Vignettes of Napoleon’s Final Months

Napoleon on St. Helena, by Charles de Steuben, 1828. Napoleon was often in his dressing gown during his final months.

Napoleon on St. Helena, by Charles de Steuben, 1828

Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821, on St. Helena, an isolated island in the South Atlantic where the British imprisoned him after his 1815 defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. He probably died of stomach cancer. Napoleon noticed that his health was declining in the fall of 1820. By the end of that year, his illness had become apparent to those around him. Here are some vignettes of Napoleon’s final months, as recorded by those closest to him.

Overcome with weariness

Napoleon’s second valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis observed:

At the end of the year [1820] the Emperor began to feel that his health was really failing and he had less ability to work. His walks, no matter how short he made them, became more fatiguing, and insensibly his features came to bear more the impress of suffering. He felt, he said, a dull internal pain from which he suffered more particularly at night. He thought that he had liver disease. His remedies consisted only of warm napkins applied to his side, to baths, which he took frequently, and to a diet which he observed from time to time.

Long before, it had been thought that his disease was only imaginary and that what he said was designed to impose on the governor, in order to bring the English government to more humane sentiments towards him, and to decide it to allow him to go to America. What had also created the belief that his illness was not real was that at times he seemed to be very ill and at others he was extremely gay. The Emperor’s life, since he had been at St. Helena, had been pretty irregular, but it was much more so from the time when his pains became more perceptible, more positive, and more frequent. He became as uncertain in his temper as in his manner of life or his work, sometimes gay, sometimes thoughtful and absorbed. One day he would be out of the house all the time, another shut up in his rooms. For a week or two he would devote himself to work, after which he would stay for whole days on his sofa with a book in his hand, trying to sleep. Sometimes he would dress very early, sometimes he would stay in his dressing gown. He would often turn night into day and day into night. In a word, he acted like a man who is overcome with weariness and makes use of every means to shorten the time. (1)

A noticeable decline

In January 1821, there was a noticeable decline. Napoleon examined the new house that had been built for him, but refused to occupy it. Attributing his prolonged weakness to a lack of exercise, he decided to go for a carriage ride every day to revive his strength, but this resolve only lasted for a couple of weeks. He didn’t feel like dressing. He lost his appetite. On March 17 he took to his bed and rarely left it again.

Napoleon was often impatient with his doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, in whom he did not have much confidence. On March 24, when Dr. Antommarchi insisted that he take an emetic (a substance that causes vomiting), Napoleon said, “Why don’t you go jump in the lake, and take the emetic yourself.” (2)

Napoleon allowed himself to be seen by Archibald Arnott, surgeon to the British 20th Regiment of Foot, which was stationed on the island. Napoleon’s first valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, wrote:

Several days passed without Dr. Arnott’s care and attentions bringing about any improvement in the Emperor’s health. At night, perspiration forced him to change his flannel undershirt five or six times; during the day, his restlessness was not as considerable, due to the distraction he got from conversation or reading. One evening after Count Bertrand had departed, I remained alone with him; he talked to me about Princess Pauline and her little house in San Martino on the island of Elba, his hermitage at the Madonna, and the cool shade that made a visit there so pleasant. Then he told me to read him a chapter on Syria which had been recopied by Saint-Denis, but written so small that it was difficult to read it back to him.

During each visit, the doctor always offered pills or other medication; the Emperor would reply that he did not see any objection to that, change the conversation, and always manage not to take anything. One day while Dr. Arnott was taking his pulse, he asked the Emperor how he felt. ‘Not well, doctor, I am about to return to the earth a remnant of life that seems so important for the kings to have.’ And as the doctor insisted on his taking medication, the Emperor replied: ‘Always medication? Well, Doctor, we’ll take some! What diseases are there in your hospitals?’ Then, getting out of bed, he donned his bathrobe and went to sit in front of a table on which his dinner had been served. He had the doctor taste some of the dishes and offered him a glass of claret. There was a small piece of Savoie cake on his table: he cut it in four parts and gave one to the grand marshal, one to Dr. Arnott, the third to Dr. Antommarchi, and the fourth to me.

Two days earlier, the Emperor had wanted to shave: everything had been prepared for the procedure, but it had been postponed. ‘I should be less lazy,’ he said, ‘because I feel refreshed when it is done. It is your fault,’ he said taking me by the ear, ‘if I do not shave. You must force me in the future. Poor me,’ he uttered, looking at himself in the mirror. (3)

No means of cure

On April 15 Napoleon began to dictate his last will and testament. Two days later he told Arnott that, unless the doctor could come up with better remedies, medical science could do no more for him. Arnott told Napoleon to have hope, saying he had seen many patients in an even weaker state make a recovery.

‘Words, words and phrases fit for women and children,’ Napoleon said wearily, ‘but to men and especially to soldiers like us, you should speak the truth.’

‘I have told you the truth,’ Arnott rejoined. ‘I have said what I think.’

‘What is the strongest remedy you have? Mercury?’ Napoleon asked.

‘In certain cases, but it is useless in cases of weakness,’ Dr. Arnott replied.

‘Mercury? Opium? Quinine?’ the Emperor repeated.

‘Yes, in certain illnesses, but in other cases to let blood is one of the strongest remedies.’

‘You English, you let too much blood,’ Napoleon remarked.

‘To let blood is excellent for certain types of illness; but no blood is ever let in cases of weakness.’

‘Are the English full-blooded as a rule?’ Napoleon inquired.

‘Yes, generally up to the age of forty,’ Dr. Arnott replied.

‘Nevertheless,’ Napoleon said, ‘I had thought them to be of a more lymphatic temperament. You have no sun in England.’

‘Oh yes, we do,’ Arnott replied, ‘but it is less strong than in the Mediterranean countries. In July and August the sun shines warmly in England.’

‘But Carracioli said that an English sun is not the equal of an Italian moon.’

‘Who was Carracioli, a painter?’

‘No, he was an ambassador,’ replied Napoleon, who then returned to the subject of his own health.

‘… I perceive that you have no means of curing [my illness]. It requires something more drastic than quinine.’

‘But,’ Arnott protested, ‘you are so weak that we are unable to give you anything stronger.’

‘Very well, I won’t argue the contrary,’ said Napoleon, ‘but no matter what the cause, you can see the effect. I know that I have none of the symptoms of death, but I am so weak that it would not take a cannon ball to kill me; a grain of sand would suffice.’ (4)

Docile as a child

The above conversation was reported by General Henri Bertrand, Napoleon’s Grand Marshal of the Palace. On April 28, Bertrand wrote:

‘In the morning the Emperor had asked at least twenty times whether he might be allowed to have some coffee. But every time the answer had been, ‘No Sire.’

‘Won’t the doctors allow me just a little spoonful?’

‘No, Sire. Not at present. Your stomach is over-irritated, and it might cause you to be sick a little sooner.’ He had been sick perhaps eight or nine times in the course of the day.

What thoughts spring to mind at the sight of so great a change! Tears came to my eyes, as I looked at this man, formerly so terrifying, who had commanded so proudly and in a manner so absolute, now reduced to begging for a spoonful of coffee, asking permission, obedient as a child, asking permission again and again without obtaining it…. At other periods of his illness he had sent his doctors to the devil and had done as he pleased. But at present he was as docile as a child. That was what the Great Napoleon had become, a humble and an unhappy man. (5)

One week later, Napoleon was dead.

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  1. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), pp. 248-249.
  2. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p.
  3. Ibid., pp. 645-646.
  4. Henri-Gatien Bertrand, Napoleon at St. Helena: The Journals of General Bertrand from January to May of 1821, deciphered and annotated by Paul Fleuriot de Langle, translated by Frances Hume (Garden City, 1952), 148-149.
  5. Ibid., p. 209.

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I know that I have none of the symptoms of death, but I am so weak that it would not take a cannon ball to kill me; a grain of sand would suffice.

Napoleon Bonaparte