Napoleon Bonaparte and India: Unrealized Geopolitical Project

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Baku, 12 May 2015 –

One of the greatest endeavors of Napoleon I Bonaparte was march on India envisaged jointly with Russia for the early XIX century. Eventually, that carefully classified operation would be labelled as a ''fantastic, utopic and surreal project''.

Geopolitically thinking Napoleon, who unlike England could not boast sufficient naval power, was aiming to inflict ''lethal'' blow upon the foggy Albion, by means of invading the crown jewel of the British Empire – India. In this endeavor of the 90s of the XVIII century, he unexpectedly found an ally – Russian Emperor Paul I – a staunch opponent of the French revolutionary ideas.

The point is that Russia had just abandoned the Second anti-French coalition due to differences with own European allies. Failure of the joint with Great Britain invasion of the Netherlands and British occupation of Malta infuriated Paul I who prided himself of holding a title of Grand Master of the Order of Malta. He hastily broke diplomatic relations with London and forged an alliance with Napoleon, who while being one of the generals of the Directory, back in 1797, declared his intention to attack India. However, his first attempt, made during Napoleon’s African march of 1798 eventually failed.

Meanwhile, as Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, the Eastern policy of France started to undergo substantial changes. For Napoleon’s France of the time, then deprived of any significant colonies, undermining of Britain’s potential in the East was a principal issue. The emerging French-Russian rapprochement, targeting England, impelled a grand geopolitical project – striking a tangible blow against England in India.

With the genius of Napoleon and persistence of Paul I, the project did not seem to be that adventurous. With Europeans’ scarce knowledge of routes in Central Asia, Tibet and mountainous passages in that region, the offensive operations of the European armies towards India where deemed feasible exclusively through Persia; namely, via the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea – the Astrabad Gulf.

From there, according to Napoleon’s calculations, the troops could reach India’s frontiers in forty days. Another factor considered was the weakening of the English Army in the East Indies owing to partial troop deployment to Egypt. Already in 1801, Napoleon’s envoy General G.C. Duroc was sent to Petersburg with the project of the India expedition. In turn, in the rescript of 13 January 1801 by Paul I, the ataman of Don Cossacks V.P. Orlov-Denisov, who was overseeing the organization of the march, was recommended to ''attack the English where it would be most destructive and less expected. Their bases in India are the best option''.

This extremely audacious venture would require initial deployment of 35 thousand strong contingent of Don Cossacks under the command of General M. Platov who were supposed to be joined by another 35 thousand French troops near the Astrabad (at present the city of Gorgan in Iran). The French under the command of General A. Masseina were supposed to board Russian vessels and descend southwards via Danube River, cross the Black Sea, ascend via Don River and get to Volga River near Tsaritsyn. From there, they were to cross the Caspian Sea and get to Astrabad. Then through Herat and Kandahar (Afghanistan) they were to join with Russian forces at the Northwestern frontiers of India.

With all the fantastic nature of this plan, this grand venture, involving an overwhelming troop number of both nations could not but alarm England. However, the assassination of Paul I, that occurred on 11 March 1801, in the wake of a conspiracy by the Russian generals and not without knowledge of the English Ambassador in Petersburg, had derailed implementation of this grand, but largely adventurous venture.

Parvin Darabadi

Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor

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