Full title in French: Bonaparte n’est plus ! Le monde apprend la mort de Napoléon (juillet-septembre 1821)
[Bonaparte is no more! The world hears of Napoleon’s death (July-September 1821)]
The greatest man of the 19th century passed away thousands of miles away on an island in the South Atlantic. How did the news of this event reach Europe in the days of sail? And what were the reactions to it by those at the time? For the first time, let’s put ourselves in their shoes!
On 5 May 1821, at 5.49pm, “General Bonaparte”, as the British called Napoleon, died at Longwood, surrounded by his companions. The much-romanticised scene would be represented many times over. On the evening of 7 May, HMS Heron set sail for England, with Captain Crokat on board bringing the terrible news to Europe. He landed in Portsmouth on 3 July. And so, as Victor Hugo wrote, the world “was freed from its prisoner”, despite being oblivious of the fact for two months, something unimaginable today. On 4 July, the Cabinet informed King George IV in the middle of the day. That same evening, by a great journalistic tour de force, The Statesman made the first report of the passing of the capital enemy. Louis XVIII received the news sent by telegraph from Calais the next day in the late afternoon, followed by a message from the embassy in London.
However, contrary to traditional historiography, public outpouring of emotions, either real or simulated, hardly extended beyond the circle of Napoleon’s faithful followers, mainly the military, and journalistic circles. Although dozens of brochures were hastily published, sometimes accrediting pure lies about the causes of death and even contesting it ever happened, their impact was weak. Neither the French government nor parliament was much upset, indeed hardly even among the Bonaparte clan. It would take at least a decade for the sleeping giant to emerge from the tomb of memory and be resuscitated powerfully in people’s minds and hearts.
In twenty-four chapters enriched by forgotten testimonies and a wealth of unpublished information, Thierry Lentz retraces those few weeks when it was thought that the world was going to falter, but which in fact merely concluded an almost-forgotten episode.
INTERVIEW > Thierry Lentz answers three questions (in English) about his recent research.