The two Irish men who dominated Napoleon’s last years on St Helena

Dublin surgeon and Galway-born governor acted as friend and foe respectively to the exiled emperor

A Priest and a group of English officers gather around Napoleon’s coffin of after his death on the island of St Helena, in May, 1821. Photograph: General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty

A Priest and a group of English officers gather around Napoleon’s coffin of after his death on the island of St Helena, in May, 1821. Photograph: General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty

 

On May 5th, 1821, at 5.49pm, Napoleon died on the island of St Helena in the mid-Atlantic, most likely of stomach cancer.

He was just 51 but had lived the last five years of his life in agonising pain and discomfort, which added to the psychological trauma of defeat and exile on one of the remotest islands in the world.

St Helena was then, and is now, one of the most inaccessible places on Earth. Even in the jet age, it is still a five-day boat ride from South Africa. In the 19th century, it took 70 days to reach the island from Europe.

Napoleon hoped to live out his days on a country estate in England, describing the English as the “most generous of my enemies”, but the ecstatic reception he received upon arriving in Portsmouth on board the Bellerophon, convinced the British government that only exile as far away as possible would suffice for a man who inspired fascination and loathing in equal measure.

His final years were dominated by the presence of two Irishmen – his surgeon Dr Barry O’Meara and the governor of St Helena, effectively his jailer, Sir Hudson Lowe.

O’Meara was from Blackrock, Co Dublin, and studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin. After a short time in the British army, O’Meara joined the Royal Navy as a ship’s surgeon. He was the doctor on the Bellerophon when Napoleon arrived on board, and struck up an immediate friendship with the deposed emperor. Both conversed in Italian.

Napoleon requested O’Meara as his surgeon and O’Meara agreed on the basis that he would be not be co-opted as a spy by the British government.

Lowe was precisely the type of man you would want to maroon on an isolated island. He was born in Galway, the son of a Scottish surgeon and Irish mother, who died when he was young. Lowe was an officious martinet described by a Russian diplomat as “fussy and unreasonable beyond all expression”.

When he arrived on St Helena six months after Napoleon, the lax regime that Napoleon had been allowed ended. Napoleon was banished to the Longwood estate at the centre of the island, which had a damp and humid microclimate.

Despised

Napoleon and Lowe despised each other from the start. “I know the name of every English general who has distinguished himself in battle, but I never heard of you,” Napoleon told Lowe. Lowe responded by stating that he was only doing his duty. “So does the hangman,” Napoleon caustically replied.

Lowe did everything he could to undermine his prisoner refusing to call him Napoleon, as befitted an emperor known only by his first name, but Napoleon Bonaparte or General Bonaparte.

Lowe and O’Meara also despised each other. In 1816 Napoleon began to feel unwell. He had night sweats, stomach cramps and palpitations. O’Meara diagnosed hepatitis, then associated with difficult climates, but Lowe wouldn’t allow him record it as it might have reflected on his decision to keep Napoleon on Longwood.

A signpost outside Longwood House, the building which was the home of exiled French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte until his death in 1821, in Longwood, Saint Helena. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty
A signpost outside Longwood House, the building which was the home of exiled French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte until his death in 1821, in Longwood, Saint Helena. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty

Lowe was paranoid about O’Meara. “You have no authority for holding any communication with Napoleon Bonaparte unless upon medical subjects,” he told him. O’Meara reminded Lowe that he was a Royal Navy officer, and not subject the governor-general’s dictates.

By mutual consent, O’Meara left St Helena in August, 1818, to be replaced by another Irish surgeon, Dr James Roche Verling. Napoleon refused to see Verling as he was an appointee of Lowe and Verling was forced to treat Napoleon through an intermediary.

On his return to England, O’Meara wrote a riposte to a pamphlet, which suggested that Napoleon was being treated well.

“I was in charge of a sick man who happened to be the country’s greatest enemy. My position as an officer demanded that I serve my country. My profession expected me to give my patient the best medical attention possible – this was a task I had carried out to the best of my ability”.

Poison

He made the sensational charge that Lowe had inveigled him to poison the emperor.

O’Meara was cashiered from the Royal Navy in disgrace, but his revenge would not be long coming. After Napoleon’s death, O’Meara edited the voluminous diaries he kept from his time on St Helena. A Voice from St Helena was an immediate bestseller when it was released in July, 1822. It damned Lowe’s reputation. Lowe considered issuing libel proceedings against O’Meara, but ran out of time.

O’Meara carried his hatred of Lowe to the grave with him, literally and figuratively. He insisted on having a message carved on his tombstone: “A Voice from St Helena is a true and faithful narrative of the treatment inflicted upon that great man by Sir Hudson Lowe and others [and] I have even suppressed some facts, which, although true, might have been considered to be exaggeration and not credited.”

O’Meara’s diaries were further edited with a commentary by Dr Hubert O’Connor, an obstetrician and gynaecologist and former Ireland rugby international, who died in 2017. The book Napoleon’s Doctor was published posthumously in 2017 by O’Brien Press.