Napoleon’s Original Tomb on St Helena

In my review on Longwood House I left the reader to ponder a question. Did he (Napoleon) really die from the wallpaper? If you do not jump to the immediate conclusion that I am mad and move on  immediately I will explain shortly.

Napoleon, who had been exiled to St Helena in 1815 following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, died in Longwood House on 5 May 1821. His final words were “France, armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine.”(“France, army, head of the army, Joséphine.”).

Napoleon’s autopsy carried out by his physician, François Carlo Antommarchi, found the cause of death to be stomach cancer. While, since the early 2000s at least, this is generally accepted as correct this has not always been the case and numerous alternative theories abound, no doubt fuelled by the fact that Antommarchi did not actually sign his autopsy report. Alternative views include:

– neglect by his British gaolers, in particular Governor Lowe who ignored his ongoing protestations regarding in living conditions on the Island;

– poisoning by arsenic – which was generally available in Longwood to keep the rats under control. Tests on strands of Napoleon’s hair showed it to have elevated levels of arsenic but this is more likely due to the ingredients used in “hair products” of the time; and

– “Death by Wallpaper” – The star patterned wallpaper in Longwood was printed with a very popular colour dye known as “Sheele’s Green”. While fine in drier northern European palaces it apparently gives of deadly arsenic vapours (arsine) when damp as it often was in the dark and dank conditions within Longwood House.

Fans of Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde will be aware that “Death by Wallpaper” may have been the cause of death of more than Napoleon and it was, perhaps, instrumental in Wilde’s death as well. Wilde, on his death-bed, lamented -“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go’.

Much has been written about the cause of Napoleon’s death so I will leave you to draw your own conclusions or research further if interested as I digress (again!). I will just add, for the peace of mind of intending visitors, that the arsenic wallpaper in Longwood has long since been replaced with a non arsenic replica paper.

Napoleon had requested that his body be returned to Paris and the banks of the River Seine for burial.

Napoleon’s Original Unmarked Tomb in ‘Sane’ Valley

Suspecting that the British would not acquiesce to this request he offered a second suggestion – Geranium Valley (or Sane Valley as it is known locally – a rather cruel island pun given Napoleon’s desire to be buried on the banks of the River Seine) a few kilometres below Longwood House heading back towards Jamestown. His second option was accepted and Napoleon was buried here, encased within four coffins, on 9 May 1821. Within a few months of his burial, the majority of both the French and British entourage which had been posted to the Island to support or watch Napoleon had departed St Helena.

Enclosed by railings and bordered by Busy Lizzies, the tombstone bears no inscription. General de Montholon had asked for it simply to read ‘Napoléon’. Governor Lowe insisted on adding ‘Bonaparte’, because he believed that using only the first name would confer a royal status on Napoleon. Refusing to yield, de Montholon left the tombstone blank.

In 1840, Louis Philippe I obtained permission from the British to return Napoleon’s remains to France and they were thus returned in November aboard the steamship Normandie.

On 15 December 1840, a state funeral was held and his body laid to rest, for a second time, in the cupola in St Jérôme’s Chapel, where it stayed until it was moved again in 1861 (now in six concentric coffins) to its current porphyry sarcophagus in the crypt under the dome at Les Invalides – finally close to the Seine, as he wished. For more information on Napoleon’s final resting place I suggest you look at my friend Don’s blog entry  – Tomb of l’Emperrrreurrrrr.

As with his two St Helena residences, Napoleon’s, now empty, Tomb is French Territory and is beautifully maintained by the Government of France and well worth a visit.

While the surface is flat, the walk down to Napoleon’s Tomb from the road is fairly steep – something you will notice more on your outward trip. Don’t let it deter you as its only a couple of hundred metres from the road.

Assess to the Tomb, when a guide is on hand, is from 12.30 to 3.30 pm, Monday – Friday. Check with the tourist office in St Helena before visiting as you may be able to get access at other times. The entrance to the tomb/valley is marked by a small easy to miss sign on the road to Longwood, as depicted above.

This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries on my trip to St Helena.  I suggest you continue with my next entry – St Michael’s Church and Edmund Halley – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my St Helena Introduction entry.


3 thoughts on “Napoleon I – His St Helena Tomb

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