Napoleon’s English Lessons: How the Military Leader Studied English to Escape the Boredom of Life in Exile

When we talk about coun­try club prison sen­tences, we tend to imag­ine a mar­gin­al amount of time spent on the inside, though the phrase sounds like an extend­ed vaca­tion. Napoleon Bona­parte—exiled to the island of St. Hele­na for his crimes against Europe—got the full treat­ment, what some might even call a sweet­heart deal. As the Pub­lic Domain Review notes, “the British had agreed to pro­vide Le Petit Capo­ral with plen­ti­ful wine, meat, and musi­cal instru­ments.” He was giv­en his own com­fort­able lodg­ings, a spa­cious coun­try house, though it’s said to have been draughty and full of rats.

On the oth­er hand, Napoleon had to foreswear “what he most craved—family, pow­er, Europe,” for a con­di­tion of extreme iso­la­tion. The loss weighed heav­i­ly. After spend­ing six years 1200 miles from shore, he died, some say of poi­son­ing, but oth­ers say of bore­dom. Of his few amuse­ments, con­vers­ing with Count Emmanuel de Las Cases—“historian and loy­al sup­port­er who had been allowed to voy­age with him to Saint Helena”—proved most stim­u­lat­ing. Pre­vent­ed from receiv­ing news­pa­pers in French, he longed to read the few he found in Eng­lish.

Las Cas­es endeav­ored to teach Napoleon the lan­guage of his jail­ers, and the for­mer Emper­or strug­gled might­i­ly to learn it. After three months on the island, he spent the fol­low­ing three study­ing every day, even­tu­al­ly pro­duc­ing trans­la­tions from his French like that below:

When will you be wise
Nev­er as long as j should be in this isle
But j shall become wise after hav­ing passed the line
When j shall land in France j shall be very con­tent…

My wife shall come near to me, my son shall be great and strong if he will be able to trink a bot­tle of wine at din­ner j shall [toast] with him… / The women believe they [are] ever pre­ty / The time has not wings / When you shall come, you shall see that j have ever loved you.

Eight pages in Napoleon’s own hand remain from his time as a stu­dent of Eng­lish on St. Hele­na in the first few months of 1816. They are “some of the most evoca­tive doc­u­ments we have from Napoleon’s time” on the island, the Fon­da­tion Napoleon writes, bear­ing “poignant wit­ness to the frus­tra­tion Napoleon felt in exile…. It is tempt­ing to read a refusal of exile in these sheets, both in the sen­tences them­selves, and in Napoleon’s insis­tent use of ‘j’ (as in the French ‘je’) rather than the Eng­lish ‘I.’”

In one let­ter that sur­vives from March 7, 1816 (see it scanned above), writ­ten for Las Cas­es to cor­rect the fol­low­ing day, Napoleon takes stock of his progress, or lack there­of.

Count las­cas­es — Since sixt week j learn the Englich and j do not any progress. Six week do four­ty and two day. If might have learn fiv­i­ty word four day I could know it two thu­sands and two hun­dred. It is in the dic­tio­nary more of four­ty thou­sand; even he could must twin­ty bout much of tems for know it our hun­dred and twen­ty week, which do more two yars. After this you shall agrée that to study one tongue is a great labour who it must do into the young aged.

Las Cas­es reports that his stu­dent “had an extra­or­di­nary intel­li­gence but a very bad mem­o­ry.” Gram­mar came much more eas­i­ly than vocab­u­lary. His frus­tra­tion over being “impris­oned in the mid­dle of this lan­guage” is record­ed in Las Cas­es’ Mémo­r­i­al de Sainte-Hélène, a record of his fif­teen months on the island with Napoleon. The book became “a pub­lish­ing sen­sa­tion” and would “do much,” the Pub­lic Domain Review writes, “to turn the per­cep­tion of Napoleon from a dic­ta­tor into a lib­er­a­tor.”

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Napoleon’s Kin­dle: See the Minia­tur­ized Trav­el­ing Library He Took on Mil­i­tary Cam­paigns

Vin­tage Pho­tos of Vet­er­ans of the Napoleon­ic Wars, Tak­en Cir­ca 1858

Napoleon: The Great­est Movie Stan­ley Kubrick Nev­er Made

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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