In 1840, during the peak of the ennuie of the bourgeois society of King Louis-Philippe, the body of the French hero Napoleon Bonaparte was returned to France, reigniting the fire and patriotism of his many admirers. This effect took hold in French supporters of Napoleon all over the world and, more specifically, this moment resonated deeply with Joseph Martin du Colombier, as evidenced by his writing of the play Napoleon Bonaparte, Martyr of St. Helena.
Joseph Martin du Colombier was the son of Martin du Colombier, a native of Lille, France who emigrated to San Domingo under patronage of the French government in 1737. du Colombier was his youngest son, born in 1760. He was educated in Paris until his father’s death, at which time he was sent by his mother to a seminary to become a priest. He quickly left and returned to run his father’s plantation in San Domingo. During the American Revolutionary War, du Colombier served as a surgeon in the French army who offered his services to the Americans fighting against the British. He was a captive on the British prison ship Jersey, a ship known for certain death for its prisoners. However, du Colombier was saved from that fate by his musical abilities, playing guitar and singing for the British officers on deck. This ability allowed him enough fresh air and food to survive. After a career in the French military, he amassed a fortune by trading with San Domingo from his new home in America. He also became a trained physician and devoted himself to taking care of victims of Yellow Fever and offered free medical attention to anyone in need. As for his death, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (Vol. V No. 2, 1881. 122-125) describes it as such, “Driving out with his daughter on the 16th of November 1846, as they returned in the evening and were beholding the glory of the stars, gently bowing his head on her arm, the aged man said, ‘How beautiful is Venus!’ and in the same instant found peace in death.”
In this ode to Napoleon, it seems to me that du Colombier revered Napoleon as the more epic version of himself – adventurer, homme militaire, prisoner of the British, and a displaced Frenchman. Much like Napoleon, his heroics were the product of being perfectly situated in the moment and eloquently recounting his own story. This is a man who, like many, idolized Napoleon, and looked to him as inspiration for a full and exciting life. In the manuscripts, he declared that heroes and villains are brought to justice on the stage, and in this play, du Colombier wishes to properly honor Napoleon while simultaneously condemning the actions of the British. His reverence for Napoleon seeps into every line of this play, most clearly in the epilogue where du Colombier addresses Napoleon as if he were one of the soldiers fighting under him, “Farewell, great chieftain; thy immortal name – stands you unrivaled on the rolls of fame – lorn is the rock and boundless is the wave – yet glory’s sunbeams rest upon thy grave.”
If nothing else, this play highlights the stereotypical hatred of the French for the British throughout history. Du Colombier repeatedly noted the cruel actions of the British, their lack of eloquence, and above all else, their pettiness. For example, one instance appears in a scene on page 4 where the British soldiers recount their time in America saying, “Wherever we went we laid our hands on the Yankee stocks, their valuables – their women – and after having gorged ourselves with their best, for our diversion we burnt their cities, their monuments, their libraries.” This disdain for the British by du Colombier further evolves in the relationship between Governor Hudson Lowe and Napoleon. Lowe is characterized as a petty power hungry man who is obsessed with his authority and dominance over Napoleon. Throughout the play, he is nothing less than wholly consumed by Napoleon’s comical lack of respect for him.
The play as a whole offers an engaging, though entirely biased, historical fiction of the last phase of the French hero’s life. Further, it is documentation of the feelings that many French people harbored towards Napoleon during and just after his life. He was the hero of the French, the exciting whirlwind character that sprung out of the little island of Corsica when the French most needed him. It is a very different perspective of Napoleon that most American (and most certainly British) students are presented in schools. Far from the pompous short man, the unwilling creator of the Napoleon complex, this Napoleon is larger than life and the figure the French craved in the boring post-revolutionary period.