Today 189 years ago Napoléon died …

(Photo copyright: Marilyn Z. Tomlins) It was a Saturday, May 5, 1821. The place was the island of Saint Helena, 1180 miles (1900 kms) from the African coast and 3000 miles (3000 kms) from that of Brazil. Napoléon had arrived there on Tuesday, October 17, 1815 to start his exile; he was 46. Little over […]

(Photo copyright: Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

It was a Saturday, May 5, 1821.

The place was the island of Saint Helena, 1180 miles (1900 kms) from the African coast and 3000 miles (3000 kms) from that of Brazil.

Napoléon had arrived there on Tuesday, October 17, 1815 to start his exile; he was 46. Little over four months earlier he was still the Emperor of France; he had abdicated on Thursday, June 22 after his June 18 Waterloo defeat.

At school in ‘apartheid’ South Africa we were taught that Napoléon was a great hero. He was the Brits’ enemy and, as you know, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. (I won’t go into why the British Empire was considered an enemy down in South Africa other than to say that the Afrikaners did not take kindly to their colonial masters.) But though I have rejected 99.99% of what I was taught in South Africa (I am talking about how the Afrikaners twisted history – their own as well of that of other nations) I never stopped believing that Napoléon was great. Today, I even say that he was the greatest Frenchman ever. You may argue that he was not French, but Corsican, but you will know what I mean.

Napoléon died an atrocious death (which death can not be so described?) but his was made worse by the fact that he would have received treatment for his ailments had he not been on Saint Helena. So okay, the treatment would not have been anything like that of today, but hell, the man would at least have been given morphine to dull his pain.

Having put on weight in his final years of being Emperor, he had become obese on Saint Helena. Also, having been far from a healthy man while Emperor, once on the island, his health had begun to deteriorate. He had always suffered from indigestion and hemorrhoids (he could hardly sit on his horse at Waterloo) and therefore his immobility on the island did nothing to help him overcome those. He had also caught malaria on one of his campaigns and that too had flared up again on the island. Not to speak of another of his ailments – scabies, which turned one of his thighs into a burning, itching sore which he scratched until his skin broke and bled. For that he at least found a little relief by sitting for hours in a tub just as Marat had done seeking relief from eczema.

Napoléon had also always suffered from somnolence – somehow one can’t picture the great military strategist falling asleep at his desk planning his next great battle – which the heat of Saint Helena had made worse. But that was not all. He had a dry cough, breathlessness, an irregular heartbeat, and swollen legs and ankles since his 1912 Russian campaign. Those too grew worse on Saint Helena.

His health had become a real problem in January 1917 when on the night of the 17th, he complained of severe pains on the right side of his body. He passed out. His aides summoned the doctor who treated the British marines on the island, but he (name was Stokoe) did not arrive until the morning when he diagnosed hepatitis. Napoleon’s skin had an odd greenish color.

From then on, Napoléon was never again well. He slept for about 15 hours each day and he was in agony not only from his stomach but also his thigh. He went out for the last time on Wednesday, October 4, 1820, and from January 1821 he was almost never lucid anymore.

On the afternoon of Thursday, May 3, he was given the last rites.

Two days later on Saturday, May 5, in the early hours of the morning, he started to hiccup and he was groaning and sighing. His eyes remained closed. Between groans and hiccups he mumbled something. Those who stood around his bed thought that he had said something about “at the head of the army”. No, he did not die with the name “Josephine” on his lips.

He died that day at 5.30 p.m. He had sighed three times and then he was no longer.

He was buried after an autopsy which had shown that his stomach was filled with a blackish liquid and there was a hole in his liver. His thorax was also filled with liquid. The burial was on Wednesday, May 9. His body had already then started to decompose. Such bad odor emanated from it that no one could stay in the room with it for long.

The news of Napoléon’s death did not reach Europe until 9 weeks later when the next ship from Saint Helena docked in Portsmouth. The French received the news without much emotion.

Of course today Napoléon lies buried in les Invalides in Paris. Or does he? (I will blog about that some other day.)

(A Commemorative Mass will be said in honor of Napoléon as well as for the soldiers of the Grande Armée who died for France today in the Saint-Louis des Invalides church at 6.30 pm. The Prince Napoléon will be in attendance.)

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

One Response

5-6-2010 at 13:06:30

What a sad end for a great man. There have been rumours of poison too, has that been put to rest now.

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