Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857), prince of Musignano and Canino, was the son of Alexandrine de Bleschamp and Lucien Bonaparte, the third brother after Joseph and Napoleon. Born in Paris, France during the time that his father served as a senator of the First French Empire under Napoleon, the relationship between the brothers soured as Lucien’s strong opposing political views deepened. This frustration reached its fiery pinnacle when Napoleon declared himself as Emperor of France and pressured Lucien to end his new marriage for the sake of marrying a Bourbon Spanish heiress. Lucien rallied against the nepotism by moving his family to a villa in Rome, Italy.
When the Papal States were annexed to France, Lucien chartered an American merchant ship docked in Naples for $10,000 in a desperate attempt to escape to the United States. Unfortunately, the ship was blown off course to the British owned island of Sardinia. The entire party was placed under arrest and moved to Malta where Lucien awaited his fate. After three months of pleading his case with a letter-writing campaign to England, the government made accommodations for him and his family to settle on a vast country estate while in custody. Upon reaching England, Lucien was warmly received with hospitality as a hero discrediting Napoleonic rule. Meanwhile his brother regarded the family as traitors and forbade them to ever enter France again. Given the circumstances, Lucien took it in stride.
The time spent in England was wonderful for seven-year-old Charles. While the primary language spoken within the family was French, an Irish servant taught him how to read and write in English. As a testament to his new learning skills, the first book that he was able to read was on botany and zoology by Swedish scientist, Carl Linnaeus. Also written in Latin, Charles was proficient in four languages, especially Italian, before the age of ten. His discovery of natural history enabled him to record flora and fauna in his journals. Although his interest was apparent, his parents felt that the field wasn’t “intellectual” enough their brilliant son and employed private tutors to expose him to other scholarly subjects.
After Napoleon’s reign of power came to an end, Lucien and his family were able to return to Italy. Pope Pius VII bestowed upon him the title of Prince of Canino for his loyalty (in 1824, Pope Leo XII made him Prince of Musignano). Furthermore, after his brother’s incarceration on the island of St. Helena, Lucien returned to Paris as a symbol of unity where he was decorated with the Legion of Honor and reinstated as a senator by the government. This moment was bittersweet as the Bourbon monarchy took hold and failed to recognize the Bonaparte titles. This did not bother Lucien as he and his family returned their social endeavors in Rome.
When Charles reached 19 years of age, he became the oldest sibling of nine brothers and sisters. The youngest child would be born a year later. He had grown into a young man full of promise. After his family made financial arrangements for his marriage to Zenaide, the daughter of Lucien’s oldest brother, Joseph, and a cousin that he barely knew, they were officially married in the city of Brussels with little fanfare.
Since Zenaide’s father was living in self-imposed exile in Bordentown and couldn’t attend the wedding, he had a solid three-story cottage constructed for the loving couple in the hope that they would reside on his estate. Overlooking the embankment of a man-made lake, the structure was connected by a covered walkway faced with latticework to a second home that was built for him following a devastating fire that consumed his mansion two years earlier. Although his wife Julie Clary was too ill to make the journey across the Atlantic with Joseph, his daughter Charlotte came to live with him at the end of 1821. In the late summer of 1823, Charles and Zenaide were finally greeted at Point Breeze with open arms by Joseph and his servants.
As the couple settled down and admired the breathtaking scenery, Charles’ enthusiasm for the outdoors took priority over other activities. He recorded in his notebook the names of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, trees, shrubs and flowers that he saw and collected on the estate and waterways. His dedication was also reflected in the sport of hunting and fishing. Any creature that he shot, he preserved with arsenic, stuffed them with sawdust, and placed them in glass cases that stood in the second floor study of the Lake House.
During this period, Zenaide was several months pregnant. There wasn’t much to do in the winter months so Joseph rented a house for them in Philadelphia between Market and Chestnut Streets.
While living in the city, Charles discovered that leading naturalists of the day resided in this American colossus. He accompanied Joseph to meetings of the American Philosophical Society of which he became a member the following year. It was here that he was introduced to Thomas Say, the society’s curator and eminent naturalist who was instrumental in establishing the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences (the oldest natural history institution in the Western hemisphere) in 1812. Say and other members became so impressed by young Charles’ charisma and energy regarding many subjects that they invited him to join the academy as a member. Not only was he ecstatic about the honor but also as a new father since Zenaide gave birth to their child within the same month. The newborn was named Joseph after his grandfather.
When he read a scientific paper to academy members regarding the nomenclature of birds by the late ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, he was encouraged by them to revise this significant work. This was the country’s first known book published on birds and Charles’ supplement was the second. It is said that some of the material for the first of four volumes of American Ornithology was written in the study of the Lake House. Although he did not illustrate his drawings, as an author he was appropriately referred to as the Father of Descriptive Ornithology.
Two months later in April of 1824, he was introduced to a Caribbean Frenchman through a mutual acquaintance of the academy. That man was John James Audubon. At 39 years of age, Audubon was 18 years older than Charles Bonaparte. Appearing unrefined with shoulder length hair and baggy pantaloons, he gave the impression of a backwoodsman. However, he was an enormously talented individual that was seeking a publisher for the large portfolio of water colored paintings of birds that he created. Charles was immediately impressed since he relied on Titian Peale and Alexander Rider to do the illustrations for his books. When he tried to get Audubon accepted by the academy, he met opposition primarily from George Ord, a renowned naturalist and close friend of the late Alexander Wilson who did not want to see his deceased friend’s bird paintings surpassed by Audubon.
Although criticized and rejected, Charles inserted Audubon’s detailed drawing of a grackle in the first volume of American Ornithology. The pair remained close friends for months until Audubon departed Philadelphia in August. Over time they went their separate ways and stayed in contact through letters, but as their views unfolded into a clash of wills, that friendship ceased after twenty years.
Charles also clashed with George Ord constantly as he worked hard on the first volume of American Ornithology. In order to keep the memory of the late Alexander Wilson elevated in perpetuity, the elder naturalist attacked and chastised Charles’ efforts to the point that he desired to return to Europe with his family. True to his word, after completing the volume in 1826, they left Point Breeze and the United States behind.
Living in Italy, he returned the following year but only stayed for several months to get his affairs in order. In doing so, he asked an American friend, William Cooper, to serve as his agent in making sure that the remaining volumes of American Ornithology were published. Cooper, one of the founders of the New York Lyceum of Natural History and a cousin of first American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, was honored by Charles in having the Cooper’s hawk named for him. Over a decade later, Charles praised his wife, now a devoted mother of twelve children, in the same fashion by creating the genus Zenaida for the mourning dove (Zenaida Macroura). It wasn’t long after that that his fellow naturalists paid tribute to him with the naming of Bonaparte’s gull.
Following the death of his father in 1840, he became the second Prince of Musignano and Canino. Although privileges woven into his birthright brought social prestige, they did not account for the polar forces that worked against him. His uncompromising personality and political beliefs in his later years did little to place him in the hierarchy of his better known contemporaries. At the time of his death in 1857, his desk and tables were stacked with displaced books, unanswered letters, and half-completed taxidermy specimens.
Charles Lucien Bonaparte was a gifted individual grounded by the complexity of his own decisions. Without a doubt, in his day he was considered a driving force in the field of natural science. However, you have to ponder the possibility if he had decided to live permanently in the United States…
Maybe his name would’ve been more synonymous with nature today than that of John James Audubon?