The trials and tribulations of a letter… Napoleon’s farewell to Comte de Las Cases, St Helena, 11 December 1816

Author(s) : HOUDECEK François
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Amongst the Lowe Papers* held at the French Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris lies a document of major Napoleonic interest, namely, the Emperor’s farewell letter to Emmanuel de Las Cases, future author of the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène. Like many of the documents related to Napoleon’s final exile, this letter, the circumstances of its composition and its publication is a novel in itself.

*The “Lowe Papers”, Sir Hudson Lowe’s archives, are held in part in the manuscripts department of the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, under the shelfmark, Mss Anglais 3 – 24. This letter is in volume Ms Anglais 5, folio 10r-11v.

Las Cases expelled from St Helena

After slightly more than thirteen months on the island, Comte de Las Cases was arrested on 25 November 1816, on the orders of the Governor Hudson Lowe. The day before, he had entrusted two letters to his servant James ScottThe young man longed to go to Europe, and Las Cases played on that fact. Unfortunately for James Scott, Hudson Lowe sent him to Ascension Island, where he was to work on water transport duty (see: Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, Chroniques de Sainte-Hélène, Atlantique sud, Paris, Perrin, 2011, p. 175-81 and 234-41). – one to his close friend Lady Clavering, the other to Lucien Bonaparte – which his son, Emmanuel-Pons, had copied onto sheets of taffeta. Lowe could not allow to go unpunished such an obvious crime against the strict laws prohibiting clandestine correspondence. He therefore had Las Cases and his son arrested and seized their papers. One month later, the two men were deported to the Cape in South Africa.

Whilst Las Cases was being interrogated by the Governor, a riposte was being prepared at Longwood for what they considered an unlawful arrest. Napoleon was particularly concerned at the prospect of losing the man who had become his confidante. On 26 November, General Bertrand was ordered to hand to Hudson Lowe a complaint (dictated by the Emperor) objecting to the arrest of his secretary. This, together with the following attempts to get Las Cases released and his JournalThe manuscript of the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène was published in 2017 by Perrin Editions edited by Thierry Lentz, Peter Hicks, François Houdecek and Chantal Prévot under the title: Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène. Le manuscrit retrouvé.  restored to him, cut no ice with the Governor.

On 10 December 1816, the Emperor resigned himself to having to bid farewell to his secretary, whilst at the same directing yet another barb at his adversary. So, he wrote a letter to Las Cases with a double aim: first, to annoy the Governor whilst at the same time adopting an almost friendly tone (thereby putting aside Imperial etiquette) designed to move Las Cases, who seemed less than keen on returning to Longwood. Napoleon dictated a first version of this letter.This version of the letter, which was published in Marchand’s memoirs, has many variants. Perhaps his version represents the first draft (Louis Marchand, Mémoires de Marchand, publiés par Jean Bourguignon et le commandant Henry Lachouque, Paris, Tallandier, 2003, p. 386-387.) However, not wanting to place “too much importance on the Journal”Général Bertrand, Cahiers de Sainte-Hélène, 1816-1817, Paul Fleuriot de Langle (dir.), Éditions Sulliver, 1951, t. I, p. 160. which, in the worst case scenario, he hoped to retrieve,which, as we know, was not the case, see the introduction to Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène. Le manuscrit retrouvé, Perrin, 2017. Napoleon decided to rewrite the missive. And so, on the following day, the Emperor dictated to his valet Louis Marchand a second version. Marchand then made the fair copy and submitted it to his master for signature.Mémoires de Marchand, ed.cit., p. 388. On 12 December after dinner, before placing his signature on the document, Napoleon asked Gourgaud to read it out loud to the other exiles.Marchand notes that he read the letter out loud in the presence of O’Meara and that Napoleon asked the Irishman’s opinion – who (according to Marchand) opined that the letter would please whoever received it – before Napoleon applied his initials to it. In his Napoleon in Exile, O’Meara refers to the return of the sealed letter by Hudson Lowe, but not the reading, London, 1822, tome 1, p. 271-2 (13 December 1816). Gourgaud, very jealous of Las Cases’s special relationship with Napoleon and much exercised by the praise heaped on his rival, blurted out that some of the Emperor’s closest colleagues, such as Lannes or Duroc, had never received compliments of such warmth.General Baron Gourgaud, Journal de Sainte-Hélène, 1815-1818, Paris, Flammarion, 1947, vol. 1, p. 222. In this respect, Gourgaud was not wrong. Napoleon’s letters of condolence were quite singularly cold, but at that time Napoleon was a powerful Emperor (see for example, Correspondance générale, vol. 9, n° 21106; vol. 13, n° 35089). This expostulation got him a blast of imperial wrath, after which Napoleon, exasperated by Gourgaud’s childishness, demanded a quill and brusquely signed “Napoléon”, preceding it with the remarkable closing salutation “Votre dévoué” (your devoted), unique to the entire corpus of Napoleon’s correspondence.

With the seal applied, the letter was set to be delivered the following day. But since nothing on the island was ever simple, when the letter arrived at Plantation House for forwarding, the Governor returned it to sender, in strict accordance with the island rule that only open letters could be delivered to correspondents, in this case, Las Cases.

On 14 December, on Napoleon’s orders, Bertrand broke the sealAccording to Bertrand’s memoirs. According to Las Cases, on the other hand, Memorial, vol. 8, p. 10 (p. 2, English-language edition): “The Emperor was reclining on his sofa at the moment when the letter was brought back to him, with this new obstacle. He uttered not a word, but raising his hand over his head, he took the letter, broke the seal, and immediately returned it, without even looking at the person who had presented it.” A version of the story also told by Marchand. But since Las Cases was de facto not present, he must have this information at second hand. and gave the letter back to the British officer, Poppleton, who the same day re-delivered it to the Governor. Hudson Lowe was therefore able to see the content of the letter before supposedly forwarding it to his prisoner. Was the Governor offended by the contents, as Napoleon hoped, and as Las Cases claimed? Whatever, the answer, Lowe sat on the letter, only delivering it to Las Cases late in the day on Monday 16 December, two full days after having received it.

A partial copy and a full version

According to his own account, Las Cases was deeply moved by the terms used in the letter. He wrote to Bertrand “that this moment was the recompense for all his troubles”.Bertrand, op. cit, I, p. 161. And once the emotion subsided, he requested permission from the Governor to take a copy of the sections that concerned him.Las Cases, Le mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, Marcel Dunan (dir.), Paris, Flammarion, 1957, p. 654 Lowe acceded to the request, authorising the transcription of passages in the letter marked up in pencil. As soon as his son, the young Emmanuel-Pons, had finished copying the said passages, the original was handed back to the Governor, who archived it amongst his papers.

It was therefore with these parts of the letter (in the end barely a third of the complete document and which Las Cases revered as a relic) that Napoleon’s secretary left the island on 30 December 1816.In the first edition of the Mémorial, vol. 8, p. 277 (p. 213 in the English language edition), Las Cases referred to the letter in these terms: “This sacred and precious object is the reward of my life, a title for my children, a monument for my family”. In the meantime, he had also refused to return to Longwood, even though the Governor had suggested it.. After being detained at the Cape for several months, Las Cases finally landed back in Europe in November 1817.

When Las Cases received his papers (his Journal, and presumably also the letter) back from the British government in the autumn of 1821, after Napoleon’s death, he went on to publish both texts two years later.Mémorial, Tome VII, pp. 431-35 (English-language version pp. 321-324). In the eighth tome of the Mémorial, he described the missive’s worth to him:

“A[…] circumstance which rendered this letter valuable in my eyes, was that it bore the Emperor’s full signature; and I knew how much he disliked to sign his name at length, in the new circumstances in which he was placed. This I believe, was the first time he had signed his name at full length since he had been at St Helena, and from an inspection of the original, it is easy to perceive that it cost him some degree of consideration. At first he wrote with his own hand, merely the date: “Longwood, 11th December, 1816″, concluding with his usual cipher. But conceiving this to be insufficient, he added, lower down: “your devoted, Napoleon”, repeating his cipher. The whole bears evident traces of having been written under feelings of embarassment. *

*This letter was written by one of Napoleon’s suite; but the Emperor himself, with his own hand, marked the punctuation. I have mentioned in a former part of my Journal, that in his writing, the Emperor was perfectly careless of orthography; yet it is singular that in the letter here alluded to, he has himself corrected the slightest errors.” In his publication Las Cases also proudly reproduced the excerpts with which he left the island and the missing parts of the full letter added in note form at the bottom of the page.”P. 10-11. (pp. 2-3, English-language edition). See also the document held at the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale where the features mentioned by Las Cases can be seen

It is the document held by the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale This version of the letter can be viewed here online: that we have transcribed in translation here (below).This English translation is a version published in Las Cases’s Memoirs 1823 Vol IV Part VI page 321 Chapter: My Residence with the Emperor Napoleon This and other documents from the St Helena episode, some never before seen in print, will appear in the fifteenth and final volume of the Correspondance Générale to be published by the Fondation Napoléon, in spring 2018.

In pencilThese pencil markings are visible on the document in the hand of Hudson Lowe: “What is marked with pencil, C[oun]t Las Cases was allowed to take copy of.”We have indicated the parts which Las Cases was allowed to copy in bold type

TO COUNT LAS CASESThe parts in italic indicate those made in the hand of Napoleon

Longwood, 11th December, 1816

My dear Count de Las Cases, – My heart is deeply affected by what you now experience. Torn from me a fortnight ago, you have been ever since closely confined, without the possibility of my receiving any news from you, or sending you any; without having had any communication with any person, either French or English; deprived even of the attendance of a servant of your choice.This English translation is a version published in Las Cases’s Memoirs 1823 Vol IV Part VI page 321 Chapter: My Residence with the Emperor Napoleon

Your conduct at St. Helena has been like the whole of your life, irreproachable; I have the pleasure in giving you this testimony.

Your letter to one of your friends in London contains nothing reprehensible; you merely unburden your heart in the bosom of friendship.

This letter is similar to eight or ten others, which you have written t the same person, and which you have sent unsealed. The Governor having had the indelicacy to pry into the expressions which you confide to friendship, has latterly reproached you with them, threatening to send you out of the island, if your letters continued to be the bearers of complaints against him. He has thus violated the first duty of his situation, the first article of his instructions, the first sentiment of honour; he has thus authorized you to seek for means to open your heart to your friends, and inform them of the guilty conduct of this Governor. But you have been very simple; your confidence has been easily beguiled!

A pretext was wanting to seize upon your papers; but your letter to your friend in London, could not authorize a visit from the police to you; since it contained no plot, no mystery; since it was only the expression of a heart noble and sincere. The illegal and precipitate conduct observed on this occasion, bears the stamp of a base feeling of personal animosity.

In countries the least civilized, exiles, prisoners, and even criminals, are under the protection of the laws and of the magistrates; those persons who are intrusted with the keeping of them, have superior officers in the administration, who watch over them. On this rock, the man who makes the most absurd regulations, executes them with violence, and transgresses all laws, there is nobody to check the outrages of his passions.

The Prince Regent can never be informed of the acts carried out under his name; they have refused to forward my letters to him, they have in a violent manner, sent back the complaints made by Count Montholon; and Count Bertrand has since been informed, that no letters would be received if they continued to be libellous as they had hitherto been.This paragraph was absent from versions published prior to 1823

Longwood is surrounded by a mystery which it is sought to render impenetrable, in order to conceal guilty line of conduct which is calculated to create a suspicion of the most criminal intentions!!!

By reports insidiously circulated, it is endeavoured to deceive the officers, the travellers, the inhabitants of this island, and even the agents which, it is said, Austria and Russia have sent here. No doubt the English Government is deceived, in like manner, by artful and false representations.

They have seized your papers, amongst which, they know there were some belonging to me without the least formality, in the room next to mine, with a ferocious eclat and manifestation of joy. I was informed of it a few moments afterwards, and looked from the window, when I saw that they were hurrying you away. A numerous staff was prancing round the house; methought I saw the inhabitants of the Pacific ocean dancing round the prisoner they are about to devour.

Your company was necessary to me. You are the only one that can read, speak, and understand English. How many nights you have watched over me during my illnesses! However, I advise you, and if necessary, I order you, to demand of the Governor of this country to send you to the Continent; he cannot refuse, since he has no power over you, but by virtue of the act which you have voluntarily signed. I will be of great source of consolation to me, to know that you are on your way to more favoured climes.

Once in Europe whether you proceed to England or return home, endeavour to forget the evils which you have been made to suffer; and boast of the fidelity which you have shown towards me, and of all the affection I feel for you.

If you should some day or other see my wife and son, embrace them for me; for the last two years I have had no news from them, either directly or indirectly.

There is in this country a German botanist, who has been here for the last six months, and who saw them in the gardens of Schoenbrun a few months before his departure.The botanist Philippe Welle, of Baron Stürmer’s party The barbarians have carefully prevented him from coming to give me any news of them.

In the mean time be comforted, and console me friends. My body, it is true, is exposed to the hatred of my enemies; they omit nothing that can contribute to satisfy their vengeance; they make me suffer the protracted tortures of a slow death; but Providence is too just to allow these sufferings to last much longer. The insalubrity of this dreadful climate, the want of every thing that tends to support life, will soon, I feel, put an end to my existence,

the last moments of which will be an opprobrium to the English name; ad Europe will e day stigmatize with horror that perfidious and wicked man; all true Englishmen will disown him as a Briton.

As there is every reason to suppose that you will not be allowed to come and see me before your departure, receive my embrace, and the assurance of my friendship. May you be happy.




Variant versions of the letter

That this is not the whole story, however, is remarkable. In the years between Las Cases’s expulsion and the return of his papers (1817-1821), several short and long versions of the letter appeared in print. Indeed, in 1821, Las Cases himself published a long variant version of the letter (crucially missing the paragraph about the Prince Regent) and with a slightly different text. The existence of the variant versions would appear to imply that several attempts were made from Longwood to get the full letter to Europe.

The Belgian newspaper, Vrai Libéral, on 8 December 1817 published a slightly shortened version of the passages which Las Cases himself had copied, this time signed (somewhat jarringly) “votre affectionné, Napoléon” (“affectionately yours, Napoléon”). Las Cases later affirmed that he had objected to the appearance in print,Las Cases, Le mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, Marcel Dunan (dir.), op.cit., p. 754  but the Vrai Libéral claimed that it had requested permission for it to be published. It is impossible to say which of these stories is correct. Be that be as it may, the publication of this letter (with the cuts explicitly marked), coupled with the publication of other letters of protest addressed to the British government, led to Las Cases’s persecution by the Royal Belgian Police. Three days later, this lack of circumspection (if it was such) led to his extradition from Belgium and nearly two errant years in Germany.

Almost four months later, on 18 March 1818, the Vrai Libéral published a second version of the letter, this time in its almost complete form (resembling the version published by Las Cases in 1821 in that it too lacked the political paragraph concerning the Prince Regent).This variant version of the letter was published in Lettre de Napoléon au comte Las Cases au moment où il fut forcé de quitter l’île de Sainte-Hélène, H. Rémy, Bruxelles, S.D. and also in Mémoires d’Emmanuel Auguste Dieudonné, comte de Las Casas Bruxelles, 1818; later Paris, 1819, pp. 52-3, including the note “elle se trouvait déjà dans le Vrai Libéral du 18 mars 1818”. Oddly enough, the English version of this book, Memoirs of Emmanuel Augustus Dieudonné Count de las Casas, London, H. Colburn, 1818, pp. 63-4, bears not this version but rather a truncated version of Las Cases’s truncated transcription. The editors of the newspaper claimed that this version had been sent by an anonymous source based in London.See Lettre de Napoléon au comte Las Cases […], H. Rémy, Bruxelles, S.D, [p. 3]. The most surprising feature of this letter is its text. Though it expresses the same ideas as those in the letter shown to Las Cases in 1816 and published in 1823, the words and expressions in the Vrai Libéral letter are frequently very different. Furthermore, the text is different from that published by Las Cases in 1821 (but more of this below). Since none of the companions at Longwood who could imaginably have possessed a copy of this letter lived at that time in London, Gourgaud left the island on 14 March 1818 (Jacques Macé, Le général Gourgaud, Nouveau Monde Editions/Fondation Napoléon, Paris, 2006, p. 170); Barry O’Meara in August 1818 (Peter Hicks, Who was Barry Edward O’Meara, and Albine de Montholon in July 1819 (Jacques Macé, L’honneur retrouvé du général de Montholon, Éditions Christian, Paris, 2000, p. 120). it is possible that the copy was transmitted via clandestine routes impossible now to retrace. It is also however possible that there was a mole within Bathurst’s and Goulburn’s offices.

The following year, a truncated version of Las Cases’s truncated version of the letter was also published in English translation in London amongst letters written by Las Cases (translated into English), a volume in which the count must surely have participated (given the contents of the volume and also the truncated nature of the letter). It is possible that this English text was produced with the assistance of Barry O’Meara.Letters from the count Las Cases, London, James Ridgway, 1819, p. 18.

Which brings us to the first “official” publication of a version of the ‘complete’ letter which appeared in 1821 in the first volume (edited by Las Cases) of the Recueil de pièces authentiques sur le captif de Sainte-Hélène de mémoires et de documents écrits ou dictés par l’Empereur Napoléon.Paris, Alexandre Corréard, 1821, p. 115. As can be imagined, Emmanuel de Las Cases and his son were deeply attached to this letter in which the Emperor Napoleon addressed them almost as comrades. Indeed, their veneration of this ‘religious icon’ is eloquently shown in the frontispiece of the second volume of the Recueil de pièces authentiques,Published in Paris in October 1821. where the two men are shown ecstatically reading the letter for the first time. However, this version of the letter could not have been the one presumably returned to Las Cases by Lord Bathurst with his papers, since the handover occurred in September 1821, presumably too late for volume 1 of the Recueil.See Emmanuel de Las Cases, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, ed. Lentz, Hicks, Houdecek, Prevot, Perrin, 2017, p. 20 n. 2. What is more, it was not this version of the letter which Las Cases finally published in 1823 in the Mémorial but that published later in 1870 in the 32nd volume of the Correspondance de Napoléon Ier publiée par ordre de l’empereur Napoléon III.P. 397. According to that publication, it was Barthélémy de Las Cases who handed this text to the French historical commission for the publication of Napoleon’s Correspondance.


We would appear to be able to make several remarkable inferences from the above considerations.

  • Las Cases never received the letter currently held at the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale. Though this letter was signed and even annotated by Napoleon (as Las Cases himself noted), it never left Hudson Lowe’s papers, entering the Bibliothèque Nationale amongst those papers when that library purchased Lowe’s manuscripts in 1846. Las Cases must therefore have received a different letter, identical in every respect to this (even annotations) when his papers were returned to him in 1821. It was this letter he published in 1823. The original of this letter would appear to be still in private hands. That being said, in the 1823 Mémorial, Las Cases made reference to the precious transcription he performed in 1816 by religiously preserving the truncated nature of his transcription in the body of the page, completing this with footnotes marked with asterisks.Volume 7, p. 435. Obviously this letter is not in the manuscript and so not in the recent edition of the Mémorial (Perrin, 2017) because Las Cases made his copies of the letter after his arrest and the Journal had already been placed under seal.
  • Two other versions of the letter existed: A) The letter published in the Recueil in 1821 (which was very similar, but not identical, to that returned to Las Cases, but which crucially lacked the paragraph regarding the Prince Regent). And B) that published in March 1817 in the Vrai Libéral, supposedly from London, also lacking the same paragraph, but which had a text much re-written with respect to that finally published in the Mémorial in 1823.
  • Napoleon seems to have written and sent multiple, differing versions of this letter. These letters were sent at different times, via different couriers, following a practice established during the days of power with estafettes.
  • The security cordon set up by Hudson Lowe around St Helena was not water tight. Two further versions of the letter (beyond that confiscated from Las Cases and then returned to him) emerged from Longwood and reached Europe. We cannot tell whether the differing versions came with Albine de Montholon, Barry O’Meara, or by some other channel.


François Houdecek, Responsable de l’édition de la Correspondance de Napoléon

with Peter Hicks, manager for International affairs at the Fondation Napoléon



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