Brock University’s Special Collections and Archives, located on the 10th floor of the Schmon Tower, has recently verified the authenticity of a handwritten letter penned by controversial French military and political leader, Napoleon Hippolyte-Bonaparte. When Brock first came into possession of the letter, it remained undiscovered for some time.
A number of years ago, an anonymous individual donated 50 rare books to the University in hopes that they would be put to better use as academic resources. Notable among the books was a large German Luther Bible from 1854, but it was an envelope full of documents underneath the Bible that would lead to an even more interesting discovery.
After sifting through some of the papers, the employees of Special Collections came across an old letter written in French, which was enough to pique their curiosity. “After we read it, we flipped the letter over to look at the signature and it said ‘Bonaparte’,” said David Sharron, Head of Special Collections and Archives. “At first we thought it was a forgery, so we were very hesitant to shout about it from the rooftops”.
The letter itself was written when Napoleon was 18-years-old, around 1787, and is addressed to Guillaume Raynal, a famous French writer. It was written as a letter of recommendation for an associate.
As Brock hosted the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in May 2014, it brought with it a wealth of intellectuals from various fields of study and academic interest. Among those was Philippe Nieto, the Public Director for the National Archives in France, who was shown the letter in hopes that he could validate its authenticity. The Special Collections department allowed Nieto to take the letter back to France where it could begin the lengthy process of becoming credibly authenticated. It was compared to other confirmed writings from Bonaparte to judge penmanship, context and chronological accuracy before being verified. Following months of waiting, Brock has received the letter after evaluation and is determined to be a 100 per cent authentic letter from Bonaparte, which left the Special Collections department buzzing with excitement.
“Things come up, you never know what is hidden in the attic or under the bed,” said Sharron. “This really is a part that makes this job so fun.”
Conveniently coinciding with the 400th anniversary of French presence in Ontario this year, as well as the authentication of the Napoleon letter, the Special Collections department played host to “Napoleon and a Woman at Brock: French Correspondence in The Archives” on Jan. 21, a bilingual workshop facilitated by Catharine Parayre, Director of French Studies at Brock.
The event discussed the content, social context and history behind both the Napoleon letter, as well as a letter written by a woman in 1825 on the topic of freemasonry. Though the majority of the Special Collections department contains local historical texts from around the Niagara Region, having a historical document such as this can provide greater academic opportunities for students.
“It is not something that we collect normally, and that makes it interesting,” said Sharron. “The letter is another tool for both students and professors to use as a resource to explore a different part of history than we are often exposed too.”
Special Collections and Archives are open to all students. For those who wish to view these books and artifacts, please make an appointment prior to arriving by contacting the staff at email@example.com