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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

Outpost of Empire: the Napoleonic Occupation of Andalucía, 1810 – 1812

Esdaile, Charles J. Outpost of Empire: the Napoleonic Occupation of Andalucía, 1810 – 1812. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 519 pages. ISBN: 9780806142784.  $40

Outpost of Empire

At its height in 1811, the Napoleonic Empire stretched from the borders of Russia to the Straits of Gibraltar.  Napoleon’s star was at its zenith and most of Europe was at peace with French policy and laws being implemented throughout the continent.  The exception of course was the Iberian Peninsula. Despite having conquered virtually all of Spain the French were never able to fully implement the reforms and policies that were imposed on the rest of the empire.

Although hundreds of books have been written in English about the war in the Iberian Peninsula, most have concentration on the military side of the conflict.  Furthermore, most are focused on the British contributions to ejecting the French from peninsula.  The only book that I know of that looks at how the French attempted to place Napoleon’s brother Joseph on the Spanish throne is Michael Glover’s Legacy of Glory: the Bonaparte Kingdom of Spain, 1808-1813.  It examines King Joseph’s efforts to modernize the Spanish government and bring it into the French orbit.  First published in 1971, it was an ambitious undertaking for a book of only 353 pages in length.  

Since then three other books have been published that are a bit more focused and deal with only certain aspects of the French attempt to pacify the country.  Charles Esdaile’s Fighting Napoleon: Guerrillas, Bandits and Adventurers in Spain, 1808-1814 looks at the bitter guerrilla conflict that made the war in Spain so different than other wars in Europe. Then there are two books that look at the guerrilla war in specific regions of Spain: John Tone's The Fatal Knot: The Guerrilla War in Navarre and Don Alexander’s Rod of Iron: French Counterinsurgency Policy in Aragon during the Peninsular War.

Little has been written about the French conquest of Andalucía, which was the largest region in Spain, had a population of close to 2 million people, and had two of the country’s largest cities – Seville and Cadiz.[1]  In 1823, Edouard Lapène, a French artillery officer who served in there during the war, wrote Conquête de l'Andalousie campagne de 1810 et 1811 dans le Midi de l'Espagne, while in 1910 A. Grasset wrote specifically about the French rule in one province of the region, Malaga: Province française (1811-1812).

Outpost of Empire is one of the first books in close to 100 years that look at problems of French administration in southern Spain.  It is unique because it examines the occupation from both the French and Spanish perspectives, with a heavy emphasis on the latter.  Professor Esdaile starts by exploring a wide variety of factors including the geography of the region, the social conditions, and the local economy, that would drive the occupation.  The French began the invasion of Andalucía with misperceptions and these had a major impact on their ability to pacify the region.  For example the French thought Andalucía was the breadbasket of Spain and their policy of making “war pay for itself” by imposing forced financial contributions and requisitions of food and grain, eventually impoverished the region and caused a famine by 1812.

With the military conquest of Andalucía, there was a concerted effort by the King Joseph and his government to establish a peaceful transition to his rule.  The author looks in detail at the different methods used.  For example Chapter Four covers the media campaign that began almost as soon as they arrived in the region.  Local newspapers were co-opted or new ones started with the mission of selling the new regime to the people.  Military successes and new policies that would bring in prosperity were touted, while the futility of resisting these changes was emphasized. Additionally the continuous strings of defeats inflicted on the Spanish military became the lead stories.  Chapters Five and Six are on the efforts of the government to secure the collaboration of the local elites.  This was done by appealing to their own interests, by a combination of reassuring them that the new government had no intention of changing the social structure, providing them with positions in the new government, and seducing them with what the author calls “Balls, Banquets, and Bayonets”. 

The one thing many people associate with the Peninsular War is the popular uprising against the French invaders.  The country was wracked by a guerrilla war that tied down tens of thousands of French troops.  Andalucía was no exception to this, however in Chapter Seven Dr. Esdaile looks at the causes and impact of the insurgency there.  Were the Spanish driven by a feeling of nationalism and a desire to oppose those were trying to change their social institutions or was the root cause something more basic? Were French policies so economically destructive, that the people were left with no choice but to rebel? You may be surprised by his conclusions!

The final chapter covers the Spanish army and its operations in Andalucía during the French occupation.  This is not a study of its campaigns and battles, but the strategic impact of the Spanish Army on French policy.  Furthermore it is a study of the symbiotic relationship between the army and the insurgents. Could the French have crushed the insurgency if the Spanish army was not present and could the Spanish army have survived without the insurgents?

Outpost of Empire is a thought provoking study of French policy of a conquered land and how the Spanish dealt with it on the local level.  In many ways it shatters accepted beliefs on French arrogance in their rule and Spanish resistance to it.  It a must read for all interested in the Peninsular War.


[1] Burnham, Robert. “Estimated Population of Spain and Portugal in 1808” The Napoleon Series.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2014