Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

The Exile of St Helena

"He fought a thousand glorious wars,

And more than half the world was his;

And somewhere now, in yonder stars,

Can tell, mayhap, what greatness is."


Napoleon arrived back in Paris at sunrise, on the 21st of June. It was but just over a week since he had left it, so full of hope and victory. Nothing was left to him now, but to abdicate a second time.

"Frenchmen," ran his proclamation, "I offer myself as a sacrifice to the hatred of the enemies of France. My political life is ended, and I proclaim my son Napoleon II., Emperor of the French."

But this was not allowed: he was ordered to leave France at once. Wellington and Blücher were already marching on Paris to restore Louis XVIII. once again. On July 7 they marched into the capital. The next day Louis arrived. Napoleon had reigned just one hundred days. To avoid arrest, he escaped to a seaport near La Rochelle, intending to sail for America. Here he was in sore straits, when the Allies bade him leave France within twenty-four hours. English ships were cruising in the Bay of Biscay. To put to sea ensured capture, to stay in France ensured arrest. He surrendered to the English captain of the Bellerophon. He wished to live in England, under an assumed name, as a private citizen.

"I come, like Themistocles," he said, "to seat myself at the hearth of the British people."

The Bellerophon sailed for England, and anchored at Plymouth for orders. Meanwhile the Allies had decided that the island of St Helena should be his home. It was a lonely island belonging to England, right away in the far Atlantic, midway between the coasts of Africa and South America. The vast waters, that rolled between France and St Helena would prevent any repetition of the escape from Elba, and British warships should watch the rocky coast of the island by day and night. No more could Napoleon upset the peace of Europe.

"I will not go to St Helena," he cried when he learned his fate. But in vain he protested.

"Better St Helena than Russia," said one.

"Russia! God keep me from that," he answered quickly.

On August 8, an English ship bore him away to St Helena. For the last time, Napoleon gazed at the dim coast of France, till it vanished from sight, and the great ship ploughed through the Atlantic waves, carrying the lonely exile to that far-off island, which was to be his prison and his grave.

[Illustration] from Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge

It was October 16, when at last he stepped ashore. A guard of sentinels kept watch over him all day. Once in every twenty-four hours, a British officer had to see him, to make sure he had not escaped. All his letters were examined. He was addressed as General Bonaparte. The lord of so many palaces in Europe, was now confined to two small rooms. In the corner of one, stood his little camp-bed, with the green silk curtains, which he had used at Marengo and Austerlitz. On his walls hung a portrait of Maria Louisa, the wife who had shared his throne, but would not share his exile. A picture of his little son Napoleon, riding on a lamb, hung near him, and a miniature of Josephine, who not long survived his fall.

The days passed away in monotonous gloom. He read, he gardened, he drove out, he wrote an account of his deeds. Usually he was calm, but now and then he would burst forth about the past.

"It was a fine empire," he said one day. "I ruled eighty-three millions of human beings—more than half the population of Europe."

Six weary years slipped by.

Death came almost suddenly at the last. It was not till a week before the end, that either he or the doctors realised that the disease he had suffered from for years, was now killing him.

His mind went back to years that were past. "France," he muttered as he lay dying, "Army—Head of the army."

A great storm raged outside. It tore up the trees that Napoleon had planted, uprooted the willow under which he had sat, shook the frail tents of his sentinel soldiers; and "amid the tumult of the raging sea and the shaking land and the tempest-torn skies, the fierce spirit of Napoleon passed away."

Reverently they covered him with the martial cloak that, as a young conqueror, he had worn at the battle of Marengo. They buried him in the island of St Helena; but nineteen years later his body was taken back to France, and Paris, once his great capital, opened her arms to receive back her mighty dead. He who had raised her to such heights of glory, he who had dashed her to such depths of disaster, now lies in her midst.

The results of Napoleon's life were great and far-reaching. Not only had he re-moulded the France of the Revolution, but he had laid the foundations of new life in Italy and Germany. Everywhere in Europe, he had broken down the old barriers of custom and prejudice and created a new spirit of freedom and independence.

He had set his whole heart on the conquest of England, and in the end England had conquered him. She emerged from the long struggle "Clad with a great fame."

She had won the power of the sea. This was the secret of that success, that was to see her flag flying over a sixth part of the world in the century to come. But another secret was hers: she was firm in the belief of that watchword, which won for Nelson the battle of Trafalgar, for Wellington Waterloo; that watchword, which must ever lead her from strength to strength, as the years roll onward into space—"England expects every man to do his duty."