Napoléon Bonaparte – a respected and feared military leader, a sharp strategist and seasoned negotiator, has crowned France with laurels in the early 19th century. In the wake of such a tremendous rise, the fall is all the more hazardous. Eventually captured and deported by the English on the island of Saint Helena, in 1815, the former Emperor spent his last, bitter days on exile.
On the deck of Royal Navy’s HMS Northumberland sailing to Saint Helena, Napoléon did not breathe a single word. His disillusioned glance shot up along the main mast, with St. George’s Ensign atop. The English navy escorted “Fleshy” towards a black, rocky island of the South Atlantic – a lonely prison snipped by strong winds.
The Emperor did not have his traditional, noble bearing, neither the ebullient dispositions of his Corsican youth. According to an English doctor, “he looked more like a fat Spanish monk than a modern-day hero”. However, Bonaparte’s eyes still sparkled with intelligence. Did he know already that this journey would have no return? His mind was probably elsewhere; remembering the very beginnings of his rise, his first position of command – he spearheaded a snowball assault in primary school – and his turbulent youth in Ajaccio, Corsica. Also the building of an empire that was to encroach upon Russian borders and include Hamburg, Roma, Barcelona or Amsterdam. Following the battlefield-born triumph came the time for oblivion, in the shape of a 120 square meter-coffin made of volcanic rock.
There, Napoléon waited, endlessly – but what to wait for, 7,000 kilometers away from Paris, except death? The Emperor’s prestige and glow vanished in Saint Helena, as France was bled dry by occupying Prussian and English forces. The Little Corporal had one mission left: dictate his memoirs for posterity. At a slow, careful pace, he disembarked upon the foggy island on October 15, 1815. Three former generals – Bertrand, Gourgaud and Montholon – accompanied him, as well as Emmanuel de Las Cases, who was tasked with compiling Napoleon’s observations and memories.
On exile, there was not much to do but killing time. Napoléon did not particularly enjoy his conditions of incarceration: he stayed at a damp, rat-infested shack – the Longwood pavilion. His daily routine featured readings, card games, generous meals and lengthy nocturnal discourses. After a life busy with responsibility, forced idleness did not quite fit with the Emperor’s mood. What is more, he did not receive much news from the outside world; his wife, Marie-Louise of Austria, and his son seemed to have forgotten about him. The only ray of sunlight piercing through Napoleon’s grey thoughts was a 15-year old English girl named Betsy Balcombe, whose parents were working for the East India Company.
Much to the jealousy of Bonaparte’s generals and relatives, the young Betsy became soon a very close friend of the Little Corporal. She would interrupt his dictations to Las Cases, cover him with freshly plucked flowers, steal his papers, or attack him with his own sword! Although “she turned insufferable to the Emperor’s kin, the latter could not do without her”, according to French author Albéric Cahuet. That childishness probably breathed life into Napoleon’s enduring melancholy. Unfortunately, it did not last long: the relationship raised the suspicion of Hudson Lowe, the island’s governor, who put an end to it. This event did not improve the Emperor’s health, already shaky. From 1817 on, sudden painful strikes in his belly pinned him to the ground. Stomach ulcer, perhaps something even more serious. Three years later, Napoleon – rather, a feverish, ghost-like version of himself – was bedridden, and the Corsican doctor appointed to cure him, Francesco Antommarchi, did not help since he suggested a treatment that proved disastrous.
Eventually, on May 5, Bonaparte said his last words (“My God… French nation… My son… Head of the army”) before passing away. At the cadaver’s side, despite their frequent rows, Hudson Lowe paid tribute to his prisoner:
“He was England’s greatest enemy and mine too, but I forgive him everything. On the death of a great man like him, we should only feel deep concern and regret.”
Napoléon was born in Corsica – one year after it became a French possession, otherwise the Emperor would have been Italian – and died on another, luxuriant but desolate, island. However, the legend of the conqueror, architect of the Napoleonic Code and master of Europe, was not forgotten yet. His own death remains a historical mystery to this day, as analysts found enormous amounts of arsenic in his body.
“My life, what a novel!” Napoléon famously said. A novel packed with shadow and light, victories and humiliations. The Emperor undoubtedly revamped French post-revolutionary institutions, and prepared it for the modern era; his legacy tarnished, though, by the bloody sacrifice of his Great Army’s hussars, frozen by thousands in the polar deserts of Russia, or by the re-legalization of slavery in French colonies. Why should we choose between the hero and the persecutor? Napoléon was both of those characters, or perhaps none; but he was surely a complex and enigmatic figure that still fascinates historians to this day.
A living proof of the respect and greatness that was associated with Bonaparte: decades after his demise, murmurs running in French countryside claimed that the Little Corporal was still alive. He had managed to escape his jailer, the rumor said, and his death was no less than a mockery staged by the English… In every legend lies a bit of truth: Napoléon had indeed set off again from Saint Helena. Because the young Betsy carried with her, on her exile towards England, a strand of the Emperor’s hair…