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Napoleon's shirt worn in exile and English letter go on display

·2-min read

By Bart Biesemans

WATERLOO, Belgium (Reuters) - A shirt worn by Napoleon during his exile on the island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic and a letter he wrote there to practise his English have gone on display at a museum in Belgium ahead of an auction later this year in Britain.

A silk scarf he wore around his head on the windswept British outpost is also on show, along with a walking stick made from a narwhal tooth, a rare and precious object from the exiled former French emperor's daily life on Saint Helena.

The exhibition at the Battle of Waterloo memorial museum, near Brussels, is part of commemorations of the bicentenary of Napoleon's death aged 51 on May 5, 1821.

The letter is one of only a few texts written by Napoleon in English that have survived. It does not have an address and is believed to have been dictated to him by his secretary as part of exercises to improve his English.

"Napoleon, before arriving on the island of Saint Helena, could not write or speak in the language of Shakespeare," said Antoine Charpagne, co-curator of the Waterloo exhibition.

"His secretary, Emmanuel de Las Cases, knew how to speak English, as he had already lived in England for a few years, and so he taught him," he told Reuters.

The letter is expected to fetch the highest price out of all the items that will be sold at auction at Bonhams in London on Oct. 27.

"When you hear that in the past, several million pounds have been paid for at least one significant item of Napoleonic memorabilia, it puts it into perspective," said Simon Cottle of Bonhams.

The Waterloo curators and auctioneers in London say the objects shed light on Napoleon's latter days in exile, a time when he was writing his memoirs to try and enshrine a legacy as a military genius and visionary leader.

Today, Napoleon is the subject of heated debate in France and beyond.

Some say his achievements, especially the laying out of legal and institutional foundations that still underpin parts of the modern French state, make him worthy of commemoration. Others answer that his record of military aggression, his despotic instincts and his decision to reinstate slavery after it had been abolished mean that he should not be honoured.

(Writing by Robin Emmott, editing by Estelle Shirbon)