Napoleon’s Coffee Obsession and Desire For It

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 citizens 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.”[1]

Napoleon's coffee obsession

Louis XV by Louis Michel van Loo. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Among those in France who developed a love for coffee was Napoleon Bonaparte, although his coffee obsession was not as instantaneous as was Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe‘s for chocolate. Napoleon at first consumed only “two cups of coffee pure, one in the morning after breakfast, and the other directly after dinner.”[2] 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.”[3].

In fact, there were some people who claimed if Napoleon’s coffee obsession had not existed, he would have never achieved or accomplished what he did without it.

“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.”[4]

Napoleon's Coffee Obsession on St. Helena

Napoleon on St. Helena. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Napoleon’s coffee obsession continued even 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. He also drank coffee on the rat-infested island of St. Helena. The aromatic beverage 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.”[5]

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.”[6] 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.”[7]

Napoleon's Coffee Obsession and Sir Hudson Lowe

Sir Hudson Lowe. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Napoleon’s coffee obsession was probably why he 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.”[8] 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 noted that the Emperor asked twenty times for a spoonful of coffee, but the valet was ordered by the doctor to refuse him any because it might irritate his stomach:

“Tears came to my eyes, seeing this formidable man, who had commanded with such authority, in a manner so absolute, beg for a spoonful of coffee, seek permission, obedient as a child, asking again and again for permission and not obtaining it.”[9]

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, but moved in 1840, by Louis Philippe I to France, where, in 1861, his remains were entombed in a stone sarcophagus in a crypt under the dome at Les Invalides.

Napoleon's Coffee Obsession on his death bed

Napoleon on his death bed, by Horace Vernet, 1826. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After his death Madame Tussaud thought Napoleon’s coffee obsession was important and worthy enough to exploit. She displayed the coffee cup the Emperor had supposedly used for several years while living at St. Helena.  In her catalog she claimed that it was presented to her friend, Mr. Hervé, “as a relic of inestimable value by a friend holding a high situation in that island.”[10]

References:

  • [1] Saint-Arroman, Auguste, Coffee, Tea and Chocolate, 1852, p. 41.
  • [2] Hazlitt, William, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Volume 3, 1830, p. 133.
  • [3] Law, William, The History of Coffee, Including a Chapter on Chicory, 1850, p. 34.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Smallman, David L., Quincentenary: A Story of St Helena, 1502-2002, 2003, p. 37.
  • [6] Forsyth, William, and Hudson Lowe, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, Volume 2, 1853, p. 83.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ukers, William Harrison, All About Coffee, 1922, p. 566.
  • [9] Wild, Anthony, Coffee: A Dark History, 2005, p. 193.
  • [10] Madame Tussaud and Sons, Biographical Catalogue of Distinguished Characters: Historical Gallery, 1866 p. 52.

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