Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Prisoner of Europe


Napoleon's "star" had led him far from insignificant Ajaccio, and was now leading him still further. Unknown lad, cadet, lieutenant, general, emperor, constructor, destructor, reconstructor, he had been all, and more. Destiny had now set him an even more difficult task—to reign over himself.

In lonely St Helena, isolated from other human habitation, spied on by soldiers of the army which had done so much to bring about his downfall, guarded by British bayonets and frigates, but surrounded by a little band of men and women who refused to desert him in his last days of trial and despair, the exile spent the remainder of a life which had been lived to the full. He to whom Time had been a priceless possession had to confess that it was now "his only superfluity."

Napoleon was already a broken man. The strange lassitude which characterised his behaviour during the Hunch e '. Days and at Waterloo became a habit. The volcano was extinct. He who had despised bed learned to love it, though he often spent many wakeful hours during the night. Bereft of hope, there was a gradual dimming of the lamp of life as the Dictator of yesteryear eked out a miserable existence in damp, windswept, rat-ridden Longwood. Sometimes his old enthusiasm would revive as he reviewed the history of a campaign; at others his usual stoical attitude would give way to capriciousness at the over-conscientious sense of duty displayed by Sir Hudson Lowe, the Irish Governor of the island, and occasionally he would burst into fits of uncontrollable anger. Now and then his conversations were contradictory; what he said to-day he denied to-morrow.

He reviews the careers and characters of his marshals, discusses science, religion, finance, the creation of man, his Code, the English, his family tree, his love affairs. He points out what he believes to have been errors of policy, is not afraid to admit that he made blunders, and suffers his courtiers to argue and disagree with him. His hero is Alexander the Great, and time after time he regrets that he did not become Emperor of the East. He turns his thoughts to the might-have-beens of his career, possibilities marred by the "if only—" of more ordinary humanity, and sums up with, "After all, I am only a man."

We who know the Great War in history, and the Greater War of 191118 in reality, will appreciate Napoleon's remark that "Prussia has always been since the time of Frederick, and will always be, the greatest obstacle to my projects for France." Of topical interest is his prophecy anent Russia, "The Power that marches the most surely and with the greatest strides towards universal dominion." To a weary world urged to increase production these words echo down the century, "We want cultivators, workmen, manufacturers, not philosophers." Again, "The men who have changed the universe have never succeeded by capturing the leaders, but always by moving the masses." Sometimes Napoleon busies himself with dictating to Las Cases, Montholon, or Gourgaud. It helped to relieve the drab monotony. He criticizes Caesar, Turenne, and Frederick the Great. For a moment he contemplates writing the campaigns of Moses, the "one able man" of the Old Testament. Books on the Russian expedition and the Revolutionary Convention begin and end with the idea. He peruses the Bible with avidity, but one is led to believe that he held a brief for Mohammedanism, though it may well be that in theological matters he took an opposite view from those with whom he was discussing the subject in order to stimulate argument.

Always an omnivorous reader, his literature included Richardson's Clarissa Marlowe, Hume's History of England, the Arabian Nights, Paradise Lost, Homer, Virgil, and his beloved Ossian.

That Napoleon in some of his dictations and conversation had an eye for the future can scarcely be gainsaid. There was a remote chance of political action in England in his favour, of reaction in France against Louis XVIII., and there was always his son, the uncrowned Napoleon II. In his Journal Las Cases penned, but refrained from publishing, a highly significant passage which sheds a certain amount of light on the interminable wrangle between "General Buonaparte" and Lowe. "We are possessed of moral arms only," he notes; "and in order to make the most advantageous use of these it was necessary to reduce into a system our demeanour, our words, our sentiments, even our privations, in order that we might thereby excite a lively interest in a large portion of the population of Europe, and that the Opposition in England might not fail to attack the Ministry on the violence of their conduct towards us." La politique de Longwood certainly existed—Napoleon III. made good use of it and became Emperor of the French on the forty-seventh anniversary of Austerlitz—but so did the tragedy of St Helena. Of the two martyrs, the one to failure and the other to duty, it is difficult to say who suffered more. The prisoner did not love his gaoler, and the latter was certainly not enamoured of the former. Suspicion blinded both.

It was only natural that Napoleon should frequently remark on England. He even went so far as to study the intricacies of the language, with what success may best be appreciated by reproducing a note he wrote to Las Cases:

"Since sixt week y learn the English and y do not any progress. Sixt week do fourty and two day. If might have learn fivty word, for day, i could know it two thousands and two hundred. It is in the dictionary more of fourty thousand: even he could most twenty; bot much of tems. For know it or hundred and twenty week, which do more two years. After this you shall agree that the study one tongue is a great labour who it must do into the young aged."

The recluse reads aloud, or is read to and falls asleep. Chess and billiards help to while away the long evenings. A year or two before he died he renewed his interest in outdoor life, and for a time showed feverish enthusiasm for gardening, occasionally varied by horse-riding. His retinue was compelled to dig trenches and to listen to lectures on warfare.

Three Commissioners—Montehenu, Stunner, and Balmain, representing France, Austria, and Russia respectively—were sent to St Helena. Their special task was to "assure themselves of his [Napoleon's] presence." They seem to have spent a considerable part of their time in quarrelling with Lowe and in endeavouring to see the Emperor face to face instead of at a humiliating distance. Once he afforded them an opportunity of meeting him by asking them to luncheon, though it was made quite clear that they were not to come as officials. As they did not see fit to accept because they would have to leave their rank on the doorstep, none of them ever uttered so much as a single syllable to him. For fairly obvious reasons Napoleon was specially vitriolic towards Montehenu, the French Commissioner, whom he stigmatized as "an old fool, a chatterbox, a carriage general who has never smelt powder."

At first Napoleon was allowed a twelve-mile radius for the purpose of exercise, subsequently curtailed in the autumn of 1816 to eight miles. Longwood itself could only be approached by a narrow path across a ravine, yet soldiers were always on guard, and at night a small army of sentries was posted near the exile's house. Semaphore apparatus was stationed on every hill-top. No private merchantman was allowed to anchor; that privilege was reserved exclusively for ships of the Navy and Indiamen. In August 1819, when Napoleon was invisible because he remained indoors, Lowe informed his prisoner that the orderly officer was to see him every day, by force if necessary. As Napoleon threatened to shoot the first man who carried out this instruction, it was withdrawn.

A characteristic of Napoleon was his unexpected questions. While driving at Longwood with Dr William Warden, he put this poser: "In the course of your practice, and on your conscience, how many patients have you killed?" On another occasion he mentioned that he had "adopted, encouraged, and indeed decreed the rigid observance of Dr Jenner's system" of inoculation against smallpox, and asked whether the people of England had given him some credit for it. When Antommarchi, an expert anatomist, arrived to fill the post of physician to the Emperor, the patient tested his knowledge of chemistry, and later remarked, "I would give him my horse to dissect, but I would not trust him with the cure of my own foot."

The presence of Captain Poppleton, who was the first orderly officer at Longwood, and held that post from December 1815 to July 1817, was certainly not resented by the Emperor, who made a most favourable impression on the soldier.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


"After Admiral Sir G. Cockburn left us," Poppleton confides to a correspondent, "fresh restrictions were placed upon him [Napoleon]; from this period he never quitted Longwood—for many weeks he never quitted his room—within a very short period only he has quitted the house for a walk in the garden. He bears his confinement most heroically . . . and is always happy to get hold of any book that abuses him, even in the most gross language. Many people call him sulky—what he was formerly I know not, but since I have known him he does not deserve such an appellation—very few would have borne so sudden a change of fortune with the stoicism he has. His officers were always full of complaints and never pleased—from him no complaints ever come, except regarding the restrictions which deprived him of the exercise he was accustomed to and injured his health."

The last phase of Napoleon's career was perhaps a more dramatic ending to so marvellous a story than if he had fallen in battle. Many men have met their death in that way, but there has been but one Imperial prisoner at St Helena, the exiled monarch whose soul took flight at 5.49 p.m. on the 5th May 1821. His age was fifty-one years.

"I desire that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people I have loved so well," wrote Napoleon in his will, and the nation responded with emotion to the wish of its great Son. They forgot that he had lavished French treasure and resources as a spendthrift, that his insane ambitions had brought them financial and political ruin; they forgave him that he had led the youth of France to the shambles and had bereaved their homes of fathers, of husbands, of brothers, of sons. They remembered only that he had glorified France, and in the midst of beautiful Paris they raised the most noble Tomb that the genius of modern times has conceived. It is a sacred place of pilgrimage to every son and daughter of France, and men and women of other nations pass, a continual stream, before the massive sarcophagus which—oh, irony of fate!—was hewn out of a Russian quarry, the memorial tribute of Czar Nicholas I. to his brother's mighty antagonist. None who enters that quiet place fails to bow the head before those ashes, and we too, perhaps from afar, may reflect one moment upon the vanity of human glory and ponder the eternal truth:

Only the actions of the just

Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust.