A Saint Helena Miscellany

Author(s) : HICKS Peter, LENTZ Thierry
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Has Cipriani's tomb really disappeared? by Thierry Lentz
Who wrote 'Letters from the Cape'? by Peter Hicks
(c) Jacques Macé

Has Cipriani’s tomb really disappeared?

Those who susbscribe to the theory that Napoleon's body was 'stolen' by the British claim that it was the body of the “maître d'hôtel” Cipriani which replaced that of the Emperor in the tomb on Saint Helena, and after 1840, in the 'Hôtel des Invalides'. Their principal argument rests on the contention that the tomb of Cipriani (who died on Saint Helena in February 1818) has not been found. And it is true that in his article 'Cipriani' in the Dictionnaire Napoléon (Fayard, 2000) (and in his conversations with Jean-Paul Kaufmann), the late Gilbert Martineau, the French ex-consul to Saint Helena, wrote in French: “His tomb has disappeared”, but this was done to heighten the mystery surrounding this, still today relatively unknown figure, and quite clearly not in support of the body substitution theory.
On this issue, I questioned Michel Martineau, successor to his father as French Consul and Curator of the French Domains on Saint Helena, in order to find out what research his predecessor had done in coming to such a conclusion.
In reply to my question, Michel Martineau noted that, as far as he knew, there had been no systematic search for Cipriani's tomb. At any rate, no trace of such a search exists, whether in the French Domains archives, the public records office on Saint Helena, or in the personal papers of Gilbert Martineau. Neither Gilbert Martineau's colleagues nor the inhabitants of the island can remember such an event taking place. In conclusion, Michel Martineau fears that the phrase which appears in the Dictionnaire Napoléon was not based upon a study of the case or on in depth research.
Michel Martineau also informed me that the first ever inventory of the headstones in all the cemeteries on Saint Helena dates from 1984. No tomb is mentioned for Cipriani.
However, the fact that the name, Cipriani, does not appear on the tomb inventory is not proof at all that a) his tomb has disappeared or b) that an exhumation of Cipriani's corpse was organised and a substitution of bodies took place.
The fact is, despite the 1984 inventory, there are unidentified tombs on Saint Helena, as Michel Martineau has confirmed.
Several tombs dating from the 1815-1821 period, “some of which with plaques in marble, a great luxury on Saint Helena”, Martineau noted, can be seen set around Saint Paul's “cathedral”. The names on these tombs are illegible. One of these anonymous tombs could easily be that of Cipriani.
“Until a careful, detailed search is undertaken, no-one can in all honestly declare that Cipriani is not buried in one of these tombs”, concluded Michel Martineau. And he also authorised me to let it be known that anyone who wishes to come to Saint Helena to perform some serious research on his question would be very welcome, and that he would be very happy to assist them with the necessary authorisations, including exhumation and other scientific approaches.
As far as it seems to me, the burden of proof lies on those who maintain that it is Cipriani who lies in Les Invalides. I encourage them to visit Saint Helena to undertake these indispensable verifications.

Who wrote ‘Letters from the Cape’?

Whilst on Saint Helena, Napoleon and his suite worked tirelessly on the emperor's memoirs and on his press campaign to keep his predicament before the public gaze. Those writing about their experiences on meeting Napoleon were the perfect target for the propaganda campaign to give the 'oxygen of publicity' to the 'outrageous' treatment meted out to him. However, Napoleon did not wish to appear to reply himself. Probably for reasons of etiquette and for reasons of grandeur – the emperor could not be seen to reply personally to his critics. Two such episodes occurred whereby books were published anonymously in English recounting the emperor's woes. One was the famous Letters from the Cape, published in 1817, and the other, less well known, was the Letters from the island of Saint Helena, published in 1818.
William Warden (1777-1849), the surgeon from Northumberland, had published a volume of Saint Helena reminiscences under the title Letters written on board H.M.S. the Northumberland, and St. Helena (1816). In the book he described his time on Saint Helena and his frequent visits to Longwood. Disapproved of by both the pro- and anti-Napoleon camps, the work was savaged notably in the anti-Napoleonic “Quarterly Review”. Amongst the French contingent on Saint Helena, there was much discussion in the Spring of 1817 regarding Warden's work, as to whether and how to reply.
A reply was in the end made, first in English and later in French, in the form of the book published anonymously under the title, Letters from the Cape of Good Hope, in reply to Mr Warden; with extracts from the great work now compiling for publication under the inspection of Napoleon, London: Ridgeway, 1817. The first edition in French was to come out in 1819. As to the identity of the anonymous author, there was a certain amount of speculation. Many suspected it to be Napoleon, but from what could be conjectured from the letters, they appeared to have been written by Las Cases (held at the Cape after being banished from Saint Helena in December 1816) and sent to Lady Clavering ('Lady C.' in the book). Las Cases had after all been governor to Lady Clavering's children while both were in exile in London in the late 1790s.
Colonel Gourgaud's journal kept while he was on Saint Helena reveals however the truth of the matter. In May 1817, Gourgaud had remarked to Napoleon that he thought it was a disgrace that Warden's book should ever have been published – the book had arrived on Saint Helena on the 5th of March. Napoleon replied that he thought that it was good – for publicity reasons -, that it kept his case in the public eye. But on the subject of the unknown author of the 'Letters from the Cape', Gourgaud, piqued because a secret had been kept from him, pushed the evasive emperor. The exchange, recorded in Gourgaud's Journal de Sainte-Hélène, 20 June, 1817, (1) was as follows: “His Majesty assures me that he has not replied to that work [that by Warden]. 'It was Las Cases who wished to reply to it from the Cape'.' Napoleon said. And yet, Gourgaud went on to add, “To that, I remark to the Emperor that I have seen more than ten letters dictated by him to the Grand Marshal to be printed. One of these is even on the desk upon which I am writing. The emperor can no longer deny it…” Octave Aubry opined that it was Madame Bertrand (of Irish origin) who translated them into English.
It was therefore Napoleon who dictated the letters secretly to the Grand Marshal Bertrand. (2
The Letters from the Cape were not however to be Napoleon's only contribution to the Saint Helena literature. At the same time as Napoleon was dictating to Bertrand the Letters from the Cape, a bust of the Napoleon's son, the Roi de Rome, arrived at Saint Helena on 28th May, having been smuggled onto the storeship, Baring, commanded by Captain Lamb. The bust had been brought on board by a gunner named Radovitch (who at the time was suffering from apoplexy, delirious and could not be questioned) and was destined for the emperor. The statue was initially seized by the Saint Helena Chief of Police, Thomas Reade, only to be sent up to Longwood later (after permission had been granted by the governor Hudson Lowe). This event had brought Napoleon into contact with the storeship captain, Lamb. The day previously, another storeship, Experiment, captained by a certain G.H. Dacre, arrived at Saint Helena. Not only did Dacre become involved in the bust episode (he spread a story that Hudson Lowe had intended to prevent Napoleon from ever receiving the bust, and that Thomas Read had told Captain Lamb to break the bust into pieces and throw it into the sea) but he also became associated with a book recounting the maltreatment of Napoleon on Saint Helena entitled Letters from the island of St. Helena, exposing the unnecessary severity exercised towards Napoleon, with an appendix of important official documents, published anonymously in London in 1818. Indeed, even Hudson Lowe thought that Dacre had written the book. (3) The title of the French version of Letters from the island of Saint Helena… was correspondingly Lettres écrites par un officier anglais, but not published until 1822, after Napoleon's death.

Here again close reading of the Saint Helena memoirs (this time those by Bertrand) reveals that Napoleon himself, not Dacre, wrote them. As Grand Marshal Bertrand wrote, Cahiers de Sainte-Hélène, (4) 17 July, 1817, “the Emperor dictated the first 'Lettre d'un capitaine de storeship'” – presumably the Lettres écrites par un officier anglais.
Although there may be some slight doubt hanging over the authorship of these works (it is true that Napoleon denied writing them), there is no real reason to disbelieve either Gourgaud or Bertrand when they attribute the texts to Napoleon. Indeed, the editor of the Recueil de pièces authentiques sur le captif de Sainte-Hélène, (5) in which were printed the French version of the Lettres du Cap (t. II) and 'Lettres d'un capitaine de storeship' (t. V, under the title Lettres écrites par un officer anglais), a certain M. Jay, professes the same opinion, albeit guardedly. In his commentary to the storeship captain letters, Jay noted (p. 306): 'With the spirit of the emperor Napoleon, that which animated his illustrious friends can clearly be seen: everything was inspired, everything was dictated by him, everything was taken down, everything was recognised by them. Authenticity has no more decisive characteristic.' Furthermore, to the title of the Letters from the Cape he added the words Lettres écrites de Longwood, in other words, 'Letters written from Longwood'. Although Napoleon did not want to be seen as the author, it is clear that he was and the Lettres du Cap and the Letters from the island of St. Helena should be added to the long list of the emperor's written works.


(1) Paris: Flammarion, ed O. Aubry, 1947 (2 vols),  vol. 2 p. 152. Gourgaud's journal was first published in 1890.
(2) A manuscript note in pencil from Napoleon to Montholon, held in the Bibliothèque du musée de l'armée, Ca 78 2, also corroborates this opinion and reads as follows 'To Montholon. I am sending you the 'Lettres du Cap'. I wish to publish my notes...'.
(3) See Watson, G. L. de St. M., A Polish exile with Napoleon, 1912 and Norwood Young, Napoleon in exile at St. Helena (1815-1821), 1915.
(4) Paris: Sulliver, 1951, ed. Fleuriot de l'Angle, volume 2. Bertrand's memoirs were not published until 1950-59. The long wait both for Gourgaud's and Bertrand's memoirs contributed to the long remaining doubt over the authorship of both the Lettres du Cap and the Lettres d'un officier anglais.
(5) Paris: Corréard, 1821-1825, in 7 volumes.
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