The mystery of Napoleon's death
The Voice of Russia continues a series of programs dedicated to the bicentenary of Russia’s victory in the 1812 war against Napoleon. In this program we’ll try to lift the curtain on the mystery of Napoleon’s death.
By a whim of destiny and history, Napoleon spent the last years of his life in exile, on a remote island in the South Atlantic. Saint Helena Island was discovered by Portuguese travelers on May 21, 1501 and was named “Santa Helena” after Helena of Constantinople whose Remembrance Day was celebrated on May 21. In the 17th century the island belonged to the Dutch but was seized by the English in 1673. The English government used St.Helena as a place of exile. Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on the island on October 15, 1815.
Even though the climate on St.Helena was warm and mild, Napoleon’s health began to deteriorate rapidly in 1819. He would start saying something and stop in the middle of a sentence, plunging into deep thought. At the beginning of 1821 Napoleon’s English doctor, Doctor Arnott, found his condition fairly grave. Nevertheless, there were periods when the emperor felt better and would go out for a walk. He was rarely seen riding in his carriage after 1820 and stopped riding on horseback. By March 1821, he must have realized that the internal pains he was suffering from were caused by cancer, a disease that was hereditary in Napoleon’s family. Cancer killed Napoleon’s father, Carlo Bonaparte, when he was only 40.
On April 5, 1821 Doctor Arnott notified Napoleon’s entourage which consisted of Marshal Bertrand and Count Montholon about his patient’s critical condition. When the pains subsided, Napoleon was perky and laughing at his illness. “Cancer is Waterloo that went inside”, - he joked. On April 13 the emperor dictated his will to Count Montholon, who put it down. On April 15 Napoleon re-wrote his will and put his signature under it.
Napoleon bequeathed half of his fortune, which totaled 200 million francs in gold, to officers and soldiers who fought under his command, and the other half – to areas of France that were left devastated following the invasions of 1814 and 1815. A point in his will was dedicated to the English and St.Helena Governor Hudson Lowe: “I’m dying an untimely death, killed by the English oligarchy and its mercenary. The English people will take revenge for me”. He bequeathed to his son that he never campaign against France and remember the motto: “Everything for the French people”.
Witnesses’ accounts say Napoleon was quite calm as he dictated and then re-wrote his will. In a separate letter, to be delivered after his death, Napoleon asked St.Helena governor to organize the transportation of his entourage and servants to Europe.
Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, at 6 pm. He was 51. His funeral took place four days later. Besides Napoleon’s aides and servants, his funeral was attended by the English garrison in full, all sailors and naval officers, all civil servants with the governor, and nearly the entire population of the island. The burial ceremony was accompanied by a gun salute – the English paid their last military honors to the emperor.
Even though the official cause of Napoleon’s death was stomach cancer, some historians put the blame for his death on English politicians who they say set their minds on ending Napoleon’s influence in Europe which remained strong despite his incarceration on Saint Helena. Reports that Napoleon was poisoned with arsenic appeared in the 1960s, after a forensic analysis of a lock of Napoleon’s hair revealed lethal levels of arsenic.
Recent research refutes those findings. A group of French experts who examined locks of Napoleon’s hair that had been cut off before his exiles in 1804 and 1814 found that these hairs contained an equally high level of arsenic, which exceeded the norm by more than 30 times.
Nevertheless, a number of French experts still believe that arsenic poisoning was one of the most probable reasons behind Napoleon’s death. They say that the emperor had been exposed to arsenic on several occasions and long before his exile to Saint Helena. How it could have happened, remains a mystery. Scientists suppose that the presence of arsenic in Napoleon’s hair could be explained by its presence in cosmetic remedies for hair loss.
All attempts to secure permission for exhumation of Napoleon’s remains from the French authorities have brought no results. Apparently, the mystery of Napoleon’s death was buried together with the emperor.
On the Voice of Russia World Service we presented another program dedicated to the bicentenary of Russia’s victory in the 1812 war.