The facts about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte – his impressive military exploits against the united European powers, his sweeping reforms of law and bureaucracy across an entire continent – are extraordinary. But Napoleon Bonaparte’s final years were equally extraordinary, with a humiliating exile, a mysterious death at 51, and a bizarre chain of post-mortem events.
After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he abdicated his throne and surrendered to the British. Rather than execute him and potentially make him a martyr, the British placed him in exile in one of the most isolated places on earth, the British island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean.
WATCH: Napoleon’s final exile
Exile on the island of Saint Helena
A small island measuring only about 10 miles by 5 miles, its jagged cliffs must have seemed a grim sight when the former emperor first saw it. After initially living two pleasant months with an old friend William Balcombe, Napoleon was then moved to Longwood House, a property that had fallen into disrepair, particularly damp and riddled with mold.
His servants are said to have complained of “colds, catarrhs, wet floors and poor provisions”. One of Napoleon’s entourage who accompanied Napoleon was the Comte de Las Cases, who described Longwood House as “a wretched hovel, a few square feet”.
The island also appears to have been infested with rats, a feature that political satirists across Europe took the opportunity to poke fun at the defeated former emperor. A German political cartoon of the time mocked his situation, with a battalion of rats serving him instead of courtiers. A French cartoon showed the former emperor sleeping in a tent while rats on the shore plotted a rebellion – the caption read ‘Even the rats don’t want him’.
WATCH: Napoleon Bonaparte: The Glory of France on HISTORY Vault
It would only get worse. The island’s new British governor, Hudson Lowe, was determined that Napoleon would not escape this exile as he had from his first on Elba, and so restricted his movements, monitoring his correspondence and ordering that Napoleon be seen in the flesh by British officers several times a day.
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This led to the ex-emperor entering into a bizarre form of rebellion, closing the house’s shutters and digging tiny peepholes into them so he could peer in unseen. He also designed sunken paths in the garden to make it harder for officers to spot him. And despite Lowe’s orders that gifts were not permitted if they mentioned Napoleon’s imperial status, the former emperor continued to preserve royal protocol, with men in military dress and women in dresses adorned with jewelry.
He also devoted himself to a few hobbies: he dictated his memoirs, wrote a book on Julius Caesar, studied English and played cards. In fact, he played so many cards that a range of versions of solitaire (the card game also known as “patience”) are named after him.
Eventually, living conditions – and particularly his lack of exercise – began to take their toll, and Napoleon’s health began to decline precipitously. He suffered from abdominal pain, constipation, vomiting and general weakness. In February 1821, about four years after arriving on Saint Helena, Napoleon knew his end was near. He reconciled with the Catholic Church after a most tumultuous relationship (which had at one point included the kidnapping of the Pope), made his confession and took the last rites. On May 5, 1821, he died at the age of 51.
What killed Napoleon Bonaparte?
WATCH: The Death of Napoleon
Shortly after Napoleon’s death, an autopsy was performed by his physician Francesco Antommarchi. During this procedure, his heart and intestines were removed and placed in sealed containers, a standard treatment for monarch bodies. However, Antommarchi also cut off Napoleon’s penis – no one knows why.
It was then smuggled off the island by its chaplain and ended up being bought and sold over the years by various parties, ending up on display in 1927 at the Museum of French Art in New York, where TIME magazine reported it. compared to a “strip of abused buckskin shoelaces. A not very glorious end for the one who had managed in a few years to conquer almost all of Europe.
So what killed “Old Bony”, as the English liked to call him? This has been the subject of historical and medical science debate for the past 200 years.
Antommarchi said it was stomach cancer. In 1961, a Swedish amateur toxicologist claims that Napoleon was in fact poisoned with arsenic and points the finger at one of his French relatives.
Other researchers have pointed out that at this time, arsenic was present in a range of everyday materials and people were constantly exposed to it. Yet others claimed it was either a peptic ulcer or gastric cancer. Whatever the true cause, the fascination with this extraordinary historical figure shows no signs of waning.