World History 2 114 - 8.1.2 The Napoleonic Era

The U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 and France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen stressed that all men were created equal. However, both these documents were intended to apply primarily to White males of European descent, and in both Europe and the United States, women and the enslaved were generally excluded from consideration. The rights that “all men” were said to possess were those of interest to free White men—property rights, freedom of expression, and the right to participate in government. Only the most radical of people in the United States and France interpreted these documents to mean that women should have the same rights as men, or that people of different races should be considered the equal of White people in terms of rights and social status. Nevertheless, these documents partially inspired a slave revolt in Saint-Domingue that proved to be one of the French Revolution’s most significant effects in the Americas.

The French colony of Saint-Domingue, located on the western side of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, was founded in the mid-1600s and was soon the most profitable colony in the Americas, mostly due to the labor of enslaved Africans who were brought to the island to work on sugar, coffee, and indigo plantations. In 1791, freed and enslaved Africans and other islanders of African descent rebelled under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, both of whom had been born enslaved on local plantations. This revolt evolved into a full-fledged revolution that led to the colony’s independence and the declaration of the free republic of Haiti in 1804. The Haitian Revolution is therefore unique in that it was carried out not by White colonists of European descent seeking political representation and greater economic freedom, as had been the case in the British colonies of North America; instead, the struggle for independence in Saint-Domingue was fought by those at the lowest levels of the social hierarchy.

The rebellion in Haiti had two goals and sought two forms of liberation. For free Blacks and mixed-race elites, freedom meant an end to colonialism and independence from French rule. For enslaved Blacks, liberation was much more fundamental: it meant freedom from the abuse they experienced on the plantation and an end to slavery. By January 1804, through successful guerrilla tactics, Black revolutionaries had decimated the French army, already suffering an outbreak of yellow fever, to create the Haitian nation. Haiti became the second liberated territory and republican system in the Western hemisphere.

After the uprising in Haiti, political elites in the Americas feared its success would inspire other slave rebellions. The idea that American Indians, free and enslaved Africans, and people of mixed-racial ancestry might launch their own violent bids for independence made the creole aristocracy hesitant to imitate the liberty-seeking Anglo-American colonists and dampened rather than aroused their support for independence from their parent countries. Instead, it was upheavals on the Iberian Peninsula itself that would lead to the breaking of ties between Spain and Portugal and their respective colonies.

During the Napoleonic Era (1803–1814), Portugal and Spain supported different sides in the war between France and the other European nations that had united in opposition to Napoléon Bonaparte, emperor of the French. Whereas Portugal kept its long-standing ties to Great Britain, an enemy of Napoléon, Spain was a French ally. Since the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714), the House of Bourbon had ruled in Spain, and its king at the time, Carlos IV, developed a disastrous policy of war with England. British naval blockades not only interrupted trade between Spain and its colonies, but in 1806 British soldiers struck Buenos Aires, in the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata (present-day Argentina). Although local forces defeated the British, the attack made clear to the Spanish American colonists the vulnerability of their own metropolis and the inability of Spain to protect them.

In 1807, Napoléon implemented his Continental System, or Continental Blockade, that required that all European ports be closed to English shipping. Portugal, however, continued to trade with Britain, one of its oldest allies. Britain could not be defeated so long as it had access to European trade through Portugal. To force Portugal into compliance, though, France would need to invade it, and it could accomplish this only by marching through Spain. By this time, Spain had become a vulnerable French satellite and Napoléon easily obtained the Spanish Crown’s permission to invade Portugal by land. In so doing, Spanish subjects endured the heavy burden of taxation, war, and occupation.

Confronted with rising popular resentment of the pro-French policies, Carlos IV felt pressured to abdicate in favor of his son Fernando. Napoléon quickly intervened in the succession process, detained the two men, forced both to surrender their claims to the Spanish throne and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte as king of Spain.

But Napoléon’s plan did not fully succeed. In early 1808, rather than accepting Joseph Bonaparte, most people in Spain, as well as creole royalists and some republicans in the colonies, rebelled. The rebellion began in Madrid but quickly spread to other cities across the Iberian Peninsula. Eventually, the Peninsular War (1808–1814) would involve British, Spanish, and Portuguese forces, all fighting against the French.

Beyond the Book

The Third of May 1808

Commissioned by the Spanish provisional government after the final expulsion of the French from Spain in 1814, Spanish artist Francisco de Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808 (1814) dramatically portrays a key event in the Peninsular War: French reprisals against Spanish rebels involved in the Second of May Uprising (Figure 8.8). The uprising, a response to the planned removal of the remaining members of the Spanish royal family to Bayonne, France, had taken place in the center of Madrid. The execution by Napoleonic soldiers depicted in the work represents one of many that took place across the city in the early hours of the morning following the uprising.

Several soldiers point guns at civilians. A pile of dead civilians lies at their feet. There is blood on the ground.
Figure 8.8 Francisco de Goya’s painting, The Third of May 1808 (1814), depicts the French response to the Second of May Uprising in Madrid, Spain. (credit: “The Third of May” by The Prado Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • Explain how the Continental Blockade relates to Goya’s painting and its celebration of Spanish resistance to Napoléon.
  • Compare Goya’s depiction of the rebels versus that of the soldiers. How do the arrangement and posture of the two groups differ? How does the artist use light and shadow to contrast the two?
  • How is this painting revolutionary in both subject and style? What do the subject and the style tell us about the artist’s intentions?
This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax