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When you take a closer look at many of the paintings showing Napoleon Bonaparte’s exploits, you will see a man in Oriental costume wearing a white turban right behind him. This is Roustam the Mamluk, who was brought back by the French general and statesman in 1799 from his campaign in Egypt. For the next fifteen years, Roustam accompanied Bonaparte day and night as his bodyguard and manservant.

In line with a new trend in biography as a genre, this study will take the life of this unknown retainer to shed new light on the overly familiar details of his master’s personality and life. Through Roustam, we are offered a unique view behind the scenes of the daily life of the Emperor of the French. Within the walls of the palace, but above all beyond them: on the hunt, during working visits, at parades, in the army camp and on the battlefield.

In addition, the study will show how Napoleon’s valet was not only expected to serve his master, but also to bolster his master’s imperial splendour with his own exotic appearance. The Mamluk was consciously incorporated in the Napoleonic mythology, offering us new angles to study these legends via the figure of Roustam.



Napoleon wounded at the Battle of Ratisbon (detail). Oil on canvas, by Pierre Gautherot (1810). Collection of Château de Versailles. During this battle against Austrian forces on 23 April 1809 the Emperor was lightly wounded in his right heel by a stray bullet. Even before his personal physician has finished dressing the wound, Napoleon is readying himself to mount his grey, with Roustam waiting behind the animal to hand him his famous black bicorn.

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dr. Jos Gabriëls