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Britain’s obsession with Napoleon

The death of Napoleon in far off St Helena in May 1821 brought to a crescendo twenty-five years of English-language publishing on the Emperor. The first ever biography of Napoleon had been published in 1797, when he still was only 28! Entitled Some account of the early years of Buonaparte, it was written for a British (liberal) public in English and only subsequently translated into French. This alongside some “Biographical Anecdotes” also published in 1797, fixed the biography of the remarkable victor of the Italian Campaign.

The next ‘serious’ biography to be published in English was produced by the Newcastle liberal William Burdon in 1803, though he was forced to pull back from some of his fulsome liberal praise in a second more critical version in 1804 and 1805 after Napoleon had disappointed him by proclaiming himself first Consul for Life and then Emperor…

The first major multi-volume account of the Emperor’s life and deeds (including official documents, such as the Emperor’s letters) in any language was penned in English by the mysterious Dutchman Lodewyk Van Ess and published in 9 volumes over a period of 19 years beginning in 1806.

Frontpiece from Volume 2 of Lodewyk Van Ess', 'The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte', (1810)

This biographical tradition was much greater than anything ever printed in France (and to a large extent much less critical than is usually assumed)… So by the time we get to 1815, the British public had had access to very detailed information on Napoleon.

It was in this context that all those who came into contact with the fallen Emperor, the wonder of the age, who surrendered to the British in July 1815 wrote their account of their encounter. John Bowerbank, the lieutenant onboard Bellerophon, published his very positive description already in 1815. William Warden (the surgeon on Northumberland), who spent two and half months on board ship with Napoleon and who was not to leave the island until the second half of 1816, came next. We know that Napoleon read both books (Bowerbank’s in 1816 and Warden’s in 1817) and thought them a mixture of truth and fiction. We also know that Napoleon also read serious biographies of himself, since his British surgeon, Barry O’Meara noted in June 1816, the Emperor’s reading (and looking amusedly at the pictures) of Heweston’s three-volume life of himself…

Title plate from Volume 2 of Hewestons' 'History of Napoleon Bonaparte' (1815)

Barry O’Meara was one of the so-called “Evangelists” of St Helena, telling the story of Napoleon’s ‘calvary’. His two volumes, Napoleon in Exile, published in 1823 were the first to appear after Napoleon’s death and they told the Emperor’s story in his own words. The book was a massive best-seller and O’Meara lived off the profits for the remaining 13 years of his life.

Despite the evident profit to be made in publishing their stories by those who came close to Napoleon, nevertheless some accounts have remained in manuscript even today. Others accounts were to be published discretely, hidden under other titles. Some even exist today only in foreign translation.

Frontpiece from Volume 2 of Barry O'Meara's, 'Napoleon in Exile', (1827)

The centenary of Napoleon’s death during and after WWI was a period of intense editorial activity. All the fundamental works for the study of Napoleon on St Helena were published then (notably Chaplin’s Who’s who on St Helena, Norwood Young’s St Helena and Watson’s remarkable book on Napoleon’s Polish enthusiast, Piontkowski). The bicentenary now has brought with it the discovery and publication of previously unpublished French documents, notably the original “Memorial” by Las Cases, the complete Gourgaud and a new Bertrand. To these should be added the recently discovered new manuscripts in English written by Mrs Younghusband, by John and Harriet Ward, by Charles McCarthy, by William Henry Lyttelton, by Denzil Ibbetson, by James Hall, and by Colin Campbell, all contributing new accounts of the Emperor’s final years on St Helena.


Professor Peter Hicks is Manager of International Affairs for the Fondation Napoleon and a trustee for the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust.


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