The surgeon’s link to Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte spent the last five years of his life in exile on the island of St Helena – one of the remote places on earth. But what did Captain James McTernan, who is buried at Brockley Cemetery, have to do with it? MIKE GUILFOYLE finds out.

This month marks the bicentenary of the death of the famed deposed Emperor.

He died in enforced exile aged 51 in British custody on the remote South Atlantic volcanic island in May, 1821.

Passers-by walking along busy Brockley Road glancing at the nearby tumbledown vault of the McTernan family located in the Roman Catholic consecrated section of Brockley cemetery would most likely not be aware that the Royal Naval surgeon buried there has anything to do with Napoleon’s death.

But Captain James McTernan was guarding Napoleon Bonaparte at that time.

Captain McTernan may in fact have been one of seven doctors who attended the autopsy, which concluded that Napoleon had died of stomach cancer.

He would most likely have turned out to witness the funeral, as some 2,000 soldiers, sailors and marines lined the route to the chosen burial site on the island.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (left) by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon’s body did not remain there for long, and he was exhumed in 1840 and returned to France to great pomp and circumstance.

But for two centuries now, rumours and speculation that Napoleon was in fact poisoned, with arsenic being the likely cause, have made the circumstances surrounding his death one of the most controversial in history.

Captain James McTernan was born in 1790 in County Sligo, Ireland, and entered the medical service of the Royal Navy at 17.

He was commended for his skill and gallantry and awarded a medal during the War of 1812 when Britain was in conflict with America.

He published what appears to be the first medical account of a fatal primary blast injury during this time.

Later he was in the squadron which protected St Helena during Napoleon’s residence there.

The McTernan family vault in Brockley Cemetery

Captain McTernan was later employed as a surgeon superintendent on many of the convict ships travelling from England to New South Wales and Tasmania – then known as Van Diemen’s Land.

He was noted for his humane but firm approach to the well-being of those in his care.

One of those transported convicts who was aboard The Sarah in 1836 was Solomon Blay – who later became the longest serving hangman in the British Empire.

In his later years he settled in South London. He was appointed surgeon of Deptford Dockyard in 1845 having previously been employed at Greenwich Hospital and was on the List of Deputy Inspectors General of Hospitals and Fleets.

He died at his residence in Grotes Place in Blackheath aged 83 years in 1873, and buried in Brockley cemetery.

Also buried in the family grave are his wife, Harriet, who died in 1879 and their only son Captain Constantine Lemon Hotham McTernan, who died in 1864.

The grave features in Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries guided walks.

Main Pic: Napoleon on his deathbed,  by: The Wellcome Collection



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