On 18 June 1815, one of the most famous battles of world history was fought in a field near the Belgian town of Waterloo. Two centuries later, the mystique of a distant and glorious campaign clings more to the defeated than to the victor. Sure, the Duke of Wellington has cities, pies and boots named after him, but he has been eclipsed in the global mind by his nemesis, Napoleon Bonaparte. Millions of litres of ink have been spilled worshipping this exasperating egomaniac as a French saint or vilifying him as a Corsican ogre. Both images were part of the propaganda that he carefully cultivated – spin, the greatest of all his conquests.
Scarcely a thought will be spared in the hullaballoo about Waterloo for the dead and atrociously injured who fought hand-to-hand in the mud under the rain of falling artillery. Even less will be said of one of Waterloo’s consequences, far away on France’s Mediterranean coast.
In the days preceding June 25, 1815, rumours of the defeat in the North began to filter into the city of Marseille, simmering in the heat of summer. The Bonapartist commander in the city, General Verdier, became nervous for the safety of his troops. In Avignon General Brune was ambushed and murdered by the crowd. Verdier decided to evacuate Marseille without hesitation. The hastily reassembled royalist committee met during the night, and declared to the people that the soldiers should be allowed to leave, and that property in the city was under the protection of the restored Bourbon government. They said nothing about the lives of those civilians who might be in danger in the roiling atmosphere of revenge and reprisal. One historian compared this moment to the vicious score-settling at the end of the Second World War.
In many cities across France, crowds targeted individuals compromised by Napoleon’s regime, particularly those who had joined the Emperor after his return from exile on the island of Elba. But Marseille was different. The town had become the location of the “dépôt” of refugees who had departed Egypt at the end of the French occupation in 1801. These people were, in a sense, the first “post-colonial” migrants on French soil. The wealthier members lived in areas like La Plaine, away from the reach of the crowd gathering on the Old Port. But just a short distance away, along the Rue de Rome was the Place Castellane, and around it were small courts where the poorer members of the “Egyptian” community—in fact a variety of Egyptians, Syrians, Sudanese and others—had built makeshift houses, and gardens for growing their own familiar foods. These people, a mixture of Muslims, Copts and Arab Catholics, were an easy target for the enraged crowd.
The first murders happened on the Old Port itself, where two black women, who may have been Sudanese from Egypt, or equally former slaves from the Caribbean, were targeted and lynched, eventually dying under a hail of bullets in the water of the port. It is said that one of the women continued to cry “Vive l’Empereur” with her last breath. The crowd continued through the streets, slaughtering more people of colour. This was a “White Terror” in more than name. The lynch mob eventually arrived at the Cours Gouffé, where the Egyptians were already in terrified flight. The sick and elderly were unable to flee in time. At least a dozen more were killed during the pursuit, and their names recorded in the official records. How many more were killed in the mountains, or thrown into the sea, it is difficult to say. It was said that the beach at Montredon was littered with corpses.
No monument, and scarcely even a footnote exists today to remember the death of these men and women : Tutungi, Sidarious, Mattar, Soliman, Elaaraj, Nazo, Koudsy. What can these names tell us? They can remind us that the Napoleonic empire was more than just a glamorous, empty epic of battles, bicorn hats and heroic poses. It was a period in which many of the achievements of the Revolution of 1789 were actively reversed, when Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were sidelined, slavery was reintroduced, Jews and Protestants put back into distinct categories, the rights of women in divorce and inheritance radically scaled back. The racial violence of 1815 cannot simply be blamed on a “royalist mob”: it was the consequence of the policies and politics of Napoleon’s empire. It is time to let Waterloo fade into the past, and examine the history it hides, a history that has much more to say to the multi-ethnic France of today.