One Question Quiz
He may not have made it here literally, but Napoleon’s legacy reached New Zealand in many ways (Image: Archi Banal)
He may not have made it here literally, but Napoleon’s legacy reached New Zealand in many ways (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyDecember 23, 2023

How Napoleon influenced Aotearoa

He may not have made it here literally, but Napoleon’s legacy reached New Zealand in many ways (Image: Archi Banal)
He may not have made it here literally, but Napoleon’s legacy reached New Zealand in many ways (Image: Archi Banal)

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon opened in New Zealand recently, and the film has inspired a renewed fascination with that period of history. Aotearoa was very much a part of it. 

The Duke of Wellington looked through his spyglass towards the carnage unfolding at Waterloo. William Ponsonby had disappeared over the ridge, and the Duke worried the young cavalryman had missed the order to withdraw. 

Indeed, Ponsonby had, and by the time he realised his error it was too late. His winded horse faltered in the thick mud, and in a blur, the riders were upon him. As he fell under a Frenchman’s lance, I often wonder how Ponsonby would have felt if he had known that an affluent Auckland suburb would be named for his gallantry. 

Across the field, Thomas Picton wasn’t faring any better. Wellington had ordered the vile yet capable commander over the ridge with a company of soldiers. As the French line came into view, Picton drew his sword. “Charge! Hurrah! Hurrah!” he bellowed, shortly before a musket ball struck him between the eyes. 

Two hours’ drive from Te Waipounamu’s Picton and you’re in Nelson, named for another Briton who died under the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte. Nelson led England’s navy and fell to a French sharpshooter. The eponymous city’s “Bay Dreams” music festival is typically held at Trafalgar Park, just off Trafalgar Street – both places named after the decisive battle Admiral Nelson won (and died fighting). 

An aerial shot of an azure-blue beach in Motueka, near Nelson, New Zealand. Overlaid text says "Greetings from Nelson"
Just one of many New Zealand place names that references the Napoleonic Wars (Image: Getty Images; design by Tina Tiller

Walk through almost any town from Bluff to Cape Reinga, and you will find at least one place that references the Napoleonic Wars, fought two centuries ago between France and more than half of Europe. This series of conflicts, named for the French general-turned-emperor, unfolded about as far away from New Zealand as you can get. Now, with the release of Ridley Scott’s new biopic, it’s as good a time as any to ask: why? What does this guy have to do with us? 

From cities to suburbs to streets, New Zealand’s place names are a veritable who’s who of British soldiers who died fighting Napoleon Bonaparte. These stories became a part of Britain’s mythology, and were clearly still in the minds of colonists who sought to honour their martyrs when renaming sites throughout Aotearoa. 

Beyond place names, however, Napoleon’s legacy reached New Zealand in other ways. Though, according to Grant Morris, associate law professor at Victoria University of Wellington, these were all very indirect.

“The outcome of [The Napoleonic Wars] had a huge impact on Britain and its empire and ultimately, therefore, on New Zealand.” he says. “You can take it back to Trafalgar in 1805. That gave the British control of the seas. And by having control of the seas, that made colonisation easier.” 

Napoleon, famously, didn’t care much for overseas colonies and his navy, instead preferring to fight battles on land. His concern for the Pacific, and by extension New Zealand, was token. 

“In a world where Napoleon had greater emphasis on the French navy, there would have been a greater French presence in the Pacific,” says William Jennings, Francophile and senior lecturer at Waikato University. “By weakening the French navy, it meant that the French merchant navy wasn’t given the protection that it needed. Bonds were broken with many colonies, and by weakening France’s connection with colonies, it meant that they lost a few of them to the British.” 

Could New Zealand have been one of those colonies? Could you, had Napoleon played his cards differently, be reading these words “au français” while smoking Gauloises? 

Grant Morris doesn’t think so. 

“You’ve got to remember the way the great powers saw the world at that point,” Morris says. “They had their spheres of influence, and New Zealand was very much in the British sphere.

“For the French to somehow usurp that … was unlikely,” he continues. “Obviously, it was something on the minds of the British and something they had to take account of, but there were many reasons the British signed [The Treaty of Waitangi] in 1840, and the French threat was only one of them and, in my view, one of the lesser reasons.” 

George Grey, whose father was killed in the Napoleonic Wars (Photo: Ref: 1/1-001345-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, /records/22782578)

Nonetheless, the spectre of Napoleon loomed over Aotearoa in the form of personal battles, still fought by the wars’ survivors decades after his death. “George Grey, the famous [New Zealand] governor in the 19th century, had more influence than any others on New Zealand’s history at the time,” says Morris. “His father was killed in the Napoleonic Wars.” 

Grey’s father fought under the same Charles Picton, who faced Napoleon at Waterloo. He was killed in Spain during a siege. When his pregnant wife heard the news, the shock caused her to give birth to Grey prematurely. 

Grey went on to lead an unsettled personal life, neglecting his family and turning to opium. His career in New Zealand was similarly troubled. Some accounts say that his drug addiction, which worsened over time, caused him to mismanage relations with Māori, resulting in the crown’s invasion of the Waikato. From then on, Grey became a symbol of colonialism. 

“He’s quite a, you know, an, ah… eclectic and contradictory figure,” says Morris. “I always wondered what impact losing his father would have had on him.” 

One theory also suggests Napoleon may have even inadvertently fuelled the musket wars. 

As he campaigned across Europe, Britain began arming both its armies and those of its continental allies in opposition to the French. By Waterloo, Birmingham alone was producing 400,000 muskets per year. 

One University of Otago paper suggests that, when Napoleon was subdued, many of these unneeded weapons fell into the hands of merchants who took them to every corner of the empire, including ours.

In history, says Churchill, “the terrible ‘ifs’ accumulate.” If Napoleon had won at Waterloo, if he had focused more on the Pacific, if George Grey’s father had been alive to raise him, we might be living in an altogether different New Zealand. 

The “butterfly effect” holds that our universe, though huge, is interconnected, and that a butterfly flapping its wings in one continent can cause a hurricane in another. In this respect, Napoleon Bonaparte was one enormous butterfly. 

We will never know for certain what would have happened had Napoleon not lived. But, the world, and our Aotearoa, will always have him. For better or for worse. 

Keep going!