Was Napoleon Bonaparte an enlightened leader or tyrant?

More than 200 years after Bonaparte’s death, history—and a new movie—fuel debate about his legacy, France’s colonial past, and the leader’s ties to Haiti.

Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821, in St. Helena, a remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic, where he was living in exile. He was 51. These objects tied to Bonaparte are displayed in the private home of Giovanni Spadolini, an ex-Prime Minister of Italy who has collected a large number of books, documents, and other artifacts.

The year was 1802. France’s wealthiest colony, Saint-Domingue, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola—today shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic—was in turmoil. As former slaves battled their French overlords, an alliance of Black and mixed-raced generals fought to restore order under the French flag.

Then came news from Guadeloupe, another French colony in the Caribbean. Freed Blacks who had rebelled against French troops trying to re-enslave them had lost their battle.

French general and ruler Napoleon Bonaparte—the subject of a new movie that will be released in theaters in November—had reneged on a promise he made that year: the reestablishment of slavery in French colonies would exclude Guadeloupe and other territories where Black people had been freed during the French Revolution. But economics superseded, and Bonaparte restored laws in Guadeloupe that were struck down when France had abolished slavery in 1794.

After eight years of freedom, Black Guadeloupeans were now back in bondage.

Black fighters as well as those of mixed race—known across the Caribbean as mulatto—quickly realized that the mighty expedition of French troops deployed under the command of Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, Army General Charles Leclerc, weren’t in Saint-Domingue just to restore order. Their purpose was to reinstate slavery, and reassert French control over the entire island after slave revolt leader Toussaint Louverture published an 1801 constitution proclaiming himself governor-general for life and codifying the abolishment of slavery.

Suddenly the resistance movement that began in 1791 with a series of slave rebellions on the island—though roiled by internal conflicts, shifting alliances, and the arrest and deportation of Louverture—was ignited. The events of 1802 would give birth to the world’s first Black-led independent nation post colonialism: Haiti.

It also would forever seal a legacy for Bonaparte that remains a source of contention 200 years after his death.

“Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1802 and the French parliament, in 2001, declared by law that colonial slavery was a crime against humanity,” says Georges Michel, a Haitian historian in Port-au-Prince. For Bonaparte’s role in rolling back abolition, Michel sees the military leader as a man who was “a criminal against humanity.”

He also sees an irony in the way in which the most famous Frenchman died. “The same way that Napoleon kidnapped Toussaint Louverture, and put him in captivity, he also finishes his life in captivity. He will have the same fate as Toussaint Louverture.”

French studies professor Andrew Curran said that while Bonaparte has been widely written about, there is often an ellipsis in his narrative where the Haitian Revolution is missing.

“Part of it is the fact that the Haitian Revolution, and the loss of Saint-Domingue, really was such an enormously powerful and awful thing for the French. It's kind of their Vietnam,” says Curran, who teaches at Wesleyan University and is the author of The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment. “The fact that this enormous country was beaten resoundingly by people they thought were not at the level of people who should not have beaten them—there was an enormous amount of shame, which turned into the most violent racism.”

Dueling legacies

Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821, in a damp and rat-infested house in St. Helena, a remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic, where he was living in exile. He was 51. (See a painting that captures Bonaparte's final moments.)

In 2021, bicentennial commemorations of his death opened old wounds. His dueling legacies of hero and tyrant serve as a reminder of France’s dark colonial past, where the forced labor of enslaved Africans made it one of Europe’s wealthiest nations.

While tributes were planned in the French overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, not everyone toasted the ex-emperor’s complicated legacy.

In Haiti, there was no wreath laying or Catholic Mass held in his honor, as took place in St. Helena, nor were there reenactments of Bonaparte’s adventures, like those seen on the Mediterranean island of Elba, where the bicentenary of his April 11, 1814 arrival in exile was celebrated with fanfare.

In death, as in life, Bonaparte is dividing opinion and arousing powerful sentiments about his ascent and fall from power, his contributions to France, and the legacy he left scattered across the Caribbean—particularly in Haiti, where his mark remains ingrained in a bloody history.

Enlightened leader or warmonger?

For admirers, Bonaparte is considered an enlightened autocrat and the architect of modern France. His creation of the state-run secondary schools known as the lycées—attended by many of the country’s elite as part of his reform of the education system—remains a cornerstone of today. His legal contribution in the form of the Civil Code abolished feudal privileges, unified laws, and formed the basis of today’s French civil law. He also organized France with his structured, centralized government.

A pragmatist, he both promoted science and reintroduced religion, putting Judaism, Protestantism, and Catholicism on the same footing—not because he was religious but because he saw it as politically necessary. In his heyday, he brought glory to France, and financial salvation after the messy French Revolution, whose universal values—“liberty, equality, fraternity”—are shared by many nations, including Haiti, which adopted it as the republic’s official motto. 

“Of course, Napoleon is glorious because of the military victories,” says Peter Hicks, a British historian with the Fondation Napoléon in Paris. “It’s not the way we think these days, perhaps. But at the time, he was hugely popular because of the immense success of the French army and the growing nature of the French army.” 

But with success came failings and human suffering. To detractors, he is a warmonger and despot who negotiated, manipulated, and politicized his way into singular power in a bloodless 1799 coup. The leader of France then amended the constitution three years later to appoint himself First Consul for Life.

Bonaparte is not associated with individual liberty, as exemplified by his reinstatement of slavery and conflict with Louverture, who declared that “All men are born, live, and die free” in his 1801 constitution.

Miffed not just by the language in the constitution but also by Louverture’s self-imposed act to rule for life, Bonaparte later wrote in his memoirs that “Toussaint knew very well that in proclaiming his constitution, he had thrown away his mask and had drawn his sword out of its sheath forever.”

Marlene Daut, associate professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Virginia, says that to point to positive contributions by Bonaparte “is to suggest that the people whose lives he destroyed actually don’t matter."

The total number of civilian and military casualties attributed to Bonaparte varies, with French historian Hippolyte Taine estimating 1.7 million deaths and others putting the figure as low as 600,000. Daut says other estimates vary between three million and six million. It’s one of the reasons she sees Bonaparte as an odd choice to hail as a hero.

The debate on Bonaparte’s legacy comes amid deep soul-searching, which extends beyond the United States, about racism, discrimination, colonialism, and the enslavement of Black people.

In the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, where commemoration events took place, some see the French government’s bicentennial recognition as an affront—another example of a nation that prides itself as operating on a colorblind, egalitarian creed but acts with blinders on when it comes to slavery’s legacy.

The French recognize that Bonaparte is problematic, Daut says, but aren’t necessarily embracing a widespread reckoning. “To admit that Napoleon is racist, to them is to say something about French people and they cannot handle that,” she says. “Even when they’re willing to concede the facts of what he did—and they’re not actually denying the facts—it makes them deeply, deeply uncomfortable, because what does that mean about all of the wealth that they have in their country. What does that mean about all of the prosperity? What does that mean about French identity? That it’s built on the backs of murdering people, and not just people in Haiti.”

Life in exile  

Bonaparte’s life in exile took a drastic turn. As a military leader, he carried out several successful campaigns during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, crowned himself emperor, and survived dozens of assassination attempts. (Claiming the crown cost Napoleon a famous fan: Beethoven.)

But he ultimately fell out of favor and ended up banished—twice—first to Elba, then to St. Helena.

His first stint in exile comes in 1814 after a failed Russian invasion. European allies force his abdication and dispatch Bonaparte to Elba, where he rules over the 12,000 inhabitants of the tiny island off the Tuscan coast. He is promised money that never comes from a bankrupt France, and spends his 300 days there reforming Elba’s government and economy, overseeing road construction and other projects.

Bonaparte, who claimed he wanted to live “like a justice of the peace,” is free to move about. No one guards him, and no ships circle the island to keep him there. But the man who was used to leading armies and served as French emperor for a decade grows restless.

Gambling on the belief that the French army is still loyal to him, he flees back to his homeland, where a band of soldiers joins him in his quest to reconquer power. That endeavor lasts for a full hundred days.

“Europe cannot believe it, the world cannot believe it,” says Hicks of the Fondation Napoléon. “The hundred days are extraordinary. People go, 'Wow, he did that?' And France doesn't react negatively. It doesn’t react positively.”

At the time of Bonaparte’s escape from Elba in February 1815, Europe’s leaders are meeting in what is known as the watershed Conference of Vienna to reorganize the region following his conquests. They are aware of his escapades, and on March 13, a week before his arrival in Paris, Bonaparte is declared an outlaw.

His arch enemy, the British, had unsuccessfully been trying to ban slavery. To annoy them, and to appear as a liberal ruler after he finally arrives in Paris, Bonaparte declares the abolition of slavery in France—for a second time. (It would take more than three decades for free Blacks in French territories to witness the full abolition of slavery. In 1848, France becomes the only country to abolish slavery three times, amid a struggle of economic and racist interests and human rights).

Viewing him as an obstacle to peace, the armies of Russia, Austria, and Britain unite one last time against Bonaparte in June and surround France. Over three days in the Battle of Waterloo, Bonaparte finally meets defeat. Unable to escape to America, he eventually surrenders to the British.

Bonaparte is exiled to St. Helena, Britain’s windswept, rugged outpost off the coast of Africa— a penal colony in the middle of the South Atlantic where the closest land border is 1,200 miles away. Bonaparte spends his days tending to his garden and rewriting history in his memoirs.

When death arrives six years later, reportedly from stomach cancer, Bonaparte’s body is encased in not one but four nested caskets—one made of tin that held his body, two crafted from mahogany, and another in lead. He is buried underneath a willow tree in a grave 10 feet down in the earth

Fears of an outlash by Bonaparte loyalists and possible unrest in a politically fragile France would keep the Corsican-born leader in exile in death—19 years would pass before his remains return to France. When his body arrives, curious crowds line the streets to get a glimpse of the horse-drawn coffin. Bonaparte’s remains are today at a monument in Les Invalides complex in Paris.

Legacy of a slave revolt 

While the restoration of bondage in Guadeloupe in 1802 became a turning point in the Haitian Revolution, so too did the capture of its leader, Louverture, who died a lonely death in a cold French prison.  

As a French colony, Saint-Domingue had the Caribbean’s largest enslaved population, with many subjected to brutal beatings and other acts of violence. There were also people of mixed race and free Blacks who, while not enslaved, were subjected to a rigid caste system and denied citizenship by the island’s white leaders. The turmoil was exacerbated by the French Revolution, and in 1793, to quell conflict, France ended slavery in the colony. The following year it was abolished in all French territories.

The idea of having Saint-Domingue return to a colony where Black people were once again enslaved, and those of mixed ancestry subject to a caste system—as in Guadeloupe and Martinique, which had just returned to the French fold from the British—was unthinkable.

“Napoleon’s mission, with the deployment of Leclerc, was to return Saint-Domingue to what it was before 1794, before the revolution started,” says Pierre Buteau, a Haitian historian and author. “They concluded that the only way for them to establish control in Saint-Domingue, they had to eliminate all of the big leaders of the revolution.”

But the leaders were not the only target. In a letter to Bonaparte, Leclerc writes that the abolition movement is so strong that reasserting power in Saint-Domingue would require a drastic move: eliminating all of the adult Black population, including children over the age of 12.

“A war of extermination was going to take place, but this war of extermination is what will lead to the Battle of Vertières,” Buteau says of the last major battle of the revolution, which led to France being kicked out of the island.

The repression gets brutal. Leclerc and his second-in-command, General Donatien-Marie-Joseph Rochambeau, unleash vicious man-eating dogs, drown Black people at sea, and parade the heads of rebellious individuals as a warning.

“Most of the famous images from the Haitian Revolution from the 18th and 19th century show Black people with white people's heads,” Daut says. “That's rich, because actually it was the other way around.”  

“They got the examples from the white colonists because that is exactly what they would always do,” she continues. “Any free person who agitated for rights, complained about prejudices, they would cut off their heads, stick it on pikes, and paraded around the town, literally.”

Some scholars argue that the Haitian Revolution, which remains the only successful slave revolt in history, should not be considered among Bonaparte’s defeats because he wasn’t there, and his expeditionary army was led by generals.

Others say it is overdue for predominantly white countries like France and Britain, which had a history of enslaving people, to tell a fuller narrative of their empires.

Bonaparte deployed more than 60,000 soldiers to the island—and still lost. The revolt also halted his expansion plans west into the United States, thereby leading to the Louisiana Purchase. And it cost France the main crown jewel in an empire that stretched into Africa and the Caribbean.

Jacqueline Charles is the Haiti correspondent for the Miami Herald. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and was honored with the Maria Moors Cabot Prize in 2018 for stories from across the Americas. 

Born in Milan, Sergio Ramazzotti has written and photographed stories for some of the leading magazines around the world with a special interest in covering wars and humanitarian crises. He worked with Ornella D'Alessio on this story.

Editor's note: This story originally published on May 4, 2021. It has been updated.

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