An imperial return to France

May/June 1999

Napoleon, the most well-known emperor of modern Europe, may have died in ignominy after being imprisoned for six years on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, but his eventual return to France (in a casket) involved a spectacular and famous sea voyage.

Two French ships departed from the anchorage at St. Helena on October 17, 1840, bearing the freshly exhumed remains of Napoleon, bringing him back to Paris where a triumphal welcome was planned, along with eventual re-entombment in the Htel des Invalide and the adjoining Eglise du Dme. The great emperor who transformed France, for better or worse, had died almost 20 years before. His still-intact body had been placed in a new casket for the voyage, secured, with reverent ceremony, in a sea-going mortuary-chapel that had been constructed within the frigate Belle-Poule just for this voyage. Under the command of a young naval officer, the Prince de Joinville (third son of the Orleanist king at the time, Louis Philippe), Belle Poule and another frigate, La Favorite, headed north on a 5,000-mile voyage that would take two months, including the all-too-predictable crossing of the ever-becalmed Equator.

St. Helena, a British possession for centuries, is one of many volcanic peaks in that area of the South Atlantic, not all of them projecting through the surface of the ocean. It is roughly 1,200 miles from the nearest stretch of African Coast. It is located at 15:55 degrees S, 5:40 degrees W. Although the island is truly remote, British officials took pains to ensure that it was well fortified and sufficiently garrisoned to prevent any attempt at the liberation of exiled Napoleon during his half dozen years as the island’s most celebrated resident.

A. If one were to sail due east from St. Helena, how many miles would it be to reach the prime meridian?

B. In reality, of course, the two ships sailed north and not east. Before getting up into the immediate equatorial region, it is possible that they might have achieved five days of good sailing on the southeasterly trades on a heading of north by west at an average speed of 5.5 knots. If so, what would have been their rough latitude and longitude, by dead reckoning, at that time? Also, what would have been the nearest point of land? On the outbound trip from France, it was reported that the two ships drifted almost motionless for six days in the equatorial doldrums.

C. What do you suppose the two French captains would have been willing to pay had it been possible to purchase an engine?

D. Assuming that they were at the latitude of Dakar, western-most point of the African continent (15:N) on December 1st, how high would the sun climb in the sky on that day? Finally, the two ships continued north to the mouth of the Seine River, where the funereal cargo and all its trappings were transferred to the Paris-bound river steamer, Dorade.

E. As the parallels of latitude ticked off beneath their keel, at which one would the star Vega have appeared directly overhead?

Beginning with a 21-gun salute as the casket was carried from the steamer and was established upon a gilded imperial hearse, Paris had hardly ever seen such pageantry as when Napoleon finally was brought home. His tomb and many presentations about his life and times remain the most popular tourist attraction in Paris today.  

By Ocean Navigator