After invading Egypt as a way to threaten Great Britain’s far-flung sources of global wealth, Napoleon Bonaparte found himself cut off from home when the British defeated the French at sea. This is a bigger deal than it sounds. The naval engagement — called the Battle of the Nile — is one of famed British admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s first major victories over the French. It was a crushing blow, and it left the Brits (who already had formidable sea power) in uncontested control of the water.
When Napoleon decided to head back home to consolidate power, he actually ran a tremendous risk. But while the movie version is accurate in depicting the leader opting to board a couple of ships to quietly sail off to France, what the film doesn’t explain is that this was done with the utmost secrecy in order to avoid being intercepted by British warships.
Amazingly, Napoleon didn’t get caught and was able to continue to chase his destiny as a warmongering tyrant on the mainland. This is a wild coincidence, as his micro-squadron of just a handful of ships basically had to avoid being spotted by an entire navy of roving British war vessels. It is a remarkable stroke of fortune that Napoleon survived this journey across the Mediterranean Sea, which poses a wild question: what if he didn’t? If the future emperor were captured or killed at sea in 1799, would he ever have risen to his future heights? Would battles like Austerlitz or Waterloo have taken place? Would nearly half a million men have perished in the invasion of Russia? It’s a fascinating “what if.”