Today is the bicentennal annivesary of the death of Napoleon.
“At 5:50 p.m. the retreat gun was heard, and the sun disappeared in a flash of light. It was also the moment when the great man who dominated the world with his genius was about to wrap himself in his immortal glory. Dr. Antommarchi’s anxiety intensified; the hand that had led victory, and the pulse of which he was counting, became ice-cold. Dr. Arnott, eyes on his watch, counted the intervals from one sigh to the next, fifteen seconds, then thirty, then a minute went by. We stood still in anticipation, but in vain.
“The Emperor was no more!
* * *
“‘Death Certificate of the Emperor:
“Failing the presence of the imperial family’s official registrars designated by the senatus consulta to that effect, I Count Bertrand, grand marshal of the Emperor Napoleon, as civil officer of his household, have written the present document in order to verify that on this day, May 5, 1821, at 5:45 p.m., the Emperor Napoleon died in his quarters at Longwood, Island of St. Helena, following a long and painful illness, in the rites of the Roman, Apostolic and Catholic faith, in the presence of we the undersigned and of all the members of His Majesty’s household serving at Longwood.
“Longwood, island of St. Helena, May 5, 1821.
“Signed: Count Bertrand, Count de Montholon’”
(Quoted from "In Napoleon's Shadow: The Memoirs of Louis-Joseph Marchand, Valet and Friend of the Emperor 1811-1821 (Greenhill Books, 1998)).
The Emperor asked to be buried “on the banks of the Seine in Paris,” but the British governor of St. Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe, disclosed that he had orders to prevent the removal of the Emperor’s body. Consequently, the body was interred on St. Helena, in a place later known as the Valley of the Tomb, but which the Emperor had called during life “Geranium Valley.”
The burial, like everything else about Napoleon’s exile, was contentious. The British did not recognize the Emperor’s title during his lifetime and they declined to permit it to be inscribed on his headstone. As a compromise, Count de Montholon suggested “Napoleon.” Lowe insisted that “Bonaparte” be added (he referred to the Emperor as “General Bonaparte”). Montholon and Bertrand declined, and the tombstone remained blank.
In 1840, Napoleon remained popular in France, and the government of King Louis Philippe formally asked the British for the return of the Emperor’s remains. The request was granted, and the French sent a frigate, with a prince of the royal house, to convey the body home. Some of the Emperor’s companions in exile: including Bertrand and Marchand (quoted above) accompanied the expedition.
Upon exhumation, in the presence of the former exiles, the casket was opened, the body confirmed to be the Emperor’s, and very well-preserved. The casket was again sealed, and the body transported to Paris, for a state funeral on 15 December 1840. The Emperor was reinterred at Les Invalides in Paris.
Later, during the reign of Napoleon III, the French bought both Longwood House, and the Valley of the Tomb, which remain French property down to the present day. The painting is “Napoleon on his Deathbed, one hour before being shrouded” (Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, 1843, oil on canvas) In the Musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau. The author of the material quoted above, the Emperor’s valet, Marchand, is the figure standing second from left.