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The Dogs of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon's relationship with dogs was complex and not always positive.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

I had just finished giving a talk about well known politicians and their dogs. This included a description of a broad spectrum of different relationships between the dogs and their well known owners, which ranged from real emotional companionship to the callous use of dogs to manipulate the politician's image and popularity with the public. During the question period that followed one member of the audience asked "Can you tell us what kind of dog Napoleon Bonaparte had and what his relationship was with it?"

The answer to that question actually turns out to be rather complicated with both positive and negative aspects. To begin with, there is no mention that Napoleon's family had a dog when he was growing up in Corsica. He also did not have a canine companion during his early military career. The first time that we hear about a dog in Napoleon's life comes when he married Josephine.

Josephine had a little Pug dog named Fortune. Although Pugs have a reputation for being rather mild in their temperament, Fortune spent most of his time in Josephine's apartments and became quite possessive and hostile toward men when they were around his mistress. Josephine's fondness for Fortune led to an unfortunate incident on the night of her wedding to Napoleon in 1796.

Napoleon described his interaction with the dog to his friend, the French playwright Antoine-Vincent Arnault. He began by pointing to the little Pug who was lying on the sofa and then he said "Do you see that gentleman: he is my rival. He was in possession of Madam's bed when I married her. I wished to remove him but it was quite useless to think of it. I was told that I must either sleep elsewhere or consent to share my bed. That annoyed me considerably, but I had to make up my mind. I gave way. The favorite was less accommodating ..."

Napoleon went on to note that when he and Josephine were passionately "in flagrante delicto" Fortune would not stand for such activity and attacked the naked general, drawing blood and leaving a scar. He added in his description to Arnault "I bear proofs on my legs of what I say."

Napoleon had little fondness afterwards for the dog in his household. A few years later another dog symbolically embarrassed him. When the French Navy was defeated by the British fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar a detailed description of the events was delivered to him. The account included the fact that a Newfoundland dog, who served as the mascot on the frigate HMS Nymph, was one of the first members of the boarding party to reach the deck of the French warship Cleopatra when she surrendered. Reports say that the general slammed his hand down on the table and muttered "Dogs! Must I be defeated by them on the battlefield as well as in the bedroom?"

Josephine traveled to Milan to be with Napoleon who was in command of the Army of Italy after having suppressed a revolt against the government from royalist insurgents. Of course she brought Fortune with her. One day the Pug's feisty nature caused him to pick a fight with a Mastiff who was owned by Napoleon's cook. His mistake was fatal. Josephine was quite distraught over the loss of her companion, however she was soon given another Pug (by Lieutenant Hippolyte Charles who was part of the household guard and also one of Josephine's lovers).

Napoleon was not pleased to once again have to share his bedroom with another dog. As he was crossing the courtyard one morning the cook, whose Mastiff had killed Fortune, stopped him to apologize for his dog's action. The cook explained that since the incident he was keeping his dog locked up. Napoleon replied, "Let him out. Perhaps he can rid me of this new one as well."

However, outside of his household, Napoleon's attitude toward dogs appeared to be much more favorable. Emmanuel, the Comte de Las Cases, was the French historian to whom Napoleon dictated his memoirs. He transcribed Napoleon's recollection of the night after the Battle of Bassano, during his Italian campaign. The general was walking across the battlefield, which was covered with the corpses of those who had fallen just a few hours before. He remembered it this way:

"We were alone, in the deep solitude of a beautiful moonlit night. Suddenly a dog leaped out from under the cloak of a corpse. He came running toward us and then, almost immediately afterward ran back to his dead master, howling piteously. He licked the soldier's unfeeling face, then ran back to us — repeating this several times. He was seeking both help and revenge. I don't know whether it was the mood of the moment, or the place, or the time, or the action in itself, or what — at any rate, it's a fact that nothing I saw on any other battlefield ever produced a like impression on me. I stopped involuntarily to contemplate this spectacle. This man, I said to myself, has friends, perhaps. He may have some at the camp, in his company — and here he lies, abandoned by all except his dog. What a lesson nature was teaching us through an animal.

"What a strange thing is man! How mysterious are the workings of his sensibility! I had commanded in battles that were to decide the fate of a whole army, and had felt no emotion. I had watched the execution of manoeuvres that were bound to cost the lives of many among us, and my eyes had remained dry. And suddenly I was shaken, turned inside out, by a dog howling in pain!"

Perhaps this recollection came to Napoleon's mind because, only a few months before he dictated this passage, his life had been saved by a dog. It was in February, 1815, that he decided to end his voluntary exile to the island of Elba. This move would eventually result in a landing at Cannes and his return to Paris. From there events would build to his disastrous defeat at Waterloo, and his final confinement to the island of Saint Helena. All these events, which occurred within 100 days, might never have come to pass, because of a misstep that Napoleon made when leaving Elba.

Napoleon was preparing to leave the island. As the boat pulled away he stood by the gunwale for a last look at the island. The boat was pitching and surfaces were slippery. A few moments later the sailors noticed that Napoleon was no longer in the boat — he had lost his balance and toppled into the sea. Unfortunately, the general was not a strong swimmer, and, even worse, he was dressed in full uniform and wearing the large iron sword that he had worn at the Battle of Austerlitz. He was floundering in the water when a dog came to his rescue. The dog was a large black and white Newfoundland, which was used by its fisherman owner to help tow lines to small boats and to recover fishing nets. The dog immediately swam to Napoleon, and kept his head above water long enough for sailors to turn the boat and come to his rescue. Napoleon made it back to the ship, and proceeded on the path to his destiny. The dog, whose name we do not know, apparently safely returned to his owner.

It was as a symbol of faithfulness that Napoleon apparently often thought of dogs. He once wrote "If you do not like dogs, you do not like fidelity; you do not like those who are attached to you; and, therefore, you are not faithful."

Nonetheless there were things about dogs that could still annoy him. It is said that one of the first acts that Napoleon passed when he assumed the title of Emperor was a law making it illegal for anyone to name their dog "Napoleon".

Ultimately Napoleon finished out his life in forced exile on the island of Saint Helena. It is reported that he shared his exile with a black and white dog of unknown breed named "Sambo". The report said that the dog had its ears cut off in what was then known as the Chinese style and that made its head look more like a seal than a dog. He often walked with the dog and seemed to have a real fondness for him. After Napoleon's death in May 1821 the dog was taken back to Europe by Countess Bertrand and it lived out the rest of its life as the playmate of her children.

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