Pierre Branda: Napoleon on St Helena “Never in the history of the world have so much money and land been given up to keep a single man in chains” (January 2021)

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In this interview for napoleon.org, Pierre Branda evokes some of the insights and revelations that came out of his 600-page study of one the most impressively organised and costly incarcerations ever conceived. (with Marie de Bruchard, translation PH)

Pierre Branda: Napoleon on St Helena “Never in the history of the world have so much money and land been given up to keep a single man in chains” (January 2021)

In the first part of the book, a sixth of the whole, in which you deal with Napoleon’s departure from Europe, you alternate between the point of view of Napoleon and his companions in exile and that of Great Britain, responsible for the fallen Emperor/prisoner, and the latter’s coalition partners. And you do this throughout your history. Did you think that you could only understand Napoleon’s final exile by leaving the cul-de-sac of St Helena?

Pierre Branda: It seemed important to me to return in great detail to the conditions of Napoleon’s surrender to the British in July 1815 and to tell the story of the future prisoner’s misunderstanding. His gamble was to force the government in London to treat him with dignity, even though the cabinet had already decided to deport him to the South Atlantic. Napoleon deluded himself and paid a heavy price by being sent to St Helena. Then, between him and Lord Liverpool’s government, war was declared, a war that would last six long years. It is essential to see what happens in London so as to be able understand the captivity. Napoleon knew both that it was there that his fate would be decided and that he enjoyed a certain popularity among the British people.

From then on, he did everything he could to influence public opinion, hoping for a change of government to help him leave his prison island. Throughout his exile, he cherished this hope, taking the protest to the very heart of the British Empire through clandestine publications that until now have not attracted much attention from historians. In 1815, Napoleon was only forty-six years old, was in fairly good shape and still believed in his destiny. Las Cases reported him as saying this magnificent phrase that almost sums him up: “It is painful and difficult to give up the hope or the idea of glory”. In the end, the story of Napoleon on St Helena is not the chronicle of a slow agony but that of a man still determined to write his own history.

You write: “Napoleon’s captivity was therefore remarkably designed. By organising it in this way, the British government gave exceptional treatment to its most famous prisoner. It was furthermore on an unprecedented scale. Never in the history of the world have so much money and land been given up to keep a single man in chains. It is almost as if it was a question of locking up a demigod or a superman. To take just one example, not even the implacable imprisonment of the French royal family in the Temple Prison between 1792 and 1795 required as much resources.” Why do you think Britain, with the whole of Europe, was so afraid of a statesman that it had cut off from the rest of world?

Pierre Branda: His return from the island of Elba stunned Europe. His incredible “eagle’s flight” to “the towers of Notre-Dame” showed how unpredictable and dangerous he could be for his enemies. Commenting on him, the British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, who was responsible for his deportation to St Helena, said: “I firmly believe that no other man can do what he did.” Napoleon inspired fear. The British were totally terrified and designed a prison of gigantic proportions for him and deployed unprecedented means to keep him prisoner. At the time it was almost paranoia. You cannot understand the attitude of his principal gaoler, Hudson Lowe, towards him without taking into account this recurring and haunting fear.

What did your research reveal in terms of the relations between Napoleon’s companions in exile? Did you uncover any unsuspected rivalries? Any revelations about real and concrete life at Longwood?

Pierre Branda: In addition to the drama of captivity there were the incessant disputes within the small court around Napoleon at Longwood. In this oppressive and wretched huis-clos, the prize for “most cantankerous companion” goes to General Gourgaud. He was jealous and suspicious and flew off the handle whenever anyone dared to get too close to his master. He first directed his wrath at Las Cases before turning his fire on the Montholons, Albine in particular, most probably Napoleon’s mistress. As the months went by, his resentment grew to the point that he was almost expelled from Longwood. I recount in the book both how, on being kicked out, Gourgaud took his revenge and the particularly harmful consequences of that action. After leaving Napoleon, he blabbed all sorts of secrets, claiming, for example, that Napoleon was continually play-acting and creating intrigue. It was his attitude and his revelations that led Hudson Lowe to abandon plans to move Napoleon to a healthier part of the island and to expel O’Meara, the captive’s beloved Irish doctor. Worse still, they led to the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle confirming the continuation of Napoleon’s detention on St Helena. This episode was as painful as it was disastrous, and it shows to what extent here the prisoner was also a victim of his entourage. Though this is not to minimise the devotion of several of his companions, notably, the valet Marchand, Saint-Denis (Mamluk Ali), and others.

Your book ends by addressing two major issues: the financial provisions in Napoleon’s will and the unavoidable question of the Emperor’s assassination. Do you think that these two subjects can now be considered “case closed”?

Pierre Branda: Napoleon’s last will and testament is in fact his last message. As such, we should pause to consider in detail the contents of the dozens of pages written by a man on the verge of death. In his will, he settles a few final political scores, against the “English oligarchy” and against those who, according to him, betrayed him, notably the marshal Marmont, but above all, by distributing his fortune to some and not to others, he draws up a sort of review in human terms of his epic history in which only those truly loyal to him appear.

On the subject of Napoleon’s poisoning, this case can indeed be considered “closed”. This story of arsenic, I return to it in the book, has been hyped up irrespective of any basic historical considerations. Indeed, going beyond the science, which is in fact contradictory on the subject, the historical analysis is incontestable: no one murdered Napoleon. On the other hand, in the last days of his life, his doctors, Antommarchi for the French and Arnott for the English, administered him mercury, a remedy that was very popular at the time, and which would only aggravate the affliction he was suffering from, namely a perforated stomach ulcer. In doing so, they undoubtedly took away a few days of his life and, above all, plunged him into atrocious suffering before he died on 5 May 1821. “Lord, protect me from my friends; I can take care of my enemies!” This sentence, attributed to Voltaire but no doubt older, sums up the history of Napoleon on St Helena quite well.

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