- Napoleon and botany
- How plants travelled: expeditions and acclimatisation
To succeed in such a daring enterprise, nothing less than an army made up of elite men was needed, led and commanded by generals whose talents and skill had always known how to master victory.
Fourier. P. Jacotin, Mémoire sur la construction de la carte d’Égypte, in Description de l’Égypte, État moderne, vol. II, 2° parte, 1822, p. 1.
The 18th and 19th century witnessed some of the most important changes in natural sciences. A major change occurred in botany thanks to Carl von Linné who introduced the binomial nomenclature system in 1753. It is still in use today.
This system combined a genus name with a capital letter (for example: Napoleonaea) and a second term (for example: Imperialis) together to uniquely identify each species of an organism within a kingdom. The two words (always in Latin and written in italics), are used to universally describe a species. Their adoption greatly helped the scientific community to share knowledge and discoveries among themselves.
In the 19th century, the increase of scientific expeditions enriched both vocabulary and knowledge about natural sciences. Among others, the work of the Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was important for the Americas, as was Nicolas Baudin's contributions for Australia. However, the naming system introduced in Latin reflects a point of view centred on Western history and references, generally not taking into account the traditional indigenous names of their local plants.
Egypt Campaign and Expedition, 1798
Initially brought to help Napoleon’s soldiers conquer Egypt, the scientists and their discoveries ended up being the highlight of the expedition. The boats departed in 1798 from Toulon, France, with a crew of 50,000 men. 160 scientists, engineers and artists were on board. Until 1801, they studied a wide range of subjects on site: archeology, natural science, linguistics, medicine and music among others.
When they arrived in Egypt, the Institut d’Egypte (Egyptian Scientific Institute) was founded by Napoleon. It started collecting the knowledge gathered on science, nature, history and art, fostering Egyptology all over the world. Famous scientists, such as Berthollet, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Henri-Joseph Redouté, who drew every species of flower and plant discovered, were part of the expeditions.
From the military perspective the campaign was a failure, but it proved to be a great success on the scientific side. The scientists’ discoveries and findings were recorded in one of the beautiful works ever written about Egypt: the Description de l’Egypte1. The experience of the French scientists represents a break with previous travel reports, which were often stuffed with clichés and stereotypes that portrayed a mythical and fantastic Egypt2. The twenty volumes were published between 1809 and 1828, raising awareness of Egyptian and Middle East culture, and reducing western misconceptions regarding those territories.
Australia, Baudin’s Expedition, 1800-1803
In 1800, Napoleon approved the expedition 'to the coasts of New Holland', nowadays Australia. Led by Nicolas Baudin, the explicit purpose of the expedition was the observation and research relating in the field of geography and natural history.3
Two ships - the Géographe and the Naturaliste - set sail from Le Havre on 19 October 1800. There were around 120 men on each ship, among which more than 20 scientists, gardeners and artists. The Naturaliste's first contact with Australian land was near the cape that was named Naturaliste (1801). They then explored the bay which was named Géographe.
Both ships returned to Le Havre in 1803. They brought more than 100,000 samples, of which 2,500 were newly identified species. In 1811, the exploration of the Australian coast led to the publication of the first map of the country, the Freycinet map.4
Acclimatation around Europe
These live plants suffered greatly on their long trips to Europe, even though they were prepared and preserved in an excellent manner, as Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, botanist of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, said himself. Live plants, animals and birds were prudently transported, classified and acclimated at the museum of plants in Paris, and were also sent to Empress Joséphine Bonaparte's gardens at Malmaison Castle.
During the Napoleonic Wars, ships carrying specimens for Joséphine were allowed free passage. Hundreds of plant species were introduced to Europe. Ventenat, in his catalogue of the Malmaison garden, expressly mentions four plants born from seeds transported by the Naturaliste: the Josephinia imperatricis (today Sesamum imperatricis), Apium prostratum, Hibiscus heterophyllus and Callistachys lanceolata.
The healthiest species were chosen for the empress's greenhouses in Malmaison, the largest of its time. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1827. Some were then multiplied to be acclimatised in southern France, especially in Toulon and Nice. These included various species of the genera Eucalypteae, Melaleuca, Metrosideros, Leptospermum and Acacia, which includes the mimosa.
The mimosa is one of the most emblematic plants brought back from the Australian expedition. It first flowered in Europe at Malmaison in 1811. Initially cultivated in greenhouses, the mimosa was then spread to coastal areas with a mild climate. In these regions, the plant still blooms in February and March, covering many areas from the Mediterranean to the Ligurian Sea and the Tyrrhenian Sea with a yellow coat. Some cities even celebrate this moment through festivals, such as Mandelieu-La-Napoule in France and Herceg Novi in Montenegro.
1 Bibliotheca Alexandrina Librairie, Digitalised version of the “Description de l’Egypte”, 2021. Available online at http://descegy.bibalex.org/
2 Barbara Pellegrinelli, La 'Description de l’Égypte' e le sue fonti, Studi Francesi [Online], 152 (LI | II) | 2007. Available online at: http://journals.openedition.org/studifrancesi/9731
3 Boudin Jacques-Olivier, Napoléon en cartes, Éditions de la Martinière, 2021.