This month’s object of the month is a letter our archivist recently came across. The letter is from a man called John MacDonald, addressed to S. H. P. Pell, Esq. John MacDonald’s father, a former Black Watch man, while serving with the 91st (Argyllshire) Highlanders was present at the removal of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remains from St Helena to France. In this letter to Pell, MacDonald relates a very entertaining story of his father’s encounter with Napoleon’s ghost.
The letter is pictured and transcribed below.
“Father served 23 years and 11 months in the British Army, 15 years in the 42nd Highland regiment, (Black Watch) and 8 years and 11 months in the 91st Highlanders.
It was while in the last regiment he was ordered out to the Island, St. Helena. He was there at the removal of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remains from the Island to France. He was the non-commissioned officer ofhte guards and it was part of father’s duty to go into the shed and look through the glass cover of the coffin on the face of Napoleon.
Father said there were no marks or blemish on the face, only one small spot on the cheek where the embalming cloth had stuck. The coffin was on two horses in the shed, it was a sheet iron shed. There were 12 tallow candles burning around the coffin, 4 on each side and 2 at each end. At six o’clock in the morning 2 British officers, a captain, and the regimental surgeon, with two French officers stood at the head of the coffin, but never spoke during the whole proceedings. The surgeon stood on the right hand side of the coffin, and the captain and dad on the other side. The three looked in through the glass cover. Then the surgeon gave the signal and the coffin was placed in a plain wood box and spiked down, there were six rope handles on this box. Over all they pulled a black velvet slip with the Lilies of France embroidered on it. Then the order was given and six soldiers picked up the casket. The two British officers ahead, and the two French officers behind, with father and twelve men bringing up the rear. In those days there were 300 or 360 steps cut in the rocks to get down the ravine to Jamestown the only port on the island. The casket was put on board a whale boat and rowed out to the French frigate. The Frenchmen lowered slings and hoisted the casket on board. There was no word spoken between the English and the Frenchmen. No fare you well, no salute of flag or gun. Everything was done in silence. The French frigate was conveyed out of the harbor by a British man-o-war.
It was an incident that occurred at the shed that caused me to remember all these incidents so vividly. About four o’clock in the morning the sentinel at the door heard a terrible noise inside the shed and called father. The noise stopped soon so they held a consultation and made up their minds that it was Bonaparte trying to break out of the coffin. Father asked if any of them could speak French. One of them spoke up and said he could speak some curse words. Dad said that was fine that all he would have to do would be to go in there and mix his bad French with the bad Gallic and English and Bonaparte would think he was talking Russian, for Bonaparte would be scared stiff if he thought you were Russian. It was the Russian campaign and not the Battle of Waterlook that caused Napoleon’s downfall. Well, they debated some more about what they would do, for they were in no hurry about going in. Father said, when telling the story, they were all about ready to run away and let Napoleon finishe what he had started. But just then the goat that had jumped from the ledge on the tin roof of the shed lost its footing, slid down and landed on the back of the highlander who was going to talk French and knocked him down flat.
I don’t think father made any report about this goat incident to his commander, for there would not be much glory in running away from a Frenchman’ ghost or an English goat!”