, the continent of Europe – exhausted and battered and Napoleon sent to his last exile on St Helena – experienced nearly a century of peace, something that had never happened before. Instead European states competed with each other overseas, most dramatically in the race to colonise Africa during the 1800s.

The raw materials of the modern world can be found in early European colonialism and 18th century industrialisation, but for all its benefits we enjoy and all its crosses we bear, it was forged during the Napoleonic War.

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