Boney's Last Breath


By Tom Clavin

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          “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

          There is a bicentennial this week that might fly under the radar of even many history buffs. Your humble columnist is here to make sure that will not happen. It was 200 years ago, on May 5, 1821, that Napoleon Bonaparte, the legendary conqueror, died, on St. Helena.

          Before anything else, where the heck is St. Helena? To say it is “remote” is an understatement. The island is 4,500 miles from England and 1,200 miles from West Africa and was once described as being the place “further away from anywhere else in all the world.” Yet that was where a former emperor who ruled most of Europe drew his last breath. It was quite a comedown for Boney, as the Brits liked to call him.

          Sixteen years earlier, he achieved the height of his military power at the Battle of Austerlitz. In the fall of 1805, after the Campaign of Ulm, Napoleon and the French captured Vienna and made their way to Austerlitz. The battle there took place December 2 in the present-day Czech Republic. It is known as the “battle of the three emperors,” pitting Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Emperor Francis I of Austria against Emperor Napoleon. 

On December 1, the leaders of the Russian imperial army and the Austrian imperial army met with one another to decide the best course of action against the French. So far, not much had worked. In the previous three months, the French had occupied Vienna, destroyed two armies, and humbled the Austrian Empire. Austerlitz set the stage for a near-decade of French domination of the European continent with only Great Britain left to oppose Bonaparte.

Without going into details, during the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon demonstrated what a brilliant battlefield general he was. In the two-against-one fight he out-dueled both opponents and won the day. On the Continent, he was now ruler of all he surveyed. The victory effectively ended what was known as the Third Collation and forced Austria out of the war. That country made peace with the Treaty of Pressburg and paid 40 million francs. The remains of the Russian army withdrew east, and Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire and established the Confederation of the Rhine as a buffer state between France and Prussia. French losses at Austerlitz numbered 2,000 killed, 7,000 wounded, and 573 captured. Allied casualties were massive and included 15,000 killed and wounded, as well as 12,000 captured.

As the Roman and other empires – and later, the Third Reich – would learn, it was impossible to sustain such dominance. By April 1814, Paris had  fallen to a European coalition of armies, the Duke of Wellington had crossed the Pyrenees and invaded the south of France, and Napoleon’s marshals were no longer prepared to fight on – Napoleon abdicated. (C.S. Forester fans will want to make sure Horatio Hornblower receives proper credit for Boney’s demise.)

The defeated emperor was treated relatively generously by the victorious allies. They sent him to rule the Mediterranean island of Elba and even allowed him to take a tiny army with him, chiefly drawn from his Imperial Guard. Energetic as ever, Napoleon busied himself with a series of improvements to the island’s infrastructure, but he always kept a close eye on European affairs. Aware of the growing unpopularity of the restored French monarchy, he soon decided to take a gamble.

Slipping away from Elba with a small force, he landed in France near Antibes on March 1, 1815. As he headed north, the troops sent to intercept him came over to his side in droves and three weeks later Napoleon was back in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, which had been hastily abandoned by Louis XVIII.

It was once more unto the breach for the nations of Europe who began to prepare for a new war. But Napoleon struck first, attacking an allied army under Wellington and a Prussian army under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher in what is now Belgium. Napoleon initially caught his enemies by surprise, but on June 18 he was crushingly defeated at Waterloo. Four days later, he abdicated for a second time.

Napoleon’s immediate plan was to try and escape to America. He made for Rochefort on the west coast of France, where he hoped a frigate would transport him across the Atlantic. But there was a major flaw – the port was blockaded by the Royal Navy in the form of the 74-gun HMS Bellerophon, a veteran of Great Britain’s wars against the French. The former emperor’s life was now in danger because there was little doubt that both the restored French monarchy and the Prussians would have executed him had he fallen into their hands. Eventually, Napoleon realized that the only option was to surrender to the British. So, on the morning of Saturday, July 15, 1815, Napoleon boarded the Bellerophon and surrendered to its captain, Frederick Maitland.

According to the historian Julian Humphrys, as the ship set off for England, the British government had already decided what to do with their exalted prisoner. Napoleon clearly hoped that he would be given an estate in the country where he could live out his days. But there was little chance that the British government would allow such a dangerous figure to live in their midst. They needed somewhere secure – and a very long way away.

In the remote Atlantic Ocean island of St. Helena, they had the very place. The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, wrote that it was “the place in the world best calculated for the confinement of such a person,” adding that “there is only one place where ships can anchor, and we have the power of excluding neutral ships altogether” and “at such a place and such a distance all intrigue would be impossible; and, being so far from the European world, [Napoleon] would soon be forgotten.”

So this would indeed be Napoleon’s home for the next six years, his empire reduced to a speck in the ocean.

In early 1821, Napoleon became progressively ill and in March he became bedridden, unable to eat solid food and weakening rapidly. He refused in the last month before his death most of the medications prescribed by his doctors. Nevertheless, the latter decided on May 4 with very poor common sense to administer a dose of calomel diluted in a glass of water. Louis-Joseph-Narcisse Marchand, faithful companion of the emperor, was charged with giving the secret remedy, a mission he acquitted painfully when Bonaparte, having drunk the contents of the glass, said to him, “Are you misleading me too?”

The calomel certainly had an effect but probably not what was expected -- late the following afternoon, Napoleon gave his last breath. Past midnight, the body washed to purify it with the cologne that he preferred mixed with a little water from the Torbett Fountain. Napoleon was three months’ shy of his 52nd birthday. He left no words for posterity because those around him could not understand his final mutterings. His cause of death was given as stomach cancer, which had also killed his father.

There have been modern studies that have supported the original autopsy finding. In one from 2008, researchers analyzed samples of Napoleon's hair from throughout his life as well as samples from his family and other contemporaries. All samples had high levels of arsenic, approximately 100 times higher than the current average. There were accusations that Napoleon was murdered, but his body was already heavily contaminated with arsenic as a boy, and the high arsenic concentration in his hair was not caused by intentional poisoning -- people were constantly exposed to arsenic from glues and dyes throughout their lives. This and subsequent studies confirmed evidence of peptic ulcer and gastric cancer as the cause of death.

Although the last wish of the emperor was to be buried in France, the British government strongly opposed it and instead the governor of St. Helena selected a site on the island. There Napoleon rested until 1840, when at the direction of King Louis-Philippe, the remains were dug up, shipped to France, and buried in Paris.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including his latest collaboration with Bob Drury, “Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier,” published last month by St. Martin’s Press. It will make its debut on the New York Times bestseller list this Sunday at #8. Please go to your local bookstore or to,, or to purchase a copy.