The Spanish Ulcer: Napoleon, Britain, and the Siege of Cádiz
By Meredith Hindley
Humanities, Volume 31, Number 1 (January/February 2010)
Introduction: When Marshal Claude Victor-Perrin arrived at the gates of the island fortress of Cádiz, in Andalusia, he was confident the poorly defended town would immediately surrender. He and his troops had marched eighty-three miles in four days to take control of the last outpost of Spanish rebellion against Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Madrid was already in French hands, along with the rest of northern Spain. Days earlier on February 1, 1810, Napoleon’s brother, King Joseph, had ridden triumphantly through the gates of Seville. Spain seemed all but conquered.
But Cádiz’s governor refused to surrender. Over the centuries, the town’s thick stone walls had repelled the Moors, Barbary pirates, and the British. That morning, its walls harbored something else: twelve thousand men representing the last remnants of the Spanish army. Realizing Seville was lost, the Duke of Albuquerque had marched his ten thousand men to Cádiz, picking up another two thousand men from towns along the way. He arrived two days before Victor. If the French wanted the town, they would have to lay siege to it.
When the dust settled on the Napoleonic Wars, Cádiz held the distinction of being the only city in continental Europe to survive a siege by Napoleon. It wasn’t for lack of effort by the French. For thirty-one months—from February 5, 1810, to August 25, 1812—the French army cut Cádiz off from the rest of Spain and subjected the town to constant bombardment. And for the past two hundred years, historians and armchair generals have debated what would have happened if the French had captured it. Napoleon might have wondered the same. The “Spanish ulcer,” as he would call the Peninsular War, helped to sow his defeat.
“I must make all the peoples of Europe one people and Paris the capital of the world,” declared Napoleon. By 1807 his empire spanned from the Atlantic coast of France to the frontier of Russia. But there was one jewel missing from his crown. Britain had evaded every attempt at conquest, a credit to its naval prowess. If he couldn’t beat Britain on the high seas, Napoleon decided he would cripple its economy. “The English are a nation of merchants,” Austrian Emperor Francis II had complained to Napoleon in 1805. “To secure for themselves the commerce of the world, they are willing to set the continent in flames.”