Thursday, June 14, 2018

Death of a Prince

Michael -Thursday

Last time I mentioned the connection between Napoleon Bonaparte and South Africa’s then premier wine – Constance. Most people with any interest in South African wine know that story. What I didn’t know was that there was a much more final connection between the Bonapartes and South Africa. I learned the story from H.E. Mr Christophe Farnaud, the French Ambassador to South Africa, when he recently hosted a delightful literary dinner in honor of a visiting French author. Afterwards, I discovered that it was a very intriguing series of events.

Napoleon III - looking napoleonic
I did know that the Bonaparte family fled to England after the defeat of Emperor Napoleon III by the Prussians. In due course, Napoleon III was released by the Kaiser, but by that time France – sick of the Bonapartes – was a republic and he wasn’t welcome at home. He joined his family in London where they lived as foreign royalty in high society and as friends of Queen Victoria.

The deposed emperor’s only son – Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte, the Prince Imperial, who was only fourteen at the time – was on the battlefield with his father while the latter planned his hopeless campaign in Europe. The prince clearly had a penchant for the fighting life.
(By the way, Napoleon III was president of the second republic before he became emperor. I hope President Trump is not too familiar with French history.)

Prince Louis - looking imperial
Still, the politics of Europe were very fluid at the time, and kings and queens were not enamored of republics. Queen Victoria was apparently in favor of the restoration of the Bonaparte line. The idea of the prince marrying her youngest daughter, Beatrice, was even mooted. Certainly, Prince Louis cut a dashing figure in his uniform, and probably Princess Beatrice would have approved of the match – but, of course, no one would have consulted her in any case.

When his father died in 1873, the Bonapartist faction in France declared the prince Napoleon IV, but it seems Louis was more attracted to a military life than a political one, unless the former was meant to be a prelude to the latter. In 1872, he applied to, and was accepted by, the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and after that for a while he was with the Royal Artillery. This was all fine as long as there was no real danger. When the Zulu War broke out in what is now Kwazulu-Natal, Louis was keen to see active service, but Disraeli absolutely forbade it. Whether he saw the prince as a future ruler of France, whether he wanted a card up his sleeve to play his poker games with France’s leaders, or whether he just didn’t want trouble, he made it clear that the prince was not going to war. At least not until the queen herself got involved and interceded on his behalf.

He went as an ‘observer’ attached to the staff of the commanding officer, Baron Chelmsford, who was personally admonished to look after him. He arrived at the Cape to be entertained by the governor and his wife and it seemed all would be well. But they had not taken into account the intensions of an imperious young man who wanted to prove himself on the battlefield. Chelmsford attached the prince to the Royal Engineers where he thought he’d be safe. However, on one of his reconnaissance missions, he exceeded his orders due to his eagerness for action and almost fell into an ambush. His commanding officer should have seen the writing on the wall, but a few days later he agreed to allow Louis to join a forward party, believing that the area was free of Zulu warriors.

On the morning of the first of June, impatient to be underway, Louis left without his full detail. He bullied the officer leading the party to let him take command. At midday they stopped at what appeared to be a deserted kraal and made sketches of the area. They didn’t post a lookout, and even made a fire. Just as they were about to depart, they were attacked by a Zulu party far larger than their own. Some of the British party were already mounted; the prince was about to do so. His horse bolted, with the prince hanging onto a holster on the saddle, but when the strap holding it broke, he was trampled under the horse's hooves. With his right arm injured, he attempted to fight off the attackers by shooting with his left. This could only have one outcome.

Detail of  Death of the Prince Imperial by Paul Jamin
Definitely not amused

When the prince’s body was recovered, it had 18 stab wounds from assegais including one to the brain. His body was taken back to his grieving mother in England for burial.

Like all good political events, conspiracy theories abounded. He was ambushed and murdered by French republicans. He was deliberately disposed of by the British. There was even one theory that Queen Victoria was personally behind the plot to assassinate him for obscure reasons of her own. Although there was then (and now) no evidence for any of these, they made a good stories. Good enough that there was even a play written about it later with Queen Victoria as the villain.

But the bottom line was that the Cape had claimed the last of the direct line of the Bonapartes and dashed the last hopes of the French monarchists.

Memorial to the Prince Imperial where he fell in Uqweqwe

1 comment:

  1. And we all thought the royal conspiracy stories abounding Princess Di's passing were novelly juicy and problematic. I guess this blows apart that thinking.