May 5

Bicentenary of the death of Napoleon

Two hundred years ago, a great (but definitely not good) man died. Napoléon Bonaparte (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) was a military leader of great success, a reformer, a visionary, a rapist, and a mass murderer. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Civilization had seen nothing like him, someone who rose from obscurity to grab destiny by the scruff the neck, win an imperial crown, and dictate the fortunes of a continent. Since his death, the world has been plagued by swarms of such would-be imitators: V.I. Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Juan Peron, Benito Mussolini, Kwame Nkrumah, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, etc., ad nauseam.

From his 1799 coup to his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Napoléon had kept Europe in turmoil, overthrowing ancient dynasties, establishing new republics, settling his relatives on various thrones from Sweden to Spain, modernizing laws and bureaucracies, and killing millions of soldiers and civilians with the incessant wars prompted largely by his planetary-sized vanity. The crowned heads whose armies had finally brought him low were averse to killing a fellow monarch. This had resulted in an 1814 comic exile to the Italian island of Elba but Napoléon’s escape from there had taught a lesson — now he was to be sent to a speck of land over a thousand miles off the African coast. On the island of St Helena he would spend six uncomfortable years, constantly complaining about his food and lodgings, attended by a scruffy but mostly loyal band of retainers, and gradually growing sicker. 

He died on this date in 1821, probably of stomach cancer (his father had similarly suffered), though for two centuries rumours have circulated about his being poisoned by one of his own entourage or the British. On his deathbed he returned to the Catholic Church he had done so much to manipulate during his reign.

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