On May 5, 1821, Napoleon died in Saint Helena. Rémy Guillard, medicine from Quimper, identified the imperial corpse during its exhumation.
In 1840, an expedition left Toulon to exhume the remains of Emperor Napoleon I, who died on May 5, 1821 in Saint Helena. “I wish to rest in the land of France, on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of these people whom I have loved so much,” he wrote.
The surgeon-major Rémy-Julien Guillard, born in 1799 and the son of a merchant from Quimper, embarked on La Belle Poule. He has promised to bring back the body of a young cadet who died a few months earlier in Saint Helena. This is his only job at the moment. He does not yet know that it will be up to him to verify the identity of the imperial remains …
The captain of the ship is the Prince of Joinville (son of King Louis-Philippe). Among the sailors, one finds a certain Quintin, Finistérien of Ploudaniel as well as the influential Las Cases, deputy of Landerneau. Also on board are the Emperor’s executors, soldiers, former servants, an abbot, not to mention an orchestra of 25 musicians.
The expedition passes through Cadiz, Madeira, Santa Cruz and Bahia of Brazil. The atmosphere is very relaxed, passengers buy local souvenirs, wine and Madeira, and exotic birds that are given to doctor Guillard to naturalize them. The stops are punctuated by receptions, balls, climbs, rides.
The cruise is fun. On board, shooting sessions are organized and passengers meet up every evening for “officially” tea in the Prince de Joinville lounge. The crossing of the Equator Line is accompanied by baptismal rituals with grotesque skits. The crew went through storms, had to deal with an outbreak of fire on board and a restriction of fresh water …
The Quimper doctor learns off the coast of Brazil that he has been designated to identify Napoleon’s body. He jumps at the chance to claim a bounty. Five hundred thousand francs are immediately granted to him. On October 8, 1840, the Belle Poule anchored in front of Saint Helena.
The exhumation is being prepared by Rohan-Chabot who, along with Doctor Guillard, will be the only actors in this operation. Eighteen other French people will attend the scene as witnesses. The doctor understands the importance of his mission.
The day of the 14th is devoted to rest because a sleepless night will follow: the exhumation must begin at midnight. From 10 p.m., the sappers work to open the tomb closed by slabs and covered with two layers of solid masonry then two meters of earth. The rain and the cold invite themselves.
Finally around 6 am, the coffin is released and reassembled. There are, in fact, four successive ones: lead, oak, ebony and tinplate. They are difficult to open. It is 1 p.m. when the last cover gives way. Doctor Guillard lifts a white veil that reveals the Emperor’s intact body. His faithful companions present recognize him. The emotion is immense.
However, it must be done quickly, the doctor worrying that the body thus exposed will be damaged. He does a quick examination. Putting the veil back on the Emperor’s body, he discreetly recovers a fragment of skin. The operation took 3 minutes!
At 3.30 p.m., the British governor officially hands over to France the remains of the imperial remains. This is placed in coffins weighing around 1,200 kg. Forty soldiers and four horses will be needed to bring them back to La Belle Poule. On the way back, Dr. Guillard writes a detailed report of the examination performed on the body.
For his action, the Quimperois doctor will be promoted to knight of the Legion of Honor and will obtain, according to his wishes, a post at the hospital in Lorient. It was in Quimper that he ended his days and confronted politics by becoming mayor of Ergué-Armel from 1860 until his death in 1869.
Recently, the anatomical fragment he had recovered has been authenticated and is kept at the Musée des Armées. It’s not the only relic he brought back. Near his grave is a large block of stone from Saint Helena.
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