Napoleon Bonaparte, revolutionary general and Emperor of the French, died on May 5, 1821, after a six-year exile on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena.
At the height of his powers, Napoleon had been the master of Europe. The French Empire, its allies and its tribute states had extended from the shores of Spain to the plains of Russia. Only England, with its geographic isolation and its unmatched navy, remained outside of Napoleon's sphere during the whole of the Napoleonic Wars.
Napoleon's first exile occurred after he had signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1814, a direct result of a series of French military disasters that began with the 1812 invasion of Russia. Exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, Napoleon's forced retirement was meant to be spent in grand style. In effect, Napoleon was made ruler of the tiny island, though after his former glory, reigning in Elba held little joy and he soon plotted to return to France.
In early 1815 the Emperor returned to the continent, and soon every army that the restored King of France, Louis XVIII, sent to arrest him he convinced to defect to his forces. This marked the beginning of the Hundred Days, the brief period where Napoleon ruled France once again. The Hundred Days culminated in Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815.
Facing combined British, Prussian and Dutch armies, Napoleon very nearly won the day. The British commander, the Duke of Wellington, famously said later that the battle had been “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.”
After the battle Napoleon eventually surrendered himself to the British. This time, his exile would be far enough away to ensure that he would never again return to France. Awaiting transportation to his new home in the South Atlantic, Napoleon spent time aboard several Royal Navy vessels where he was generally well treated and impressed his captors.
A midshipman named Home wrote of his ship's peculiar prisoner: “His mouth had a charm about it that I have never seen in any other human countenance.” A lieutenant named Bowerbank wrote, “His manners struck me as very engaging.”
Napoleon spent the final six years of his life in comfortable though not luxurious circumstances. The estate he made his home was owned by William Balcombe, an East India Company agent, whom Napoleon soon befriended. Napoleon also began a genuine friendship with Balcombe's two teenage daughters.
Napoleon biographer Felix Markahm writes of this curious relationship between Napoleon and the younger Balcombe daughter: “Betsy ... proceeded to adopt Napoleon as a favorite uncle, and as her capacity for crude practical jokes was a match for Napoleon's, the fun became fast and furious. Having been brought up in a large, noisy and hard-hitting family, Napoleon was completely natural and at ease with children.”
The man who had commanded armies, who had been responsible for so much death and destruction throughout Europe, found a measure of solace playing games with the girls and conducting practical jokes, often at the expense of his English captors. Markham also notes that Napoleon enjoyed showing Betsy pictures of his young son, the King of Rome, now far away in Vienna.
In 1819 Napoleon's health began to decline, though the British still issued reports that the Emperor remained in fine health. In early 1821 he began to have a series pains in his stomach, and could see that the end was near.
Napoleon biographer Robert Asprey writes: “Early on 5 May, after a night of frequent vomiting, Napoleon opened his eyes and muttered a few inarticulate words variously interpreted by those around him. He remained unconscious for the rest of the day.”
That evening, at the age of only 51, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, lost the final battle that all men must.
Several causes for the death have been put forward, some speculating that he was poisoned by the British. Most historians and medical doctors believe that Napoleon suffered from stomach cancer, which was misdiagnosed and most likely aggravated by poor treatments.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular "History Challenge" iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]