Napoleon Bonaparte (15th August 1769 to 5th May 1821), also known as Emperor Napoleon I, was a military and political leader of France whose actions shaped European politics in the early 19th century, being Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1814. He was exiled to St. Helena in 1815, arriving in October, and died here in May 1821.
Napoleon was born in the town of Ajaccio on the island of Corsica, one year after the island was transferred to France by the Republic of Genoa. Initially named Napoleone di Buonaparte, but later adopted the more French-sounding Napoleon Bonaparte. He spoke with a marked Corsican accent and never learned to spell properly, being teased by other students for his accent. He was not short, as is often thought. He was actually 1.7 metres (5 ft 7 in) tall, average height for the period. The short-man suggestion came from British propaganda during the Napoleonic Wars.
His tomb was left nameless because his representatives and the British government couldn’t agree on what should be written on it. According to island folklore, Napoleon put a curse on St. Helena, and on all island endeavors, for all time.
NAPOLEON ON ST. HELENA
Napoleon was brought to the island in October 1815. In his first two months here he lived in a pavilion on the Briars estate, just up the valley from Jamestown, and moved to Longwood House in December 1815.
It appears Napoleon took a little while to adjust to his new circumstances. The “History of the Island of St. Helena”, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1824 records that:
“Upon an island of twenty-eight miles in circumference, which did not feed a population of hardly four thousand souls, and four hundred leagues distant from the nearest continent, it could not be expected that, upon so short a notice for the reception of its new visitants, they could obtain the kind of accommodation to which they had been accustomed; and, in a place where fresh beef was so precious as to have occasioned restrictions upon its consumption, it may well be conceived that sensations of no ordinary nature were excited at a demand from the maître-d’hotel of the Ex-Emperor, a few days after his arrival, for four bullocks, in order to make a dish of brains: of this demand, however, Buonaparte himself knew nothing, until Sir George Cockburn explained the objections to its being complied with, and the refusal is understood to have been received with perfect good humour.”
The Emperor was closely guarded, despite the apparent inaccessibility of St. Helena. It was a requirement of the Governor that every visitor to Longwood House should be issued with a pass, signed by himself. The Times published articles insinuating the British government was trying to hasten his death, and he often complained of the living conditions in letters to Governor Hudson Lowe. (Although Governor Lowe was partly responsible for the ending of slavery on St. Helena, his treatment of Napoleon is regarded by historians as poor, imposing inter alia a rule that no gifts could be delivered to Napoleon if they mentioned his imperial status.)
Napoleon had only a few distractions to occupy his time. He did some gardening: Count Balmain, Russian Commissioner, wrote on 20th January 1820:
“I saw General Bonaparte this morning. He was amusing himself in one of his private flower gardens. His morning dress at present consists of a white gown, and straw hat with a very wide brim. In the afternoon he appears out in a cocked hat, green coat, and white breeches and stockings. He walks a good part of the afternoon in Longwood garden, accompanied by either Counts Montholon or Bertrand, and often pays a visit to the Bertrands in the evenings. Yesterday afternoon he walked around in the new garden and buildings.”
Reading and dictation of his memoirs occupied more of his time, along with horseback riding. He undertook a few trips during his stay, including to Sandy Bay in January 1816 and to Mount Pleasant in October 1820.
In February 1821, Napoleon’s health began to deteriorate rapidly, and on 3rd May two physicians attended on him but could only recommend palliatives. He died two days later, his last words being, “La France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine” (“France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine”).
In his will Napoleon asked to be buried on the banks of the Seine, but the British Governor, Hudson Lowe, said he should be buried on St. Helena, in the Valley of the Willows (now Sane Valley).
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