Death of Napoleon at Saint Helena (May 5, 1821)

Death of Napoleon at Saint Helena (May 5, 1821)

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May 5, 1821 on theisland of Saint Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte breathes his last at the age of 51. " Napoleon give back to God the most powerful breath of life that ever animated human clay To borrow a phrase from Châteaubriand. This sad end ends a long agony, which began the day after Waterloo, and whose irremediable character has grown as time has passed, on the inhospitable island where the English relegated the former Emperor. French people to whom they grant no other title than that of General Bonaparte, already sufficiently laudatory. Let us retrace the last weeks of his life in Saint Helena, so fertile in events.

Sick, Napoleon makes his will

On March 15, Napoleon is indisposed, after having drunk water from a spring to which he was however accustomed. He eats little and spends the afternoon on his cot. On the 16th, he did not go out. On the 17th, he got up but was forced to go back to bed in the middle of the day. Doctor Antomarchi is called and looks after him until the 31st. During this time, he remains bedridden. From the beginning of April to the 5th hand, he was treated jointly by Antomarchi and the English doctor Arnott. Since the departure of the English doctor O'Meara, who was assigned to him before being removed by Hudson Lowe, the governor of Saint Helena, Napoleon refused the help of the British doctors of whom he was wary suspecting them of being the governor's spies , his personal enemy. In April 1821, however, he accepted the care of Doctor Archibald Arnott, physician and friend of the Bertrand family, who frequented Longwood, where his conversations were prized.

The Emperor's health then worsened noticeably and Hudson Lowe, who had long believed in an imaginary disease, began to worry. Arnold, attached to 20th English regiment, treated Napoleon, jointly with Antomarchi, until his death. Napoleon receives daily visits from the two doctors but refuses their medication, considering them unnecessary. During the month before his death, he often described his illness to those present, thinking of his son's interest in knowing about it.

From April 10 to 12, he puts his affairs in order with the help of those around him. He returns several times to his will, to which he adds several codicils, showing to the end a prodigious memory by not forgetting any of all the people, eminent or obscure, to whom he feels indebted. He designates Counts Bertrand, Montholon and Marchand as his testamentary executors, which will allow Marchand to later claim this title of nobility.

On April 15, he donated to Arnott a snuff box on which he engraved an N with his pocket knife. A few days before dying, he had his son's bust placed at the foot of his bed. 1er May, it is thought that the disease could quickly come to a disastrous end. On Wednesday 2, this forecast is confirmed. On the 3rd, the patient's situation seemed hopeless. Dr Shorst, chief medical officer, and Dr Mitchell, chief naval medic, are called in for consultation by Antomarchi, but they are not allowed to see the patient. On Friday May 4, there is a slight improvement which allows the patient to take some refreshments. Throughout the day, signals are exchanged to convey, from 2 hours to 2 hours, the condition of the subject who is considered to be already moribund.

The death of Napoleon I

During the night of May 4 to 5, around 3 a.m., Napoleon lost consciousness. Two hours later, the extremities are cold, the pulse becomes imperceptible. The British admiral and the Marquis de Montchenu, representing France at Saint Helena, go to Longwood to witness the death of the illustrious captive. The latter utters words interspersed with silences: "My God! And the French nation! My son! Head armed!", around 7 am.

These are his last words. He died on Saturday May 5, 1821, at 5.50 p.m. (others say at 5.30 p.m.), under the eyes of Doctor Arnott. Captain Crockat, duty officer, and Drs. Shorst and Mitchell, see the body later. Arnott spends the night in the death chamber. The missing Emperor seems to be asleep. Emaciated by illness, he seems to have rejuvenated. His face is calm and rested. It exudes an air of nobility that strikes visitors. Improvised designers try to fix his profile for posterity. The climate of the island will not take long to alter the features.

On Sunday May 6, at around 7 a.m., Hudson Lowe, Admiral Lambert, commander of the naval station, the Marquis de Montchenu, Brigadier-General Coffin, second in command, Messrs. Thomas L. Brooze and Thomas Greentree, members from the island's government council and Captains Brown Hendry and Marryall, of the British Navy, come to see the prisoner's death before withdrawing. Captain Marryall drew the portrait of the deceased at the request of Hudson Lowe, with the agreement of Count Montholon and Grand Marshal Bertrand. Hudson Lowe shows a certain emotion. Several people, both French and English, march past Napoleon's corpse to pay him a last tribute.

At 2 p.m., the autopsy of the body takes place in the presence of Drs. Shorst, Arnott, Burton, of 66th English regiment, Matthew-Livingstone, doctor of the East India Company; Antomarchi is in charge; Bertrand and Montholon are present at the operation. The autopsy revealed a normal intestine, liver and lungs, a healthy heart but enveloped in fat, an upturned kidney, and above all a very bad stomach, gnawed by deep ulcers and presenting scirring parts; the stomach cavity contains a substance that looks like coffee grounds. Adhesions, caused by the disease, affect the surfaces of the stomach and liver. We think of a gastric ulcer or stomach cancer. Arnott is appointed as the keeper of the remains and of the two vessels containing the heart and stomach of the Emperor until his entombment.

Napoleon was then dressed in a green uniform with red facings, which he often wore, on which all his decorations were pinned. His remains are then placed on the small iron camp bed he used in his campaigns, with a silver crucifix on his chest, and, on the body, the blue cloth mantle embroidered with silver that he wore to Marengo. In the room, draped in black, Father Vignali proceeds to the funeral religious service, in the presence of relatives of the deceased and his servants. Then the body remains exposed for two days during which a huge crowd comes to pay it a last tribute.

A general's funeral

On May 8, it was embalmed and then locked in three coffins: one in tin, quilted with white satin, a second in mahogany and a third in lead. A fourth, in mahogany, which was to contain the first three, did not arrive until the next morning. The funeral took place on May 9 with all the pageantry reserved for high-ranking generals, but not for heads of state, a title that England refused to recognize. The nesting coffin rests on a carriage drawn by four horses.

Twelve grenadiers carry it when the road ceases to be passable. The corners of the funeral sheet, which is none other than Marengo's mantle, are held by Montholon and Bertrand. British officers and administrators as well as the Marquis de Montchenu are in attendance. Three thousand English soldiers, who welcomed the convoy as it left Longwood, follow the procession, which walks between two rows of musicians. Eleven artillery rounds are fired during the ceremony.

The body of the man who made Europe tremble now rests in a humble vault built near a source, under two willows, in a romantic little valley of Saint Helena, on the site he himself had. chosen, on a small isolated island in the middle of the ocean, for lack of being able to be buried " in the midst of the French people he had loved so much ". As this place is inaccessible, the English pioneers drew up an emergency route, but could not level it to make it accessible to cars to the end, as has been said above. When Rapp learns of Napoleon's death, at the Tuileries, in the middle of a finally relieved Areopagus, he has difficulty hiding the emotion that grips him. So Louis XVIII, who does not lose this opportunity to show his disapproval of the ultras, openly urges him not to hold back his tears, adding that he will only esteem him more.

Two death masks of the face of the Emperor were made, the first by the English doctor Arnott, 6 hours after death, using a candle wax negative, the second by the English doctor Burton and the doctor French Antomarchi, 40 to 46 hours after death; this delay is explained by the difficulty of finding plaster on the island, the poor quality of the gypsum discovered by Burton making the attempt hazardous. The first mask, secretly taken by its author, presents a calm face, immersed in peaceful sleep. The second presents, on the contrary, a face with hollow features, already marked by the decomposition of the tissues.

The authenticity of these two masks is disputed, that of the first first because one can legitimately doubt the possibility of such a work without the knowledge of those close to the Emperor, secondly because the wax used for the taking of the impression did not allow a perfect reproduction of the features and finally because its existence was too long kept secret; that of the second because it is suspected of having been tampered with, only a small part of the face having been cast and the rest having been reconstructed. So it seems that neither of these masks gives an actual image of the Emperor's face on his deathbed. Otherwise, we must be satisfied with the drawing of Marryall, held to be faithful by the witnesses, even if the mask of Antomarchi has an official stamp.

The Emperor's death was attributed, as we have seen, to a stomach ulcer or cancer during his autopsy, an understandable hesitation since the two diseases were not clearly distinguished before 1830. This diagnosis has since been revoked in doubt by Swedish dentist Forshufvud who supports the thesis of arsenic poisoning supported by symptoms of disease progression and by the high arsenic content of the Emperor's hair. This thesis, also defended by Ben Weider, a Quebec businessman who died in 2008, has caused much ink to flow.

Napoleon assassinated in Saint Helena?

If there was an assassination, we must designate an assassin and find a motive. Among the relatives of the exile, the Comte de Montholon seems to be the ideal culprit since it was he who prepared the wine drunk by Napoleon. As regards the motive, one hesitates between three possibilities: 1 °) - the service of Louis XVIII, while awaiting a sufficient reward to restore a compromised fortune once the mission accomplished; 2 °) - jealousy, Albine de Montholon having been the Emperor's mistress at Saint Helena; 3 °) - the service of Napoleon himself. This ingenious scaffolding does not stand up to serious examination. Montholon can expect more from Napoleon's gratitude than from that of a distant king of France. Albine was indeed the mistress of the fallen Emperor; she even wrote a novel inspired by the subject and the adventure is notorious enough for Hitler to have considered, during the occupation, bringing back the mortal remains of the Countess of Montholon to the Invalides after having brought the Aiglon closer to his father; but Montholon knew his wife's gallantry perfectly well and accepted her as a noble of the Ancien Régime for whom a breach of marital fidelity did not have the importance it is accorded today.

Finally, it is true that Napoleon could hope for his repatriation from a simulated illness, thanks to a carefully dosed absorption of arsenic, and it is no less correct that arsenic, combined with the drugs administered to the patient towards the end of his life. , was likely to precipitate a fatal outcome which would then have been accidental and not premeditated, but all this remains to be proven. The massive presence of arsenic in the hair of the deceased, verified several times, is indisputable, but it is no longer a compelling argument since other measures have shown that it is found in the hair of other people who lived at the same time as him. The habits of life of that time were not ours and it is probable that the people who lived under the Empire were in contact with concentrations of arsenic which would seem excessive to us today.

In reality, several elements militate in favor of the thesis of the stomach ulcer or cancer: first, heredity, Napoleon's father having died at about the same age and in similar conditions, then the habits of life of the Emperor, a person with overflowing activity, always on the nerves, and who was satisfied with irregular meals, too quickly absorbed and badly chewed, finally the conditions of his detention in Saint Helena, in a climate tropical, hot and humid, in an old farm swarming with rats, on a nearly bare plateau beaten by the winds. Napoleon, used to traveling Europe on horseback, was reduced to walking in a narrowly circumscribed space, under the constant surveillance of his guardians. His physical activity was often limited to a little gardening.

For long periods of time, in order not to be seen by his jailers and to worry them about the possibility of an impossible escape, he remained locked in his house. Such behavior had more than enough to accelerate the end of a life that had become heavy since his deportation. The English government had planned to improve the living conditions of the outlaw. But the decent house he planned to build was not to go beyond the design stage. Instead of Longwood, Napoleon's residence could have been established in a greener and healthier part of the island, such as Plantation House, but then the governor would have had to be housed elsewhere.

Another problem has been raised: is it really Napoleon's body which was returned by the British in 1840 and which is sleeping its last sleep under the dome of the Invalides? No, responds emphatically, Rétif de la Bretonne is that of Cipriani, butler of the exiled Emperor, who died in 1818, a thesis taken up by Bruno Roy-Henry. In support of their theory, these two authors point out the differences between the witnesses of the last moments of the Emperor's life and those who proceeded to his exhumation before his return to France.

However, errors of detail are always possible in a narration and these errors do not constitute sufficient proof to deny an opinion accepted by the greatest number when none of the people present at the opening of the Emperor's coffins. has never questioned his identity. Moreover, as Jean Tulard rightly remarks, genetic expertise would cut short these rumors.

Nearly two centuries after his death, the shadow of the Emperor still raises controversy. Let us not confuse history with the novel and limit ourselves to proven facts without soliciting them in favor of dubious hypotheses capable at most of exciting the imagination of lovers of the sensational. One thing is fairly certain: the Emperor's death on the barren rock of Saint Helena made him a martyr. This tragic conclusion to a prodigious life has greatly contributed to forging his legend. By killing him so miserably, the English rulers of the time certainly offered us « gift» the reign of Napoleon III.

“The love of glory is like this bridge that Satan throws over chaos, to go from hell to paradise. »Napoleon at Saint Helena.


- Napoleon, volume 4: The Immortal of Saint Helena by Max Gallo. Pocket 2001.

- Napoleon: The enigma of the exhumed of Saint Helena by Bruno Roy-Henry. The archipelago, 2003

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