Bonaparte or Buonaparte?

As far back as Corsican records go, Napoleon’s family signed their name “Bonaparte.” In 1759, Napoleon’s father, Carlo, in his quest to establish hereditary links to Tuscan nobility, changed to the Italian “Buonoparte” form. Ten years later, his second son, Napoleon, was born under that surname.

Because Carlo had succeeded in establishing the family’s noble rank, young Napoleon was accepted as an eligible student in the French king’s military school. Seventeen years later, on March 9, 1796, twenty-six-year-old Napoleon signed his name Buonaparte for the last time—on documents marrying him to Josephine Beauharnais. From that date forward he reverted to “Bonaparte,” which appeared more French. Some claim that’s when he made a final break with his Corsican roots.

In later years, British propaganda used the foreign sounding “Buonaparte” to undermine his legitimacy as a French ruler.  That’s why the Englishman in this 1803 cartoon is gobbling “Buonaparté pie.” On St Helena, when the British refused to acknowledge the defeated Emperor’s imperial rights, they insisted everyone call him “General Buonaparte.”

Today, we see this same trick used in our own country when those who wish to diminish Barack Obama—a strange enough sounding name in its own right—call him “Barack Hussein Obama.” It’s in our genes to fear “the other,” but one can hope someday we’ll learn to rise above the instinct.


  • September 21, 2012 - 9:49 am | Permalink

    That is a fascinating piece of information, Margaret! I do not recall having read before that the original spelling of Napoleon’s family name was Bonaparte. What are your sources?

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