“Napoleon, failed emperor of relocations”

    Ihen tensions between great powers turn sour, we realize that many products and resources from countries with which we traded peacefully until then become economic weapons. Supply chains, trade routes, communication networks turn out to be within reach of the adversary.

    Before Russian gas, Chinese social networks or Taiwanese microprocessors, France experienced similar concern when it entered the war again, in May 1803, with England. The French ports are immediately subjected to the blockade of the vessels of His Majesty. No more imports by sea – then most of the trade –, especially for its most lucrative part: spices, coffee and sugar from the colonies, but also cotton from the Levant, Egypt, the Caribbean, Brazil.

    Textile is then the main industrial activity in France. Champagny, Minister of the Interior, lists, in 1805, 4,103 cotton factories. The alternative circuits via neutral ports, which were more expensive, were cut in turn when Napoleon thought of suffocating the economy of Albion by prohibiting, in November 1806, all imports of English goods.

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    Because the emperor took it into his head to replace each imported commodity with a “relocated” equivalent: pastel for indigo, beetroot for sugar cane. Much less known is the attempt to grow cotton in southern France and northern Italy, described during a seminar on “The Economies of Empire”, March 17 at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in social sciences by Laurent Brassart (Institute of Historical Research of Septentrion, University of Lille).

    The administration is mobilizing

    A circular of February 12, 1807 orders all the prefects to send back to Paris all the publications of botanists or travelers on the subject. Collating the known works, the agronomist Charles Philibert de Lasteyrie published in 1808 Cotton and its cultivationa 400-page memoir in which he concludes that tropical “climates” (the term designates the natural characteristics of a territory) are close to Mediterranean “climates” – cotton is, or was, grown in Sicily, in Naples, Malta, Andalusia.

    Why not a little further north? Suspicious, the ministry submitted the question to the Museum of Natural History and to the chair of botany at the University of Montpellier. Henri-Alexandre Tessier, of the Institute, legitimizes the hypothesis by providing the minister with a Instruction on cotton growing in France.

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