Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIX, chapter 4
Bonaparte’s birth and childhood



It remains attested that Bonaparte’s real name was Buonaparte; he signed his name in that way himself throughout his Italian campaign, and until he was thirty-three. He then Frenchified it, and only signed as Bonaparte: I will leave him with that name which he gave himself and which he has engraved at the foot of his indestructible statue. (That name, Buonaparte, was sometimes written without the u: the bursar of Ajaccio cathedral who signed the register at Napoleon’s baptism wrote Bonaparte three times without using the Italian vowel u.)

Did Bonaparte take a year from his age in order to declare himself French, that is to say, in order for his birth to have taken place after the date of the union of Corsica with France? That question is treated in a brief but thorough and substantial manner by Monsieur Eckard: one can read his pamphlet. The result of it is that Bonaparte was born on the 5th of February 1768 and not the 15th of August 1769, despite Monsieur Bourienne’s positive assertion. That is why the Senate official, in his proclamation of the 3rd of April 1814, treats Napoleon as a foreigner.

The act celebrating the marriage of Bonaparte with Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher, inscribed in the civic register of the second arrondissement of Paris, on the 19th Ventôse Year IV (9th March 1796), attests that Napoléon Buonaparte was born at Ajaccio on the 5th of February 1768, and that his birth certificate, stamped by the civic official, certifies as to the date. That same date accords exactly with what the marriage certificate affirms; that the bridegroom was 28 years old.

Napoleon’s birth certificate, presented at the town hall of the second arrondissement on the celebration of his marriage to Josephine, was removed by one of the Emperor’s aides-de-camp at the start of 1810, when proceedings were in hand to annul Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine. Monsieur Duclos, not daring to refuse an Imperial order, wrote at the time on one of the sheets of Napoleon’s dossier: ‘His birth certificate has been sent to him, on my being unable, at the moment of his request, to deliver a copy to him.’ The date of Josephine’s birth is altered on the marriage certificate, scratched out then overwritten, though one can make out the lines of the original with a magnifying glass. The Empress shed four years: the pleasantries offered on this subject at the Tuileries and at St Helena are mean and spiteful.

Bonaparte’s birth certificate, removed by the aide-de-camp in 1810, has vanished; all attempts to find it have proved unfruitful.

These are the irrefutable facts, and I too think, based on these facts, that Napoleon was born at Ajaccio on the 5th of February 1768. However I do not delude myself as to the historical difficulties which appear if that date is adopted.

Joseph, Bonaparte’s elder brother, was born on the 5th of January 1768; his younger brother, Napoleon, could not have been born in the same year, unless the date of Joseph’s birth was similarly adjusted: that is possible, since all the official certificates of Napoleon and Josephine are suspected of being flawed. Notwithstanding a valid suspicion of fraud, the Comte de Beaumont, sub-prefect of Calvi, in his Observations on Corsica, attests that the civic register of Ajaccio notes Napoleon’s birth as the 15th of August 1769. Finally, documents Monsieur Libri has lent me demonstrate that Bonaparte himself considered he had been born on the 15th of August 1769, at a time when he could have had no reason to wish himself younger. But the official date on the marriage papers from his first marriage and the suppression of his birth certificate remain.

Be that as it may, Bonaparte would stand to gain nothing from this alteration to his life-story: if you fix his birth on the 15th of August 1769, you are forced to place his conception around the 15th of November 1768; now, Corsica only yielded to France after the treaty of the 15th of May 1768; and the last submissions of the pieves (the cantons of Corsica) were only effected on the 14th of June 1769. According to the most generous calculations, Napoleon would not be French until some hours of darkness had passed in his mother’s womb. Well, if he was the citizen of a somewhat doubtful country, it sets his nature apart: a being descended from above, worthy of belonging to all times and all countries.

However, Bonaparte did have leanings towards Italy; he detested the French until the time when their bravery granted him an empire. The evidence of this aversion is everywhere in his youthful writings. In a note which Napoleon wrote on suicide, one finds this passage: ‘My compatriots, loaded with chains, tremble as they shake the hand which oppresses them…Frenchmen, not content with having stolen everything we cherish, you have even corrupted our morals.’

         A letter written to Paoli in England, in 1789, which has been made public, begins like this:
‘General,
I was born as our country was lost. Thirty thousand Frenchmen spewed onto our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood: such was the odious sight that first struck my eyes.’

Another letter from Napoleon to Monsieur Gubica, chief clerk to the State of Corsica, reads:

‘While France is reborn, what will become of the rest of us, Corsican wretches? Forever base, will we continue to kiss the insolent hand that oppresses us? Will we continue to see all the roles, that natural right destined us for, occupied by foreigners as despicable in their morals and their conduct as their birth is abject?’

Finally the rough draft of a third letter of Bonaparte’s, in manuscript form, regarding the recognition by Corsica of the National Assembly of 1789, begins thus:

‘Gentlemen,
It was by bloodshed that the French became our rulers; it was by bloodshed that they secured their conquest. The soldier, the lawyer, the banker, united to oppress us, despise us, and force us to swallow deep draughts from the cup of ignominy. We have suffered their vexation long enough; but since we have lacked the courage to free ourselves from them, let us ignore them forever; let them be treated again with the contempt they deserve, or at least let them aspire to other nations’ trust in their country; it is certain that will never obtain it from ours.’

Napoleon’s prejudices against his mother-land never vanished entirely: once crowned, he appeared to neglect us; he only spoke of himself, his empire, his soldiers, hardly ever of the French; this phrase escaped his lips: ‘You, the French.’

The Emperor, in his papers from St Helena, tells how his mother, surprised by the birth-pangs, had let him fall from the womb onto a carpet patterned with large leaves, depicting the heroes of the Iliad: he would not have been any the less who he was if he had fallen onto straw.

I have spoken of the documents which have been discovered; when I was Ambassador in Rome in 1828, Cardinal Fesch, while showing me his pictures and books, told me he possessed manuscripts belonging to the young Napoleon; he attached so little importance to them that he proposed to show me them; I left Rome, and lacked the opportunity to consult these documents. After the death of Madame Mère and Cardinal Fesch, various items belonging to the estate were dispersed; the box containing Napoleon’s Essais was taken to Lyons with several others; it fell into the hands of Monsieur Libri. Monsieur Libri inserted an article itemising Cardinal Fesch’s papers in the Revue des Deux Mondes of the 1st of March that year, 1842; he has since kindly chosen to send me the box. I have profited from the communication by adding to the previous text of my Memoirs concerning Napoleon all the reservations derived from more ample information, from contradictory statements, and from various objections arising