Napoleon 'tried to learn English
BBC News
July 3, 2005

Napoleon Bonaparte was keen to learn English while in exile, documents shown in Britain for the first time reveal.

The deposed French emperor apparently wanted to learn the language of his foes so he could read what the London papers were writing about him.

Scraps of paper from his English lessons in captivity on the island of St Helena go on show at London's National Maritime Museum on Thursday.

They include lines of French haltingly translated by Napoleon into English.

Count Emmanuel de las Cases, who accompanied the emperor into exile after he surrendered to the English at the Battle of Waterloo, wrote about his desire to learn the language in his memoirs.

According to him, Napoleon had his first lesson on 17 January 1816, when he asked las Cases to dictate to him some sentences in French, which he then translated, using a table of auxiliary verbs and a dictionary.

The surviving sentences appear to indicate Napoleon's feelings towards his exile. He wrote:

"When will you be wise.

"Never as long as I should be in this isle.

"But I shall become wise after having crossed the line.

"When I shall land in France I shall be very content."

There are also fragments concerning women, his son and his last pleasures:

"My wife shall come near to me, my son shall be great and strong of he will be able to trink [sic] a bottle of wine at dinner I shall [toast] with him....

"The women believe they (are) ever prety [sic].

"The time has not wings.

"When you shall come, you shall see that I have ever loved you."


According to historian Dr Peter Hicks, las Cases describes how Napoleon hated being sat down to work like a schoolboy but steeled himself for the task.

Dr Hicks said: "He was not necessarily anti-English. He had to fight because it was the enemy of France."

He added: "In France people are amazed to find that he was learning English. But he didn't do it for pleasure. He wondered how much money he could have saved in translation if he could have learnt English."

The documents are to feature in the Greenwich museum's Nelson and Napoleon exhibition, being held to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Nelson' death at the Battle of Trafalgar.

They are among a wide range of letters, paintings, personal items and objects lent by galleries and museums across Europe.

The English lesson papers, described by Dr Hicks as "quite remarkable", are on loan from the Fondation Napoleon in Paris.