Ridley Scott’s film Napoleon is great entertainment. The story begins with the death of Marie Antoinette and the re-capture of Toulon from the British by a daring Corsian colonel named Napoleon Bonaparte. Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine, the battle scenes, the costumes, Paris at the turn of the 19th century, all make for a rollercoaster of a ride. Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon finds his humanity through his love for Josephine but as a leader shows the kind of bluster and populism that bring Trump to mind.
Gaps and inaccuracies in Napoleon will annoy those looking for historical accuracy, just as Scott’s other epic movie Gladiator (2000) was no lesson about the Roman emperor Commodus’ reign. There was a moment, however, at the end of Napoleon that jarred. According to the film, Napoleon Bonaparte’s last words on his deathbed were: ‘France..Army..Josephine’. This sounded strange to me.
I went to school in Haiti, a country that had once been a French colony called St Domingue, where slavery was abolished after local struggles in the wake of the French revolution in 1793. A Black general named Toussaint Louverture soon rose to become the governor of the colony and defended it with great success against the British and the Spanish. Napoleon Bonaparte became First Consul and, perhaps under the influence of his white creole wife Josephine, decided to re-instate slavery in all French colonies. In 1802, he sent a fleet headed by his brother-in-law, the general Leclerc, together with his sister Pauline and sixty thousand troops to St Domingue to eliminate Toussaint Louverture and force the people back into shackles. Before being betrayed and arrested, however, Toussaint Louverture had suggested to Napoleon to export the French revolution to the rest of the Americas by rallying Black support through the promise of freedom. His advice was rejected.
One of my memories of primary school is a history lesson in my fifth year. It was a cool day, one when you didn’t need the ceiling fans on. I looked at the black and white drawings of Toussaint Louverture, first as a decorated general riding his splendid horse, and then as a wretch, a Black man freezing in front of an empty fireplace in a lonely cell on top of a snowy mountain. It was heart-breaking. Having lived my whole life in the Tropics, I couldn’t imagine a worse fate than death by cold. Toussaint Louverture died alone in 1803 after being imprisoned in Fort de Joux for only eight months. By 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte had lost his American ambitions together with his troops in St Domingue. His defeat in what became Haiti led to France selling Louisiana to the United States.
It was only fitting that the man who sent the Haitian hero to die in the cold, was condemned himself to die on a hot, rocky island off the coast of Africa. His last words, as I and generations of Haitians have been told, were ‘If only I had listened to Toussaint.’
Famous last words have always been useful in validating a history. Who knows what Napoleon Bonaparte or Toussaint Louverture whispered in their dying breaths? For Ridley Scott and the film’s writer David Scarpa, that last line provides a tidy end to their story. As for me, I’ll go on remembering what I learned at school.
Photo courtesy of Apple TV