The Murder of Napoleon — J’accuse

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On 5 May 1821 at 5:49 PM, Napoleon Bonaparte, the former Emperor of the French who had once reigned over much of Europe for a decade, passed away at age 51, on a small speck in the Atlantic Ocean. His death was received with a combination of grief, shock and elation throughout Europe. For his last six years, Napoleon had been living in exile on the island of St Helena, and his controversial death has traditionally been attributed to a combination of exhaustion, misery and stomach cancer. However, Napoleon’s final years provide several insights into the Emperor’s enigmatic personality, and the murky circumstances of his death have divided historians for the best part of two centuries.

After his final defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon fled Paris for the port of Rochefort on the Atlantic coast. Napoleon’s energy, which had gripped Europe for decades, was not yet exhausted, and he planned on escaping to America. Yet fate betrayed him, and a British ship (H.M.S. Bellerophon) blockaded the port. With no other remaining options, Napoleon was forced to surrender himself to the British to avoid the execution he would have faced had he been caught by the Prussians or Bourbons. 

The allies were keen to ensure Napoleon did not repeat his fabled escape from Elba, and so the Emperor was exiled to St Helena, a tiny remote island 2,500 miles off the coast of Brazil. For the most part, Napoleon stayed at Longwood House, a country residence in the centre of the island. This home was damp, windswept and unhealthy, something Napoleon frequently mentioned in letters to his jailer, the Governor of St Helena – Sir Hudson Lowe. 

A British army veteran, Lowe was punctilious, strict and obsessed with regulation, and had a stormy relationship with his prisoner. Despite living only three miles away from Longwood House, Lowe only met Napoleon on six occasions. A Russian diplomat assigned to St Helena complained that “Lowe was fussy and unreasonable beyond all expression.” Considering that this was from an ally who shared Lowe’s aim of imprisoning Napoleon; it is easy to imagine how Napoleon and his entourage described their captor. 

The governor was also incredibly petty and seemed to revel every opportunity to aggravate the great man in his custody. He blocked any gifts that arrived if they mentioned Napoleon’s imperial status (only passing on those addressed to General Bonaparte). He refused to allow Napoleon’s piano to be tuned, and at one point he reduced the amount of firewood sent to Longwood until the news that Napoleon was burning his furniture to stay warm caused such a backlash that the supply had to be restored. 

Lowe’s pettiness descended to ludicrous levels when he even refused to allow Napoleon to grow green beans in Longwood’s garden. He did so on the grounds that green was the colour of Bonapartism and that Napoleon’s horticultural ambitions were secret political signals. Napoleon’s relationship with Lowe was so tense that it has led some to believe that the Emperor’s passing was not the result of natural causes.

There was a long history of attempts against Napoleon’s life. The Emperor faced between twenty and thirty assassination plots during his reign – the two most well known of which were bankrolled by Britain. In 1800, French royalists in the pay of the British government filled a cart with explosives and planted it on Napoleon’s route to the opera, though it ultimately missed him. Years later, correspondence between the Breton royalist Georges Cadoual and the British statesman Lord Castlereagh was discovered. These revealed that Cadoual had been promised a large reward by the British government upon the successful killing of Napoleon. The Coalition Allies had absolutely no qualms about using assassination as a political tool, and had fully supported the attempted murder of their French adversary.

Without daring to delve into counterfactuals, one might easily see a possible motive for. It was after a mere nine months of exile on the island of Elba before Napoleon escaped and returned to France to cause a one hundred and ten day conundrum for the Coalition. The fears of a repeat of these events could have very easily propelled an initiative to eradicate all possible risk of another escape by the ex-Emperor.

It is impossible to penetrate a successful conspiracy two centuries after the event. While Napoleon would have struggled to reach the same heights of his previous power, the shadow of the escape from Elba still loomed large in the 1820s. One British Prime Minister had written (during the Napoleonic Wars) that Bonaparte was the Biblical anti-Christ, and it is not ludicrous to suggest the fear of the Emperor prompted Britain to action. 

The Emperor himself sensed foul play. A mere three weeks before his death, he dictated in his will and declared to his entourage: “My death is premature. I have been assassinated by the English oligopoly and their hired murderer.” This accusation was corroborated by Napoleon’s personal physician, Barry O’Meara, who agreed with the Emperor’s diagnosis. O’Meara had been part of Bonaparte’s entourage since H.M.S. Bellerophon, but was dismissed after he sent a letter to the British Admiralty accusing Sir Hudson Lowe of having commanded him to “shorten Napoleon’s life.” A year after Napoleon’s death, O’Meara published his memoirs, which claimed that the British Government had been determined to eliminate any possibility of Napoleon’s return.

The historical consensus is that Napoleon ultimately died of stomach cancer, but he was affected by a variety of ailments whilst in exile. The day after his death, an autopsy conducted by eight doctors nebulously concluded that Napoleon had died of gastric complications. However, there are huge flaws with this theory. Each doctor produced their own report with different analyses and interpretations. All reported the stomach was the most damaged organ, but the poor condition of Napoleon’s liver, spleen and other organs each pointed to varying causes of death. Finally, evidence from the size of his trousers suggest that Napoleon was slightly overweight before his death – a fact which directly contradicts the diagnosis, as stomach cancer causes dramatic weight loss.

In 1960, Dr Sten Forshuvud (a Swedish expert in poisons) was reading the recently published private papers of Napoleon’s valet de chambre, when he discovered Napoleon had displayed twenty-eight of the thirty-one symptoms of arsenic poisoning. He then obtained multiple strands of Napoleon’s hair and had them analysed by newly developed arsenic-detection tests. These were found to have fatal amounts of arsenic – about a hundred times the natural amount found in people today. Researchers found that, during Napoleon’s final years, the variation of arsenic levels in the Emperor’s hair perfectly correlated with Napoleon’s weekly symptoms reported by his valet de chambre. When Napoleon was reported to be ill, his arsenic levels were extremely high. When Napoleon was recovering, his arsenic levels were significantly lower. Arsenic, a tasteless and odourless poison, may have hurried the Emperor’s demise.

Arsenic poisoning helped elucidate many of the bizarre circumstances of Napoleon’s death. Not only would it explain his weight increase and autopsy abnormalities, but it would also shed light on why, when Napoleon was returned to France for burial in 1840, the Emperor looked the same as the day he had died. Arsenic is a preservative of tissue – museums often use it to preserve specimens – and so would have dramatically slowed any flesh decomposition. Napoleon’s corpse was testifying to the cause of his death.

There are theories which try and explain the arsenic levels in Napoleon’s hair. The most prominent of these is that he inhaled arsenic vapours from mould in his wallpaper at Longwood House. The issue with this is that it is estimated that by 1858, there were over a hundred million square miles of this same wallpaper in Britain, but no corresponding epidemic of arsenic-related deaths. 

However, if the assassination theory were perfect it would become historical consensus. Napoleon was already reporting issues with his stomach as early as Waterloo, long before Britain could have begun poisoning him. Genetics too support the theory that gastric cancer caused the Emperor’s death, as we know the same illness killed his father and seems to have affected some of his brothers, though as no autopsies were performed on them, this is impossible to conclusively prove.

The final factor to consider are the machinations of the Emperor. Napoleon genuinely believed he was the heir to the great classical conquerors, and spent most of his life cultivating a mythology around himself which could compete with his predecessors from antiquity. As a young general in Egypt he was Alexander, and as the Emperor of Europe he was Caesar. Now, defeated, trapped and imprisoned he found another figure to model himself on. Speaking to Lady Malcolm, wife of a British Admiral stationed nearby, Napoleon defined his last plan of assault against the ‘nation of shopkeepers’. He declared “I have worn the Imperial Crown of France and the Iron Crown of Italy. England has now given me one greater, and more glorious than either of them, for it is that worn by the saviour of the world – a crown of thorns. Oppression and every insult that is offered to me only adds to my glory and it is to the persecutions of England that I shall owe the brightest part of my fame.” 

The truth of Napoleon’s final days – whether the Emperor was the victim of an assassination, or a master of propaganda whose death has masterfully confounded the historical community – will likely never be laid to rest. Ultimately, all the evidence for the former is mostly circumstantial, but if the matter were so simple to resolve it would not have riddled historians for two centuries. In a sense it is almost poetic; in life Napoleon blurred the lines between myth and reality – why should his death have been any different?

Bell, D., 2019. A Very Short Introduction: Napoleon. Oxford Press

Dwyer, P., 2003. Citizen Emperor. Bloomsbury 

Lefebvre, G., 1965. Napoléon. Presses Universitaires de France 

Lentz, T., 2019. Idées reçues sur Napoléon. Le Cavalier Bleu 

Roberts, A., 2014. Napoleon the Great. Allen Lane 

Tulard, J., 2021. Napoleon: L’épopee – le mythe – le procès. Le Figaro,last%20year%20of%20his%20life.