Wednesday, 5 May 2021


5 May 1821: The death of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on the island of St. Helena on this day. He died surrounded by a small coterie of staff and servants who had gathered together to be with him in his final moments.. They had followed him to this lonely outcrop in the windswept South Atlantic to help him endure his Exile from his adoptive country of France.

Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769 but had ruled over France and then directly or indirectly over much of western Europe from 1799 until his Downfall in 1814. A legend in his own lifetime & widely regarded as a military genius & one of the finest commanders in history, his wars and campaigns have been studied at military schools worldwide. He fought more than 70 battles, losing only eight, mostly at the end. But as he fought the invading armies of the Allies that year the city of Paris capitulated behind his back and he was forced to abdicate the throne he had placed himself upon. Exiled to the tiny island of Elba off the NW coast of Italy he could not adjust to his lilliputian domain.

The following year he resolved to try his luck once again upon the soil of France. After his brilliant initial success of regaining his throne and raising a fresh army he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. He once again had to relinquish power and this time gave himself up to the mercy of the English on 15 July of that year . After consultation with their Allies they decided to remove General Bonaparte from Europe completely and dispatch him to St Helena from whence escape was virtually impossible. He arrived there on the HMS Northumberland on 15 October 1815 stepping ashore two days later. He was never to leave the island again as long as he lived.

His stay there was not a happy one. Only a very few of those he had favoured chose to undertake  an arduous journey to such a remote and bleak location. Some went home of their own volition, some died there and others were sent packing by the Governor Sir Hudson Lowe* - who Napoleon loathed as his jailer. Napoleon took an instant dislike to him and after their 5th meeting he refused to see or speak to the new Governor ever again! Lowe was a stickler for the rules and lived in a constant state of anxiety that Bonaparte would somehow contrive to escape the island and his own career thus ruined in turn. However Napoleon made no serious effort to make a bid for freedom.
* born in Co Galway

After a couple of months he was sent up to the top of the island to his new home ‘Longwood House’ which was a windy, damp & a dilapidated rat infested set of buildings. His spirits were poor in such an isolated spot and his health declined after just a couple of years on the island. After he had finished dictating his memoirs he suffered more and more from ennui - boredom. He entertained a bit at first but the food was mediocre and decent wine in short supply. He had a good companion in his initial years with his personal physician the Irishman  Dr. Barry O’Meara of the Royal Navy with whom  he freely conversed, but  he was sent home by Hudson Lowe in 1818 for being too familiar with Bonaparte.
It is said that he had an affair with Albine  Countess de Montholon, the pretty wife of General Montholon & that he  fathered a child by her. But she left the island in 1819 with her children and Longwood was bereft of any familial company for him to brighten his days and nights. The only other official family left in his entourage were Grand-Marshal Bertrand’s three children with his wife Fanny Bertrand - Dillon, whose own father served in the Bourbon Army as a member of the Irish Brigade and was guillotined in the Revolution. They however lived apart from Longwood at Fanny’s insistence and Napoleon resented this. He fell out with her over keeping her distance from him. It appears though there was a reconciliation of sorts towards the end.

He became obese and moody and in the latter stages of his captivity quite ill so much so that lethargy became easy for him to justify. His last year was particularly onerous, as he sought sanctuary in his darkened bedroom only seeing until very near the end Count Montholon, Grand-Marshal Bertrand and his valets Louis Étienne Saint-Denis & Louis-Joseph Marchand & Doctor Francesco Antommarchi.
He had terrible pains in his side on a regular basis and his lower extremities became very cold from lack of circulation as he became increasingly bedridden. He found it very difficult to keep down food & eventually relied on sugared water mixed with wine or cordial for sustenance in his last days. He made his current Doctor Francesco Antommarchi [for whom he had little respect] to swear to cut him open after death and carry out an autopsy as to what was the cause of this terrible malady, for the Emperor believed it was the same that had killed his own father & might kill his son the King of Rome. On the day following his death he was cut open & examined by the Doctor who found an ulcerous wound in the stomach area and concluded that the Emperor had thus died of a cancerous growth. 

In this the Doctors from the British Garrison who were also in attendance at the autopsy concurred with Antommarchi in his observations.

Upon opening the lower part of the body where the liver lay they found that the stomach had adhered to the left side of the liver in consequence of the stomach being very much diseased. The medical gentlemen immediately and unanimously expressed their conviction ‘that the diseased state of the stomach was the sole cause of his death’. The stomach was taken out and exhibited to me. Two thirds of it appeared in a horrible state covered in cancerous substances and at a short distance from the pylorus there was a hole sufficient to admit a little finer through it. Sir Thomas Reade 6 May 1821 

The other theory is that he died by Arsenic poisoning administered by Montholon, possibly to revenge himself on Napoleon for having a rather blatant affair with his wife before his eyes or possibly under instructions from the Bourbon Dynasty in Paris to kill off their greatest enemy. Most commentators now discount this and put the clear presence of the arsenic found in his hair samples back in the 1960s as attributable to more mundane factors like contamination from the wallpaper in his bedroom or hair oil containing the substance rather than proof of foul play. However it remains an open question as to whether there was a plot to dispose of him in such a manner. Napoleon himself believed that he was being slowly done away with.

In January 1821, there was a noticeable decline. On 17 March he took to his bed and rarely left it again. So the last days came as it became clear to all, and none more so than Napoleon himself that the end was near. He reconciled with the Catholic Church & after making his last confession, he received the Last Rights from Father Ange Vignali on his deathbed. By the evening of the 4th May it was obvious that his death was imminent, with delirium setting in early the following morning.

The hiccups that had appeared at intervals became much more frequent, and delirium set in; the Emperor pronounced a lot of inarticulate words that were translated ‘France,… my son,… The army…’ One can conclude with absolute certainty that his last preoccupation, his last thoughts were for France, his son, and the army. These were the last words we were to hear. 

At 4 am calm followed this agitation. the french personnel in the emperors service ...came in at 8 o'clock....Our eyes were fixed on that august head leaving only to look into Dr Antommarchi’s eyes to see if there remained any hope. it was in vain merciless death was amongst us.

At 5.50 in the evening...Dr Antommarchi’s anxiety intensified; the hand that had led victory, and the pulse of which he was counting, became ice cold.  Dr Arnott eyes on his watch, counted the intervals from one sigh to the next, 15 seconds, then 30, then a minute went by. We stood still in anticipation, but in vain. 
The Emperor was no more!
The eyes suddenly opened; Dr Antommarchi who was near the Emperors’ head following the last pulse of his neck closed them immediately.
Louis-Joseph Marchand 

The eyes roll up under the upper lids, the pulse vanishes. It is eleven minutes before six. Napoleon is is no more.
Dr Antommarchi

Dr Arnott the English Doctor in attendance hastily dispatched a quick note to Sir Hudson Lowe:

5.49 - he has this moment expired

Thus ended the Life of the greatest General of the Age, perhaps ever.

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