This sketch of Napoleon Bonaparte by Captain Frederick Marryat was apparently made 14 hours after Napoleon’s death. The inscription on the sketch reads:
'Napoleon Bonaparte as he appeared on Sunday morning on the 6th of May, 14 hours after his death, laying upon the bed that he died in.'
Napoleon died, reportedly of stomach cancer, on 5 May 1821 after six years in exile on St Helena. His body was buried first in the grounds of Longwood, his St Helena residence, before being brought back to France in 1840 to be ceremoniously reburied in Les Invalides.
Napoleon had been exiled to the remote Pacific island of St Helena in 1815. After his defeat at Waterloo Napoleon had tried to flee to America but had been intercepted by the British ship Bellerophon, whereupon he surrendered and was taken in captivity to Plymouth and finally St Helena.
Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) was a British naval officer on guardship duty in St Helena at the time of Napoleon’s death. It is unclear how he gained entry to view the body so soon after the death (if we are to take his word on the timing). However, the fact that Marryat visited and sketched Napoleon so soon after his death illustrates the continued fascination and emotion Napoleon evoked back in Britain, even after six years in remote exile away from the public glare.
Marryat had a distinguished career as a naval officer. His first ship was the frigate Imperieuse, under the command of Captain Lord Cochrane, a position that provided him with ample material for his later career as a novelist. He was promoted to commander in 1815 and from 1820 he commanded the sloop Beaver on guardship duty at St Helena until Napoleon’s death. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1819 for his work on Sir Home Popham's system of signalling which became the basis of the International Code of Signals.
Marryat published his first novel, Frank Mildmay, whilst still serving in the Navy and his second came out in 1830, the year of his retirement. The highly successful The King’s Own cemented Marryat’s position as an author of adventure novels and was quickly followed by numerous other works. Marryat also wrote several children’s books, the most famous being The Children of the New Forest (1847).
Marryat’s papers were presented to the Museum in 1952 and include a diary, his signal book (MRY/5) and an album of official letters and press cuttings as well as several sketches. The Museum has other documents relating to the Bellerophon and Northumberland, the ships that carried Napoleon to Britain and then to St Helena, including Admiral Cockburn’s account of Napoleon’s voyage to St Helena (COC/9).
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