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Prisoner in Cuddalore, Prince in Sweden! - Storytrails India Private Limited

By S.V.Kaushik

History is full of strange twists. Here is one I stumbled upon.

Siege of Cuddalore

About 185 Kms south of  Madras (now Chennai) is the quiet port of Cuddalore, where you can see the ruins of Fort St. David. Back in1783, Cuddalore was far from quiet: The French were entrenched in the Fort and the British army from Madras had besieged it. The French made several raids into the British camp, but could not break the siege. One sortie was led by Sergeant Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. His charge was brave, but he fell wounded, and was captured.


The Siege of Cuddalore, 1783

He was taken prisoner by the British Hanoverian Regiment, commanded by Colonel Christoph von Wangenheim. Wangenheim rather liked the young prisoner: he treated him kindly and arranged for medical help. Soon the war got over; Bernadotte returned to France and Wangenheim to Hanover. They were destined to reunite 2 decades later…

Two decades later

Bernadotte saw a meteoric rise in his career. He fought many battles, faced many challenges, and ultimately became a Marshall of the French Army. By any military standard, his achievement was unique: he enlisted as a Private and ended as a Marshall! He had learnt his lessons well: he remained a soldier’s soldier, demonstrated a principled leadership and treated the vanquished gracefully (perhaps the influence of his Cuddalore experience?). Meanwhile Wangenheim had retired as a Major-General in Hanover.

When Napoleon conquered Germany, Bernadotte was appointed military governor in Hanover (1804). In Hanover, Bernadotte reached out to his old foe-turned-friend, Wangenheim. Wangenheim was overjoyed that the old Sergeant had come to thank him!

Many versions of this story have been written by chroniclers (including some cynics, who say that the whole story is high on emotion but low on facts). I would like to believe that it really happened, since it seems to be in line with the rest of Bernadotte’s character. Our story doesn’t end here….

Napoleon & Bernadotte

Bernadotte was a competent commander who spoke his mind, even if it was unpalatable to his boss Napoleon. This created a strange love-hate relationship between the two. Moreover, Bernadotte had married Desiree Clary, who was Joseph Bonaparte’s sister-in-law. (Joseph was Napoleon’s elder brother). Ordinarily, this would have given Bernadotte extra political mileage, but in this case, it made matters worse! [ It is said that Napoleon had once wanted to marry Desiree; and Napoleon was not above jealousy. Many stories have been woven around this, including a Hollywood movie starring Marlon Brando]. Naturally, Bernadotte was frustrated.

Then suddenly, Lady Luck smiled again at Bernadotte. The aging King Charles XIII of Sweden had no male heir and Sweden was desperate for a King. The Swedish legislators felt that if they could get a “military-man” from even outside Sweden, he would fit the bill. Bernadotte’s name came up and was accepted. The  influential Swedish army supported his candidature, because they remembered his kind treatment of Swedish prisoners of war (Cuddalore influence, again?) in his victorious campaigns.

Coronation of King Charles XIV

 This was a unique moment in history: a foreigner was ELECTED as Crown Prince and heir-apparent to the throne (instead of INHERITING it). Bernadotte approached Emperor Napoleon for his Relieving Order. In all probability, Napoleon was relieved to relieve a “difficult” subordinate. Yet, he tried to extract a final promise that, as Swedish King, he would never oppose Napoleon. Bernadotte refused to commit anything: he would do whatever was needed to protect the Swedes who had elected him! Napoleon yielded, saying “Go, and let our destinies be accomplished”. And so, by destiny, Bernadotte became King Charles XIV John of Sweden.


(L)From Marshall Jean Bernadotte of France to (R) King Charles XIV John of Sweden

Bernadotte kept his word. Although he never sought to confront Napoleon, there were many occasions when Sweden allied itself with enemies of France. But he never attacked France ever. As King, he survived many challenges, but was a largely respected and popular monarch. The present King of Sweden is a scion of the Bernadotte dynasty, which is one of the oldest surviving Royal Houses of Europe today!

What if?

What would have happened if Bernadotte had not survived the charge in Cuddalore?  I do not want to know!

Grateful Acknowledgements: All pictures are kind courtesy of Wikepedia. The Siege of Cuddalore is by Richard Simkin (1890); the Portrait of Marshall Bernadotte is by Joseph Nicolas Juoy and the portrait of King CharlesXIV John is by Francois Gerard (1811)


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