Saturday, 8 March 2008

St. Helena: The Exhumation of Napoleon's Body

It is my wish that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom I have loved so well.- (Napoleon's Will)

St. Helena was never expected to be Napoleon's final resting place - certainly not by his fellow exiles. (1)

Doubtless nobody bothered to tell the citizens of St. Helena, who had derived some benefit from the presence of the tomb of the Emperor.

The Valley of the Tomb, September 15th 1840

It was 25 years to the day since Napoleon had first arrived on St. Helena.

It was raining heavily. Two tents were set up. One was giving protection to men who were excavating the tomb. The other was set up as a chapel. In this a number of local officials were gathered, as well as a party of French men, most of whom had shared the Emperor's exile and had come to take his body home.(2)

The work was taking longer than anticipated - the thick cement protecting the tomb was hard to penetrate, and the excavators had to work through the night. At 8.00 a.m. on 16th September they finally broke through; at 9.30 they caught sight of the coffin; soon they were able to enter into the tomb and inspect it.

Then the coffin was lifted out and moved into the chapel.

Between Britain and France nothing is ever quite straightforward, and this occasion was no exception. (3)

The French had wanted to exhume the body themselves, and the leader of the French Party, the King's son the Prince de Joinville, expressed his displeasure at not being allowed to do so by remaining on board the Belle Poule. Now with the coffin in the chapel objections were made and recorded by a local Judge concerning the correct procedures that should be gone through when a coffin is unsealed.

At last the coffin was opened. For two minutes Napoleon's remains were exposed to those present. Not long enough for the daguerreotype that someone had brought with them to record the occasion.

The witnesses were able to verify that it did indeed contain the body of the Emperor, and not the quick lime that a Parisian rumour had suggested. It is impossible to imagine what must have gone through the minds of those who had shared the Emperor's exile as the coffin was opened. As the body was revealed they were amazed to find it so well preserved; whilst they had grown older, he to some at least seemed younger than when he had died 19 years earlier.(4)

The coffin was then resealed, now with six layers instead of four, and weighing 1200 kilos. It was carried up the track by 43 soldiers and placed on a carriage that had been reinforced to bear its heavy weight. At this point a British officer from a famous military family, Major-General Churchill, Chief of Staff of the Indian Army came running to pay his respects, and he and his two aides de camp joined the procession into Jamestown.

In Jamestown flags were at half mast and shops closed. All the windows were crowded with onlookers. The ladies of St. Helena had woven a large tricolour flag for the occasion.

The sick Governor, General Middlemore who had walked the 6 kilometres into Jamestown behind the procession, formally handed the coffin over to the French. De Joinville thanked him for the sympathy and respect with which the ceremony had been conducted.

As soon as the coffin reached the French ship, flags were unfurled, masts squared, drums beaten and salvoes fired. The Emperor had come back to his own!

So ended the most momentous quarter century in the history of St Helena.

Gilbert Martineau describes it as the end of the most horrible misunderstanding in history.(5)
(1) Bertrand had asked the British Government in 1821 for the return of Napoleon's body, and had been told then that it was a matter for the French Government. Pleas by Napoleon's mother for the return of his body were unanswered.

(2) The former captives who returned in 1840 were Grand Marshal Bertrand, his son Arthur, General Gourgaud, the young Emmanuel Las Cases, Marchand, the faithful servant who had nursed Napoleon at the end. There were also a number of Napoleon's servants: Saint-Denis, Pierron, Noverraz, Coursot and Archambault. Notable absentees were the elder Las Cases, because of ill health, and the Count de Montholon. The latter was in London, about to embark with Napoleon's nephew, Louis Napoleon, on a foolhardy attempt to overthrow King Louis Philippe. For this Montholon was imprisoned for 20 years, but was pardoned in 1846. Louis Napoleon was imprisoned for life; in 1846 he managed to escape to England. In 1848 with he fall of the July Monarchy he became the President of France, and in 1851 the Emperor of the French.

(3)There had been a number of sensitive issues. The British Government clearly now recognised Naoleon as Emperor Napoleon rather than General Bonaparte, but it was concerned not to do anything which could be critised by the Tory opposition. It was made clear therefore that the Governor should not say anything which in any way appeared to criticise the decision of 1815. The French Government for its part indicated that the former captives now returning would be told to be silent and unemotional.

(4) The following account, in response to a comment that the Emperor's body was well preserved, was given to a visiting seaman by someone who said he had been prsent:
Yes; externally it was perfect. The least touch, however, made an indenture. His nose was the only part which did not retain its original fullness. It hung in upon the bone, and greatly disfigured his countenance. I saw him by torch-light, and a more ghastly object I never looked upon. The night was dark, and, when the lid of the coffin was raised, the glare of light shed upon his pale features gave them an additional ghastliness. His eyes were much sunken, and his lips slightly parted. There was nothing of sternness in the expression of his countenance. It was rather that of pain. He looked as if he had fallen into an uneasy sleep after a long fit of illness. His liver and heart, which were embalmed and placed upon his breast, were uninjured.
Etchings of a Whaling Cruise ... by J. Ross Browne.

(5) Napoleon's Last Journey, Gilbert Martineau.

No comments: