Tag Archives: Napoleon’s Will

Corsica Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

FINDING NAPOLEON BONAPARTE IN CUBA, PART 2

 

Street scene in Havana, Cuba, photo by Margaret Rodenberg 2017

If you read my last blog post, you know I visited Havana’s Museo Napoleónico. Thanks to the Cuban sugar magnate, Julio Lobo, the museum houses the Western Hemisphere’s largest exhibition of Napoleon Bonaparte’s artifacts.

My favorite piece is Napoleon’s pocket watch from his exile on St Helena. But how did it end up in Cuba? Like so much about Napoleon, it’s complicated.

Napoleon Bonaparte's pocket watch from St Helena in the Museo Napoleónico, Havana, Cuba, photo by Margaret Rodenberg, 2017

When Napoleon Bonaparte went into exile, the British provided him a Navy doctor. Dr. Barry Edward O’Meara was a cultured, genial Irishman who played chess and spoke fluent Italian, Napoleon’s native language. Before long, he and Napoleon became fast friends. In 1818, the British, suspecting O’Meara of treason, recalled him to London and dismissed him from the Navy.

The British offered Napoleon replacement physicians, but refused to guarantee patient-doctor privacy. Napoleon, saying he didn’t want his bowel movements discussed in the British parliament, declined their services.

So, in 1819, Napoleon’s mother sent the Corsican-born physician Francesco Antommarchi to St Helena. From the start, Antommarchi and Napoleon had a stormy relationship. On several occasions Napoleon dismissed the doctor, only to relent. By then, the Emperor was ill and Antommarchi was the only doctor on St Helena who would protect his privacy. When Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, Antommarchi performed the Emperor’s autopsy under the watchful eyes of British doctors. In this famous painting of Napoleon’s death scene, Antommarchi stands on the left with his hand on Napoleon’s pillow.

The Watch After Napoleon’s Death

Von Stuben's painting of Napoleon's death scene in the reception room of Longwood House, St Helena. Photo taken in Museo Napoleonic, Havana, by Margaret Rodenberg 2017Napoleon’s official Will doesn’t mention Dr. Antommarchi. In that document, Napoleon bequeathes to his valet Marchand’s care “two watches, with Empress’s hair-made chains, and a chain made with my hair for the other watch.” Marchand was supposed to give them, along with other personal items, to Napoleon’s son.

But when Marchand inventoried Napoleon’s possessions after the Emperor’s death, he listed only “one large silver watch (Frederick the Great’s alarm clock).” Did Napoleon before his death give Antommarchi the gold pocket watch? Or did Marchand take it upon himself to give it to the doctor? I don’t find any mention of either event in the various memoirs about Napoleon’s time on St Helena. Perhaps Antommarchi helped himself to it.

In an unfinished codicil to his Will, Napoleon did ask his wife “Marie Louise to take in her service Antommarchi and to pay him a pension of 6,000 francs, which I [Napoleon] bequeath to him.” But everyone, including Antommarchi, knew that Marie Louise would never follow Napoleon’s wishes. She’d already had three children with the man she would marry as soon as Napoleon died.

The Cuba Connection to Napoleon’s Watch

After Napoleon’s death, Antommarchi’s career took him to Poland, Louisiana, and Mexico. In 1837, he arrived in Cuba where some distant but wealthy relatives lived. Within a year, he died from yellow fever.

Fast-forward one hundred twenty-two years. In 1959, Antommarchi’s Cuban heirs—perhaps currying favor with Cuba’s new revolutionary government—presented Comandante Raúl Castro with Napoleon’s pocket watch as a wedding present. After his wife’s death in 2007, Raúl Castro donated the watch to the Museo Napoleónico.

The Museo Napoleónico’s pocket watch stops the time at a few minutes to six, the approximate hour of Napoleon’s death on St Helena. Boussot de Villeneuve, its manufacturer, no longer exists. But one other watchmaker, Breuguet, is proud enough to have had Napoleon as a client to use his image in its recent advertising.

 

Saint Helena The Man

Napoleon on St Helena: Reading Books

Napoleon reading with son sleeping by Karl Steuben; a tinsel print from Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Institute collection

My last post covered a few of the ways Napoleon Bonaparte filled his days during his five-and-a-half-year exile on St Helena Island. However, his most important pastime—the one he did every day—was reading.

Throughout his life, Napoleon was a voracious reader and book collector. As an impoverished young man, he lived a monkish life, often skipping meals and entertainment to purchase books. As a general and emperor, he carried a traveling library in a mahogany chest on all his journeys. So it’s no surprise that, during his enforced “retirement” on St Helena, Napoleon read and reread his favorite volumes as well as any new ones he could obtain.

Napoleon’s books reflected his broad interests. Of course, there were the histories: Arrian on Alexander the Great, Livy and Tacitus on Rome, Barrow on England, among many others. Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans was an early and perennial favorite. He preferred The Illiad to The Odyssey. Always open-minded about religion, he’s known to have read not only the Bible, but also the Koran and the Indian Vedas. In addition, he read science, philosophy, law, and geography.

But he also enjoyed poetry and fiction. On St Helena, he reread plays by Molière, Racine, Voltaire, Beaumarchais, and the ancient Greek authors. His favorite epic poems were Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and Macpherson’s Ossian. Perhaps surprisingly, he loved tragic romantic novels. He reread Bernardin de Saint Pierre’s Paul et Virginie and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther many times.

Napoleon didn’t just read alone. Memoirs by members of his St Helena entourage recall long evenings after supper when all remained around the table or moved to Longwood’s salon to listen to the Emperor read aloud. Albine de Montholon (1779-1848), wife of General Charles Tristan de MontholonMadame Albine de Montholon, for example, describes an evening when Napoleon read Voltaire’s tragic play Zaïre over dessert.

In her memoir, she says that when reading aloud, Napoleon’s style wasn’t “remarkable, but interesting. He paused over what appeared to him to be wrong or right, and expressed his opinion with true and beautiful feeling.” His secretary Las Cases mentions him reading from the Bible, while commenting on the places he had visited during his Egyptian Campaign, which had extended into Syria. Still others bemoan how difficult it was to stay awake as Napoleon read on and on.

All that reading had encouraged young Napoleon Bonaparte to believe that he, too, could be a Caesar or an Alexander. He must have wanted his own son to have the same exposure to knowledge and ideas. In his Last Will and Testament, written on St Helena and finalized on April 15, 1821, less than three weeks before he died, he added the following instruction (visible at the bottom of the page between the numeral “VI” and his signature and translated here):

  1. Four hundred books chosen from my library, among those I used the most.
  2. I instruct Saint-Denis [one of his valets] to keep these things, and to give them to my son when he will be sixteen.

Unfortunately those books never reached Napoleon’s son, known as the Eaglet. During Napoleon’s exile on St Helena, the boy grew up in his own exile in the Austrian court. There his education, movements, and outside contacts were tightly controlled to avoid his becoming a threat to the restored Bourbon French king. He died from tuberculosis in 1832 at the age of twenty-one.

For more information on the Emperor’s reading habits, I encourage you to visit my friend Shannon Selin’s excellent blog post on the subject.

Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Margaret Rodenberg