Napoleon’s hunting gun

Jean Le Page (1746-1834)
Signed “Le Page à Paris – Arquebusier de l’Empereur”
Engraved inscription “Ile d’Aix le 15 juillet à 8 heures du soir, 1815”
Walnut, silver, gold, iron, steel, copper
L. 133 cm
Inv. 1111, donation Lapeyre

This large hunting gun was presented by Napoleon to Captain Besson on 14 July 1815 as a final gift of thanks for having organised an escape attempt to America. After his defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 and his abdication on 22 June, Napolon had reached Rochefort on the following 3 July where two frigates, La Saale and La Méduse, had been put at his disposal by the provisional government to take him to America. However, as the wait for safe-conducts dragged on and in the face of uncertainty surrounding the fate of the Emperor who had sought refuge on the Isle of Aix, several escape projects were submitted to him including that of naval lieutenant Jean-Victor Besson (1781-1837). This officer offered to take Napoleon aboard La Magdalena, a brig flying the Danish flag, property of his father-in-law, which was transporting eau de vie for the house of Pelletreau de Rochefort. Two empty casks had been lined with padding for use as a hiding place should the English inspect the vessel. This project was accepted by Napoleon and gave rise to a false charter contract signed between Besson and Las Cases. On 13 July, with departure planned for that very night, Napoleon informed Besson of his decision to surrender to the British. The luggage was unloaded during the day of 14 July and, in the evening, Napoleon received Besson, who later gave his own account of events and of this final interview: “As soon as the Emperor saw me come in he came up to me and said, ‘Captain, I thank you once again, as soon as you are free of this place, come and see me in England. I shall no doubt’, he added with a smile, ‘need a person of your character again’ […] then from the weapons for his personal use which were stacked in a corner of the room he took a sumptuous double-barrelled gun which he had taken with him hunting for many years and, holding it out to me, said in a voice full of emotion, ‘I have nothing left in this world to give you, my friend, but this gun. Please take it as a reminder of me.’”. La Magdalena set sail that very evening without its illustrious passenger and got past the English fleet without any bother.

The silver inlaid plaque cut out in the shape of a shield on the outer side of the butt and bearing the commemorative inscription, “Ile d’Aix le 15 juillet à 8 heures le soir 1815” [Ile d’Aix on 15 July at 8 o’clock in the evening of 1815], was certainly affixed at the request of one of Besson’s sons; Besson himself would not have made any confusion between the 14th, day on which the weapon was presented, and the 15 July, namely the day on which Napoleon, embarking on Bellerophon, handed his fate over to the British.

Left destitute by the Restoration, Besson tried his hand without much enthusiasm at maritime commerce then put himself at the service of Mehemet Ali, ending his career as Vice-Admiral and Major-General of the Egyptian fleet. Napoleon’s gun, handed down from generation to generation, remained in the Besson family until 1977, when it was put up for auction at Drouot and acquired by Martial Lapeyre.

Photographs © Fondation Napoléon – Patrice Maurin-Berthier

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