Three years after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte could not even call on a doctor. His previous physician, Barry O’Meara, had returned to England from the isola maledetta of Saint Helena, the bleak outcrop in the distant South Atlantic where the former emperor would see out his days. O’Meara had clashed with Sir Hudson Lowe, the island’s governor, who was similarly detested by Napoleon, now flabby, indigent and depressed, willing death’s arrival.
His mother, then in Rome, came to the rescue. She sent a Corsican doctor, François Carlo Antommarchi, accompanied by two Catholic priests, to Saint Helena. They arrived at Napoleon’s villa, Longwood, in September 1819. Antommarchi suggested that his patient “must dig the ground, turn up the earth, and thus escape from inactivity and insult”.