Tuesday, 5 April 2016

St. Helena 1821: The Malingering Ex-Emperor

Mme Betrand visiting Napoleon, from Inside Longwood

Reading the introduction to Thomas Keneally's excellent novel Napoleon's Last Island, reminded me how Sir Hudson Lowe, Sir Thomas Reade and Government supporters in England refused to believe that Napoleon was ill. They were convinced that it was a plot to try and engineer his return to Europe, and that he would be miraculously cured once he were put on a ship away from the island.

On March 30th Lowe called at Longwood and said that Napoleon had not been seen for 12 days.

"If it should be necessary the door of his room will be battered down and an entry made by force."

When it was pointed out that this would kill Napoleon, Lowe answered, "No matter, I would have it done." (1) Shortly after Napoleon agreed to see Dr Arnott, the British physician, and even he claimed, surely influenced by Plantation House, that Napoleon's problems were largely psychological. By mid-April though Arnott was coming round to the view that Napoleon was dangerously ill, and he himself began to lose the trust of Lowe. (2)

The Morning Post, in an article published 25 days after Napoleon's death, provides an insight into the mindset of the Government and its supporters:

The information respecting BONAPARTE's dangerous illness is deemed extremely doubtful in those quarters to which we should be most most inclined to look for correct intelligence. Several modes of obtaining the release of the EX-EMPEROR have in vain been tried; and a rumour that he is likely to expire would afford topics for a new brief in the hands of his interested and mischievous agents. Already do we see his name chalked on many of the walls of the metropolis; and we should not much wonder if endeavours were used to instigate public meetings upon the subject of his great merits and distresses! - At all events, we are quite sure, from what we already witness, that if this rumour continues in circulation, there will be a great deal of insidious writing upon the subject." (3)

Perhaps the most surprising passage is the section I have put in bold: further evidence of the support for Napoleon so often overlooked by historians. Apparently when the news of Napoleon's death finally reached England in July, placards appeared in the streets urging people to go into mourning.(4)
1. Napoleon at St. Helena, Memoirs of General Bertrand Grand Marshall of the Palace (Cassell 1953) p. 134
2. Bertrand p. 161
3. Morning Post, 30th May 1821
4. Cobbett's Political Register, July 14th 1821. Apparently a "discredited" report of Napoleon's death reached England by mid June. Leicester Chronicle, 16th June 1821


Hels said...

Amazing! "When the news of Napoleon's death finally reached England in July, placards appeared in the streets urging people to go into mourning". Who was doing the urging, do you think, and what would they gain if Englishmen did go into mourning?

John Tyrrell said...

I don't think I can answer your question in the way you put it - but I think you have to look at the reformers' support of the Prince Regent's estranged wife Caroline and the popular protests in London over her treatment in 1820-1821 to give this some kind of context. Incidentally when the Regent was told that his worst enemy had died he thought they were referring to Caroline not Napoleon.