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Napoleon's Poisoned Chalice: The Emperor and His Doctors on St Helena

Napoleon's Poisoned Chalice: The Emperor and His Doctors on St Helena

by Martin Howard

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In 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on the island of St. Helena to begin his imprisonment following Waterloo. By 1821 he was dead. During his brief stay, he crossed paths with six medical men, all of whom would be changed by the encounter, whether by court martial, the shame of misdiagnosis, or resulting celebrity. What would seem to be a straightforward post became


In 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on the island of St. Helena to begin his imprisonment following Waterloo. By 1821 he was dead. During his brief stay, he crossed paths with six medical men, all of whom would be changed by the encounter, whether by court martial, the shame of misdiagnosis, or resulting celebrity. What would seem to be a straightforward post became entangled with politics, as Governor Hudson Lowe became paranoid as to the motivations of each doctor and brought their every move into question. In Napoleon's Poisoned Chalice, Martin Howard addresses the political pitfalls navigated with varying success by the men who were assigned to care for the most famous man in Europe. The hostility that sprang up between individuals thrown together in isolation, the impossible situations the doctors found themselves in and the fear of censure when Napoleon finally began to die.

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Napoleon's Poisoned Chalice

The Emperor and His Doctors on St. Helena

By Martin Howard

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Martin Howard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8673-4



Napoleon never hated England. He had a begrudging admiration for the 'nation of shopkeepers'. The Emperor respected his enemy's courage in war and its tradition of hospitality to the fallen. In his youth the great Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli, well known to his family, had sought refuge from French oppression in England. The young Bonaparte wrote a short story in which his hero, an ex-King of Corsica, is told by the writer and politician Horace Walpole, 'You suffer and are unhappy. These are two reasons for claiming the sympathy of an Englishman.' Theodore emerges from his dungeon to receive a pension of £3,000 a year. Thirty years later, at the time of his departure to Elba, Napoleon commented to the British Commissioner Sir Neil Campbell that he was convinced that there was more generosity in the British Government than in any other. It was natural that after his decisive defeat at Waterloo he expected more understanding from the British than from the Prussians. He was not to be disappointed. When Blucher demanded that he should be hanged, Wellington remonstrated with his friend and ally. The Duke did not wish his greatest victory to be tainted by his subsequent role as an executioner. It has to be admitted that not all Englishmen were so magnanimous. Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, declared that he hoped that the King of France would shoot Bonaparte as the 'best termination of the business'.

After his last battle, Napoleon fled to the Élysée Palace and then to his old house at Malmaison in the suburbs of Paris, the scene of the happiest of times spent with Josephine. Here, he was still in real danger of falling into the hands of the advancing Prussian army and, on 29th June 1815, he left for Rochefort. In this Atlantic seaport the local people received him with enthusiasm; there were still a few cries of 'Vive L'Empereur!' The French authorities were less accommodating and were intent on his arrest. He was faced with a stark choice. He could either make a determined effort to escape or he could surrender to the most munificent of his adversaries. There was discussion of flight to America. Frigates manned by sympathisers were moored off the coast but there was also a British naval blockade and there was a serious risk of capture. His brother Joseph offered to impersonate him to buy vital extra time. The Emperor was unconvinced. In truth, he had long known that he would ultimately place himself at England's mercy. In America he would be no safer than on mainland Europe; the emissaries of Louis XVIII would be sent to assassinate him. He remained calculating and pragmatic to the last.

There is always danger in confiding oneself to enemies, but it is better to take the risk of confiding to their honour than to fall into their hands as a prisoner according to law.

He reminded his followers of the incident in Greek history when Themistocles requested refuge from the King of Persia.

On 15th July, Napoleon, dressed in his favourite uniform of the Chasseurs of the Guard, boarded the British ship the Bellerophon. Her Captain, Frederick Lewis Maitland, had not been instructed as to the honours to be paid to the ex-Emperor and he therefore gave none, taking advantage of the rule that no salutes should be given before 8am or after sunset. Napoleon stepped on to the deck and removed his hat, before advancing to meet Maitland, 'I am come to throw myself on the protection of your Prince and your laws.' The Captain, careful to make no commitment as to his captive's future treatment, introduced him to the other officers. A week later, the Dartmoor hills became visible and Napoleon changed his dressing gown for an overcoat to go on deck to have his first view of England. Was this to be his home?

When the Bellerophon was ordered to sail from Torbay to Plymouth, to the west and away from London, the French began to fear that they were not to be allowed to land. The crowds of sightseers at Plymouth were remarkable. The sailors of the Bellerophon displayed a blackboard on which they wrote the famous prisoner's current occupation; 'at breakfast', 'in the cabin' and so forth. Napoleon had not forgotten his earlier allusion to Greek antiquity. He now composed a dramatic appeal to the Prince Regent, which perfectly expressed his hopes and emotions.

Royal Highness

A victim to the factions which divide my country, and to the enmity of the greatest Powers of Europe, I have terminated my political career, and I come, like Themistocles, to place myself at the heart of the British people. I place myself under the protection of their laws, which I claim of Your Royal Highness as of the most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous of my enemies.


The British government was not willing to accommodate Napoleon's further requests that he be treated as a guest and be given an English country house in which to live out the rest of his days. The appeal for clemency had saved his life but it was clear to Ministers that their prisoner would have to be exiled to a most isolated spot. The memory of his escape from Elba, when he had slipped through the fingers of the unfortunate Campbell to create havoc in Europe, was still fresh. Rumours started to circulate that the Emperor's ultimate destination was the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena. Internment on St. Helena was not a novel idea; the conspirators of 1800 who had attempted to kidnap Premier Consul Bonaparte had planned to deport him there and the island had been suggested as an alternative to Elba at the Congress of Vienna. Liverpool wrote to Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, to confirm the Government's choice. The confinement of Napoleon in England had been ruled out as this could lead to 'embarrassing legal questions' and make him an object of public curiosity or, worse still, compassion. This would not happen on St. Helena. 'At such a distance and in such a place, all intrigue would be impossible; and, being withdrawn so far from the European world, he would very soon be forgotten.'

Napoleon's followers were in a state of despair at the prospect of being exiled to a remote island, quite possibly for the remainder of their lives. Their leader appeared surprisingly unaffected by the news of his fate. He was a realist and whilst making some routine protestations – 'Je n'irais pas à Sainte-Hélène' – he quizzed Maitland about the island's size and climate and began to consider who he would take with him. He knew that the continental Allies at Paris supported the British decision and that there was little hope of a change of mind.

What connotations did St. Helena have for Napoleon? Curiously, there is evidence that he probably had at least a dim recollection of the island's existence. In 1788, when he was a poor student in Auxonne, he made notes on English possessions in an exercise book. One of the entries reads simply, 'St. Helena, a small island'. After these few words, there is a blank page – perhaps he was interrupted. If the young Bonaparte had continued his account, he might have recorded that St. Helena is one of the most remote islands in the world, lying in the Atlantic Ocean 1,140 miles from the nearest land in South Africa, 1,800 miles from South America and 4,400 from England. It is about the size of Jersey, being ten miles long and seven wide. Seen from the sea, it appears as a massive barren rock rising sheer from the water. In the interior, ridges of mountains alternate with pleasant wooded valleys. Parts of the island are dull and desolate whilst others have a beautiful grandeur. In the early nineteenth century, the main settlement of Jamestown consisted of only two main streets and around one hundred and sixty buildings. A few country houses were dotted about, the most notable of which was Plantation House, the British Governor's residence.

Apart from its total isolation, St. Helena had one other major advantage as a prison for the most dangerous of Britain's enemies. It was a superb natural fortress manned by a garrison and with guns in position to defend all possible landing places. In 1812, the British Governor Major General Alexander Beatson expressed the opinion that the island was 'absolutely impregnable' and that it was more secure than Gibraltar or Malta, two famous British strong points. Telegraphs were placed on all the principal heights and no vessel could approach within sixty miles without it being common knowledge to the island's defenders. The consequence of this combination of natural obstacles and military power was that a state prisoner could be allowed significant personal liberty with no opportunity for escape.

The climate of St. Helena might be supposed to be tropical – it lies one third of the way within the Tropic of Capricorn – but its distance from any large tract of land and the influence of the trade winds make it more temperate. Whether this moderate atmosphere meant a safe environment is a question that has been vigorously debated by historians of the Napoleonic period. The British Government insisted from the outset that they were sending the exile and his entourage to one of the healthiest places on earth. Certainly, British officers who resided on St. Helena in the years before Napoleon's arrival were almost unanimous in their praise of the climate and the wellbeing of both locals and Europeans. Wellington spent two weeks on the island on his way home from India in 1805 and wrote to friends that it was beautiful and that the climate was 'apparently the most healthy that I have ever lived in'. Previous Governors contested that the weather was especially suited to the constitution of Europeans and that it was possible to reside there for many years without any malady. Walter Henry, an Army doctor on St. Helena at the time of Napoleon's internment, thought it to be 'a healthy island – if not the most healthy of its description in the world'.

Others were less convinced of the island's wholesomeness. Pro-Napoleon French historians have been keen to paint an entirely different picture, inferring that the Emperor was sent to die in a pestilential backwater. One contemporary doctor wrote:

The most trifling cold or irregularity is frequently succeeded by a violent attack of dysentery, inflammation of the bowels or fever proving fatal in a few days, if the most active and efficacious practice is not instantly followed ... Dysentery especially, and liver affections (which are indeed frequently combined) appear with the most concentrated and fatal symptoms, baffling the prompt exhibition of the most active and powerful remedies.

The British authorities acknowledged that these diseases existed; an Admiralty secretary admitted that St. Helena was less healthy than widely believed, and a garrison report of 1817 indicated a high incidence of both fevers and dysentery. The most objective evidence we have are the mortality statistics. These are available for the decades after the exile and they suggest that nineteenth-century St. Helena, despite the prevalent bowel and liver diseases, was an unusually healthy place. For instance, in 1823, only two years after Napoleon's death, the annual death rate was remarkably low at only ten per thousand. This compares favourably with the rates among troops in Great Britain (17 per thousand) and regiments stationed in India (85). Arnold Chaplin, a noted historian of the St. Helena period, has calculated the expected and actual longevities of the main British and French characters on the island during the exile and has shown that their sojourn did not shorten their lives. The Emperor died before his predicted age but, if the British Government were intent on this, there were many Crown possessions more insalubrious than St. Helena where he could have been incarcerated.

The Bellerophon was too old and slow to carry the captives to the distant isle and, on 7th August, they were transferred to the Northumberland, which carried the flag of Rear-Admiral Sir George Cockburn who had been appointed Naval Commander-in-Chief of the Cape and St. Helena stations. Napoleon said farewell to a number of his entourage who were not to sail with him; most were weeping. On the short journey between the two vessels he was accompanied by Admiral Lord Keith. Captain Maitland, acting against the advice of ministers, gave Napoleon a royal salute on his final departure from the Bellerophon. Once aboard the Northumberland, Keith introduced him to Cockburn who recollected his prisoner's first words, 'Here I am, Admiral, at your orders!' Napoleon then, as was his habit, introduced himself to all the British naval officers and asked them a few trifling questions such as their place of birth. Many were quickly won over by the disarming grace of the 'Corsican Ogre'.

Napoleon's relationship with the Royal Navy was close to being one of mutual admiration. He had always had a sure touch with the ordinary man and this was particularly so with sailors. During the Elba episode in 1814, the Emperor attended a reception to celebrate George III's birthday on board the Undaunted and received a rousing 'three cheers' from all the crew. Little had changed on the Bellerophon and the Northumberland. The young British officers vied with each other for the chance of a few words with the fallen hero and wrote home enthusiastic descriptions. When Maitland asked his crew what they thought of Napoleon, the general view was that he was 'a fine fellow who does not deserve his fate'. This was more than a perverse desire to kick sand in the eyes of landlubbers, who mostly despised the Emperor. It was a sure sign that Napoleon had retained his dangerous charm. 'Damn the fellow,' said Lord Keith after meeting him, 'if he obtained an interview with His Royal Highness [the Prince Regent], in half-an-hour they would have been the best friends in England.' On St. Helena, others were to fall under the spell.

Napoleon was accompanied by an entourage of 27 people who were to follow him into what must have felt like oblivion. Among them were four men and two women who were the senior members of the party and who were all to become main players in the drama of the exile. Best known to the Emperor were the Bertrands. General Bertrand had been with his master at Elba and the Emperor's Aide-de-Camp since 1807. He had thrived under the Empire, receiving the Legion of Honour, governing the Illyrian Provinces and commanding a corps of the Grande Armée. When Duroc died, he was chosen to perform the extravagant functions of the Grand Marshal of the Palace, a role that required a dazzling uniform. Despite these successes, Bertrand was more of an engineer than a soldier. He was still only forty-five years old but he was slight, round-shouldered and beginning to bald. By nature, he was timid and self-effacing; one colleague said that he was 'a man incapable of any greatness. He is absent minded and undecided to the last degree.' Napoleon valued his honesty and his sense of duty.

Madame Bertrand, previously Fanny Dillon, belonged to a reckless but influential Irish Catholic family. Her father fought with the Revolutionary army and was guillotined during the Terror. She was hoping to marry an Italian or German Prince but made do with the unprepossessing General. Having lived for a long time in England, she was essentially English in her tastes and thinking. From all accounts she had a singular charm and commanding appearance but her addiction to the pleasures of high society and her capriciousness made her a difficult companion in exile. She was distraught that the Emperor had not been allowed to settle with his followers in England. Napoleon was cool towards her; during one of her frequent illnesses on St. Helena he expressed the hope that the Countess would die so that he could have the Grand Marshal's exclusive attention.

The second man and wife in the Emperor's inner circle were the Montholons. Charles Tristan de Montholon was thirty years old and was of an ancient family; one of his ancestors was reputed to have saved the life of Richard Coeur de Lion. His life was inextricably linked with the Bonapartes. He had been an acquaintance of Napoleon since he was a child of ten years old on Corsica when he had received lessons in mathematics from the young captain of artillery. Later, he was at school with the brothers, Lucien and Jerome, and it was his strange fate to accompany both Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon III into captivity. He was not a natural soldier and he left the army for 'health reasons' to be appointed as chamberlain to Josephine. He was the ultimate diplomat and courtier with perfect manners and a talent for scheming; he acquired the nickname 'le menteur'. He was also a spendthrift and, in 1815, he was both out of favour with the King and heavily in debt. When he met Napoleon at the Élysée, he decided that he would follow him to the ends of the earth.


Excerpted from Napoleon's Poisoned Chalice by Martin Howard. Copyright © 2012 Martin Howard. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Meet the Author

Martin Howard is a hospital consultant and the author of Napoleon’s Doctors and Wellington’s Doctors.

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