About the only thing Bill Gates and I have in common is that we both underestimated the significance of the internet. On a visit to CERN in 1993 I was underwhelmed when shown the world's first web browser developed by a man I now know to be Tim Berners Lee. The excellent meal in the staff cafeteria made far more impression on me!
Anyway I digress. Following my last posting on Betsy Balcombe and Napoleon's surprising ability to relate to children, I have been reading Captain Basil Hall's account of a meeting with Napoleon at Longwood.
This has got me thinking about another side of Napoleon that may surprise those brought up with a one-dimensional view of him - namely his amazing memory, his curiosity, and his ability to absorb and synthesise large amounts of information on all manner of subjects. Hence the title of this piece!
The French historian Lefebvre, a stern critic of the Emperor, probably put it as well as anybody :
His brain is among the most perfect that have ever been. His ever ready attention seizes indefatigibly upon facts and ideas, which his memory registers and classifies. His imagination plays with them freely, and a state of incessant secret tension enables it tirelessly to produce those political and strategic theses which reveal themselves to him as sudden intuitions comparable to those of the mathematician and the poet." (1)
His thirst for knowledge continued almost to the end, as is indicated in the secret diary kept by the faithful Bertrand. (2) As he lay dying Napoleon questioned doctor Arnott at great length about London and England, and discussed the different characteristics of England and France. He also enlisted his entourage to research information for him.
April 3rd 1821 The Emperor passed a bad night. He felt, so he said, as "though he had the tunic of Deianira on his back." He then asked someone to find out exactly what was meant by the tunic of Deinara.
April 12th Napoleon complained about the delay in receiving the 500 volumes he had asked Lady Holland to send him.
April 20 The Grand Marshall [Bertrand] who had been doing some research for the Emperor, went to his home for a short time while Marchand was reading to the Emperor. The Emperor then asked for the Grand Marshall, and in the evening he made him explain why "he had not returned as he had been asked for an account of the Saracen Kings of Corsica."
April 29th The Emperor could only be recognised by the multitude of incessant questions he asked.
The Meeting with Captain Basil Hall, August 1817
Hall put in to St Helena on his way home from Asia, where had visited the island of Loo-Choo. (3) He was very pleased to be allowed a meeting with Napoleon, which he was to report in the book published on his return. (4) He seems to have addressed Napoleon in a manner that Hudson Lowe would not have approved of.
Napoleon first questioned Captain Hall at length about the career of his father, whom Napoleon remembered from the time when they were both at Military College at Brienne. Apparently he was the first Englishman Napoleon had ever met. Napoleon then questioned him at considerable length about the island of Loo-Choo. This was fairly typical of such meetings. It was a bit like a viva voce examination.
Having settled where the island lay, he cross-questioned me about the inhabitants with a closeness — I may call it a severity of investigation — which far exceeds everything I have met with in any other instance. His questions were not by any means put at random, but each one had some definite reference to that which preceded it or was about to follow. I felt in a short time so completely exposed to his view, that it would have been impossible to have concealed or qualified the smallest particular. Such, indeed, was the rapidity of his apprehension of the subjects which interested him, and the astonishing ease with which he arranged and generalized the few points of information I gave him, that he sometimes outstripped my narrative, saw the conclusion I was coming to before I spoke it, and fairly robbed me of my story.
Several circumstances, however, respecting the Loo-Choo people, surprised even him a good deal ; and I had the satisfaction of seeing him more than once completely perplexed, and unable to account for the phenomena which I related. Nothing struck him so much as their having no arms. " Point d'armes !" he exclaimed, " c'est a dire point de cannons — ils ont des fusils ?" Not even muskets, I replied. " Eh bien donc — des lances, ou, au moins, des arcs et des fleches ?" I told him they had neither one nor other. " Ni poignards ?" cried he, with increasing vehemence. No, none. " Mais!" said Buonaparte, clenching his fist, and raising his voice to a loud pitch, " Mais ! sans armes, comment se bat-on ?
1 could only reply, that as far as we had been able to discover, they had never had any wars, but remained in a state of internal and external peace. " No wars !" cried he, with a scornful and incredulous expression, as if the existence of any people under the sun without wars was a monstrous anomaly.
In like manner, but without being so much moved, he seemed to discredit the account I gave him of their having no money, and of their setting no value upon our silver or gold coins. After hearing these facts stated, he mused for some time, muttering to himself, in a low tone, " Not know the use of money — are careless about gold and silver." Then looking up, he asked, sharply, " How then did you contrive to pay these strangest of all people for the bullocks and other good things which they seem to have sent on board in such quantities ?" When I informed him that we could not prevail upon the people of Loo-Choo to receive payment of any kind, he expressed great surprise at their liberality, and made me repeat to him twice, the list of things with which we were supplied by these hospitable islanders.
He then required me to tell him where the diflferent parts of these dresses were manufactured, and what were the different prices — questions I could not answer. He wished to be informed as to the state of agriculture in Loo-Choo — whether they ploughed with horses or bullocks — how they managed their crops, and whether or not their fields were irrigated like those in China, where, as he understood, the system of artificial watering was carried to a great extent. The climate, the aspect of the country, the structure of the houses and boats, the fashion of their dresses, even to the minutest particular in the formation of their straw sandals and tobacco pouches, occupied his attention.
He asked many questions respecting the religion of China and Loo-Choo, and appeared well aware of the striking resemblance between the appearance of the Catholic Priests and the Chinese Bonzes ; a resemblance which, as he remarked, extends to many parts of the religious ceremonies of both. Here, however, as he also observed, the comparison stops ; since the Bonzes of China exert no influence whatsoever over the minds of the people, and never interfere in their temporal or external concerns. In Loo-Choo, where everything else is so praiseworthy, the low state of the priesthood is as remarkable as in the neighbouring continent, an anomaly which Buonaparte dwelt upon for some time without coming to any satisfactory explanation.
With the exception of a momentary fit of scorn and incredulity when told that the Loo-Chooans had no wars or weapons of destruction, he was in high good humour while examining me on these topics.
" What do these Loo-Choo friends of yours know of other countries?" he asked. I told him they were acquainted only with China and Japan. " Yes, yes," continued he ; " but of Europe ? What do they know of us ?" I replied, " They know nothing of Europe at all ; they know nothing about France or England ; neither," I added, " have they ever heard of your Majesty." Buonaparte laughed heartily at this extraordinary particular in the history of Loo-Choo, a circumstance, he may well have thought, which distinguished it from every other corner of the known world.
It should be recorded that Napoleon was right to be sceptical! (5)
1. Quoted in Pieter Geyl, Napoleon For and Against (London 1965) p. 377
2. Memoirs of general Bertrand Grand Marshall of the Palace January to May 1821 (London 1953)
3. The Ryukyu Islands until the mid 20th century called Luchu, Loochoo, or Lewchew,
4. Hall was captain of the Lyra, one of ships taking members of Lord Amherst's Mission to China.
5. The ex-emperor indeed was in the right, for subsequent accounts have shown that the Loo-Chooans must have cunningly imposed both upon Hall and Captain Maxwell, by whom the Alceste was commanded in the expedition, and that these gentle islanders used not only weapons and money, but were among the most merciless pirates in the Yellow Sea. Note on Basil Hall