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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

Napoleon and Persia: Franco-Persian Relations Under the First Empire

Amini, Iradj. Napoleon and Persia: Franco-Persian Relations Under the First Empire Washington, DC : Mage, 1999. 228 Pages. ISBN 0934211582. $34.95.


Napoleon and Persia

The Napoleonic wars were a world war; though students of the Seven Years War or other earlier conflicts might argue whether it was the first world war. Iradj Amini has written a book outlining one of the remotest and easternmost frontiers of that conflict.

Amini begins his history with efforts to open relations with Persia during the ancien regime. From the beginning France's relations with Persia was filled with many strange twists and turns. In 1705 Louis XIV sent Jean-Baptiste Fabre, a Marseilles merchant who had long resided in Constantinople, on a mission to establish closer relations with Persia. Among Fabre's entourage was his mistress, Marie Claire Petit. When Fabre died before reaching the Persian court, Marie hijacked the mission, assuming the mantle of the ambassadorship "in the name of the princesses of France." The French scrambled to replace Fabre while Marie actually met with the Shah in his royal harem. Arriving back in France in 1709 Marie was arrested and locked up in a convent.

Not surprisingly this first attempt at opening diplomatic relations between the two countries came to naught. In 1714 the Persian Shah sent an embassy to France to discover whether the French still had an interest in establishing relations. The Persian envoy was arrested by the Turks on his way to France and the French ambassador to the Porte had to fake a kidnapping of the Persian embassy in order to get them to France. Besides inspiring works by Montesquieu and Voltaire, the ugly little Persian ambassador, of whom the Queen's sister said, "He has the maddest look one has ever seen," accomplished little but acquiring a French mistress. On the way home the ambassador committed suicide before arriving at the Persian court.

1722 saw an invasion of Persia by the Afghans and a long period of anarchy until the rise of the Qajar dynasty in 1794. At almost the same time as the establishment of the new dynasty in Persia Napoleon was contemplating quitting France for service in the Turkish Sultan's artillery. Persia, with expansionist neighbors on either side Russia and British-dominated Indialooked again towards France. French diplomats were looking east for ways to strike at Russia and Britain.

By 1797, with his army occupying the Ionian possessions of the Republic of Venice, Napoleon wrote to the Directory, "The islands of Corfu, Zante and Cephalonia are more interesting to us than the whole of Italy.The empire of the Turks is crumblingthe possession of these islands will enable us to support it as far as that is possible, or to take our share.The time is no longer distant when we shall feel that, to destroy England truly, we shall have to capture Egypt." Talleyrand, an admirer of Choiseul, who had earlier urged France to conquer Egypt, also had his eyes on the east. Egypt, he wrote Napoleon, "may someday be very useful to us." Thus was born Napoleon's Egyptian campaign; and if a French army in Egypt was to march overland to India it would need to pass through Persia.

By 1799, with Napoleon in Egypt and having eliminated the threat of Tipu Sultan in India, the British turned fearful eyes toward Afghanistan. The Afghani king's annual excursions into the Punjab took on a sinister aspect to India's Francophobe British governor, the Marquess Wellesley. In the extremely improbable case that the French could somehow march overland through Persia and join with the Afghanis, a general insurrection in India might ensue. To forestall such a move, Wellesley sent John Malcolm, an energetic East India Company operative who spoke Persian to the Shah with a suitably impressive entourage and sumptuous gifts.

Britain signed a treaty with Persia in 1801 in which the Shah agreed to keep the French out of his lands, but in return Britain, now on friendlier relations with Russia after the assassination of Tsar Paul I, made no promises in regards to Russia's expansion in the Caucasus. When the Russians made threatening moves into Azerbaijan the British, desirous of including Russia into a new coalition against France, refused to provide the Shah any assistance. The Persians turned now to France. France, for her part, saw definite advantages to an Eastern diversion against both Russia and Britain and was equally eager for a rapprochement. Napoleon ordered his foreign minister, Talleyrand, to collect all the correspondence regarding Persia in the archives and to collect books from England and reports from the Russian gazettes. Napoleon also requested that representatives be sent to the Persian court.

As Persia was distant and travel was to that land was long and difficult, Napoleon proposed sending military advisors to Persia as he was to do with the Ottomans. Napoleon sent to the Shah through the French envoy a statement of what advisors would have to offer. "When your subjects know how to manufacture arms, when your soldiers have been taught how to split up and reassemble in a series of rapid and well-ordered movements, when they will have learnt how to back up a vigorous attack with the fire of a moving artillery; when your frontiers are secured by numerous fortresses and the Caspian Sea has the flags of a Persian flotilla fluttering on its waves, you will have an unassailable empire and invincible subjects."

Romieu, the first French envoy, had been in Persia less than a month when he died, amid rumors that he had been poisoned. (Romieu had already accused the British consul at Aleppo of having attempted to assassinate him during his trip to Persia.) Before he died Romieu, in a letter to Talleyrand, outlined the main benefits of an alliance with Persiafrustrating the territorial ambitions of Russia and protecting what "remains of the Ottoman Empire." Any other gains, Romieu concluded, would be "either precarious or very remote."

The French, however, had arranged for a second envoy to follow closely on the heels of the first. The second mission, which was to have coordinated with that of the unfortunate Romieu, arrived in Persia after having been kidnapped and imprisoned in a Turkish oubliette for eight months. Jaubert, the second envoy, was more successful than his predecessor was and events in Europe had made a Persian alliance more interesting to Napoleon. As a result the Shah sent an ambassador to France to discuss their mutual interests.

Talleyrand wrote to Napoleon explaining the situation as it stood. Turkey and Persia had a common enemy in Russia, but would either ally with France against Britain? The interests of Turkey and Persia did not otherwise converge. Though the Russians were encroaching on Persia in Georgia, Persia had no direct border with the British empire in India. Having no navy, Persia could only threaten Britain on land, and the Persian army was numerous, but untrained, without modern weapons or tactics. Should France make a joint treaty with the two Asian empires or separate treaties, should these treaties be permanent or for a limited period of time? For Napoleon, his interest in an alliance with Turkey was strategic; his interest in Persia, tactical.

Eylau and the subsequent campaign made the Persian connection even more interesting to Napoleon and in April 1807 General Gardane (Gardane's grandfather had served as envoy to Persia under Louis XIV) was appointed ambassador. Gardane was to address Persia's military and economic resources, aid and assist Persia in resisting the Russians, and arouse anti-British feelings at the Persian court. The Persian ambassador arrived at Finkenstein Castle in Poland, where Napoleon had made his headquarters, on 26 April 1807. The next day the Persian ambassador had his first audience with the French Emperor.

By 4 May 1807 a treaty was ready and signed. France guaranteed the territorial integrity of Persia, recognized Georgia as a Persian province and promised to assist the Shah to repel the Russians from its frontiers. France would provide arms, artillery officers and engineers to assist Persia in modernizing its armed forces and fortresses. In return Persia promised to break off political and commercial ties with Britain, declare on Britain and encourage the Afghanis and Kandaharis to join Persia in the invasion of India. This treaty was to be the high tide of relations between Napoleon and the Shah. The Treaty of Tilsit made the provision that France force Russia to abandon Georgia moot and the Persians had little interest in starting a war with Britain.

Gardane was in Constantinople when he heard of the peace signed at Tilsit. His instructions now were to promote peace between Persia and Russia, and enmity to Britain. Meeting with the Shah, Gardane had to play a difficult game, placating the Persians while not disturbing the peace between France and Russia. Britain was not idle and the Tilsit treaty renewed fears of a joint French-Russian invasion of India through Persia. Now that it was the French, not the British, who were allied with Russia, some at the Persian court were more prone to listen to British proposals. Though Persia was now in the position of having two great powers fighting for its allegiance, neither France nor Britain had much concern for Persian interests. For the Shah, the thrusts and parries of European diplomacy were ultimately meaningless as long as Russia held Georgia.

What positive accomplishments there were in Gardane's mission were more military than diplomatic. French officers began to train a corps of Persian fusiliers in the European manner, French artillery officers set up works at Isfahan to manufacture cannon (until then Persia had no cannon foundries) and French engineers put Persian fortresses in order. Diplomatically, the best face Gardane could put on his mission vis--vis the Russians, who felt that the French had no interests at stake in Persia, was that their continued presence kept the British at bay. But, as long as France and Russia were at peace, Gardane's mission was in a kind of limbo. Gardane was reduced to threatening to leave if the Shah allowed the British access to Persia. (Meanwhile the Persian Ambassador in Paris was having the better time of it, enjoying the city and its women, attending fetes and salons and joining the freemasons.)

In the end, the Shah, frustrated by France's empty promises, invited a British envoy to meet with the Shah. Gardane left Teheran in February 1809 saying, "The affairs of this country leave us no hope but in providence." Gardane, I think, truly did take the Persian problems to heart but his mission was scuttled from the beginning by European affairs. The day after Gardane's departure the British arrived at the Shah's court. A month later a preliminary treaty of friendship was signed. Now it was the turn of the British to double-cross the Shah. Though the treaty required Persia to renounce any previous treaties with European powers and to prevent the army of any European power from marching through its territory to India. And though the British offered to provide military aid and subsidies if Persia was attacked by any European power. The collapse of the Franco-Russian accord left Persia once more betrayed. (When the provision requiring the British to provide aid in the event of an attack was invoked in 1826, during another Russian invasion, Britain refused to honor it. Russia further extended its territory at Persia's expense.)

The maneuverings of France and Britain in Persia foreshadowed the later conflict between Russia and Britain known by the Kiplingesque name of "the Great Game." Persia's greatest immediate threat was imperialist Russia encroaching into Central Asia through Georgia. The Persians therefore saw as their ally any power opposed to Russia, so that its foreign policy swung from France to Britain and back again as alliances in Europe formed and broke apart.

Iradj Amini is an Iranian-born diplomat, the last ambassador of the Shah to France, who is now a French citizen. He has degrees from U.S., Iranian and British universities and has previously written a history of the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Amini has made use of archives in both France and Britain, making use of archival material not available to Edouard Driault in writing his classic La Politique Orientale de Napoleon (1904). As for secondary sources, Amini employs mainly French works, missing, for example, Edward Ingram's relevant Britain's Persian Connection: Prelude to the Great Game, 1798-1828 (1992). It's unfortunate that Iranian sources, either primary or secondary, were not used to round out the story; though an appendix, written by Farrokh Gaffary, does give contemporary Persian views of Napoleon.

A discussion of Persia's military strengths and weaknesses would have filled out the story. What troops did Persia have, in what numbers, how were they armed, where were they stationedthese questions I had reading the book. I detected some minor errors, such as the implication that the Treaty of Lunville (8 February 1801) was signed within a few days of the Battle of Marengo (14 June 1800). Amini might be confusing this treaty with the Convention of Alessandria. But the fascinating story is told with economy and flair. The book includes one map, showing the Persian empire and its environs, and twelve pages of black and white illustrations depicting, chiefly, the personalities discussed in the text.

Napoleon and Persia was originally published in French in 1995 and received the Potiers-Bos Prize for History from the Acadmie Franaise in 1996.


Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2001