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May 5, 1821: Napoleon dies, the legend can begin – World meanderings n°119


By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny




Two hundred years ago May 5, 1821 at 5:49 pm (local time), Napoleon died and once again hit the headlines all over the world. Two hundred years later nothing has changed and his death’s anniversary is an exhaustible source of publications, documentaries or TV reports. Due to the pandemic many celebrating events have been cancelled but many others will be available live on the Internet. Enough to satisfy your curiosity!



Even if in France there are columnists driven by controversy trying to only highlight the dark sides of the Emperor, most French people have nostalgia for this short but exceptional historical period and, lets admit it, a time when France was grand and powerful. A feeling pretty hard to have nowadays…  This nostalgia is obvious if you go to a bookshop and see heaps of newly edited books dedicated to Napoleon being sold like hot cakes! Did you know that since his death the equivalent of three books have been published every day? And that’s not counting all the articles, talks, conferences, exhibitions, films or reports… Figures are amazing for just one single man.



But in spite of all this information it’s hard to tell how well we know this complex and intimidating figure. Do we know the man behind the public person? Where did his brilliance or his true motivations come from? How did this young Corsican from a family of minor nobility do to bend the world to his will in just a few years? How did this man do to get France out of the rut where the French revolution had put it turning it into the most powerful empire of the time?

His unique way of thinking, his disregard of social conventions or his ability to opt for a solution no one would have thought of, everything is fascinating with this man. Admired in China, revered in Russia, sanctified in Japan, rejected in Spain, loathed and all at once flattered in the UK… he leaves no one indifferent. But one thing is for sure he loved France and did everything to restore its grandeur.



Bicentenary’s events in Santa Helena

The commemorative events started on May 5 with the laying of wreaths on the Emperor’s tomb. The gardens were opened to the public and a Last Post was celebrated with 2 minutes of silence, flag lowering to half-mast and ended with a “Reveille” played with bugle and drum. As was done on May 5, 1821 signals flown by flags were raised on three telegraph masts. The flags’ colours used a code used during the years of exile. On this particular day they meant “N(apoleon) is dead”. Next Beethoven’ s 3rd symphony was played accompanying the night tour of the gardens specially illuminated for the occasion.



Today May 6 a Catholic Church mass is taking place at Longwood House at 10 am. Finally on May 9 people will gathered next to the tomb and there will be a concert. It will begin with a trumpet duet by Giovanni Paisiello. This composer was one of Napoleon’s favourites and he was chosen to compose the music for the coronation mass in Notre Dame de Paris in 1804. Other pieces that Napoleon enjoyed will follow. You can watch all these events live or in replay here: https://www.napoleonsthelena.com/en/bicentenary2021/



Bicentenary’s at the Invalides “Musée des Armées”

Unfortunately the museum is still closed today do to the pandemic. The “Invalides” were created by Louis XIV to welcome disabled soldiers of his armies. The monument is also closely linked to the Napoleonic period and when the Emperor’ ashes were repatriated to France in 1840 an impressive tomb was built under the “Dome of the Invalides”. These magnificent dome and tomb have been extensively restored to all their former splendour over the last two years. Hopefully the museum will reopen soon and allow us to see an exhibition specially dedicated to the bicentenary. It is called “Napoléon n’est plus”, “Napoleon lives no more”.



Napoleonian-military-equipment-Meanwhile you can watch a report about the exhibition on Youtube. Although it is only in French it shows interesting artefacts directly linked to the Emperor such as his death mask, last bed, private will, the sword and cocked hat he wore during the Austerlitz battle as well as paintings, jewellery, letters… and the five keys that open his tomb. To watch this interesting documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WN8JK0BIwyE



Bicentenary’s events from UK

The British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust (BNBT) was created to get information out to the general public and especially the significance of Napoleon’s death in the 21st century. The trust is also engaged in the preservation of at risk Napoleonic heritage on Saint Helena. Many of these sites are now on the verge of being lost forever and quick action must be taken.



“Napoleon 200” is a body of knowledge proposing an easy access to the general public. Through videos lasting about one hour we can discover lesser-known story of Napoleon mainly during his imprisonment on Saint Helena. Thus we can learn more about the relationship between Napoleon and his jailer Hudson Lowe, or about the reason why the accounts of Napoleon on Saint Helena elicited such sympathy even in Britain. You can also go on a virtual tour through the heritage sites of the island. This video uses really remarkable 3D images. Discover these videos and more at https://www.napoleon200.org/events

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Hopefully we will soon be allowed to travel again to all those places celebrating the Emperor’s memory. Till then these online events are a pleasant way to broaden our horizon.


Text ©Annick Dournes

Photos ©Frederic de Poligny or courtesy of Saint Helena Tourism Board


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