Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Belle Poule and the Exhumation of Napoleon

Time for something totally different.

I have covered the Exhumation iof Napolon's body in 1840 in an earlier post (8th March 2008), but now will take another look at it from the eyes of a not very sympathetic British observer on St Helena.

Sir John Henry Lefroy, KCMG, CB, FRS, (28 January 1817 – 11 April 1890) was a British military officer and later colonial administrator (sometime governor of Bermuda and Tasmania).

As a young Lieutenant he was sent to St. Helena to study magnetic phenomena.

He was permitted to witness the exhumation of Napoleon but was not among the select few allowed into the tent to see the opening of the coffin. He chose also not to join the funeral procession or to see the embarkation of the coffin on board the Belle Poule.

In his recollection he claimed that the Governor, Major General Middlemore, a veteran of the Peninsular War, had hated the whole thing, had shut himself up at Plantation House (he is usually held to have been ill!), and had presumably conveniently left all the negotiations to Colonel Hamelin Trelawney, R.A. (1)

Despite his own lack of sympathy, Leroy was generally impressed with the Prince de Joinville whom he described as a fine young man, about six feet three inches in height .. He declined society, and went about in his loose white trousers, old coat, and tarpaulin hat ..

Leroy asked him if he might show him around the house (Longwood presumably), to which the Prince, who Leroy says was proficient in English and Spanish, bizarrely replied - Thank you, sare, I never drink wine.

Leroy was amused that the French party wanted relics: Handfuls of earth, water from Napoleon's spring, leaves, flowers, bulbs ..

In a letter to his sister, dated October 17th 1840, which reflects his feelings at the time, he described somewhat disrespectfully but maybe not atypically, the removal of Boney's remains. In a neat turn of phrase he noted that corruption and the worm had spared him who had given them so many a banquet .
His description of the scene of the exhumation is evocative:
.. the midnight formed as picturesque a scene as I have ever witnessed. The sentries posted on the hills, the black labourers, the soldiers of the guard and working party, mixed up with the muffled figures of the authorities attending, in the imperfect light of the lanterns by which they worked, would have formed a scene for Rembrandt.

He also expressed his disapproval of the way the Governor had in his view ceded to the demands of the French party:
Minute guns were fired all the way, and a royal salute from the battery, but not from the English man-of-war. However, with this latter exception, everything was done as if he were emperor, a thing we never acknowledged before, which makes the amende to France, and directly inculpates all preceding governments. I would have stuck to the "General Bonaparte" as long as there was "a shot in the locker".

Finally he referred to the ongoing diplomatic dispute between England and France over Syria - a declaration of war was daily expected .. - which, to the great amusement of Thackeray(2), was to cause so much concern to the Belle Poule on its journey back to France. Apparently the Belle Poule was not the only ship to panic over this: an English merchant vessel arrived at St Helena as the French were firing salutes; the crew clearly thought they were attacking the island, and the ship fled for her life. Likewise, as the Belle Poule left St Helena, Littlehales, in H.M.S. Dolphin followed her at a safe distance, determined if he got a chance to pitch a shell or two into "old Boney's coffin".

The letter concludes somewhat abruptly and, in view of the foregoing, a little strangely:

The French behaved handsomely.

An interesting insight I felt into relations between two countries which had often been at war over eight centuries. You would never have guessed from this account that peace between them had finally broken out!
1. The source for this piece is A.D. Thiessen, "The Removal of Napoleon's Remains from St. Helena to France, October 1840", Journal of the Royal Astronomcal Society of Canada , Vol 36, p 66
2. William Makepeace Thackeray, The Second Funeral of Napoleon


Carlos Cólogan said...

Joinvile scale in tenerife travel to st helena find in google writing cologan valois joinville tenerife.
I have his original letters of his travel.

John Tyrrell said...

Thanks Carlos. I have now been looking at your blog with the aid of Google and I understand that the Prince de Joinville and other members of the French party scaled Tiede when they stopped on Tenerife on the way to St Helena in 1840, and that your family has letters sent by the prince.

Incidentally the Prince appears in some of my other posts - you can use the search facility if you are interested.

best wishes