Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Napoleon's Last Days: Building Castles in Spain

Photo by Esther Gibbons

By the beginning of 1821 Napoleon was convinced that he would not last out the year, and he quoted Voltaire's Lusignan, Mais à revoir Paris je ne puis plus prétendre (1)

For a time Montholon in particular kept up his spirits by passing on, and perhaps embellishing, rumours that Napoleon would soon be removed from St Helena. The backdrop to this was the crisis in England between George IV and his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, a symbol of popular opposition to the Government of Lord Liverpool towards the end of 1820. Clearly the prospect of the return of at least some Whigs into Government was a hot topic at Longwood and Plantation House and probably elsewhere on the island, although such discussions were informed by news that was at best a couple of months out of date.

In January 1821 the comments of the French Commissioner, Montchenu, were reported by Count Montholon, and together with Napoleon's reaction were noted by Bertrand.
He says there is talk of making Belle Isle into a residence for the Emperor. That would mean taking a great risk. The English could no longer have the custody of the Emperor.

On the subject of Belle Isle, the Emperor believes that the intention of the powers that be would be to keep him there under the same conditions as at St Helena, with a governor, a garrison and a cruiser, just as we have here. But the Emperor will never consent to that. He would be at the mercy of the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle which would be able to have him assassinated there. He would never agree to it.

Or perhaps they want to give him Belle Isle as a place of refuge, with a batallion of his own as at Elba. That would be a different matter, but it would be unwise from the point of view of the Bourbons, on account of the present state of unrest in France.

This account concluded with the somewhat risible claim by Montchenu that the King of France had never approved of the Emperor being taken to St. Helena, that personally he liked the Emperor very much indeed .. (2)

On February 19th further discussion was reported by Bertrand.
It is rumoured that the Emperor may be sent to England. He thinks that this seems to indicate that the English do not wish to be rid of him.

Napoleon seemed encouraged:
They could keep me on a very large estate. .. True I could then escape more easily than from here. Yet it is a much more feasible idea than Belle Isle. A safe place could not be found for me so close to France, not one where I could be interned and yet enjoy a certain amount of freedom, as I do here .. (3)

On Feb 28 the Governor sent over some newspapers which reported that the unpopular Royal divorce bill had been withdrawn by the Liverpool Government, a loss of face which seemed to presage some change in the composition of the Government.
Our hopes and conjectures on the possibility of a new government wore us out. Our hopes that Lord Grenville will be in the new Cabinet and that we shall be moved from here. (4)

By March 6th though Napoleon was sad and has lost all hope of any change in the English Government. (5) But three days later the comments of the rather foxy Major Gorrequer as conveyed by Count Montholon seemingly had raised his spirits.
Lord Holland has been spoken of as a possible Prime Minister. The Governor will then pay him a great tribute - wise man. The Governor is a schemer. The English do not want to keep the Emperor any longer, and yet they do not want to hand him over to the other powers. The Emperor may therefore entertain hopes of going to America. (6)

So the next day, March 10th He felt much better and toyed with the idea of doing some riding. He hopes soon to leave St Helena.

He was prepared to go to England, Austria, America, anywhere but the hated St Helena:
The Emperor believes that the English will not want to be rid of him. But that they would keep him in England on some large private estate, and that they would accept his parole not to leave the county in which he was living without the Government's permission. Otherwise he would be quite free. .. He cannot see what the English have to fear.

If the Austrian Emperor were to write and offer him asylum in his States, and if the Empress would also write to him, then he would go to Trieste with no mistrust, so as to be with his wife and son.

If I had the choice I would go to America. .. First I would restore my health - then I would spend six months travelling about the country. .. Among other places I would pay a visit to Louisiana; after all it was I who gave it to the Americans.

Bertrand noted that Napoleon worked the entire day. He was pleased and had hopes of finally being able to leave this miserable island. He was also reading books about America and speculating about visiting his brother's estate at Trenton.

Three days later, on March 13th their bubble was burst. Another ship arrived from England, and the Governor sent over some newspapers for the period November- December 1820:
No change of Government. The French elections were not liberal. This news was a great disappointment to everyone, above all to the Emperor, who has flattered himself on better news.

"We have been building castles in Spain," he commented.

Over a month later John Ives Edwards, sea captain and husband of Mary Anne Robinson (the "Nymph"), and "much attached to the Emperor", called on Mme Bertrand. His conversation, a rehash seemingly of old news, was reported to Napoleon
He said that the English people had no wish to keep Napoleon at St. Helena, and they felt that the ignoble way in which the Emperor was being treated was a slur on them.

It cannot be long before he will leave here, perhaps in less than three months. Probably Admiral Lambert will accompany him back. .. It is public opinion that is forcing Lord Holland into the Government, not any political party but unanimous public opinion.

Napoleon was not impressed by this, "it is too late now" he said. (9)

In less than three weeks he was dead.

It was to be another nine years before the Whigs returned to Government.

1. Napoleon at St Helena. Memoirs of General Bertrand Grand Marshall of the Palace January to May 1821 (Cassell & Company 1953) p.65
2. Bertrand p. 21
3. Bertrand p. 71
4. Bertrand pp 96-7 The withdrawal of the unpopular bill had of course taken place some two months earlier, and it had in fact helped to dissipate the extra parliamentary opposition. Nobody on St Helena could have known this.
5 Bertrand p. 116
6. Bertrand p. 120
7. Bertrand pp 120-121
8. Bertrand pp 121
9. Bertrand p. 172

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