Napoleon on St Helena: how exile became the French emperor’s last battle

He’d already escaped one island internment, but Napoleon’s banishment to St Helena in 1815 was permanent. All at sea in the Atlantic, the fallen French ruler’s final years were a battle of a different kind, writes historian Julian Humphrys

Painting of Napoleon in St Helena

The isle of St Helena, 4,500 miles from England and 1,200 miles from West Africa, was once described as being the place “further away from anywhere else in all the world”.

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So when, in 1815, the British government was looking for somewhere secure to house Napoleon Bonaparte – who not long before had abdicated as Emperor of France and surrendered to them – St Helena seemed the ideal place.

This was the second time Napoleon had abdicated. He did so for the first on 6 April 1814; Paris had fallen to the European coalition formed against him, the Duke of Wellington had crossed the Pyrenees and invaded the south of France, and Napoleon’s marshals were no longer prepared to fight on.

The defeated emperor was treated relatively generously by the victorious allies. They sent him to rule the Mediterranean island of Elba and even allowed him to take a tiny army with him, chiefly drawn from his Imperial Guard. Energetic as ever, Napoleon busied himself with a series of improvements to the island’s infrastructure, but he always kept a close eye on European affairs. Aware of the growing unpopularity of the restored French monarchy, he soon decided to take a gamble.

Napoleon’s escape from Elba

Slipping away from Elba with a small force, he landed in France near Antibes on 1 March 1815. As he headed north, the troops sent to intercept him came over to his side in droves and – on 20 March – he was back in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, which had been hastily abandoned by Louis XVIII.

The nations of Europe began mobilising once more, but Napoleon struck first, attacking an allied army under Wellington and a Prussian army under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher in what is now Belgium. Napoleon initially caught his enemies on the hop, but on 18 June he was crushingly defeated at Waterloo. Four days later, he abdicated for a second time.

Napoleon’s immediate plan was to try and escape to America. He made for Rochefort on the west coast of France, where he hoped a frigate would transport him across the Atlantic. But there was a major flaw – the port was blockaded by the Royal Navy in the form of the 74-gun HMS Bellerophon, a veteran of Britain’s wars against the French.

Napoleon’s life was now genuinely in danger: there was little doubt that both the restored French monarchy and the Prussians would have executed him had he fallen into their hands. Eventually, he and his advisors realised that the only option was to surrender to the British, whom Napoleon described in a letter to the future George IV, then Prince Regent, as “the most powerful, the most constant and the most generous” of his enemies.

Napoleon leaving the island of Elba on February 26, 1815
Napoleon leaving the island of Elba on February 26, 1815. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

On the morning of Saturday 15 July, Napoleon boarded the Bellerophon and surrendered to its captain, Frederick Maitland. As the ship set off for England, the British government had already decided what to do with their exalted prisoner. Napoleon clearly hoped that he would be given an estate in Britain on which he could live out his days. Indeed, that’s what he claimed he’d been promised by Maitland – a claim vigorously denied by the captain himself. But there was little chance that the British government would allow such a dangerous figure to live in their midst.

They needed somewhere secure – and a very long way away. And in the remote Atlantic island of St Helena, they had the very place. The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, wrote that it was “the place in the world best calculated for the confinement of such a person”, adding that “there is only one place … where ships can anchor, and we have the power of excluding neutral ships altogether”. He goes on to say that “at such a place and such a distance all intrigue would be impossible; and, being so far from the European world, [Napoleon] would soon be forgotten”. How wrong he was about the last bit.

Who was with Napoleon on St Helena?

Henri-Gatien Bertrand

A talented general and loyal servant of Napoleon. His wife became hysterical and tried to jump overboard when she heard that she and her husband were accompanying the fallen emperor to St Helena. He stayed with Napoleon until his death and was a member of the expedition sent to recover his remains in 1840.

Charlestristan De Montholon

A general and diplomat. His wife Albine is reputed to have been Napoleon’s mistress on St Helena. Although she would leave the island in 1818, Montholon stayed with Napoleon at Longwood until his death.

Emmanuel, Count De Las Cases

A former royalist who became a chamberlain of Napoleon. He took copious notes of his conversations and later published them as The Memorial of St Helena. He was expelled from the island in November 1816 when it was discovered he was smuggling secret correspondence.

Gaspard Gourgaud

Soldier who fought in many of Napoleon’s battles and saved his life at the Battle of Brienne in 1814. Despite insisting on accompanying Napoleon to St Helena, his hot-headed nature led to friction with the other companions and, in 1818, he was permitted to leave the island.

On 24 July, the Bellerophon anchored off Torbay. The news that Napoleon was on board leaked out, and soon the old warship was surrounded by hundreds of small craft, all packed with passengers desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of the fallen emperor.

A similar scene was played out two days later when she anchored off Plymouth, and it was there that a furious Napoleon learned of his final destination. On 7 August, Napoleon and 26 companions boarded the HMS Northumberland as the long voyage south began. More had wanted to go with him, but the British were wary of creating a Napoleonic colony on the island and so restricted the number.

The British were wary of creating a Napoleonic colony on St Helena

It wasn’t until 14 October that the black, volcanic cliffs of St Helena came into view. Predictably, Napoleon was far from impressed, remarking that he would have been better off if he had stayed in Egypt. Three days later, he disembarked with his entourage at Jamestown, the island’s main settlement. Longwood House, the residence set aside for him, wasn’t ready, and so while the Northumberland’s carpenters busied themselves repairing it, Napoleon spent seven weeks in The Briars, a bungalow near to Jamestown that was the residence of William Balcombe, an official of the East India Company. While he was there he struck up an avuncular friendship with Balcombe’s 14-year-old daughter, Betsy.

 Christmas at Longwood

On 10 December 1815, he finally moved into Longwood, the house that, despite his protests, would be his home for the rest of his life. Longwood was a large, rambling single-storey building set amongst lava fields on a high plateau, near the stunted trees of the rather ominously named Deadwood Plain.

Although it hardly compared with the palaces of Europe, Longwood was spacious by St Helena standards: it had room for Napoleon’s entourage as well as a billiard room, salon, library and dining room. On the other hand, its lofty location meant that it missed out on the pleasant climate enjoyed by the inhabitants down at Jamestown. It was windswept, regularly swathed in clouds and full of damp.

Was Napoleon murdered?

Did Napoleon meet a sticky end? The doctors who attended his autopsy certainly didn’t think so. As far as they were concerned, Napoleon had died of stomach cancer, but rumours that Napoleon might have been a target for something more sinister had been around for years – since 1818, when Barry O’Meara, the Royal Navy surgeon who had been Napoleon’s doctor, insinuated that Sir Hudson Lowe had once asked him to shorten Napoleon’s life. The British authorities took a dim view of O’Meara’s claims and he was dismissed, but the idea that Napoleon could have been murdered lingered.

Eventually, in the 1960s, an analysis of a lock of Napoleon’s hair proved that he had high levels of arsenic in his system, leading some to argue that Napoleon had been poisoned, probably by the British government. But others, while agreeing that arsenic might have killed Napoleon, argued that it was more likely to have been accidental.

An analysis of the wallpaper from Longwood did indeed show that it contained an arsenic-based dye that mould transformed into poisonous fumes. Later researchers tested hairs from some of Napoleon’s contemporaries and concluded that by modern standards they all had abnormally high levels of arsenic, for at the time it was widely used in paint, tapestry, medicine and even the preservation of food.

The final blow to the murder by arsenic theory was struck by a team of Italian scientists a decade ago, who analysed hairs taken from Napoleon’s head at various times in his life (including when he was a boy) and discovered that the arsenic levels were the same in all of them. The doctors had almost certainly been right all along.

While this made for rather unpleasant living conditions, Napoleon saw an opportunity to get off the island by claiming that its unhealthy climate was ruining his health. His argument was backed up by his doctor, Barry O’Meara, who had completely fallen for his patient’s famous charm and remained a devotee of the ex-emperor until his death. Meanwhile, his adherents bombarded Europe with letters and pamphlets complaining of unhealthy conditions, unnecessary restrictions, insults and poor provisions – and laid the blame squarely on the new governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, who had arrived on the island in April 1816.

Lowe’s first meeting with Napoleon went badly, and things didn’t get any better. Even though they lived just three miles apart they only met sixm times in the first four months that Lowe was on St Helena, and then never saw each other again. Lowe has been described as a tactless martinet, but in these stormy meetings he retained his self-control even when Napoleon accused him of being a clerk and not a soldier.

Nineteenth-century painting of St Helena
St Helena, where Napoleon died in 1821 (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Napoleon’s comment was not only provocative, it was inaccurate. Lowe had campaigned all around the Mediterranean – much of it in command of a unit formed from anti-French Corsicans. He had been the senior British officer present at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 and was the first officer to bring Britain news of Napoleon’s abdication in 1814. General Sir John Moore thought highly of him, saying when “Lowe’s at the outposts I’m sure of a good night”. Wellington was less impressed, calling him “a damned old fool”.

As a soldier, Lowe seems to have been diligent and reliable rather than brilliant and imaginative, but that was exactly what was required for this job. In any case, what other senior officer would have taken the position? As Lord Bathurst wrote to the Duke of Wellington, he did not believe that they “could have found a fitter person of his rank in the army willing to accept a situation of so much confinement, responsibility and exclusion from society”.

Life under a lens

Napoleon’s life on St Helena was governed by a mass of restrictive regulations, all enforced by Lowe. He was denied newspapers, subjected to a curfew, watched all the time and heavily guarded, with 125 men stationed around Longwood in the day and 72 at night. He was, in effect, under house arrest.

Lowe is frequently seen as the architect of these regulations, but in fact he was merely carrying out specific instructions sent to him from London. Napoleon had escaped from an island before, and the British weren’t taking any chances.

Napoleon became lethargic, spending long hours lying on his bed

Lowe had been sent to do a job and he followed his instructions to the letter. During his first couple of years on St Helena, Napoleon took regular walks, went riding and spent much of his time reminiscing and dictating his memoirs to his companions. But as time went on, and the months turned into years, loneliness and boredom began to take its toll. Napoleon became increasingly lethargic and depressed, spending long hours sitting alone or lying on his bed.

By 1820, it was clear that he was seriously ill. He suffered from abdominal pains, nausea, fevers, constipation and diarrhoea; his gums, lips and nails were colourless. For a while, he thought he was being poisoned, but then decided that he’d the same cancer that had killed his father. But there was still time for one last swipe at the British, and at Lowe in particular.

Dictating his last will and testament in April 1821, he added, “My death is premature. I have been assassinated by the English oligopoly and their hired murderer.” Although some conspiracy theorists have taken these words literally, Napoleon was probably implying that the authorities’ refusal to agree to his demands to be moved from the unhealthy Longwood had hastened his death. On 4 May, he lost consciousness; the following day, surrounded by his companions, he died.

Napoleon had requested in his will that his remains should be laid to rest “by the banks of the Seine, surrounded by the French people, whom I love so dearly”. But at that time, there was little chance that either the restored Bourbon monarchy or the British authorities would allow the creation of what might well become a shrine to their old enemy in Paris. Napoleon would be buried on St Helena.

The whole population turned out to watch as 12 British grenadiers carried Napoleon’s velvet-covered coffin for burial in the tranquil Geranium Valley. There, dressed in his favourite uniform of a colonel of the Chasseurs à Cheval, Napoleon’s body was laid to rest. Even then there was one last battle to be fought. And it was all over a surname.

The French wanted simply to inscribe ‘Napoleon’, his name as emperor, on the tomb. But the British, who were reluctant to give his empire any sense of legitimacy, insisted on his full name – Napoleon Bonaparte. Neither side would give ground and in the end the remains of the most famous man in Europe would spend nearly 20 years in an unmarked grave.

Return to France: Napoleon’s final resting place

When Napoleon died in 1821, his request to be buried in Paris was rejected. Nineteen years later things had changed. King Louis-Philippe wanted to boost his popularity by associating himself with Napoleon’s memory, while the British wanted to make a gesture to gain French support over a crisis in the Middle East.

The French duly asked for the return of Napoleon’s remains and the British agreed. In October 1840, a French expedition led by Louis-Philippe’s own son sailed to St Helena and the caskets containing Napoleon’s body were opened. After confirming its identity, they transferred Napoleon’s remains into six new caskets and sailed them back to France and up the river Seine, ready for burial in the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, a traditional resting place of France’s military heroes.

On 15 December, one million French people ignored freezing temperatures to line the streets of Paris, as the huge carriage carrying Napoleon’s coffin trundled past the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Élysées and finally crossed the Seine to Les Invalides.

Julian Humphrys is a historian and development officer at the Battlefields Trust

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This content first appeared in the December 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed