French history

Napoleon: Life, death and dreams of the US after Waterloo

A bronze statue of Napoleon, at the Hotel des Invalides, in Paris, France, on 7 April 2021.
A bronze statue of Napoleon, at the Hotel des Invalides, in Paris, France, on 7 April 2021. Thomas Coex AFP/Archivos

"This is where the epic ends." On the island of Aix in western France, a bust of Napoleon greets the visitor when he gets off the boat. From this island located a few miles from La Rochelle, the deposed emperor surrendered to the English, after having cherished a dream of escape to America.


Arriving on the small island, you have to leave the Napoleon Hotel on the right, take Napoleon Street lined with small low white houses with pastel shutters, and go past Marengo Street to the house where Bonaparte spent his last moments on French soil.

Napoleon's death

In this large building, which has become a museum, the time is 5:49 pm on all clocks. The time of Napoleon's death on May 5, 1821.

Donated to the State by a descendant of General Gourgaud, one of the emperor's followers, the place houses a collection of busts, engravings, Napoleonic paintings, including a gilded wooden eagle that "served at the coronation ceremony of the Emperor," explains Elisabeth Caude, its director.

"Exhausted, demoralized, a little sick, deeply affected," after Waterloo, Napoleon dictated the letter by which he placed himself "under the protection" of the British Crown.

"On the morning of July 15, 1815, he put on the green suit of the imperial guard, sword at his side," says Mme Caude. "He is going to hand over the weapons in military style," on an English ship anchored off the coast.

He did not know that three months later he would disembark on another island, a large rock in the South Atlantic that would be his tomb, St. Helena.

Napoleon "did not have the feeling of throwing himself into the lion's den," he thought he was leaving for "a quiet exile in the suburbs of London," according to Christophe Pincemaille, scientific director of the museum. "There is a denial on his part of what he embodies as an absolute enemy."

 Poker player

He arrived in Rochefort on July 3, dressed in a bourgeois suit but with a retinue of about sixty people - his last faithful followers with their wives and children - and he procrastinated.

Two frigates, the Saale and the Medusa (whose sinking in 1816 inspired the painter Géricault), were waiting for him near the island of Aix. But so were British warships.

He had a "real project" to go to America, explains Christophe Pincemaille. "A scientific exploration project. There are clues about it in his luggage.”

But a letter of safe-conduct never arrived. Even still Pincemaille says, “he doesn't want to leave as a fugitive".

At the Maritime Prefecture, where Napoleon was staying, "many people from Rochefort came to show their support, to try to see him," explained Michel Basse, a guide-lecturer. Other options took shape, notably "to embark on a ship to transport brandy by hiding in a barrel," he says.

On July 8, Napoleon reached the Charente coast at Fouras. From the beach, "a local sailor carried him on his back" to a rowboat from which he embarked on the Saale River, says local museum director Benoît Lacoste. On July 12, Bonaparte finally decided to wait on the island of Aix.

"If he had followed the advice of the commander of the Medusa to break through the naval blockade, it might have worked because the English force was not huge," Lacoste believes.

"He was a poker player, he would have left if he hadn't had his retinue with him," he says. "But he thought about his people."

The procrastination, uncharacteristic of this strategist, continued on the island where he definitively dismissed the idea of America, despite the pleas of his brother Joseph.

"By dint of hesitation, he was left with only one option," says Michel Basse. In writing, Napoleon appealed to "the most powerful, the most constant and the most generous," of his enemies.

But without ever having landed in Britain, he was sent to St. Helena. There, the British believe, he could no longer "harm the rest of the world".

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