Napoleon’s Purgatory

The Unseen Humanity of the “Corsican Ogre” in Fatal Exile (with an introduction by J. David Markham)

by Thomas M. Barden (Fellow in the International Napoleonic Society)

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The primary mission of this fascinating study of Napoleon's final exile on St. Helena is to humanize history's larger than life perceptions of this military and political icon. Barden's work peels away the layers of partisan stereotypes about Napoleon as the “Corsican Ogre”, an image that was used to frighten naughty children among Napoleon's European enemies.
Drawing on extensive diaries and memoirs written by several of those among Napoleon's entourage who shared his confinement on St. Helena, these revealing sources offer great insights. They paint an intimate portrait of Napoleon's character and temperament by analyzing his day-to-day interactions during the six years of his very restricted confinement on St. Helena from October 1815 until his painful death there in May 1821. Napoleon himself proclaimed “You may make my body prisoner, but my soul is free.”
Barden's revealing work sheds light on Napoleon's resentment toward his British guardians; his playful love of children; his strong emotional ties to the Balcombe family, especially young Betsy; the personal tensions within his own entourage; his skeptical interactions with his doctors; his virulent conflicts with the British commander Governor Lowe; and his deep affection in absentia for his wives Josephine and Marie Louise, and his son.
Despite his physical ailments and the military constraints on his actions and movements, Barden shows that Napoleon greatly valued the friendships with his associates on St. Helena. He said “There is nothing like having friends in time of war….One doesn't need many. Above all, there must be friends. They take the place of so much more!”

David W. King,
SUNY Professional Science Master's Consortium

Napoleon’s Purgatory is a work portraying the human side of Napoleon as revealed by those who shared his exile on the island of St. Helena. Through the diaries and journals of the Emperor’s servants, generals, and companions come the stories of Napoleon’s tender love for children, his captivating sense of humor, his eternal love for Josephine, and his agonizing death. Napoleon Bonaparte was sent by the British to the remote island of St. Helena where he could not escape. What followed were six excruciating years of loneliness and depression, mixed with frolicking play with the island’s children, a battle of wills with his British captor, an exploration of his lapsed Catholic faith, and the complex relationship with the members of his entourage. This time in exile was akin to time served in Purgatory for Napoleon. His humanity, suffering, joy in the laughter of children, and longing for Josephine are captured vividly in this work through the detailed use of primary sources written by those who were there. While many considered Napoleon Bonaparte the “Corsican Ogre” for the wars he waged across Europe, he was anything but during his exile on St. Helena.

Introduction – by J. David Markham, President of the International Napoleonic Society


I. Flight or Fight

II. “This Cursed Rock”

III. Betsy and Boney

IV. “This Is My Sure Test”

V. Torment By Vexation

VI. “The Soul Is Beyond Their Reach”

VII. Digging The Ground

VIII. Purification Through Suffering

IX. A Temporary Resting Place

X. Absolution And The Journey Home

Thomas M. Barden is a historian and Napoleonic scholar who has spent the last 20 years researching and lecturing on the exile of the great French general and emperor to the island of St. Helena. He is a fellow of the International Napoleonic Society and teaches history at the high school and university levels in upstate New York. Mr. Barden and his wife reside in the Finger Lakes region of the state with their two children.

J. David Markham is an internationally recognized Napoleonic historian and author. He has been featured on programs on Napoleon Bonaparte and Julius Caesar on the Discovery, History, Learning, Military History and Smithsonian Channels. He also served as the resident historian for the Napoleon 101 podcast, which attracted over 30,000 listeners for each of the 55 episodes. He has written numerous books, including Napoleon for Dummies, Napoleon’s Road to Glory: Triumphs, Defeats and Immortality. Imperial Glory: The Bulletins of Napoleon’s Grande Armée 1805-1814, Napoleon and Dr. Verling on St. Helena, and The Road to St. Helena: Napoleon After Waterloo. David is President of the International Napoleonic Society and President Emeritus of the Napoleonic Historical Society. In 2014 he was inducted into the French Republic’s prestigious Ordre des Palmes Académiques (Order of the French Academic Palms), France’s highest civilian-only award, at the grade of Knight (Chevalier). David has also received awards from France, Poland, Italy, Germany, the USA (Bronze Star, Viet Nam) and the INS. David lives with his wife, Edna, and their cat, Stanley, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Human side, death and exile, humanity

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Bibliographic Information

Book Title

Napoleon’s Purgatory

Book Subtitle

The Unseen Humanity of the “Corsican Ogre” in Fatal Exile (with an introduction by J. David Markham)





Number of pages


Physical size

236mm x 160mm


15 B&W
Publication date
January 2017