Persia and Napoleon
A Lecture by Ambassador Iradj Amini (Qajar)
at the "Iran Society," - London, December 17, 1997

In view of the time allotted for this lecture, I shall dwell only briefly on the origins of Franco-Persian relations. The first contacts between France and Persia, which go back to the Middle Ages, were established through travellers and missionaries. It was only in 1664, with Colbert's establishment of the French East India Company, that these contacts developed into political and commercial relations.

In 1673 the first French envoy, a director of the French East India Company, arrived at the Shah's court and obtained for his countrymen the right to trade freely in Persia. But the Company did not take advantage of this privilege. It was afraid of risking its ships in the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, which were infested by the English and the Dutch, then at war with France. In any case, the merchants of Marseilles did their best to maintain trade with Persia via the age-old route through the ports of the Eastern Mediterranean.

In 1708, and later in 1715, France and Persia concluded trade treaties, the first signed in Ispahan by a French envoy and the second in Paris by a Persian ambassador.

After the conclusion of the second treaty, French consuls were sent to Ispahan and Shiraz. But their arrival at their posts coincided with the invasion of Persia by the Afghans and the fall of the Safavid dynasty, which had ruled Persia since 1504. The anarchy that followed put an end to Franco-Persian relations.

Until the end of the eighteenth century and the advent of the Kadjar dynasty, developments in Persia were watched over by the French Embassy in Turkey, on whose advice, in 1796, the Directory, the then French government, decided to send two naturalists - Bruguières and Olivier - to Tehran. Their mission was to assess the new Persian government, to revive the 1708 and the 1715 commercial treaties, and to draw the Persians into an alliance against Russia. But this mission produced no concrete results, and it was not until Napoleon's rise to power that a new era began in the relations between France and Persia.

Napoleon was fascinated by the Orient from a very early age. His hero was Alexander the Great, whose conquests fired his imagination. But his real interest in the East dates from his expedition to Egypt in 1798. Shortly before embarking on that journey he had inspected the Channel coast to see if a landing in Britain was possible.

Realising that it was virtually impossible because of the weakness of the French navy, Napoleon thought up another plan to humble France's principal enemy : « an expedition to the Levant that would threaten British trade with India. » As we shall see, this ambition would entail a rapprochement between France and Persia.

At that time India was of major importance to Britain. In 1798, after having evicted the French from the sub-continent, she had added a great part of Karnataka to her possessions and spread her influence into the principality of Awadh.

But two possible dangers preoccupied the British in India : firstly, a revolt led by the Indian princes, and secondly, an Afghan invasion through Punjab and Northern India. Bonaparte seems to have been well aware of Britain's concerns, for shortly before his departure for Egypt he told the Directory that « as soon as he became master of Egypt, he would establish relations with the Indian princes, and, together with them, attack the British in their possessions. »

Rumours of all this had reached the ears of the British government, but they did not pay too much attention to them. They were convinced that the French fleet which had left Toulon for Egypt on 19th May 1798, was in fact sailing towards Ireland.

The only member of the Cabinet who took the matter seriously was Henry Dundas, Secretary of State for War and President of the Board of Control for India. He immediately asked the governor of the Cape to send reinforcements to the British army in India, and to dispatch warships to the mouths of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to forestall any sea communication between Egypt and India.

In the meantime, Nelson's destruction of the French fleet in Aboukir Harbour on the 1st August 1798 had locked Bonaparte up in Egypt. Furthermore, Britain, her supremacy in the Mediterranean reinforced by Nelson's victory, was about to form a new anti-French coalition that would include Russia, Austria, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and Turkey.

Lacking adequate means of communication, Bonaparte did not learn about these developments until several months later. Meanwhile, as he administered his new conquest, he went on pondering about the blow he might deal to British interests in India. In December 1798 he sent a letter to Tippoo Sahib, the sultan of Mysore and a close friend of France, announcing his own arrival on the Red Sea coast, « with a vast and invincible army, filled with the desire to save you from the iron yoke of England. »

This letter was intercepted by the British navy and never reached Tippoo Sahib. But the activities of this Muslim prince who for the past twenty years had sought an alliance with the French against the British, had long time been a source of annoyance to the government of Calcutta - particularly to the then Governor-general, Richard Wellesley, Lord Mornington, elder brother of Arthur, the future Duke of Wellington. Shortly after his arrival in Calcutta in May 1798, Richard Wellesley ordered Tippoo and the Nizam of Hyderabad to break off relations with France and expel all the French officers and men in their service. Wellesley even found an excuse for declaring war on Tippoo, who died on the 4th of April 1799 in a battle against British troops.

After Tippoo's death, Wellesley's remaining apprehension was a possible Afghan invasion of Northern India. He thought Bonaparte might extend a helping hand to Zaman Shah, the ruler of Afghanistan, having first enlisted the support of Persia.

Wellesley therefore decided to send an ambassador to Fath-Ali Shah to « incite him to exclude the French from his territory, especially if they should make any attempt to penetrate through Persia to Hindustan ; and the establishment of such a continued source of anxiety and apprehension to Zaman Shah on the borders of his own dominions, as shall effectually preclude his future projects of advancing towards Hindustan. »

Thus it is in a way thanks to Bonaparte that Persia entered the sphere of great international rivalries.

Although Bonaparte's Eastern dream did not come true during his Egyptian campaign and its extension into Syria, he was not to forget the importance of Persia, first as means of access to India and second, as a source of diversion against Russia.

In the meantime, John Malcolm, Wellesley's ambassador, had arrived in Tehran. In January 1801 he concluded both a commercial and a political treaty with the Persian government. It is the latter that is of particular interest to us, for it contains the seeds of Franco-British rivalry in Persia. It stipulates that « should it ever happen that an army of the French nation attempts to settle on any of the islands or shores of Persia, a conjunct force shall be appointed by the two high contracting parties, to act in co-operation, to destroy it. »

The treaty also specified that : « if ever any of the great men of the French nation express a wish or desire to obtain a place of residence or dwelling on any of the islands or shores of the kingdom of Persia, that they may there raise the standard of abode or settlement, such request or representation shall not be consented to by the Persian government. »

It should be noted that nowhere in the treaty was there any mention of Anglo-Persian co-operation against Russia. Yet, it was precisely against the designs of that country that the Persians were seeking the assistance of Britain, and would soon solicit that of France. It is true that after the death of Catherine the Great and the accession of Paul I, the Russian threat against Persia had somewhat subsided. So why did the Persians insist on concluding a political treaty when the British envoy no longer regarded it as a matter of urgency ? The fact was that since Malcolm's departure from Bombay, important events had taken place. In Afghanistan, a rebellion against Zaman Shah by his half-brother Mahmud had dissuaded him from invading India in the near future. As for the French threat, that had waned after Bonaparte's departure from Egypt in August 1799 and the assassination of Kléber in June 1800. As far as assisting the Persians against the Russians was concerned, Malcolm could not commit his government in writing, because when he left India, Britain and Russia were still allies within the second coalition and the Tsar Paul I had not yet become infatuated with Bonaparte. We must therefore presume that the Persians were satisfied with merely verbal promises from Malcolm in exchange for their pledges against France.

Now let us examine the different stages of the Franco-Persian rapprochement.

The Treaty of Paris of 25 June 1802 and the resumption of diplomatic relations between France and the Ottoman Empire gave Bonaparte the opportunity to improve his knowledge of conditions in Persia. He advised General Brune, the new French ambassador to Constantinople : « to obtain information about the different Pashaliks and to extend his investigations into Persia. »

The ambassador arrived in Constantinople on 7th January 1803. On May 16th of the same year the breaking of the Treaty of Amiens led to a resumption of hostilities between France and Britain. The French government was convinced that Russia, where the pro-British party at the court had got the upper hand after the assassination of Paul I and the accession of Alexander I, would sooner or later join Britain in a new coalition against France. In that case, thought the French, a policy of friendship with Persia would be necessary in order to create a diversion against Russia and to threaten British interests in India

From October 1803 onwards, France's interest in Persia intensified. Talleyrand, the Foreign minister, directed Jean-François Rousseau, the French commissioner for commercial relations in Baghdad, and his colleague in Aleppo, to report more fully on Persia. Rousseau was in a particularly good position to obey. He was born in Ispahan, spoke Persian perfectly, and kept up regular contacts with key figures in Persian society.

On 3rd January 1804, general Tsitsianov, the governor of Georgia, a province Persia considered her own, seized the Persian fortress of Ganja in Azerbaïdjan, and was about to besiege Erevan, the present capital of Armenia, at the time a Persian possession. Fath-Ali Shah at once requested the assistance of Britain in accordance with the terms of the 1801 Anglo-Persian treaty. As was to be expected, London and Calcutta shied away from their obligations. Their excuse was that the treaty in question did not contain any provision guaranteeing British assistance to Persia in case of Russian aggression. But it was really the gestation of the Third Coalition that caused Britain to refuse her aid.

Fath-Ali Shah had therefore no alternative but to turn to France for help. During the winter of 1804, while he was battling against the Russians at the gates of Erevan, he wrote a letter to Napoleon and gave it to an Armenian called Ossep Vassilovitz to hand over to the French ambassador in Turkey.

Vassilovitz arrived at Constantinople on the 17th December 1804. He went straight to the French Embassy where he was met by Pierre Ruffin, the embassy's councillor, to whom he delivered the Shah's letter. He also informed him of the situation in Persia and of the character of her leaders. Curiously enough, the Shah's letter was addressed to the « Directors of the French government », though the florid compliments it contained were intended only for Napoleon. In that letter, the Shah offered to join with France in a dual attack on Russia.

It was General Brune himself who was to hand the Shah's letter over to Talleyrand. Selim III, the Ottoman emperor, refused under pressure from the British and the Russians to acknowledge the imperial title of Napoleon, so the French ambassador in Turkey decided to quit his post in protest.

March 1805 : within the space of a few weeks Napoleon sent two unofficial envoys to Persia to see how the land lay. These envoys were Amédée Jaubert, his interpreter during the Egyptian expedition, who spoke perfect Persian, and Alexander Romieu, the commissioner for commercial relations in Corfu, a career officer who was especially charged with inquiring into the military needs of the Persian government. Both men carried letters from Napoleon to Fath-Ali Shah encouraging him to resist Russian ambitions. Although scheduled to arrive in Tehran before Romieu, Jaubert did not reach his destination until the 5th June 1806, after spending eight wretched months in a Turkish jail near the Persian frontier.

In the meantime Romieu had arrived in the Persian capital, met the Shah and his ministers, and written a report that saw little interest in an alliance with Persia. In Romieu's opinion, the only point of such an alliance would be on the one hand to prevent Russian expansion, and on the other to preserve the remains of the Ottoman Empire. He added, « Any other benefits France might derive from this union are either uncertain or remote ; as to whether Persia might persuade the Afghans to attack the British, the chances are worse than nil. It would be better to send a secret envoy to the king of Afghanistan to find out where he stands. »

And then, when he was about to leave Tehran, he died of dysentery and was buried in a holy place near the Persian capital.

Meanwhile, in Europe, William Pitt, the arch-enemy of France, passed away in June 1806. The new British policy set out by his successor, Fox, might have ushered in a period of peace in Europe, especially as the Russians too, through their plenipotentiary, the baron of Oubril, also sought a rapprochement with Paris. But the death of Fox, in September 1806, and Alexander I's refusal to ratify the Franco-Russian treaty initialled by his envoy, put an end to any hope of peace in the near future.

In the meantime, the Ottoman Sultan, impressed by Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, had at last acknowledged his imperial title. This added force to the Sultan's new pro-French policy.

And Napoleon, to give a new impetus to his Oriental policy, told General Horace Sebastiani, his new ambassador to Constantinople, that : « the invariable object of my policy is to form a triple alliance between myself, the Porte, and Persia, aimed indirectly or implicitly against Russia. »

Alexander I's refusal to ratify the Oubril treaty, followed by the formation of the Fourth Coalition, underlined the importance of Napoleon's policy. This may be seen in Talleyrand's letter of 20 January 1807 to Sebastiani : « In the battle that is being organised against the Northern Empire, Turkey must be our right and Persia our far right. »

Let us return now to Persia, where Jaubert's visit proved very useful. The Persians, as impressed as the Turks by Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, decided to dispatch an ambassador to France. The man chosen for this mission was Mirza Mohammad Reza, the governor of Qazvin. He arrived in Constantinople around the middle of September 1806, but Talleyrand advised Sebastiani to keep him there until the Emperor had decided on the most convenient place for their meeting.

The audience was finally held on 26th April, 1807 at the castle of Finkenstein, near Osterode, in East Prussia, now part of Poland. Napoleon had been there since the beginning of the month, preparing himself for a new battle against the Russian army. He had hesitated a long time before agreeing to the conclusion of a Franco-Persian alliance. He probably hoped that the battle of Eylau would force the Russians to negotiate. However, this bloody battle, far from deciding the fate of the war between France and Russia, had cast doubt over Napoleon's whole military and political strategy. Hence the necessity of negotiating treaties with Persia and Turkey in order to create an Asiatic front against Russia.

Under articles 2, 3 and 4 of the Franco-Persian treaty, signed on 4th May 1807 at Finkenstein, France guaranteed Persia's territorial integrity and acknowledged her legitimate rights to Georgia, from which, and from all other Persian territory, France would make every effort to drive Russia. All this was to be provided for in the coming peace treaty.

France also promised to provide Persia with arms, as well as with officers to help her strengthen her defences and organise her artillery and infantry along European lines.

In return, Persia undertook to declare war immediately on Britain and to suspend all political and commercial ties with her. Persia was to expel all consuls, factors and other agents of the East India Company, to reject any British minister, ambassador or agent who might present himself ; to combine with the Afghans and other Candahar tribes to march against the English possessions in India ; and allow the French army to pass through Persian territory on its way to India.

Let us now examine the implications of the treaty for each of the signatories. As far as France was concerned, it formed first and foremost part of her struggle against Britain. On the one hand it extended the range of the Continental Blockade. On the other hand it offered Napoleon a chance of fulfilling his dream of conquering India. As to its usefulness against the Russians, that would fade after Napoleon and Alexander I concluded the Treaty of Tilsit.

The Persians saw the Finkenstein treaty in a completely different light. By adhering to it they hoped to recover Georgia and liberate the rest of their country from Russian occupation. They agreed to the anti-British clauses only to reap the benefits the treaty offered them in their struggle against Russia.

Even before the signature of the Franco-Persian treaty Napoleon had appointed his aide-de-camp, General Claude-Mathieu de Gardane, as minister plenipotentiary to Persia. He was instructed in particular to investigate Persia's military and commercial resources ; to assess the obstacles a French army of 40.000 men would have to overcome in order to reach India ; to foster the enmity of the Persians towards the Russians ;to arouse the Persians against the British. Gardane was accompanied to Persia by a large suite, including many army officers. On 10th May 1807, a few days before the General's departure for Persia, Talleyrand reminded him of Napoleon's main objects : « To establish a triple alliance between France, the Porte and Persia ; to open up a route to India ; and to acquire auxiliaries for France in her struggle against Russia. »

But Gardane had scarcely set out to Persia when the object of his mission changed radically. On 14th June 1807 the Russians, defeated by Napoleon at the battle of Friedland, sued for peace. On 7th July, Napoleon and Alexander signed a peace treaty at Tilsit, in which there was no mention whatsoever of Persia.

«  Our treaty with Persia had not yet been ratified by that power », wrote Talleyrand to Gardane. « Fath-Ali Shah was not even aware of its contents, and we had no idea of what attitude he would take towards it. In those circumstances the greatest prudence was called for, and it was natural for us not to complicate the other interests we had to settle with Russia by raising questions about Persia. Moreover, I have no doubt that the differences between Russia and Persia may be easily settled, and that Russia will seek to come to terms with any government friendly to His Majesty. »

Gardane's instructions were revised accordingly ; his mission was to consist henceforth in promoting peace between Russia and Persia and urging the latter to act exclusively against the interests of Britain.

From then on, the interests of France and Persia ceased to converge, and this led to the failure of Gardane's mission and the introduction of British influence in Persia.

British policy had not remained idle all this time. Soon after Romieu and Jaubert's mission to Tehran, Harford Jones , the British consul in Baghdad, had gone to London to plead in favour of a new policy aimed at countering the French threat against India. Fortunately for Harford Jones, Robert Dundas, the son of Henry, had since March been at the head of the Board of Control for India. Dundas was convinced that the overthrow of British power in India was one of Napoleon's chief ambitions, and he persuaded his colleagues to agree with him. His apprehensions were also shared by the Earl of Minto, new Governor General of India, for whom such a project was not « beyond the energy and perseverance that characterise the present chief of France. »

London finally decided to send an ambassador to Persia. Although he was to be on the pay-roll of the East India Company, this envoy enjoyed the dignity and importance of being appointed by the Crown. Harford Jones was chosen for the post against the wishes of Lord Minto, who had strongly recommended John Malcolm.

On his way to Tehran, Gardane met Askar Khan Afshar, Fath-Ali Shah's newly appointed ambassador to France. The latter arrived in Paris on 20th July 1808 and presented his letters of credence to Napoleon on 4th September.

He was to be as frustrated in Paris as Gardane would be in Tehran by the slowness of communications between France and Persia. For example, although the Count of Champagny succeeded to Talleyrand as foreign minister in August 1807, Gardane was not informed of his appointment until February 1808. But unlike Gardane, who fretted over his problems, Askar Khan consoled himself with an active social life that included receptions at his residence, musical evenings at the palace of the Empress, visits to the Louvre and the Imperial Library, and even his initiation into Freemasonry. Askar Khan was probably the first Iranian Freemason.

But let us go back to Gardane. He arrived in Tehran on 4th December 1807 and was received by the Shah a few days later. Once the treaty of Finkenstein was ratified by

Fath-Ali Shah and a commercial treaty concluded with his ministers, Gardane started dealing with the military part of his mission. He sent out officers to draw up topographical surveys, to train the Persian army in European tactics, and to cast cannon for the Persian artillery.

As far as his diplomatic mission was concerned, he was in a dilemma. The Persian government, as yet unaware of the turn of events in Europe, was anxious to see France fulfil her promises about ending Russian occupation of Persian territory. But pending news from Paris, Gardane could only satisfy them by departing from his instructions. At first he agreed that the Persians should honour their commitments towards France only when the latter had honoured hers towards Persia.

Some time later, when it was rumoured that a British mission was on its way to Persia, he threatened to quit his post, again disregarding his orders. This time he suggested to Fath-Ali Shah and his ministers that talks be held in Paris between Askar Khan and his Russian counterpart Count Tolstoy, with Napoleon acting as mediator.

In Saint-Petersburg the Tsar was furious. He summoned the French ambassador, the marquis of Caulaincourt, to his palace on 12th August 1808, and defended Russia's occupation of Persian territory, insisting that the river Arax was the rightful border between Russia and Persia. He concluded :

« They threaten me by saying the Emperor Napoleon has guaranteed the integrity of their territory. Today it is the same it was when they signed their treaty with you. Soon they will be claiming all that belonged to the Medes and the Persians of antiquity. The treaty of Tilsit came after the treaty of Finkenstein. As for mediation, I do not understand why they should suggest you acting in their capacity. It is as if I were to suggest to the Emperor that I should mediate his affairs with Spain, because I have an ambassador in Madrid ; or as if the Spaniards should ask me to do so. The affairs you have with Spain do not concern me, and those I have with Persia cannot interest the Emperor. »

There is no doubt that Alexander knew of the French defeat at Baylen in July 1808, and that by referring to Spain in his conversation with Caulaincourt he meant to hint at the possibility of a new understanding with Napoleon. An understanding which was to materialise during meetings between the two sovereigns at Erfurt, between September 27 and October 14, 1808.

That Persia's interests were sacrificed at the Erfurt meetings to those of France's policy in Europe, is proved by a message from Champagny to Caulaincourt dated 23 February 1809. By then, Gardane had left Tehran :

« The Emperor has no interest in Persia, and General Gardane's only instructions were, if both parties wished it, to promote communications between the Russians and the Persians that would lead to peace. General Gardane was made well aware that we are interested only in Russia. »

Clearly because of the slowness of communications between Paris and Tehran, Gardane was in no position to follow the twists and turns of Napoleon's diplomacy. Assuming, no doubt, that hostilities would ultimately break out again between France and Russia, he did all he could to uphold the Franco-Persian alliance. In his last departure from his instructions, he gave a personal guarantee that until replies to his proposal of mediation in Paris arrived from France and Russia, the Russians would not make any hostile move or do anything that might worsen the relations between the two Empires, providing « the Persian army refrains from all hostile acts, and that His Majesty discharges faithfully all the clauses in the treaty of alliance with His Majesty the Emperor of the French and King of Italy, and proceeds with the war against the common enemies of both Empires. »

Gardane had followed up his guarantee to the Persians by a letter to Field-Marshal Gudovitch, commander-in-chief of Russian forces in the Caucasus, warning him which he warned him against any infraction of Persian territory.

For Fath-Ali Shah, nothing was easier than fulfilling his part of the bargain. His ambassador to India having returned to Tehran, he pretended he had recalled him. As for Malcolm, who had arrived at the port of Bushehr as representative of the Governor General of India, he was forbidden to proceed to Tehran, the Persian government having been informed that a more important envoy, i.e. Harford Jones, was to take his place.

Unfortunately for Gardane, Gudovitch was much better informed than he about the French attitude to Persia. Backed up by the Tsar, he first established his headquarters on the line of the Russian outposts, a few miles from the convent of Etchmiatzine, and then occupied much of Persian territory coveted by Russia.

This offensive naturally caused great surprise in the Persian camp which, in accordance with the promise made to Gardane, was scrupulously observing the truce.

Gudovitch having finally besieged Erevan, while one of his generals was heading for Nakhdjavan, Crown Prince Abbas Mirza attacked the latter. But he was driven back, mainly because of the neutral stance of his French advisers, following Gardane's orders. What else could the French envoy do, knowing the Franco-Russian alliance was much more important to Napoleon than his relations with Persia ?

But, if the resumption of hostilities by the Russians, despite Gardane's assurances, was a shock to the Persians, his decision to order his officers to be neutral was a bolt from the blue. This development, followed by the arrival of Harford Jones in Bushehr, convinced the Shah that the moment of truth with the French had come. After some hesitation, because he did not wish to see Gardane leave his court, the Shah agreed without informing the French envoy, to admit the British mission to Tehran. When Gardane again threatened to leave if the British ambassador was received, Fath-Ali Shah agreed to hold back Harford Jones in Shiraz until 21st March 1809, pending the arrival of news from France. But this was a long time coming, and naturally the pro-British party at the Persian court induced the Shah to receive Harford Jones without more delay. So, Gardane decided to leave Tehran, though he left behind two members of his embassy.

Despite the trials he had undergone in Persia, Gardane did all he could to promote the interests of France and to honour, if not the letter, at least the spirit of the Finkenstein treaty. He should undoubtedly have had more patience, so as not the leave the British sole masters of Persia's destiny. That is precisely what Napoleon reproached him for. On hearing of the arrival of the British mission in Tehran, the Emperor said : « Harford Jones's arrival should not have prompted him (Gardane) to leave the Persian capital, leaving a clear field to all Britain's intrigues. All the more so in that the Shah of Persia tried to persuade him to stay, and that by accepting the law of necessity he would still have been showing his devotion to the interests of France. »

The French government attempted to prevent the Persian ambassador from leaving Paris, so as to give the impression to the rest of the world that French influence in Persia remained undiminished. Napoleon even ordered Felix Lajard, one of the members of the Gardane mission who was then in Russia, to return to Tehran as Chargé d'affaires and direct the ambitions of Persia towards Afghanistan and the Turkoman territories bordering Korassan. But the two remaining members of the French legation in Tehran having been expelled in the meantime at Harford Jones's request, the Lajard mission was cancelled.

Relations between France and Persia continued nevertheless through periodic exchanges of letters between those who wished to revive the friendship that followed the treaty of Finkenstein. Among them were Crown Prince Abbas Mirza and Prime minister Mirza Mohammad Shafi on the Persian side, and on the French side Amédée Jaubert, who would have liked to become French ambassador in Tehran.. The resumption of hostilities between France and Russia, in 1812, even revived the prospect of a new Franco-Persian rapprochement, which might have materialised if Napoleon had defeated the Russians.

Many thanks to Iradj Khan for sending me the above text.

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