I have recently been re-reading Inside Longwood, and came across an interesting letter in which Barry O'Meara quoted Napoleon's explanation of his description of England as "a nation of shopkeepers".
You were greatly offended with me for calling you a nation of shopkeepers. Had I meant by that that you were a nation of cowards, you would have reason perhaps to have been displeased, though it were ridiculous and contrary to a known truth. But no such thing was ever intended. I meant that you were a nation of merchants and that all your great riches, your grand resources, arose from commerce, and so it does. What else constitutes the riches of England? It is not extent of territory or a numerous population. It is not mines of silver, gold or diamonds. Besides no man of sense ought to be ashamed of being called a shopkeeper (1)
The description, which incidentally did not originate with Napoleon, is still seen as an insult, less specific now perhaps than the original perceived slight on England's military prowess.(2) Napoleon consistently maintained that England was not and never would be a land power, a proposition that few could argue with then or now.(3)
More than that though, the reaction reflects the low esteem accorded in our culture to being "in trade". It is a curious fact that the British upper classes, commercial in origin, beneficiaries of the plundering of the wealth of the Catholic Church, developed an almost feudal aversion to trade and industry as a profession, although as Napoleon rightly said, it was the sole basis of the nation's wealth and power.
Perhaps though Napoleon, like most of us, under-estimated the power of Banking which was assuming unprecedented importance in the world emerging before his very eyes.
1. Barry O'Meara to John Finlaison, 29th June 1817, reproduced in Albert Benhamou, Inside Longwood Barry O'Meara's Clandestine Letters, London 2012
2. Adam Smith used it, and others before him.
3. Even at Waterloo the majority of the troops under Wellington's command were not British.