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Marking the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte

Dominic Kirby wonders if

Napoleon’s legacy is really something to celebrate

Words by Dominic Kirby

Early in the morning of Saturday 5th May 1821, in a small, damp, windswept house on the edge of a small, damp, windswept island in the middle of the Atlantic, one of the greatest men in history (or one of the greatest tyrants, depending on your perspective) died.

The man was Napoleon Bonaparte.

Of all the numerous eyewitness accounts of Napoleon’s final hours, that recorded by General Henri Bertrand, his companion and confidant, is perhaps the most credible. Bertrand recorded:

“From three o’clock until half-past four there were hiccups and stifled groans. Then afterwards he moaned and yawned. He appeared to be in great pain. He uttered several words which could not be distinguished and then said ‘Who retreats’ or definitely: ‘At the head of the Army.’”

Napoleon’s doctor and one of his valets also recorded, like Bertrand, that Napoleon uttered the word ‘armée’ shortly before he died. This is hardly surprising for a soldier-turned-politician-turned-emperor, who spent a lifetime planning, preparing and prosecuting war across several continents.

Given the fame of the individual and the remoteness of his prison on the British-held island of Saint Helena, it’s also not surprising that conspiracy theories regarding Napoleon’s death abounded as soon as the news of it reached Paris and they persist to this day.

While it’s plausible that arsenite in the damp wallpaper at Longwood House may have hastened Napoleon’s demise, it’s probable that he died from nothing more conspiratorial than stomach cancer.

A marmite figure

2021 marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death. Napoleon is a Marmite historical figure – people tend to either love him or to loathe him. Like a French version of Oliver Cromwell (although of course Napoleon was technically Corsican, not French) people tend to regard him either as a messianic champion of liberty or as a bloody, despotic tyrant. Few historians tend to sit on the proverbial fence about the man.

I, however, fall squarely into the latter camp. While I admire Napoleon’s undoubted military and political courage and skill, as well as some of his enlightened economic, legal and social reforms, like so many other military geniuses before and since, including Julius Caesar (his personal hero), Napoleon’s ability wasn’t matched by his morality.

While Napoleon didn’t start the French Revolution, it’s arguable that he did more than any other single individual to ensure that the last decade of the 18th century and the first decade and a half of the 19th century were the bloodiest in European history, between the Thirty Years’ War in the early 17th century and the First World War in the 20th. The fact that this tumultuous period, from 1803 to 1815, is known eponymously as the ‘Napoleonic Wars’ is surely a case in point.

Lasting legacy

Having eventually been defeated by a British-led coalition of almost every other country in Europe at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, and even then, only narrowly, Napoleon was permanently exiled to the remote British colony of Saint Helena in the Atlantic for the last six miserable years of his life.

This was partly as a punishment, but it was also to prevent him escaping from exile, as he had done from the Mediterranean island of Elba in March 1815, to re-launch his European wars of conquest. Here Napoleon lived out his last days and here he died.

As with Bonnie Prince Charlie and Jacobitism, I admit to finding it hard not to be swept up by the tide of romanticism of the lone genius in solitary exile. This was an image carefully choreographed by shrewd artists and poets for profit in the late 19th century, long after the real danger posed by both of these men and their followers had passed. It suited (and still suits) both France and Scotland to reinvent these belligerent international troublemakers as benign national heroes.

In reality though, both of these men, but Napoleon in particular, brought nothing but crushing military defeat, economic disaster and international isolation to their respective countries.

The fact that approximately 1.8 million French men, women and children died during the Napoleonic Wars, including 600,000 civilians, is, in my opinion, an utterly lamentable legacy and one hardly worthy of commemoration.

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