“The Long-Buried Secret of Napoleon Bonaparte”
by Bill Bonner
DUBLIN – "The smart money is getting out while the gettin’ is still good. That’s the message we get from reading the recent headlines. Here’s the Financial Times: "Redemptions from stock funds have hit nearly $90 billion this year as portfolio managers and hedge funds struggle to navigate a market that no longer seems driven by radical central bank policy." Bloomberg: "Soros cuts U.S. stocks by 37%."
Family Secrets: Meanwhile, in Paris over the weekend, it seemed as though everyone had cleared out. We dined in a neighborhood brasserie on the Rue La Tour-Maubourg. Brightly lit, with red awnings and polished brass, it is normally full of life, noise, and people. But on Saturday, we were as lonely as a libertarian – the only diner in the place.
It was Pentecost weekend – a big holiday in France. “That’s not all,” a taxi driver told us. “It’s been like this since that terrorist attack in November. We live on tourists. And the tourists have stopped coming.” There was no line of tourists at the Les Invalides museum complex when we went to visit. The edifice houses a large collection of military paraphernalia. You could spend weeks inside, studying centuries’ worth of pompous bungling and grand disasters. But we had a particular destination and a special purpose. We were exploring family secrets…
Myths and Heroes: Every nation… every people… needs its myths, narratives, and heroes. For a time, Napoleon Bonaparte seemed to prove that France was the “exceptional nation.” It had the world’s leading culture… its most advanced government… its best art and architecture… and its nearly-invincible armies, headed by the Hannibal of his time, the great military genius – the Emperor Napoleon I. He managed to recreate the Holy Roman Empire, bringing Europe together under one yolk almost 200 years before the European Union. But after the catastrophe in Russia – he invaded with 400,000 troops; he returned with fewer than 40,000 – France’s Grande Armée no longer looked so grand. And its commander no longer appeared to be such a genius.
Myths hold nations together. But what holds myths together? Ah, dear reader, we wish we knew. Napoleon’s next disaster was at Waterloo, where he was caught between Wellington’s anvil and Blücher’s heavy hammer. Then his friends and fans deserted him… leaving him to the tender mercies of the British army. Thence he was sent off to a tiny island in the South Atlantic – St. Helena. The nearest major country to St. Helena is South Africa. And from there came a remote cousin’s wife… a woman we met years ago, in London, when she was already in her 90s.
“After Napoleon died,” she explained, “my ancestors – who were with him on that dreadful island – immigrated to South Africa and went into the wine business. They did very well. “My mother’s grandfather was the son of Henri Bertrand, Napoleon’s favorite general. The general shared everything with the emperor… even his exile.”
Shared Exile: There is an exhibition at Les Invalides of “Napoleon at St. Helena.” Curators have gathered the furniture, books, and personal effects from his time in exile in the South Atlantic. There is also a film showing the island that was his prison and the house the British had prepared for him.Those were more civilized times. St. Helena was no Guantanamo. The house was pleasant, comfortable, and almost elegant. There were gardens and orchards… and a view to the far-off sea.
We saw Napoleon’s nightclothes, hung neatly over an oriental chair. We saw his books and writing table. We saw his bathtub… and his pool table. Then, we saw what we were looking for. There were a couple of paintings of Napoleon’s death. Both show the same scene. A small group has gathered around the emperor on his death bed. Most prominent among them is the only woman in the group, the Comtesse Bertrand, and her children. They are the family of General Bertrand, who is seated next to the bed, his legs crossed and an anguished look upon his face. His wife stands, bending toward the dying man… with two small children by her side.
“I may be one of the last ones to know it,” the old woman said. “But I’ll tell you, since you are family." Over the years, many people wondered why General Bertrand would take his family into exile with Napoleon. He certainly didn’t have to. He was not banished. “But my mother told me that General Bertrand shared everything with Napoleon,” the old woman looked down. A wry smile crossed her wrinkled lips, “Even his wife. You know the French.”