Napoleon.org: The Emperor himself dictated the announcement of his own death a week before 5 May 1821, as you remind us at the beginning of your book. Might this be considered his ultimate political act: controlling, to the very letter, how the world should learn of his death?
Thierry Lentz: The “official” announcement of the Emperor’s death by the French on St Helena was indeed a letter from Montholon to Governor Lowe. This letter was dictated by Napoleon himself and refers to the transfer of his body to Europe. He included the formula “Emperor Napoleon”, thus reiterating for the last time the reality of what he had actually been. This time Lowe did not refuse the letter on the grounds that “there was no emperor on this island to his knowledge”. It is true that it was a small posthumous victory for Napoleon – but there would be others, to be won by nostalgia for the Emperor, later on.
Napoleon.org: You rightly point out that “If Napoleon had died in this day and age, the whole world would have heard about it in a few minutes”. It was not until 4 July that the news of the death of “General Buonaparte”, transmitted by Hudson Lowe to Henry Bathurst, finally circulated in British government circles and then in the press before being developed and romanticised in brochures. Why did it take so long for this news to reach the public?
Thierry Lentz: Obviously, it is the slow voyage from St Helena that explains this. In those days, it took at least two months for a boat to travel to Europe. Once the news had arrived, it only spread gradually: newspapers were rare and actually had very few readers, resulting in the slow diffusion, including in France, of fragments of information, carefully controlled by the British government and filtered by Restoration censors in France. This is why there was no “collective outpouring of grief” and no immediate significant demonstrations of any emotion, outside certain coteries, principally those of nostalgic Bonapartists.
Napoleon.org: With each page of your book, we learn that the news of Napoleon’s death did not make any waves: the French population in general seemed unaffected, and the grief among the Bonaparte and the Beauharnais families was quickly brought under control. Marie-Louise, although officially in mourning, showed prudent restraint, and the Aiglon, Napoleon’s son and heir, showed, as per usual, almost no reaction at all. Did the development of the legend of Napoleon then finally have nothing to do with his death after all?
Thierry Lentz: That is indeed what this research suggests, and I was the first one to feel surprised. Before the return of the Emperor’s companions-in-exile (Bertrand, Montholon, Marchand, etc.), very little was known about what had happened at Longwood and even less about the circumstances of the death. People had had to make do with the simple fact of his death, announced by newspaper articles all over the world, almost all beginning with the words “Bonaparte is no more.” As one contemporary said, we “cried inside”… and then we didn’t talk much more about it. This was the case in particular for the exiled Bonapartes. It is striking to see how quickly they ‘moved on’, simply going to Rome to pay their respects to Madame Mère and then returning home. It would take two years – and the publication of the Memorial and other texts from St Helena – for Napoleon’s death to become a decidedly political issue. This was the beginning of the merger between liberals and Bonapartists, under the banner of nostalgia for a “liberal emperor”, largely-invented it must be said, and against a backdrop of hopes placed in the King of Rome.