April 22 1815: An Interview in Elba Recalled

On April 22 1815, John  Cam Hobhouse hears from John MacNamara about an interview with Napoleon on the island of Elba. He writes in his diary:

Saturday April 22nd 1815: Went to Bruce’s and saw John Macnamara, who gave account of an interview he had with Napoleon in Elba on the 13th or 14th of last January. He put himself in his way when he was riding from his castle at Porto Ferrajo down a hill, and pulled off his hat. Napoleon stopped and said, to Bertrand or Druot,361 “Qui est celui-là?” – Bertrand answered, “I know not – apparently a stranger.” Then he said to Macnamara,

“Qui êtes-vous?” – “Je suis un anglais.” – “Ah – êtes-vous militaire?” – “Non.” – “Marchand?” – “Non.” – “Alors, vous êtes a gentleman – pourquoi venez-vous ici?” – “Seulement par la curiosité de vous voir.” – “Ah. Quand est-ce que vous êtes arrivé?” – “Ce matin. Nous avons eu une tempête le soir, et manquâmes d’être perdus.”

“Non – vraiment?” Here Napoleon appeared quite concerned. “D’où
Here Macnamara determined to make for a more serious conversation,
and said at once, “De Paris.”
“Quand ça?”
“Quinze jours.”
“Ah, c’est bien vite, par ou êtes-vous passé?”
“Par Turin.”
“Avez-vous de nouvelles de Paris?”
“Pas beaucoup – on a arrêté une trentaine de personnes et doublés les
“What?” said Napoleon.
Macnamara repeated – and Napoleon cried out, “Apportez lui un
cheval!” and one of the aides-de-camp mounted Macnamara. Napoleon
turned to Bertrand, and said, “Had you heard of this?”
“Non, Sire.”
“You shall ride with me,” said Napoleon to Macnamara.
They pursued their way till Bertrand said, “This is the road, Sire.”
Napoleon replied, “No, I will go to San Martino” (his country house) and
thither they went. On the way Napoleon said, “What do you think of the
state of France?”
“L’Empereur” said Macnamara, for so he always called him, “you see
that we had a storm last night – now there is no wind, but the flottes are yet
“Well answered!” said Napoleon. They arrived at St Martino. Napoleon
took Macnamara. into a small room, where there was a little fire, and,
shutting the door, said to Macnamara, “À present nous sommes seuls, vous
pouvez me demander tout ce que vous plaira, je vous donnerai de réponse.”
“The Emperor stood,” said Macnamara to us, “and I did not like to sit
down.” Then followed a conversation from half-past two to five, with which
Napoleon seemed pleased, and told Macnamara he had more of the
Englishman in him than anyone he had seen. It was a most singular talk.
Macnamara showed his originality. He asked Napoleon why he had
stayed at Moscow.
Napoleon: “I looked at the meteorological tables for Moscow for thirty
years, and never but once had the winter set in so soon by five weeks as it
did in 1812 – I could not foresee that – I made mistakes, as every man does,
and since I have been in public life and a soldier have made ten a day.”
“What? Dix par jour?”
“Oui – dix par jour.”
Napoleon: “I made a mistake respecting England in trying to conquer it.
The English are a brave nation – I have always said there are only two
nations, the English and French, and I made the French. What would you
have done if I had landed in England?”

Macnamara: “Risen against you to a man – I myself, with all my
admiration for you, would have poisoned you, or anything to get rid of you. I
would have sent you a dozen bottles of wine.”
Napoleon: “Ah, you are right – do you think the English would bear
being governed by me?”
Macnamara: “No.”
Napoleon: “No? Why – don’t they like me?”
Macnamara: “They admire your abilities, but there are three or four
things which you have done and which they cannot bear.”
Napoleon: “What are they?”
Macnamara: “You wont like to hear.”
Napoleon: “Yes, I shall – speak!”
Macnamara: “Well then the death of the Duke d’Enghien –”362
Napoleon: “Ah, c’est un enfantillage!”
Macnamara: “Comment? Enfantillage? Tuer un homme?”
Napoleon: “Yes – What business had the Duke to plot with Pichegru and
Georges within five miles of France? Why could he not go elsewhere? He
was condemned by a counsel. He was not shot in the night – he was shot in
the morning – I was told I must put him to death.”
Macnamara: “I am glad you have cleared yourself so well.”
Napoleon: “Well, what else?”
Macnamara: “Poisoning your sick.”363
Napoleon: “Ce n’est pas vrai – there were fourteen or fifteen ill of the
plague – I could not carry them with the army. I assembled a medical board
– they said they would die in twenty-four hours. I determined to wait, rather
than leave them to the Turks, who would cut off their noses and ears, and put
their privy members in their mouths – at the end of the time one or two only
were alive, and they were dying when the army marched – non, ce n’est pas
Macnamara: “The massacre of 2,000 Turks at Jaffa.”
Napoleon: “Il y avoit trois milles. Well, I had a right. They were
prisoners of war whom I had enlarged. I knew they were in Jaffa. I sent a
captain with a flag of truce to tell them to get out before the town was taken,
or I must put them to the sword – they cut the man’s head off and put it [on]
a pike – the town was taken by assault, and the men shot. I had a right – Mr
Robert Wilson and Sidney Smith, who blamed me, would have done the same – besides, there were not provisions enough for French and Turks –
one must go to the wall – Je ne balançois pas.”
Macnamara: “How did you escape from Egypt?”
Napoleon: “Nothing was more easy – but if Sidney Smith, instead of
playing the politician with the Pasha of Cyprus, had been attending to his
profession and cruising before Alexandria, I could not have got away.”
Macnamara: “Did you not bring away three or four mamelukes with
Napoleon: “ Yes.”
Macnamara: “We had a foolish story in England.”
Napoleon: “What is that?”
Macnamara: “You will be faché.”
Napoleon: “No – what is it?”
Macnamara: “Why, they said you had fallen asleep and that your
mameluke, burning some of your papers by accident, you woke up took a
pistol and shot him.”365
Napoleon: “This hand is innocent of blood – is innocent as yours. No, I
never did this – it is nonsense – my mameluke never slept in the same room
with me – he had a chamber apart.”
Macnamara: “Is it true that your mameluke offered to cut off your head
at Fontainbleau last year, and that pistols were left for you to shoot
Napoleon laughed heartily here at this story – said, “Non – c’est une
bêtise – what? – kill myself? – Had I nothing better to do than, like a
miserable bankrupt because he has lost his goods, determine to lose his life?
– No – Napoleon is always Napoleon and always will know how to be
content and bear with any fortune366 – it must be confessed I am in a better
plight now than I was when I was a lieutenant of artillery.”
I am not sure that he did not say after this after Macnamara told him, he
had not finished his career, in reply to his saying “Mon rôle est fini,” which
he did.
Napoleon told Macnamara he was writing his history – Macnamara said,
“L’histoire aura une fois un triumvirate des grandes hommes, Alexandre,
Cesar, et Napoléon.”
Napoleon looked at him steadfastly without speaking – Macnamara
thought he saw his eye moistened. Napoleon at last said, “Vous auriez eu
raison si une balle m’avait tué à la bataille de Mojaisk, mais mes derniers
revers ont effacé toute la gloire de mes premières années”. Saying this he walked away to the end of the room, and paced once or twice up and down
in silence.
Macnamara told him that Italy was in a turbulent state and would have
soon 200,000 men in arms – he hinted Napoleon might do something there –
“Non,” said Napoleon, “Ce n’est pas là.”
“Perhaps,” said Macnamara, “You think that country not large enough
for you – but recollect the Romans gave laws to the world.”
Napoleon said that Louis XVIII was “Un brave homme, trop bon pour les
français, et moi j’étois trop bon.”
Macnamara: “Quoi? Trop bon?”
Napoleon “Oui – trop bon, on m’a trompé finalement.” He said that he
could not think of Marmont “sans rougir”. A man whom he had brought up
from the age of sixteen, and who, the night before his submission to the
Allies, had sworn fidelity to him at the gates of Paris, whither he went
secretly – Talleyrand, he said, was contemptible – he insisted that his last
movement would have succeeded perfectly, if it had not been for the
treachery of Marmont – that if the Allies had one gate of Paris, he should
have had the other – that they must have left 30,000 men to keep the capital,
and then he should have beat them – Marmont’s surrender decided the
business. He affirmed not one of the French marshals was worth “That”,
snapping his fingers – that he could make a French army bear and do
anything. Wellington was a brave homme – he would sooner trust him with
100,000 men than any of his generals, even Soult. It was very foolish
sending him to the coast of France to face those whom he had humiliated.
Macnamara: “Why do the French generals talk slightingly of him?”
Napoleon: “Because he has humbled them one after another.” Napoleon:
“How did the English like the Bourbons?”
Macnamara: “They thought little of them. They did not like the duc de
Berri, he was too debauched.”
Napoleon: “Debauched? How do you mean? That he loved the women?”
Macnamara: “No, not that – he loved boys, and that is not liked in
Napoleon: “Ah. On n’aime pas ça, non plus en France.”
Macnamara: “Did the Empress Marie Louise like you?”
Napoleon: “Ah pauvre femme, si elle ne m’aimait!”
Macnamara: “What sort of boy is the King of Rome? Is he a fine child?”
Napoleon: “Ma foi, je l’ai vu très peu, j’ai été à la guerre, je n’en sçais
prèsque rien” – he talked with great indifference of him, adding or saying of
the alliance, “C’est une funeste marriage”. He asked repeatedly about the
Princess Charlotte, whether she was not a person of character and spirit, and,
as Macnamara thought, as if he had some views respecting her. Of the Prince
of Orange he said that he had intercepted a letter from him to his father
abusing the Prince Regent violently, which he said was wrong, and which he
had a good mind to publish in the Moniteur but did not. Of Belgium he said,
“The French will have it, or Louis lose his crown in a year – nay, in three months.” Then, tapping Macnamara on the shoulder, “Put that down in your
tablets, and say Napoleon told you so”.
Napoleon: “How is the old King? I know he never liked me – did he
abuse me?”
Macnamara: “Why he followed the bent of his ministers – however, he
praised you for one thing.”
Napoleon: “Ah – what was that?”
Macnamara: “I don’t like to tell you.”
Napoleon: “Never mind, speak out.”
Macnamara: “Well then, when you divorced Josephine and married the
Archduchess, he said he wished he could change his wife too.” Here
Napoleon laughed violently, as indeed he often did during the conversation.
Macnamara: “Is it true you said the Emperor of Russia was a bête sans le
savoir and the King of Prussia a savant bête?”
Napoleon: “No it is not – the Emperor of Russia is a brave homme – but
the King of Prussia the greatest bête I ever knew – he kept me half an hour
talking to me of my uniform and buttons and laying hold of my coat, until at
last I told him he must ask my tailor.”
Macnamara said, “Another time that you invade Russia you should have
the alliance of England.”
“Aye, aye,” said he, “I made a fault there.”
Macnamara: “Is is it true that you used to cut the throne and chairs with
your penknife, at council?”
Napoleon: “Non, non, ce sont des bêtises – ne croyez-vous pas que
j’avais pas quelque autre chose à faire que de telles folies?”367
Macnamara: “You are fortunate in having such good health.”
Napoleon: “Yes I was never ill in my life.”
Macnamara: “Yet our foolish papers and stories made out you had all
sorts of disorders – even one of a peculiar kind.”
Napoleon: “Ah – what was that?”
Macnamara: “I don’t like to say.”
Napoleon: “Nay, speak – I shall not be angry.”
Macnamara: “On a dit, qu’à Fontainbleau vous avez attrapé la chaude
Napoleon: “Ah non, je n’ai jamais eu de telle maladie de ma vie, ni
aucune autre.” He smiled – but said this seriously.
He said Castlereagh was a mauvais politique.
Macnamara: “Cependant, c’étoit lui qui vous a fait abdiquer.”
Napoleon: “Non, c’étoit la trahison.” Of Colonel Campbell he said, when
Macnamara asked him what he thought of him, “Je le connois très peu, ce
Monsieur.” He then asked Macnamara if he knew why Campbell continued to frequent Elba so much. Macnamara said – to watch him. Napoleon said,
“As to the other English which I have seen, ils connoisaient très peu ce que
j’ai fait, et ils voudraient sçavoir ce que je ferois”. He preferred Douglas to
any of them for this reason, that though only twenty-five he had the face of a
man of forty-five. He laughed at and abused the King of Naples369 as being
the first who deserted him, and on hearing from Macnamara of his fondness
for dress, called him a magnifico lazarrono.
370 He asked a great deal about
Paris – Macnamara said they were defacing his symbols and initials –
Napoleon said “Ah, c’est une bagatelle, et peut-être aurois-je dû jamais avoir
mis des N —”
Macnamara: “Is it true you ever put money in any foreign funds?”
Napoleon seemed hurt at this, and replied, “Never. How could you believe
it? I did everything I could to destroy your funds. Talleyrand might – I did
not – never a sous.”
Macnamara laid hold of his orders and asked him what they were – one,
he said, was the Eagle of the Legion of Honour, which he would never part
with – the other the Iron Crown. He told Macnamara to wait for him whilst
he went into another room, which he did. Macnamara went near the door,
half-tempted to look, which did not please Napoleon. He had been to make
water. Macnamara told him that troops of all nations would be happy to
serve under him if he should ever want them – he said he had no money, and
had lately been obliged to borrow.371 He would give his soldiers all he had.
He asked Macnamara where he lived – Macnamara told him at L’Aigle
Noir. Napoleon: “Well, I may send for you again.”
During this conversation Macnamara once or twice rubbed his eyes, and
Napoleon asking him for what, said, “I can scarcely believe my eyes, that I
am alone talking with you”.
Napoleon was pleased – and when Macnamara talked of his delight and
fear at taking up his time, said, “I assure you, I am as glad to talk to you as
you are to me – a stranger is a great entertainment for me”. Macnamara
asked him if he was afraid of assassination – Napoleon replied, not from the
English, whom he knew were never assassins, but of others he was obliged
to be cautious, especially as the Corsicans were, many of them, very
rancorous against him.372 At one of his speeches, I believe that relative to his
resolution to live a long content,373 and not die like a bankrupt, Macnamara
so far was transported as to cry out, “Bravo, Emperor!”

I think I have put down all or nearly all Macnamara told us, and as he
told us, without following any order.
Bertrand said to him, “So – you had a close conversation with the
Emperor?” and seemed to hint Napoleon had let out too much.
“Yes,” said Macnamara, “he was very condescending. I think it is
impossible he should ever be in a passion or other than in the best humour”.
At this Bertrand smiled, and said “I know him a little better than you”.
Macnamara did not see him again, although he hinted to Bertrand he
could talk with him for a day, but Napoleon, seeing him from his carriage,
kissed his hand to him and nodded. Napoleon told Macnamara the bees were
the old arms of France. Macnamara dined twice with Bertrand – he told us
Madame Bertrand was nearly torn to pieces by the mob at Marseilles who, as
well as at Bourdeaux and Toulouse, were violent for the Bourbons.
Macnamara, Bruce, Rich and I dined at Very’s in the Tuileries, and
afterwards walked [at] three to the Palais Royale, where we found the Café
Montansier374 guarded with soldiers like the entrance of a playhouse – at this
café they sing patriotic songs – Ça ira,
375 &c. &c., and form a sort of
military democratic club, for sporting and singing.
I hear the Censor paper376 has been stopped and seized by the police, the
two advocats Comte and 377 are to be tried, say they, which the Gazette
de Paris of this day (Sunday 23rd) says is a true sign of the liberty of the
press. Certainly the Censor talks with little respect of the choice of the
soldiers, or the acclamations of the inhabitants on the road between Cannes
and Paris.
Macnamara told us today some horrid stories of the depravity of Paris
– of what he had himself seen of beastly unnatural crimes in the Palais
Royale, and the reality of the horrors of Justine:
379 a man has been
guillotined for cutting his mistress out of lust, and opening a vein in her neck
which killed her.
He says the women of Italy talk publicly of the mortality of the soul.

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