A variety of internal disorders, and a lack of physical exercise, brought Napoleon to old age while he was still in his forties. Lowe’s insistence on having a British soldier follow the Emperor whenever the latter rode outside Longwood limits had angered the captive into avoiding all rides, on horse or in caleche. Sentries stationed within sight of his rooms gave Napoleon a further reason for staying indoors; and his loss of interest in prolonging his life more and more inclined him to a listless inactivity. Bertrand reported in 1818: “A hundred days have elapsed since he… stirred out of the house.” Las Cases noted that the Emperor’s blood circulated with difficulty,43 with a pulse rate as low as fifty-five beats per minute.44

In 1820 he took to gardening, and attacked its problems with martial courage and discipline. He conscripted his entire colony to join in the enterprise, and they gladly turned from their old routine to the novel business of digging, carting, planting, watering, and weeding. Sir Hudson Lowe, in a new gesture of amity, sent his prisoner plants and tools.45 The garden, well watered, soon produced fresh vegetables which Napoleon consumed with delight. His health visibly improved. But when the garden’s harvest had been consumed, and bad weather set in, Napoleon returned to his former indoor indolence.

Soon his ailments resumed their attack, on a dozen fronts: toothaches, headaches, skin eruptions, vomiting, dysentery, cold extremities; his ulcer worsened, and the cancer that was to be revealed by a postmortem autopsy had begun to give him almost uninterrupted pain.46 These physical sufferings affected his mood, even his mind. He became gloomy, irritable, and bitter; vain and jealous of his dignity; ready to take offense but soon ready to forgive; counting his pennies but giving generously in his will.47 In 1820 he described himself despondently:

How I have fallen! I, whose activity knew no limits, whose head never rested! I am plunged into a lethargic stupor. I must make an effort to raise my eyelids. Sometimes I used to dictate, on different subjects, to four or five secretaries, who wrote as fast as I spoke. But I was Napoleon then; today I am nothing… I vegetate, I no longer live.48

He had a succession and medley of doctors, none of whom remained with him long enough to study his symptoms systematically, or to impose a consistent regimen. Dr. O’Meara was the first and best, but his stay at Long-wood was cut short. Two British physicians, Stokoe and Arnott, replaced him, both of them good men, patient and conscientious. But on September 21, 1819, the situation was confused by the arrival of Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, aged thirty-nine, with a recommendation from Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch; the British physicians allowed him to take charge. Antommarchi amply justified Napoleon’s question to him, whether generals or doctors did the most killing. He was proud, confident, and merciless when Napoleon complained of stomach pains. Antommarchi prescribed an emetic in lemonade. Napoleon writhed in pain, and almost gave up the ghost; thinking himself poisoned, he dismissed Antommarchi and forbade him to return.49 But in a day or two Antommarchi was back with his chemicals and phials, and the Emperor, though cursing him with unprintable obscenities,50 had to put up with him.

About the middle of March, 1821, Napoleon took to his bed, and thereafter rarely left it. He suffered almost continuous pain, which Antommarchi and Arnott tried to dull with repeated small doses of opium. “If I should end my career now,” he said on March 27, “it would be a great joy. At times I have longed to die, and I have no fear of death.”51 During his final month he vomited nearly all food given him.

On April 15 he made his will. Some excerpts:

1. I die in the Apostolical Roman religion, in the bosom of which I was born…. 2. It is my wish that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom I have loved so well. 3. I have always had reason to be pleased with my dearest wife, Marie Louise. I retain for-her, to my last moment, the most tender sentiments. I beseech her to watch, in order to preserve, my son from the snares which yet environ his infancy…. 5. I die prematurely, assassinated by the English oligarchy.52

He had some 6 million francs to dispose of—5.3 million plus interest—on deposit with Laffitte; and he believed that he had 2 million francs left with Eugène de Beauharnais. He willed substantial sums to Bertrand, Montholon, Las Cases; to his chief valet, Marchand, and his secretary Méneval; to various generals or their children. He bequeathed diverse articles to a considerable number of persons who had served or otherwise helped him; no one was forgotten. Also “10,000 francs to the officer Cantillon, who has undergone a trial on the charge of having endeavored to assassinate Lord Wellington, of which he was pronounced innocent. Cantillon had as much right to assassinate that oligarchist as the latter had to send me to perish on the rock of St. Helena.”53

Separately he left some “Advice to My Son” (spring, 1821):

My son must not think of avenging my death; he should rather learn a lesson from it. He must always bear in mind the remembrance of what I have accomplished. He is always to remain, like myself, every inch a Frenchman. He must strive to rule in peace. If he were to try to begin my wars all over again out of a mere desire to imitate me, and without the absolute necessity for it, he would be nothing but an ape. To begin my work over again would be to assume that I had accomplished nothing. To complete it, on the other hand, will be to prove the strength of its foundations, to explain the complete plan of the edifice begun. Such work as mine is not done twice in a century. I have been compelled to restrain and tame Europe with arms; today it must be convinced. I have saved the Revolution as it lay dying. I have cleansed it of its crimes, and have held it up to the people shining with fame. I have inspired France and Europe with new ideas which will never be forgotten. May my son make everything blossom that I have sown! Mayhe develop further all the elements of prosperity which lie hidden in French soil!54

The last preparation was to dispose of his soul. He had taken a long time to reach religious belief. As if he had read Gibbon, he seems to have considered all religions as equally false to the philosopher, and equally useful to the statesman;55 he had become a Mohammedan to win Egypt, and a Catholic to hold France. To Gourgaud he had expressed simple materialism: “Say what you like, everything is matter, more or less organized. When out hunting I had the deer cut open, and saw that their interior was the same as that of man. When I see that a pig has a stomach like mine, and digests like me, I say to myself, ‘If I have a soul, so has he.’ “56 “When we are dead, my dear Gourgaud, we are altogether dead.”57 On March 27, six weeks before his death, he said to Bertrand, “I am very glad that I have no religion. I find this a great consolation, as I have no imaginary terror, and no fear of the future.”58 How, he asked, can we reconcile the prosperity of the wicked, and the misfortunes of the saints, with the existence of a just God? “Look at Talleyrand; he is sure to die in bed.”59

As he neared death he began to find reasons for faith. “Only a madman,” he told Gourgaud, “declares that he will die without a confession. There is so much that one does not know, that one cannot explain.”60 After all, he felt, religion is a necessary part of patriotism:

Religion forms a part of our destiny. Together with the soil, laws, and customs, it constitutes the sacred whole which we call Fatherland, and whose interests we should never desert. When, at the time of the Concordat, some old revolutionists spoke to me of making France Protestant, I felt as much revolted as though they had asked me to abdicate my title of Frenchman and declare myself English or German.61

So he decided to humbly conform to the traditional rituals of a Frenchman’s death. He found a local priest, and arranged to have Mass celebrated every Sunday at Longwood. He fell back with ease and comfort into his childhood faith, and amused his friends and himself with a forecast of his reception in heaven: “I go to meet Kléber, Desaix, Lannes, Masséna,… Ney. They will come to meet me…. We shall speak of what we have done. We shall talk of our profession with Frederick, Turenne, Condé, Caesar, and Hannibal.”62

By April 26 he was so weak that for the first time he obeyed his doctors without question. That evening he raved for a while, proposing to give his son 400 million francs.63 Montholon, who now stayed with him night and day, reported that about 4 A.M. of April 26 Napoleon told him, “with extraordinary emotion,” “I have just seen my good Josephine…. She was sitting there; it was as if I had seen her only the night before. She hasn’t changed—always the same, still completely devoted to me. She told me that we were going to see each other again, never again to leave each other. She has promised me. Did you see her?”64

On May 3 he received the sacraments. On that day two physicians were added to Arnott and Antommarchi, and the four agreed to give the patient ten grains of calomel. “The unusually enormous dose of this unsuitable drug caused a terrible intestinal upheaval, with loss of consciousness, and… all the signs of a hemorrhage in the gastro-intestinal system.”65

He died on May 5, 1821, murmuring, “À la tête de l’armée—the head of the army.”

On May 6 Antommarchi conducted the postmortem examination, in the presence of sixteen others, including seven British surgeons, Bertrand, and Montholon. The autopsy revealed at once the chief cause of Napoleon’s suffering: cancerous ulcers in the pylorus—that part of the stomach which leads into the intestine. One ulcer had eaten a quarter-inch hole through the stomach wall, spreading putrefaction. Antommarchi had diagnosed hepatitis, but the liver, though larger than normal, showed no sign of disease.66Adipose tissue was found not only in the skin and the peritoneum, but also in the heart, which may have caused its abnormally slow beat. The bladder was small, and contained several small stones; this, and a malformed left kidney, probably caused the Emperor’s need for frequent urination, and may explain a certain inconstancy of attention to the course of battle at Borodino and Waterloo. None of the examiners reported any sign of syphilis, but the genitals were small and apparently atrophied.67

On May 9 a considerable procession, including Sir Hudson Lowe, escorted the corpse to a grave outside Longwood, in the “Valley of the Geraniums”; Napoleon himself had chosen the location. On the coffin lay the mantle he had worn at Marengo, and the sword which had been a proud part of his official costume, and an emblem of his life. There he remained for nineteen years, until France, loving him again, brought him home.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!