Thursday, 9 June 2011

Napoleon: General or Emperor?

Send this card to General Bonaparte; the last I heard of him was at the Pyramids and Mount Tabor.

- Napoleon to Bertrand, on receiving an invitation from Hudson Lowe inviting General Bonaparte to a ball.

.. I have no cognisance of any Emperor being actually upon this island, or of any person possessing such dignity having .. come hither with me in the Northumberland .

- Admiral Cockburn to Bertrand, in reply to a letter in which Napoleon had been styled Emperor.

Aside from the legality of Napoleon's detention without trial after the war with France had ended, the most contentious issue of his captivity on St Helena was the decision that he be styled and treated as a general officer, which was compounded by the puerile way in which Hudson Lowe was wont to enforce it.

Lord Rosebery in his Napoleon: The Last Phase singles out some of the absurdities: Hobhouse's gift of his book on the Hundred Days to Napoleon was confiscated because of the inscription Imperatori Napoleoni ; some chess pieces bearing the inscription N and a crown, sent by Mr Elphinstone who was grateful for Napoleon's kindness to his wounded brother on the field of Waterloo were passed on only with extreme reluctance; Napoleon's gift to the 20th Regiment of Coxe's Life of Marlborough was declined because the imperial insignia was on the title page. Also Gorrequer noted in his diary that he was required to cut a leaf out of a book sent for Napoleon by Lord John Russell because of something, presumably the disputed title Emperor, that Lord John had written on it.

One of the charges made against Dr Stokoe in his court martial was that he had referred to Napoleon as "Napoleon" rather than as "General Bonaparte". Finally of course, Hudson Lowe refused permission for the simple inscription Napoleon to be placed on the tomb. Lowe insisted that "Bonaparte" must be added, his followers refused, so it remained unmarked. "It seems incredible, but it is true" was Lord Rosebery's comment on this bizarre affair. (1)

Gorrequer noted though that after Napoleon's death Admiral Lambert had no compunction about using the terms Emperor, Empress and Princess (referring to Napoleon's sisters) in conversation with Bertrand. (2) Of course the Navy were always suspect in Lowe's eyes: " the fact is that there is a feeling for Bonaparte throughout, that ought not to be".(3)

Lowe also came to have doubts about the 20th Regiment, particularly after the affair of the books, and he must have been horrified to be informed by Sir Thomas Reade on 5th July 1821 that the officers had toasted Napoleon in their mess! (4) Whether or not they used the title General Bonaparte is not recorded! On an earlier occasion Gorrequer had noted Lady Lowe's comments on the 20th: "The affection and admiration of that corps for our Neighbour [Napoleon] was very unaccountable and, after his death, if he had lived longer and if 20th had remained where they were, God knows what would have been the consequences in time." (5)

At one stage Napoleon suggested that he should resolve the dispute by assuming the name of "Colonel Muiron" or "Baron Duroc". Lord Bathurst's response tells us much about the man and almost makes you feel sorry for Hudson Lowe in having to answer to him: "On the subject of General Bonaparte's proposition I shall probably not give you any instruction. It appears harsh to refuse it, and there may arise much embrrassment in formally accepting it." Apparently the right to assume an incognito belongs only to a monarch! (6) So General Bonaparte he remained.

1. Lord Rosebery, Napoleon: The Last Phase (London 1900) p 80.
2. James Kemble, Gorrequer's Diary (London 1969) p242.
3. Gorrequer's Diary p. 61
4. Gorrequer's Diary p 255
5. Gorrequer's Diary pp. 226-7
6. Rosebery pp 90-91

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