11th July, 1836: Darwin visits Napoleon

Towards the end of her second voyage, HMS Beagle called at the volcanic island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. Darwin went ashore to spend a few days geologising. While he was there, he took the opportunity to visit the grave of St Helena’s most famous former occupant (and prisoner), Napoleon Bonaparte. He recorded the event in his Beagle Diary:

9th to 13th [July, 1836]

I obtained lodgings in a cottage within stone’s throw of Napoleon’s tomb. I confess this latter fact possessed with me but little inducement. The one step between the sublime & the ridiculous has on this subject been too often passed. Besides, a tomb situated close by cottages & a frequented road does not create feelings in unison with the imagined resting place of so great a spirit. — With respect to the house in which Napoleon died, its state is scandalous, to see the filthy & deserted rooms, scored with the names of visitors, to my mind was like beholding some ancient ruin wantonly disfigured.

Darwin’s servant-cum-assistant, Syms Covington, recorded the visit in more detail in his own journal as follows:

ON the 11th, went to Napoleon’s Grave, a distance of about two and a half miles from port. This tomb is situated in a valley, WHICH has gardens, houses, etc. The grave is simple for so great a man, having no more than a large oblong stone with no inscription, surrounded in same form by iron railings AND also with wooden railings round the iron ditto leaving a space of about ten to fifteen feet for visitors to walk, and that beautifully green with grass, with the willows and cypresses. Outside the wooden railings is the small beautiful, clear well, where he (NAPOLEON) constantly every morning used to send for water to wash etc. Beautiful, clear water. Here is stationed a noncommissioned officer, an old soldier, to take care that no one injures the above. The willow is strictly forbidden for anyone to touch, but from the cypresses, a small twig is allowed only. At the East end or head of tomb, within railings, is a geranium, planted by Lady Warren (Admiral Warren’s wife) and HER daughters; at THE West end or foot are several Cape bulbs, etc. The house IS situated from THE tomb, about a mile, along a ridge of mountains. I went to house the 13th; which is in a very decayed state, one room is a billiard room for visitors (wine sold also!). The remaining part serves as a barn and dwelling for the servants of the clergyman who inhabits the new house, which was built for Napoleon, but HE never inhabited it.

Covington’s journal entry also included a sketch of Napoleon’s grave:

Napoleon’s grave, St Helena by Syms Covington.

The absence of an inscription on the former emperor’s grave was down to politics. The British governor of St Helena, Napoleon’s gaoler, Hudson Lowe, ruled that the inscription should read ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’; the French generals Montholon and Bertrand wanted the grave to bear the more imperial, first-name-only inscription, ‘Napoleon’. An inscriptionless gravestone was the closest they could come to a compromise.

Five years after Darwin and Covington’s visit, Napoleon’s remains were moved from St Helena to a far more imperial tomb in Paris.

Napoleon’s tomb.

Napoleon’s second final resting place, Les Invalides, Paris.

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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