Did Napoleon Bonaparte Offer Nader Shah’s Son the Peacock Throne?

Napoleon was inspired by Nader Shah’s military conquests. He must have read the biography of Nader Shah which was in print by 1770 in French translation. The book was written by Nader’s personal historian, Minister Mirza Mehdi Khan and was translated first into English by Sir William Jones. Nader Shah, a Turkic peasant became a great military commander and is considered as the last of the great Asiatic conquerer. He fought tooth and nail against the encroaching enemies from all sides who were taking advantage of the last chaotic years of the Safavid reign.  The inexhaustible Nader was well suited for the epic task of repelling the Afghans, Ottomans (the old enemy) Russians, Uzbeks and crushing various uprisings and revolts. He conquered Bahrain and Oman and India. He threatened the Russians with war if they did not surrender the territories they had seized from Persia.

Nader’s last years as a king became even more chaotic than the latter part of the Safavids. In fact, the mess most dynasties in post-Islamic Persia left behind outweighed any good work that they had done. Nader Shah was no exception. His paranoia made his behaviour unpredictable and reckless. Finally, 15 conspirators, most of whom he probably knew, attacked him and murdered him in his tent.

The chronology of events makes the story of his son being taken to the House of Hapsburg to safety believable. Ali Mirza Khan was about 9 years old when Nader was murdered. Nader’s reputation had already reverberated throughout Europe like thunder for his conquests and victories over the Ottomans. The Persians had an alliance with the Hapsburg during the Safavids regarding their common enemy the Ottomans. The Hapsburg must have been even more pleased with Nader’s handling of the  Ottomans.   The child’s asylum in Vienna would have resulted from the struggle for succession after Nader Shah’s murder which posed a danger to his issues. The person who succeeded Nader Shah was Ali Qoli, his nephew. It is evident that he was behind Nader’s assassination as the assassins offered him the crown. Ali Qoli became Adel Shah and had Nader Shah’s children murdered with the exception of his grandson, Shahrukh. This must have been the time when Ali Mirza was rescued from an imminent elimination and taken all the way to Austria, thinking the House of Hapsburg would take him in. After showing up outside of the palace of Empress Maria Theresa, he was taken in by her and given protection.

He was renamed Johann Joseph von Semlin and sent to Graz, a picturesque town about 200km southwest of Vienna to learn German and the culture of his new country.  Johann most probably retained his first two languages, his Turckic dialect and Persian and found himself learning German. He stayed in Graz for about ten years. It was during this time that he converted to Catholicism. Johann like his father was drawn to military life, so he returned to Vienna to join the Viennese Military School and after completing his training he enters the Austrian army. He must have distinguished himself as a worthy solider for he was made a Commander.

Von Semlin house in District 2 of Vienna

However, the real test to his military talent came with the start of the Seven Year War. He is stationed in the Russian army who had joined forces with the Austrians to fight the Prussian, English and the Portuguese. His military merits are noticed and he is made a Major and is called by his troops the Prince of Persia. But he is wounded in a battle and is captured in Prussia and held as a prisoner. When Fredrick the Great learns about the real identity of Johann Joseph von Semlin  he had him brought to his palace and returned him safely to Austria.

Unfortunately, his injuries must have been permanent for it ended his military career. He is put on a state pension, ties the knot with an ethnically Turckic girl and begins his new family life. This is about the time when all eyes are on Napoleon Bonaparte  who is about to conquer the world. When Napoleon learns that Nader Shah’s son lives in Vienna  he wastes no time in contacting him. Napoleon who had idolised Nader Shah in his younger days is told that Johann is a seasoned soldier and has legitimacy to rule his father’s country. However, his offer of military aid to make him the King of Persia is refused. Johann’s response to Napoleon was “ Neither I nor my children think about the Peacock Throne. Even if I have any rights to become king of  Iran, I cede them to Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor who supported me to this age.” His simple reply reveals his devotion to the country that gave him refuge. He is also saying, politely, that Francis II is a worthier ruler than both of them which would have not gone down well with Napoleon.

The Holy Roman Empire led by Francis II is crushed battle after battle by Napoleon’s army and if Johann was still in the military he would have been engaged in at least one of those battles. The Holy Roman Empire is dissolved. Vienna is trampled by Napoleon soldiers and overall 20 percent of the Austrian population perished in Napoleonic Wars. The Austrian casualty rate was higher than any other European nation.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Francis’ daughter, Marie Louise, is given to Napoleon in marriage. This was not a normal family tie to strengthen the bond between the two powerful nations if that was ever the intention. Austria, after England was the most persistent enemy of Napoleon  and the matrimony only deepened Francis’s resentment toward his new son-in-law. As all these humiliating events stained Austria’s reputation one wonders what was going on in Johann’s mind who preferred to stay loyal to his king rather than accept Napoleon’s offer to make him the king of Persia. In his homeland, the Qajars had come to power and Napoleon had approached the king of Qajar for an alliance. The alliance appealed to Fath Ali Shah if France helped Persia against the Russians who had taken Georgia and parts of Azerbaijan. The alliance got off to a great start with a few military tacticians sent to Persia to modernise the ragged Persian army who’s repeated losses to Russia had become a predictable occurrence. In the meantime, France and Russia signed the Treaties of Tilsit and the Qajars realised Napoleon showed no interest in pursuing the Russians to return the territories they had seized from Persia.  Napoleon still wanted to keep the alliance alive with the intention of using Persia as a platform to invade India. The alliance however quickly petered out as if it never happened.

Back in Austria Francis was still resolute in defeating Napoleon. If he couldn’t be Francis II, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire  he became Francis I the king of Austria and began to work with the coalition to bring Napoleon to his knees. Not even his newly born grandchild (Napoleon II) could soften his resolve. He took a leading part in the War of the Fifth Coalition but again got routed by the Napoleon army.

Finally, Napoleon was defeated in the War of the Sixth Coalition and was exiled to the island of Elba. The whole nightmarish saga seemed to have ended at last when Napoleon escaped from the island. Meanwhile, the Congress of Vienna was hard at work and declared him an outlaw and paved the way for the last and final showdown, the War of the Seventh Coalition, or the Hundred Days War. After his final defeat, Napoleon is banished to the island of St Helena where he remained till his death in 1821. Three years later Johanne dies, having seen the defeat and death of his king’s enemy.

Johanne Von Semlin’s injuries served him well for he reached the ripe old age of 90 when he died. He is buried in his home garden near Vienna. According to his wishes, 5 guldens was paid to any poor person who attended his funeral.  It is still hard to say for certain if he was the son of Nader Shah or related to him. Or he belonged to the upper echelon of the floundering Safavids. However, if he truly was, it is possible that Nader Shah’s descendants from Semlin’s line are still alive today somewhere in the world as Ali Mirza Khan had two sons, Josef and Johann, by his wife Roza.

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