Thursday, December 22, 2005

Napoleon at St Helena

Hastings, January 1822.—By a singular chance I have met at two consecutive public balls, first, an officer just returned from St. Helena, who was there at the moment of Buonaparte's death ; and secondly, one who was on board the 'Northumberland' when he went to St. Helena. From the first I anticipated much amusement, and expected that the second could only have bored one by repeating a tale which one has so often heard, that one feels possessed of almost all that can be told. In both instances the event proved exactly the reverse of my expectations. The first had never seen Buonapartre, and either could not or would not say anything about him. He told me that when he arrived at St Helena, three or four months before the death of Napoleon, the inhabitants seemed to have entirely forgotten him; and that the man who so few years ago was the one subject of interest, of curiosity, of conversation through the globe, was never mentioned even within the narrow precincts of his insular prison.

As to the other officer, Captain Sweeny of the Marines, he had for ten weeks passed some part of every day with Napoleon, and was quite as ready to tell as I was to hear all that he knew about him. I first asked whether he had ever seen any instance of that violence of temper of which we have heard so much; he said ‘Never’ adding, that appearing there only as a guest and for a few hours in company, there could not occur anything to provoke his passions. Still, as the narrator went on, I thought that, if the ill-temper had been so very near at hand as we have been taught to believe, there must have been occasions more than sufficient to call it forth. From his own people Napoleon continued to exact all the outward tokens of respect which they had shown to the Emperor. One day he was sitting on deck in rain such as I am told can scarcely be conceived by those who have not felt tropical rains: Bertrand, Montholon, and Lascasas were all standing round him bareheaded.

My informant spoke to them, and especially to Lascasas, who has very delicate health, telling them they would make themselves ill if they did not put on their hats: they did not answer, and Buonaparte gave him a very angry look, but said nothing. He then said, ' General, you had better send for a cloak; you'll be wetted to the skin:' he very sternly replied, ' I am not made of sugar or salt.'

Napoleon always spoke in the handsomest manner of his great rival the Duke of Wellington, and did not, like almost all of the officers who fought under his banner, attribute their defeat at Waterloo to chance, to a mistake, &c. He expressed the greatest admiration for the British navy.

It was one of the singular chances belonging to his extraordinary reverse of fortune that on board the ' President' * he found a nephew of Sir Sidney Smith. Napoleon one day in conversation with Captain Usher, after high commendation of his officers and of the treatment which he had met with from them, complained that there was one from whom he never could get anything but the shortest monosyllables in reply to all he could say to him. He added, ' I am the more provoked, as I hear Smith is a young man of great talents, who speaks French as easily as his own language, and yet I cannot draw him into any conversation.'

Captain Usher remonstrated with young Smith; spoke of the respect due to fallen greatness, of the rank which Napoleon had so recently held. Smith replied that he hoped he should never be found deficient in proper respect, but he could not conceive it to be a part of his duty to enter into conversation with Napoleon; adding, that if he had enquired who he was, he thought he could not wonder at his declining any conversation with the person who had so much persecuted his uncle. When Napoleon left the ' President,' he gave a handsome snuff-box to Captain Usher, and rings to every one of his officers but young Smith, who would not accept any present, however trifling, from his hand.

Both the officers with whom I have conversed agree in speaking of Bertrand in the highest terms. They say that the only thing they could say against him is that his devotion to his master was sometimes carried so far as to border on servility; but that conduct which would have been contemptible in the servant of the Emperor became respectable in the follower of the exile.

His fidelity was the more meritorious when one recollects how many feelings of affection as well as interest militated against it. The scene which Madame Bertrand made, and her attempt at throwing herself into the sea, are well known; but I always doubted whether her repugnance might not have been acted, or rather exaggerated, to increase the merit of the sacrifice which Bertrand was making.

By Captain Sweeny's account it was very genuine, and she left no efforts or blandishments untried, by which she could hope to work on his feelings as a father or a husband, to induce Bertrand to relinquish his intention of following his master. That he persisted, we all know; but I did not give him credit for being a very fond husband and father. His son Napoleon is, I hear, now as fine a boy as it is possible to behold.

Soon after they landed at St. Helena, Madame Bertrand incurred the displeasure of the fallen despot: it seems that one of the ships of the convoy was commanded by a Captain Hamilton, who discovered a distant relationship to Madame Bertrand, a Dillon by birth. Of course he showed her more attention on this account, and she received this attention like a Frenchwoman, but with perfect innocence.

However, "Napoleon was angry, and said to Bertrand: ' Your wife must no longer appear at my table; she has chosen to receive all the English officers, and from Captain Hamilton these attentions have been most pointed.' To this Bertrand made no answer, and submitted to the being almost entirely separated from his wife, whom he could only see for a very short period. This continued sixteen days, at the end of which time Napoleon, without another word on the subject, said, ‘Tell you wife to come to dinner next Sunday.’

With all this he treated this devoted servant in a most ungracious manner, and said to him one day before all the English officers: 'As to your fidelity, I value it not; I know that it is not for my sake that you follow me, but for the sake of the credit you will gain from posterity.'

Latterly it is said that Montholon had supplanted Bertrand in bis master's favour, and yet he is thought in every respect his inferior. Captain Sweeny said that when, after a tedious voyage of ten weeks, the shores of St. Helena were discovered, Napoleon seemed at first to feel the joy which animated every other person on board at the idea of leaving the ship; but when on a nearer approach he discovered the barren rocks and desolate shore of his insular prison, the expression of despair, mingled with other feelings, on his countenance was most striking. Napoleon left the deck, went into his cabin, and for many hours would not land. Hopes of escape were not probably at any time entirely extinct, and enabled him to endure his wretched existence longer than could have been expected.

While on board the ' Bellerophon' he said, ' I suppose you, in England, expected me to prove a second Cato, and destroy myself after the battle of Waterloo; but I was determined to show the world I would be a great man in adversity as well as prosperity.'

* The ship in which he was conveyed to Ella.

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