Napoleon’s Coffee Obsession

Napoleon's coffee obsession
Louis XV by Louis Michel van Loo. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Many French people from history have loved coffee. For instance, the famous Enlightenment writer Voltaire credited coffee as the inspiration behind his philosophies and purportedly drank somewhere between 40 and 50 cups a day. King Louis XV, who ruled France until he died in 1774, adored the aromatic drink. In fact, Louis XV had his own coffee beans grown at the Palace of Versailles in green houses. France’s populous also became great lovers of coffee because of Louis XV and from the end of his reign, “the number of Coffee-houses rapidly increased in Paris and the provinces, and … [could be found on] the table of the rich and the poor.”

Among those in France who developed a love for coffee was Napoleon. Napoleon’s coffee obsession was not instantaneous. He at first consumed only “two cups of coffee pure, one in the morning after breakfast, and the other directly after dinner.” Over time, however, his love for coffee increased, and while some people may have argued about whether coffee was beneficial or not, one person claimed its beneficial effects could be powerfully illustrated by Napoleon.

“[His] buoyancy of mind and energies, intellectual and physical, were never surpassed by those of any man. He abstained from the use of wines and spirituous liquors, but drank Coffee at all hours of the day, to revive his spirits and invigorate his body.”

Napoleon on St. Helena. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In fact, there were some people who claimed Napoleon would have never achieved or accomplished what he did without coffee.

“But for coffee Napoleon would never have been Emperor of France, or conqueror of Europe; but his is an equivocal recommendation: if true, flattering enough to the strength while it condemns the tendency of coffee altogether; for who would not condemn it, and persecute it from the face of the earth, if they were persuaded that this evil thing was the cause why Britain was compelled to sacrifice so many of her subjects — fighting so many battles — gaining so much glory — and running in debt to the amount of eight hundred millions of pounds sterling, all against this Napoleon, the greatest conqueror and coffee-drinker of his age.”

Napoleon continued to indulge in his passion for coffee after he was ordered into exile. For example, on his voyage to Elba, after dinner, Napoleon usually played a game of chess and then coffee was brought to him before he took his nightly stroll on the ship’s deck. Napoleon also drank coffee on the rat-infested island of St. Helena. Coffee had first arrived there in 1733 after been brought there from Yemen. Despite the coffee plants being neglected, they flourished, and no one really thought about the St. Helena’s coffee until Napoleon popularized it in Paris by declaring, “The only good thing to come out of St Helena is the coffee.”

Although Napoleon may have preferred St. Helena’s coffee to all other kinds, he was willing to drink whatever coffee was available. For example, when he was residing at Longwood House, Sir Hudson Lowe, who was Governor of the island and Napoleon’s gaoler, sent a case of coffee to Napoleon as a gift. Charles Tristan, better known as the Marquis Montholon, thought Napoleon would not accept it and was astonished when the deposed Emperor ordered the case to be carried to the pantry stating, “good coffee is a precious thing in this horrible place.” The cook was also shocked Napoleon wanted to keep it, as he thought the coffee might be poisoned, but Montholon drank it and reported that “the coffee was excellent.”

Napoleon once said, “Strong coffee, and plenty, awakens me. It gives me a warmth, an unusual force, a pain that is not without pleasure. I would rather suffer than be senseless.” His desire for coffee remained strong even while he was dying. François Carlo Antommarchi, who was Napoleon’s physician from 1818 to his death in 1821, initially allowed him a few sips but eventually told everyone Napoleon was forbidden from drinking coffee.

“General Henri Bertrand wrote of how the Emperor asked twenty times for a spoonful of coffee, to which the valet was ordered by the doctor to refuse, for it might irritate his stomach:

‘Tears came to my eyes, as I looked at this man, formerly so terrifying, who had commanded so proudly and in a manner so absolute, now reduced to begging for a spoonful of coffee, asking permission, as obedient as a child.'”

Napoleon on His Death Bed, by Horace Vernet, 1826. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Napoleon died at 5:49pm on the evening of 5 May 1821 while he was laying in his camp bed in the drawing-room. An autopsy was later performed and Antommarchi concluded that he had died from stomach cancer and supposedly reported coffee grounds were found in his stomach. (There have also been debates as to whether Napoleon died from arsenic poison or was murdered by arsenic.) He was initially buried on St. Helena despite his request to be buried on the banks of the Seine River. In 1840, Louis Philippe I had his remains returned to France, and, in 1861, his remains were entombed in a stone sarcophagus in a crypt under the dome at Les Invalides.

References:

  • Barden, Thomas M., “Humanizing the Corsican Ogre,” at State University of New York at Geneseo
  • Forsyth, William, and Hudson Lowe, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, Volume 2,  1853
  • Hazlitt, William, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Volume 3, 1830
  • Law, William, The History of Coffee, Including a Chapter on Chicory, 1850
  • Saint-Arroman, Auguste, Coffee, Tea and Chocolate, 1852
  • Smallman, David L., Quincentenary: A Story of St Helena, 1502-2002, 2003
  • Ukers, William Harrison, All About Coffee, 1922

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