On 5 May 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died in a surprisingly small bed surrounded by his French coterie in exile in a damp and reportedly rat-infested house on the British island of Saint Helena.
His last words, uttered shortly before he expired around 5.59pm local time were relayed back: “La France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine …” (France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine). He was 51.
Two hundred years on, the cause of his death remains an unresolved mystery and his career and life continue to bitterly divide. To some, the Corsican-born emperor was a brilliant military and political strategist, to others he was little more than a warmongering despot. To the right he is a national hero whose leadership and legacy put France on the map, while the left points out he was autocratic and supported the restoration of slavery.
Élisabeth Moreno, the equality minister, admitted Napoleon was “a great figure in French history” but added he was also “one of the great misogynists”.
On Wednesday, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, will attempt to walk a fine line through this political minefield when he marks the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death at the Institute of France with a group of academics and high school students. He will speak after a presentation by French historian Jean Tulard, one of the country’s leading experts on Bonaparte, and lay a wreath at the foot of his tomb at Les Invalides in Paris in what the Élysée insists is a “commemoration not a celebration”.
The Élysée declared Macron was breaking with the cautious approach of his predecessors and “will not shy away” from the controversy surrounding Napoleon, who exercised power between 1799 and 1815, but added that his speech would be “neither hagiographic, nor a denial nor repentance” and that he would not be giving a “retrospective judgment 10 generations later”.
It is a position the centrist Macron is expert at with his famous mantra “en même temps” (at the same time), but for the historian Tulard, it is all about remembering.
“It’s not a question of whether he was a genius or a monster, it’s about remembering what he did, which led to France dominating Europe at one moment,” Tulard said.
“This is our history and a nation that forgets or effaces its history is condemned to failure.”
After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon had hoped to be banished to America. Instead, after 10 weeks at sea on board HMS Northumberland, he found himself on a volcanic rock 10-miles long by six-miles wide in the middle of the South Atlantic.
On sighting Saint Helena from the sea when he arrived in October 1815, his first comment was reported to be: “It will not be a pleasant abode.”
The Saint Helena governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, was not impressed with his unwelcome guest. Not only was his duty to ensure “Old Boney” did not escape, but he was also obliged to supply him and his retinue with weekly supplies, including brandy and wine. To Napoleon, Lowe was his jailer. And he set out to irritate him at every occasion. To Lowe, Napoleon was a petulant individual given to tantrums and a failure to recognise and accept his situation.
In his will Napoleon asked to be buried on the banks of the Seine in Paris, but Lowe insisted he be interred in the Sane Valley on Saint Helena, later known as the Valley of the Tomb. Even after death, Lowe was unmoved to compromise with his French guests. The French general Charles Tristan de Montholon asked for the tomb to be engraved with the single word “Napoleon”; Lowe insisted “Bonaparte” be added. The two could not agree and the grave was left unmarked.
In October 1840 his body was exhumed, repatriated to France and later reburied at Les Invalides in Paris. In 1854 the French government bought the Valley of the Tomb and Longwood House, which remain in French possession to this day.
When the northern French town of Arras organised an exhibition to persuade the French to take a new look at Napoleon and his 20 years as the most feared and respected man in Europe, Frédéric Lacaille, the curator, lamented that he was in danger of being forgotten in France.
“It’s worse than being detested, he is ignored, and yet Bonaparte had a stunning history,” Lacaille said at the time. “Many French see him as representing a warmongering, authoritarian regime and forget the many things we inherited from him, including his great administrative reorganisation.”
His Napoleonic Code defined civil law across large parts of the world, introduced higher education, tax, road and sewer systems and he set up the Banque de France.
In his 2014 biography, Napoleon the Great, British historian Andrew Roberts pointed out a certain similarity between Macron and Napoleon: both young, well-read and highly intelligent who came to power defeating rightwing opponents, both with ambitions to reform France and place it at the heart of a unified Europe … and both with one eye on Britain, with its constant demands for free trade with the continent and viewed with growing irritation.
Tulard is kinder about the British: “People in France said ‘Oh that perfidious Albion condemned Napoleon to exile on Saint Helena’, but in reality the British were very indulgent. Just before Waterloo, the Congress of Vienna had declared Napoleon an outlaw. In other circumstances, he’d have been shot by firing squad. Saint Helena was hard, but it wasn’t the worse that could have happened to him.”