Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Second Funeral of Napoléon

William Makepeace Thackeray 

"The 15th October was fixed on for the day of the exhumation: that day five-and twenty years, the Emperor Napoleon first set his foot upon the island.

On the day previous all things had been made ready: the grand coffins and ornaments brought from France, and the articles necessary for the operation were carried to the valley of the Tomb.

The operations commenced at midnight. The well-known friends of Napoleon before named and some other attendants of his, the chaplain and his acolytes, the doctor of the "Belle Poule," the captains of the French ships, and Captain Alexander of the Engineers, the English Commissioner, attended the disinterment. His Royal highness Prince de Joinville could not be present because the workmen were under English command.

The men worked for nine hours incessantly, when at length the earth was entirely removed from the vault, all the horizontal strata of masonry demolished, and the large slab which covered the place where the stone sarcophagus lay, removed by a crane. This outer coffin of stone was perfect, and could scarcely be said to be damp.

"As soon as the Abbe Coquereau had recited the prayers, the coffin was removed with the greatest care, and carried by the engineer-soldiers, bareheaded, into a tent that had been prepared for the purpose. After the religious ceremonies, the inner coffins were opened. The outermost coffin was slightly injured: then came, one of lead, which was in good condition, and enclosed two others—one of tin and one of wood. The last coffin was lined inside with white satin, which, having become detached by the effect of time, had fallen upon the body and enveloped it like a winding-sheet, and had become slightly attached to it.

"It is difficult to describe with what anxiety and emotion those who were present waited for the moment which was to expose to them all that death had left of Napoleon. Notwithstanding the singular state of preservation of the tomb and coffins, we could scarcely hope to find anything but some misshapen remains of the least perishable part of the costume to evidence the identity of the body. But when Doctor Guillard raised the sheet of satin, an indescribable feeling of surprise and affection was expressed by the spectators, many of whom burst into tears. The Emperor was himself before their eyes! The features of the face, though changed, were perfectly recognized; the hands extremely beautiful; his well-known costume had suffered but little, and the colors were easily distinguished. The attitude itself was full of ease, and but for the fragments of the satin lining which covered, as with a fine gauze, several parts of the uniform, we might have believed we still saw Napoleon before us lying on his bed of state. General Bertrand and M. Marchand, who were both present at the interment, quickly pointed out the different articles which each had deposited in the coffin, and remained in the precise position in which they had previously described them to be.

"The two inner coffins were carefully closed again; the old leaden coffin was strongly blocked up with wedges of wood, and both were once more soldered up with the most minute precautions, under the direction of Dr. Guillard. These different operations being terminated, the ebony sarcophagus was closed as well as its oak case. On delivering the key of the ebony sarcophagus to Count de Chabot, the King's Commissioner, Captain Alexander declared to him, in the name of the Governor, that this coffin, containing the mortal remains of the Emperor Napoleon, was considered as at the disposal of the French Government from that day, and from the moment at which it should arrive at the place of embarkation, towards which it was about to be sent under the orders of General Middlemore. The King's Commissioner replied that he was charged by his Government, and in its name, to accept the coffin from the hands of the British authorities, and that he and the other persons composing the French mission were ready to follow it to James Town, where the Prince de Joinville, superior commandant of the expedition, would be ready to receive it and conduct it on board his frigate. A car drawn by four horses, decked with funereal emblems, had been prepared before the arrival of the expedition, to receive the coffin, as well as a pall, and all the other suitable trappings of mourning. When the sarcophagus was placed on the car, the whole was covered with a magnificent imperial mantle brought from Paris, the four corners of which were borne by Generals Bertrand and Gourgaud, Baron Las Cases and M. Marchand. At half-past three o'clock the funeral car began to move, preceded by a chorister bearing the cross, and by the Abbe Coquereau. M. de Chabot acted as chief mourner. All the authorities of the island, all the principal inhabitants, and the whole of the garrison, followed in procession from the tomb to the quay. But with the exception of the artillerymen necessary to lead the horses, and occasionally support the car when descending some steep parts of the way, the places nearest the coffin were reserved for the French mission. General Middlemore, although in a weak state of health, persisted in following the whole way on foot, together with General Churchill, chief of the staff in India, who had arrived only two days before from Bombay. The immense weight of the coffins, and the unevenness of the road, rendered the utmost carefulness necessary throughout the whole distance. Colonel Trelawney commanded in person the small detachment of artillerymen who conducted the car, and, thanks to his great care, not the slightest accident took place. From the moment of departure to the arrival at the quay, the cannons of the forts and the 'Belle Poule' fired minute-guns. After an hour's march the rain ceased for the first time since the commencement of the operations, and on arriving in sight of the town we found a brilliant sky and beautiful weather. From the morning the three French vessels of war had assumed the usual signs of deep mourning: their yards crossed and their flags lowered. Two French merchantmen, 'Bonne Amie' and 'Indien,' which had been in the roads for two days, had put themselves under the Prince's orders, and followed during the ceremony all the manoeuvers of the 'Belle Poule.' The forts of the town, and the houses of the consuls, had also their flags half-mast high".

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