Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself


Soon, the vexations of the Governor increased again.  It was shown by forgetting the decorum of inviting General Bonaparte to dine with him to see a distinguished Englishman who landed on Saint-Helena.  Napoleon did not even respond to the insult; the persecution increased. From then on, the existence of the Emperor was only a slow and painful agony, which however lasted three years.  For three more years, the modern Prometheus remained chained to the rock where Hudson-Lowe gnawed at his heart.  Finally, March 20, 1821, the day of the glorious anniversary of his return to Paris, Napoleon felt in the morning, a violent oppression in the stomach and choking; soon a sharp pain was felt in the epigastrium.   Despite initial remedies, the fever continued; the abdomen became painful to the touch, and the stomach tensed.  About five o'clock in the afternoon, there was a repetition, with a freezing coldness, especially in the lower extremities.  The patient complained of cramps ... At that time, Madame Bertrand was coming to visit him, Napoleon tried to appear less depressed; he even affected a bit of gaiety; but soon resumed his melancholy of the symptoms listed above:

—We must prepare for the fatal sentence, he said, you, madam, and I are destined to suffer upon this miserable rock.  I'll go first, then you come and we meet up there!

The night following that day he was very agitated; the symptoms became more severe.  “I know myself I am to die,” he replied the next day to his doctor Antomarchi, who reproached him gently for not taking the potion he had prepared. “Do you not know that England has claimed my body? he added; she should not be kept waiting too long.”  Antomarchi who tried to persuade him that his conditions could be healed, Napoleon interrupted him saying with a shake of the head:

—No, Doctor, no!  Why mislead me with a delusion?  I know what it is; I am resigned. England has found a way to exile me even in my exile.  Hudson-Lowe would have liked to kill me faster;[1] but the wound would have bled before the eyes of Europe and sullied the history of England.  But where one doesn’t see the heart bleeding, it is in my heart that they’ve beaten me outrageously, in disputing my bread, my bed and until now even my shadow ... Have I not been patient enough through this torture? ... We must finish with it.

Indeed, the year 1821 had begun under fatal auspices for Saint-Helena exiles, and the illustrious captive was trying not to delude himself about his impending doom.  But always like himself, he looked at death with the same equanimity, the same coolness as on the battlefield; for his great soul did not quail at the idea of destruction: and to see him preside over the drafting of his will, to see him distribute to each his share of glory in his immortal memory, it would seem he was still engaged in the conquest of an empire.  All he said was full of dignity, calm and kindness.  The bed in which he was lying was half covered with sealed objects, for either his son or his family or the officers or servants of his house.

On 25 March, at nine o'clock at night, wrapped in his robe and seated in an armchair, a small table before him, Napoleon addressed his wills and codicils with the signatures and seals of the three executors: Count Bertrand, General Montholon, and M. Marchand, his first chamber valet.  Then having, as he wished, put his affairs in order, he proceeded at length to the care and needs of all those who had accompanied him.  He held his executors to that when they would arrive in England and France, that his ashes should not remain neglected in Saint-Helena, and told them about it:

—When you see my son, undertake to return the name of Napoleon to him, once he is old enough to reason and he can do so properly.  If there was a turn of fortune and he was again on the throne, it is your duty, gentlemen, to lay before him all that I owe to my old officers, to my veterans, my faithful servants.  My memory, I am sure, will be the glory of the life of my son ... I want, if at all possible, that the people of my blood, to be at the courts of kings; I also desire that my nephews and nieces to marry among them, either in the Roman States, in the Swiss Republics, or either in the States United ... When you can see the Empress Marie-Louise, express the feelings that I have always had for her; recommending to her my child, who has other resources on his side ... In printing my campaigns in Italy and Egypt, and my other manuscripts, they will be dedicated to my son, as well as letters of kings, if they are found.  They will probably be provided by the archives: national vanity can win much from their publication.

The days that preceded the death of Napoleon were instead employed by him in serious conversations or edifying readings on the care of his health.  The last two readings that were given to him were, the Campaigns of Dumouriez, read by M. Marchand, and Funeral Orations of Bossuet, that was read to him by the Abbot Vignaly, his chaplain.

In the last days of March, Napoleon was suffering a lot.  Antomarchi in the presence of Doctor Arnott, a surgeon of the English regiments stationed at St. Helena, tried to warm him, by fomenting the lower extremities, taken by an icy coldness.

—Leave me! Exclaimed the patient, it is not there, it is the stomach, it is the liver that are bad! You have no remedies, no prescriptions, no drugs to calm the fire that I am devoured by!

The sky seemed to want to report to the world the loss of the greatest man that modern times would make:  a comet with long tail suddenly appeared on the horizon of Saint-Helena towards the end of March.  They talked of it about the bed of Napoleon from the onset.

—A comet! He cried, making an effort to sit up in his bed; a comet!  This was the precursor of Caesar's death, he said, dropping his head again.

This comet was to be the harbinger of death of the Caesar of France.  Counting into the last days of April, no one could doubt the imminent death of Napoleon; he himself bore with uncommon energy the few hours he had still of life, a monarch, and of a Christian, he used them to seal his gratitude for the wonderful companions of their voluntary exile, to receive from the hands of his chaplain the final relief that the Catholic religion gives to its children on the threshold of eternity.

—I was born a Catholic, he said, I want to fulfill the obligations it imposes and receive the help she administers.

From that day, Napoleon's room was closed to everybody, except the generals Bertrand and Montholon and M. Marchand.  The Emperor issued his last wills, made his testament; and when he allowed Antomarchi to enter:

—These are my preparations, he said; I'm going; it is all over for me; let God's will be done!

These words had also been uttered by the dying Christ.

The two biggest acts of the earthly life and spiritual life finished, Napoleon thought no more of his suffering but on the objects of his fondest affections: France, his wife and son in turn occupied his mind.  He carried a bust of the king of Rome, which he placed in front of him at the foot of his bed, with the coat of blue cloth that he, as First Consul, wore at the battle of Marengo.  Then, in a transport fever, his ardent imagination evoking the shadow of his old comrades fallen around him in battle, it seemed that Kléber, Dugommier, Joubert, Desaix, stood before his death bed!. .. they smiled, speaking and gesturing their greetings, then suddenly he exclaimed:

—Ah! Victory is decided! Go, run, press the charge, they are ours! ...

A few days after this heroic vision, Napoleon said to those of his followers who surrounded his bed:

—It is done, I will die, I will commend my body to the earth ... Come, Bertrand, and translate for Monsieur (the Doctor Arnott, who was present) that which you are to hear; most of all do not omit a word ... I came to sit at the doorway of Britain: I asked for hospitality ... Against everything that is sacred on earth, I was responded to with fetters ... I received another invitation from Alexander, from Emperor Francis, and the King of Prussia himself ... But it belonged to England to surprise, to lead the Kings, and give the world the extraordinary spectacle of four great powers relentlessly set upon one man.  It is the English ministry that chose this rock which consumes the lives of Europeans in less than three years, to achieve the same as an assassin.  And how have I been treated since I'm on this rock? ... There is no indignity which has not made itself a joy to overwhelm me ... The simplest communications with family, even those that have never been banned to a villain that awaits the scaffold, are denied to me ... My wife, my son are no longer a part of my life for six years; for six years ago I was taken to be tortured in secret, confined to four walls. The British government murdered me at length, period, premeditatedly, and the infamous Hudson-Lowe has been the executioner ... This government will end one day, like the proud Republic of Venice! As for me; dying in this horrible rock, I bequeath the disgrace of my death to the ruling house of England.

The evening of that day, that is to say, April 29th, after drinking some water from the fountain a league from Longwood, he felt pleased almost calm; but May 4, he was worse. The weather was terrible, the rain fell in torrents; the wind destroyed all the plantings that lined Longwood.  A single tree, a willow, under which he loved to rest, still resisted ... A whirlwind uprooted it and carried it away as if nothing Napoleon had liked would survive him, and yet the violence of the storm, the noise of the hurricane, had not drawn him from the lethargic stupor where he had been plunged.  Finally, the next day, May 5 1821, an anniversary forever famous in the annals of the world, Doctor Antomarchi told the French on Saint-Helena that the Emperor had only a few moments to live. This news, though long expected, was greeted by silence and a most profound sorrow.

This must have been a spectacle sublime and touching at the same time, when one imagines around the bed of the dying august this small number of French who remained faithful to their sovereign, their father!  Madame Bertrand, this woman so noble and simply heroic, was sitting beside the couch where she struggled in the last embraces of agony while the great man expired.  Generals Bertrand and Montholon stood beside her; M. Marchand and other servants counted in tears, the last pulsations of his heart.  Abbot Vignaly, kneeling before a prie-dieu, recited the prayers for the dying; anxiety and despair were painted on every face; but respect chained their tears, and the eloquent silence of this scene of death was only disturbed by the gasping and panting of Napoleon and the prayers of the priest.

The eyes of the Emperor were fixed, his mouth was tense.  A few drops of sugar water introduced by Doctor Antomarchi taking his pulse.  A sigh escaped from noble chest, hope was reborn ... Suddenly Napoleon made an effort; he sought to raise his head; the words France! ... Army! ... escaped his mouth ... It was the last he spoke.

A moment later, there passed a dual scene that history should not fail to remember: Madame Bertrand had sent for her children (her daughter Hortense and her three sons), so that they came for a last look at their sovereign and their benefactor.  These poor children appeared, one and all rushing, and falling to his knees beside the bed of Napoleon, taking the hands that they covered with kisses and tears, when Noverraz, one of his servants, delirious from a fever that had kept him in bed for very long, appeared in the room like a ghost, pale, disheveled, beside himself:

—What! He exclaimed in a voice hollow and shrill, the Emperor was in danger, and he did not call for Noverraz for help! Sire! He said continuing, clinging to the foot of the bed of Napoleon, despite the efforts of the assistants, here I am! Here is Noverraz ready to defend you, ready to die for you! Sire! pity, answer me! Say a word to your poor Noverraz ...

Getting no response, the faithful servant turned to the audience, and with strong emotion:

—Ah! He cried; he does not recognize me!

Antomarchi sought to calm the unfortunate whose reason seemed lost, he could not succeed; some servants dragged him off, crying with him.

It was six o'clock, the doctor's anxiety increased: this hand, which so often gave the signal of victory on which he studied the pulsations, was icy.  Doctor Arnott, eyes on his watch, counted the intervals from one pulse to another: fifteen seconds, then thirty, then a minute passed.  At the same time the cannon of the forts of Saint-Helena announced sunset ... Napoleon breathed his last ... His great soul apparently waiting to escape from its body with that great signal.  The star of the day and Napoleon were all extinguished in the same shroud of purple and glory; bronze cannon saluted at the same time as the leaving of the sun to another hemisphere, and the hero's departure for immortality ! ...

The Emperor had just expired. Antomarchi left the hand he held.

—Everything is finite! He said in a deep voice.

Immediately, all the sorrow, so long silent, so painfully restrained, issued forth at once.  Napoleon's room rang with sobs and moans; approaching the bed on which a corpse rested, everyone wanted a last look at the features of Napoleon that his long agony, however, had not disfigured; only his lips were completely bleached, his mouth slightly contracted, his eyes were closed, his face seemed calm and serene.  Abbot Vignaly who had remained on his knees, then rose, approached the bed, and in a faltering voice, uttered these words of the great orator:

—Thus passes the glory of this world!

In the meantime, the Captain Crokett entered to ascertain the hour of death of the Emperor; his approach reflected the trouble of his soul.  He retired with respect making excuses to the assistants for his obligation to complete his mission.  Shortly after, two English doctors replaced the captain.  They laid their hands on the heart of the illustrious victim, and returned to calmly certify to Hudson-Lowe that Bonaparte was dead.  But only French hands would be entrusted with the funeral preparations for his obsequies.  

An honor guard was organized on the spot at Longwood, and from that time, nobody went into the mortuary, that hadn’t explained their purpose or without the express permission of General Bertrand.

A few hours later the executors of the testament of the Emperor became aware of two codicils which, according to his will, should be opened immediately after his death.  The first of these two codicils contained only this short paragraph:

I want my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine, amid the French people that I loved so much.

The dying wish of Napoleon would only be answered nineteen years later.

The great man was no more!  Immortality began for him.  His remains had been deposited on a small campaign bed, topped with simple white curtains that served as a sarcophagus; the cloak from Marengo took the place of a funeral pall.  They had dressed the Emperor as he used to be in the time of his power, that is to say, he wore the uniform of a colonel of chasseurs of his guard, and decorated with the Grand Cordon of Legion of Honor. He had at his side his sword of battle, the same he wore at Austerlitz, at Wagram, at Moscow, at Dresden, at Montmirail, at Waterloo.  A crucifix was placed on his chest; at his feet was the silver vase in which his heart was kept preserved; right behind his head, was an altar before which the Abbot Vignaly, in priestly robes, recited prayers.  All persons who belonged to the house of the Emperor, dressed in mourning, stood to the left; Antomarchi and the English physician watched over the corpse.

The servants of Longwood were the first to break the silence, and soon the sound of Napoleon's death spread throughout the island, and soon all the avenues that led to the house were covered with curious Europeans, Asians, Americans, merchants of Ethiopia, of Japan, of India and of Oceania, sailors from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, all joined the natives and British soldiers who came and paid their last tribute to heroes.  

To see the sadness depicted on all swarthy faces, black, white and copper, it seemed that each of these breeds of men had lost their king; it seemed that Providence, by allowing the crowd of people of so many kinds and so many different climates to be gathered on the rock of Saint-Helena in this dismal time, wanted to show in a striking manner that the genius of the great man would retain its power over the world.

The coffin that would receive the mortal remains was brought to the mortuary forty-eight hours after the showing of the body on the bier.  The coffin was made up of three boxes, one of lead, one of tin, and one of mahogany.  The body was deposited fully dressed, in the lead case.  The silver vase containing his heart, despite the desire he had expressed (that it should be brought to the Empress Marie-Louise), was placed in one corner of this box, and covered with a kind of mattress and a pillow of white satin.  The hat had been, for lack of remaining space on the skull, placed at his feet.  Also put in the first box was a silver eagle with a gold and silver coin each minted with his image, the knife and cover which Napoleon habitually used, and at the base a few objects that he loved. They closed the case, and after it had been welded with care, it was placed in the tin one, which was itself placed in the third case, the mahogany one, which was closed and sealed with brass screws.  The cloak of Marengo still served to shroud this cenotaph and a silver crucifix was attached to the middle of the coffin, no funeral inscription surmounted this and no lighting surrounded it.

The officers of the Emperor had ordered the day of his death, from an engraver of the island, a silver plate to be placed on his coffin.  The artist had already placed on the plate this simple and modest inscription:


THE 5TH OF MAY, 1821.

But Hudson-Lowe, informed of this intention, said to the Count of Montholon he formally objected to this provision.

—General, he added, my instructions make it my duty not to allow this; what is more my government will only tolerate the inscribed words on the coffin: General Bonaparte.

To this statement, the General Montholon had cried indignantly:

—This is a horrible annoyance!  It is infamous to continue on the victim beyond the grave!

But the jailer of Saint-Helena was immovable; the same stone that was covering the pit received no epitaph. The British government, which had planned the death of the illustrious prisoner, had instructed its representative to leave the tombstone blank; for fear that any word or any symbol would come to recall to the living a memory of the man who had left many indelible traces of his power from the Pyramids to the Kremlin.

May 8 was the day chosen for the funeral.  Just before the funeral cortege left for Longwood Valley where Napoleon was to be buried, Hudson-Lowe, who arrived in the morning, approached a few people who had belonged to his house, and deploring the loss to that to them he said it was all the more painful to him, that his government had appeared to return to more tolerant provisions in respect of the captive.  “Finally,” added he, with some emotion, “I was instructed to inform General Bonaparte that the moment was approaching when freedom was about to be given to enable him to live as he had so desired, either in England or America, His Majesty George IV asked for nothing better than to end this cruel confinement.  But, alas! Now he is dead, it only remains to provide him the last rites and military honors that are due to the greatest captain and the most illustrious soldier of this century.”

The friends of the Emperor responded to the harangue of Hudson-Lowe with a smile of pity and contempt, and softly repeated those terrible words that Napoleon had never ceased, left atop of his rock, to throw in the face of his persecutors:

I bequeath the disgrace of my death to the reigning family of England!

The morning of May 8 was magnificent.  The sun seemed to have wanted to illuminate the sky for the apotheosis of the hero; the sea was calm and majestic.  A huge population covered all avenues; the corps of musicians crowned the heights; the deafening sounds of drum rolls were broken by the mournful blast of the tam-tam.  It was noon; British grenadiers took hold of the coffin, raising it with difficulty, and succeeded, by force of arms, to carry it the great length of the garden path, where the hearse was waiting.  Placed immediately on the carriage, the casket was covered with the cloak of Marengo, the procession started in the following order: Father Vignaly, wearing his vestments; the young Henri Bertrand, walking beside him and holding a silver font; the doctor Antomarchi and the English doctor Arnott; followed by the hearse, drawn by four horses and escorted by twelve British grenadiers, unarmed; then the young Napoleon Bertrand and M. Marchand, on the sides of the hearse; then the counts Bertrand and Montholon on horse; the servants of the house of Napoleon; the Countess Bertrand with her daughter Hortense, in a carriage drawn by two horses, led by hand by servants who walk on either side of the carriage to ensure not falling into the precipices that line the road; the horse the Emperor, caparisoned in black and led by Archambault; the naval officers, on foot, and the English officers of the General Staff, on horseback, next to the Admiral and the Governor, also on horseback; and finally the sailors from the vessels in the harbor at Saint-Helena and the inhabitants of the island.

The procession passed before the grand body-guard, and found the whole garrison, numbering 2,500 men aligned to the left of the road, all the way up to Hut's-Gate.  The various bands, placed at intervals, performed funeral hymns.  The troops fell into line gradually as the carriage moved forward.

A quarter of a mile beyond Hut's Gate, the hearse stopped.  The troops halted and drew up in battle order along the road.  The British grenadiers then took the coffin on their shoulders and carried it just up to the place of burial, following a new road that had been created on purpose on the mountainside.  Those who were on horseback dismounted; Countess Bertrand and her daughter came down from the carriage and the procession followed the body without observing any order of precedence; however Counts Bertrand and Montholon, the young Napoleon Bertrand and M. Merchant held the four corners of the pall.  The coffin was placed on the edge of the pit, near which one saw the capstans which were used to lower it.  From that moment a dead silence reigned in this immense crowd: generals and soldiers, French and English, citizens of all nations, all were imbued with deep emotion.  The coffin was uncovered as Abbot Vignaly approached, recited the last prayer, threw the symbolic shovelful of earth on the body: then the cables were attached, the pulleys turn, a harsh sound is heard ... Napoleon rests on the rock of Saint-Helena, feet turned towards the East, head towards the West, and his glory everywhere!

Then the land artillery resonated, the bronze cannons of the Admiral’s vessel replied in the harbor. No echoes of the island had sounded with so great a shot.  These salvos announced to the world that Napoleon had left his deathbed for his funeral bed; as he had left his modest home in Ajaccio for the palace of Louis XIV.

An iron ring, the arms of Great Britain, kept the remains of the great man for nineteen years; but all those who had witnessed his funeral, French, English, Russian, Japanese, Americans, Swedes, Indians, all issued forth from Saint-Helena, and went, as new apostles, telling their nations of the death and funeral of the man who had been the glory, not only of France but of the world and, for nineteen years, nothing disturbed the quiet of the tomb sheltered by a willow, near which all the great masters would have come to kneel, like all true believers before the tomb of Mahomet, if it were not for the English soldiers who watched, still trembling, upon the dead man who was sleeping at their feet! ...

[1] Napoleon had already been forced to interrupt his rides through the island, and there were more than his usual number of walks on foot.  One day, accompanied by M. Las-Cases and General Gourgaud, he softly ascended the valley on the side opposite Longwood, where, coming to one of the ridges, where previously he had seen no sentry, suddenly a soldier appeared in the distance, shouting and giving the Emperor a strong sign as if to order him to retrace his steps.  The three walkers, located in the confines of their enclosure, ignored the warnings and gesture of the Englishman and continue their march tranquilly.  Then the soldier took a few steps forward, loaded his musket and took aim at Napoleon! ... But General Gourgaud had divined the intention of the sentry and immediately rushed at him to stop his firing. During these moments, the Emperor stopped and stared coldly at the soldier, shrugged with an air of pity, then he went his way quietly without uttering a word.   M. Las-Cases, remaining little too far back to witness what was happening, saw the General grapple for with a moment with the Englishman, finally managed to climb up to a position nearby, but once there, the soldier escaped from his hands and began to flee for his life.  General Gourgaud informed Napoleon that the man was a drunken corporal, who probably had misinterpreted his instructions.  This circumstance served as a reminder, with a shudder of fear among the officers of the Emperor, of how he lived with this incident as a moral affront and a new insult of Hudson Lowe.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2010

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