The Swiss Family Robinson & the Napoleonic Wars

Before I delve into this historical analysis; did you know that the family's surname isn't actually Robinson?!

We don't actually know what their surname is as it is never mentioned in the book. The use of the term 'Robinson' was simply to liken the family to the famous Robinson Crusoe who was the protagonist of adventure stories back at the start of the eighteenth century. When the book was translated from its original German, the title was interpreted as being a Swiss family whose name was Robinson and the name has stuck since then!

The original book was first published in German in 1812 by Johann David Wyss and since then there have been a number of films and other adaptations. Indeed the original story has even evolved with each translation and edition. The most well-known though would have to be the 1960 Disney version.

One factor that is often glossed over in the various renditions of this 1812 book is the main reason why the Swiss Family Robinson chose to pack up their lives in Bern and head to the newly developing colony of Australia (note that in the Disney version they are in search of New Guinea).

The settlement at Port Jackson, Australia was established in 1788 and so in 1812 (when the book was published) it was still a young colony. It was actually just two years earlier, in 1810, that New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie created a number of towns west of Sydney and began his journey to the extremities of the colony (the farthest points being only around 2 hours from Sydney by modern standards). The Blue Mountains which cut the coast off from the rest of the country were yet to be crossed (the mountains were crossed in 1813 opening up the country) and so Sydney was not the Sydney we know today, in fact it was very infant so I can see why Wyss elected to send the family to Australia as it was a very far-flung place.

Why though was this European family packing up their lives and heading for places so far away?

This was a tumultuous time in Europe with the Napoleonic wars beginning in 1803. The Napoleonic Wars were instigated by non other than Napoleon Bonaparte, yes the military general known for his small stature. He rose to prominence during the French Revolution (1789-1799) which saw the monarchy overthrown and France become a Republic. He became the first Consul (leader) of the new Republic and managed to establish a system in which it looked like a democracy was in place but in reality he was moving towards becoming a dictator (yep so much for the overthrow of one authoritarian system)! He was able to do this by utilising the support of the military which he had led through the revolutionary years.

He managed to keep up the pretence of a republic until 1804 when he clevily had himself elected (yep elected) Emperor of France. The way he managed to do this was thanks to a number of assassination plots against him by the Bourbons (the former monarchs). He claimed that the Bourbons were a threat and by so doing managed to be granted greater power to handle the disorder. He fashioned himself in the image of the former Roman Emperors and even wore a laurel wreath, like that worn in the Roman Empire, to his coronation (yep a coronation during the time of a republic)!

'Napoleon Crossing the Alps' by Jacques-Louis David, 1801 (Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison)

So where do the Napoleonic Wars come in? Well just as the origins of World War One are confusing and dependent upon alliances so too are the origins of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1803 Britain declared war on France, this isn't surprising though given the war-torn history of the two nations. Napoleon would go on to have a number of military victories which helped him grow his power and showed him to be a great military leader for the French.

Russia was initially in opposition to France until 1807 when they formed an unlikely alliance. This was revoked however in 1812 (the year the book was published) when Napoleon invaded his Russian ally. This is considered to be one of the strongest moves on Napoleons parts and highlights that, at the time the book was published, he was at the peak of his power. History shows that those who invade Russia, such a vast place, have their work cut out for them and Napoleon would ultimately find this out.

So when the book was published Napoleon was at the height of his power and was fast marching across Europe. Napoleon had spread his influence through the German states and Italy and had his sights on the rest of Europe. If France didn't conquer the nation outright it was made a satellite state which meant that France had a virtual monopoly and control of the entire continent, Switzerland was one of those places.

In 1798 French troops occupied Bern, where the Robinson family were from and it wouldn't be until after Napoleon was defeated that the region would be truly free. Thus, the family fled Europe to escape the war and to protect their sons from having to serve in the military where the loss of life was immense.

Safely (well relatively so) on the other side of the world the Robinson family never saw first hand the ultimate plight of Napoleon or the outcome of the wars.

In 1814 Napoleon was exiled to Elba, an Italian Mediterranean island, by the Allied forces who proclaimed that Napoleon was the only obstacle to peace in Europe. Just nine months later he managed to escape his island prison and made for Paris.

He arrived in the city a month after his escape and somehow managed to regain power. This second period of Napoleon's reign is commonly known as the 'Hundred Days'. These hundred days were not peaceful as those loyal to Napoleon struggled against the majority who wished to see him returned to exile. Eventually on 18 June 1815 he met his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (yes that is what the ABBA song is about) by the British with the help of the Prussians.

Returning to Paris, Napoleon accepted that the people were against him and so he abdicated. He attempted to flee the country but the British had blocked every port and so he was soon captured. He was transported to the British island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean and just to be sure he didn't escape from another island (although this one was almost as remote as they come), they sent troops to the uninhabited island of Ascension which was considered the only stepping stone between St. Helena and Europe.

Napoleon's health suffered over the coming years and he eventually succumbed to this in 1821. His cause of death has been long debated with one of the most commonly accepted causes being stomach cancer.

-This blog was put together a few years ago in response to the question "why would the Swiss Family Robinson leave Europe?". The comments included are my own.

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