Napoléon’s island of exile
PUBLISHED: 15:27 28 March 2013 | UPDATED: 15:28 28 March 2013
Mark Stratton takes a five-day voyage to the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic to see where the exiled emperor spent his final years
Michel Dancoisne-Martineau looks nothing like Napoléon. He is taller, leaner and bespectacled, but does share a geographic parallel. As honorary French consul he has been the sole Frenchman on the island of St Helena for 26 years; considerably longer in fact than the six years Bonaparte spent from 1815.
With the bicentennial of the deposed emperor’s exile a couple of years away, I sought out Michel, a leading scholar on a subject shrouded in rumours and exaggerated claims. Was Napoléon murdered or mistreated, and did he ever consider escaping from the island? To discover more, I followed Napoléon’s footsteps (or ‘wake’, as the island has no airport at present) and boarded the last operating Royal Mail ship, RMS St Helena, in Cape Town for a five-day voyage to the remote South Atlantic island.
Island fate sealed
Events leading to Napoléon boarding the ship Northumberland at Plymouth on 8 August 1815, bound for the British-run St Helena, were a cataclysmic continuum of failure and misjudgment. Within a week of his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June he had been deposed as emperor. In his book, Napoleon in Exile, historian Brian Unwin says the emperor surrendered to the British under the illusion that they might transport him to America – an idea that appealed to the still-only 45-year-old Bonaparte. Yet after a hastily convened post-war conference in Paris, his enemies, not least embittered Prussia, sealed his fate. Less than two months after Waterloo he was exiled under British supervision to St Helena with a small retinue of servants and senior officers: Generals Bertrand, de Montholon and Gourgaud, and Comte de Las Cases.
“We had now entered upon the dreary unknown course to which fate had doomed us,” complained future biographer Las Cases at sea. “The emperor abdicated his throne and placed himself in the hands of the English, who were now hurrying him to a barren rock in the midst of a vast ocean.”
In contrast, my voyage was altogether more pleasant, staying in a comfortable cabin, eating well, playing deck-quoits and spotting whales. It was also much quicker than the ten weeks it took Napoléon to finally sight this tiny 122 square kilometre island, although we might have shared similar first impressions, as its black volcanic cliffs create a sense of foreboding.
Getting ashore from James Bay hasn’t changed one iota since Napoléon arrived on 17 October 1815. Passengers still have to be transferred by small vessels to the seafront of the capital, Jamestown, because there is still no jetty. Jammed into a narrow V-shaped valley, the town is full of gaily painted houses and quaint old-fashioned shops. I passed under an archway leading through its chunky fortifications to seek out my accommodation, ironically named the Wellington Hotel. Napoléon’s nemesis had stayed here some years before his arrival while returning from India and indeed also at Porteous Lodge (which no longer exists) where Bonaparte spent his first night. In Jamestown castle’s official archives there is a rather prosaic entry marking his arrival. It read: “From England with Admiral Sir George Cockburn and having on board General Napoleon Buonaparte [sic] and certain individuals as state prisoners.”
Across St Helena extensive fortifications and abandoned cannon testify to the efforts taken by the British authorities to secure Napoléon and avoid a repeat of his departure earlier in 1815 from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. The island was filled with an extra 2,000 infantrymen while a crumbling farmhouse called Longwood House was hurriedly renovated to accommodate him.
On 18 October Napoléon rode out with Cockburn, his first jailor, to inspect Longwood, but was unimpressed by the progress of renovation work. Returning from Longwood he spotted a residence that he did like; The Briars, owned by William Balcombe of the East India Company. Balcombe generously offered Napoléon use of its separate pavilion where he subsequently settled for the first two months in exile.
Briars Pavilion, Longwood House and the Valley of the Tomb are official French territory. Britain sold Longwood House and the Valley of the Tomb to France in 1858, when the first French curator (now consul) arrived on St Helena. Briars Pavilion was presented to France in 1959 by Balcombe’s great-granddaughter. Like everywhere on this rugged Atlantic dot – now a British Overseas Territory – getting to Briars requires a steep drive out of Jamestown on winding roads that eventually lead into the island’s lush interior: in this case Briars’ exotic valley of banana-palms, hibiscus and heliconias, fed by a heart-shaped waterfall.
The peach-coloured pavilion has a single viewable room. Painted in a bold Georgian dark green, popular in that era, it contains original furnishings such as a framed patch of worn carpet and assorted memorabilia, including an alabaster statue of Napoléon gazing wistfully out the window.
“He had strong words against St Helena when he saw it from the sea,” said Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, when we met at Briars, “but he was never negative about Briars, because it was idyllic.” I asked Michel about salacious rumours of Napoléon’s relationship with the Balcombes’ daughter, Betsy, who was said to have playfully chased him around wielding his sword. “This was nothing,” he countered. “She was a 13-year-old spoiled brat who suddenly found herself the talk of the town because Napoléon was part of her family. She made up stories all her life.”
Michel’s own passage to St Helena was a quixotic one. He arrived aged 19 in the mid-1980s as a student studying literary romanticism, in particular the poet Byron (a noted admirer of Napoléon). He told me that the previous consul, Gilbert Martineau, had written a biography about Byron, La Malédiction du Génie, so after exchanging correspondence, Michel came out for a visit. His predecessor ended up adopting him. Having been consul since 1956, Martineau wanted to retire and asked Michel to take over in 1987. “I said yes as I was craving money and it was originally only for three years. I’ve renewed ever since.”
His duties are predominately those of a curator but, because he oversees French territory, the post merits the title of honorary consul. “There’s no point trying to explain why a French consul should be on an island where there is only one French person,” he shrugged.
After a quarter of a century he still feels very French and merely a guest on St Helena. I wondered if his time had felt like being in exile. “No, never,” said the 46-year-old from Picardy, “I’m comfortable being the only Frenchman on the island and it was my choice to come here.” Asked if there was anything he missed, Michel said: “Yes, confit de canard. Every time I go to Paris I do my confit de canard. Then there are veal and oysters… it’s food-related things I miss.”
Napoléon moved on to Longwood House on 9 December 1815 after the renovations had finally been completed; his generals lodged in a separate wing. In contrast to secluded Briars’ temperate climate, Longwood’s higher elevation and exposure (518 metres) make it noticeably chilly and misty. Napoléon complained bitterly about the weather and the view, although I thought the grassy Deadwood Plain arching upwards towards a brooding black volcanic headland called The Barn was rather dramatic. But then Napoléon’s view included an entire infantry regiment camped in eyeshot on Deadwood for the duration of his exile.
The French tricolore ripples above the rambling single-storey property of about 20 rooms, where two local women, Ivy and Jo, show around the trickle of visitors arriving each day. We whistled through Longwood’s billiard room where Napoléon reportedly spread his maps on the baize and dictated notes of his magnum opus. The salon has a replica of his deathbed, while the dining room contains busts of his first wife Joséphine and the son he would never see again, the short-lived Napoléon François Charles Joseph (1811-32). Beyond the bedroom is a copper bath to which Napoléon increasingly retreated for long soaks as his apathy grew. In a side chamber, a fragment of his burial shroud bears the imperial ‘N’ moniker.
“The house was damp and had rats, which they used arsenic to kill… that’s where the poisoning stories of Napoléon come from,” said Ivy tantalisingly. The generals’ quarters remain closed but Michel has secured €1.4 million in European funding for repairs, which will be completed by 2014.
But life wasn’t all bad at Longwood. At first Napoléon threw himself into dictating the memoirs, intended to secure his historical legacy. “It’s obvious that he had decided to make his own history,” explained Michel. “Napoléon was well-informed of the importance of history and wanted to be part of it.” So he never thought about escaping to resurrect his emperorship? “No, he made it clear by never talking about returning to Europe. His writings only ever talked about himself in the past – the future was always absent.”
In microcosm, Napoléon ran a formal household in keeping with his imperial status. They were well fed: daily rations included 40 kilograms of meat and 17 bottles of wine. Napoléon took walks, rode and designed the attractively regimented gardens that still surround Longwood House.
He also received visitors, whom he invariably charmed into sympathising with his sense of injustice about the treatment meted out by the British. Ever the master propagandist, his ploys included breaking up his silverware to feign hardship. Using messages smuggled off the island he gained widespread support for his cause, particularly in Britain. Whig leader Lord Holland would later call his treatment “a national disgrace”.
It was the arrival of a new governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, on 14 April 1816 that would dramatically alter the dynamics of Napoléon’s incarceration. Lowe was chosen to enforce the British government’s strategy of ensuring their captive never escaped. A stickler for rules, he clashed with Napoléon on the five occasions they met in 1816: squabbles included security around Longwood and Lowe’s refusal to address Napoléon as ‘Emperor’ – instead insisting upon ‘General’. After 1816 they never met again and continued their arguments through intermediaries.
Public opinion in Britain and France would later judge Lowe a harsh jailor, but Michel blames this on the British government. “They chose him to withstand Napoléon’s strong capacity for seduction. Lowe was meticulous and obsessive, and incapable of taking a quick decision. There was a pettiness about him and his army career was miserable in the days when an officer could make a very good career.”
One Napoleonic site that has not survived once stood near Longwood House. “For the last years [of exile] Longwood’s floorboards were rotting and the roof didn’t hold the rainwater,” explained Michel. In 1818, after several years’ procrastination, Lowe finally sanctioned the building of a grand new residence known as New Longwood House, but Napoléon died shortly after it was finished. Following years of mixed usage, New Longwood was demolished after World War II to make way for a dairy.
“It was an amazing house,” Michel said. “Just to tell you how much I liked it, I used its plan to build my own house. I refused to stay at old Longwood (where his predecessor lived).” His house is adjacent to Briars and is an elegantly spacious property built around an internal courtyard of tropical foliage and a pond. I’m certain Napoléon would have approved.
Old Longwood has been substantially renovated throughout Michel’s tenure and will form an important part of bicentennial events commemorating Napoleon’s exile. In 2016/2017, 30 pieces of furniture will be sent to Paris to appear in a re-creation of Longwood House at the Hôtel National des Invalides. The furniture will then be returned and Michel hopes to have Longwood faithfully restored to how it looked at the time of Napoléon’s death in 1821.
He is also excited about how St Helena’s first airport, due to open in Prosperous Bay in 2016, will put the island on the Napoleonic trail. “The airport will bring a lot of visitors curious about this story,” he said.
Throughout my week – that is how long visitors wait on the island before RMS St Helena returns to Cape Town – I grew to love the island’s craggy, fertile beauty and discovered other places touched by the Napoleonic legacy.
The current governor’s 1792 Georgian residence, Plantation House, has a chandelier in the dining room taken by Lowe from Longwood House after Napoléon died. The former emperor coveted this house, as apparently he did another attractive 18th-century plantation house called Farm Lodge on Rosemary Plain. It is now a small hotel run by Steve Biggs, who showed me an original wine-cooler acquired from Longwood and we drank the island’s pure Arabica coffee seated on Napoléon’s original chaise longue. Elsewhere, the picturesque, volcanic countryside around Sandy Bay shelters the Mount Pleasant residence where in October 1820 an ailing Napoléon made his last social call: breakfast with the magistrate Sir William Doveton.
Thereafter, the procession towards his death on 5 May 1821 was a pitiful one, according to Michel. “He was a hypochondriac. Just read his writings for the last three years for daily symptoms and concern only about himself. It was pathetic.”
Michel wouldn’t deign to comment on theories about Napoléon being assassinated through poisoning, without evidence existing. If anything, Napoléon was “poisoned by boredom,” he said.
“The autopsy showed ulcers of chronic disease; his liver was affected and his intestines. They were not all deadly but combined it could have had this effect.But psychologically he was waiting for death and had given up on his own life.” Unwin writes in his book that stomach cancer is now widely believed to have caused Napoléon’s death.
I had one last pilgrimage to make – to Napoléon’s tomb set in a charming valley of pines. He chose this picturesque site in case his body would not be returned to France. Its local name is Sane Valley, a cruel island pun derived from Napoléon’s stated desire to be buried on the banks of the River Seine.
Instead, he was encased in four coffins, clothed in his beloved green uniform of the Chasseurs de la Garde regiment. Enclosed by railings and bordered by busy Lizzies, the tombstone bears no inscription. General de Montholon had asked for it simply to read ‘Napoléon’. Lowe insisted on adding ‘Bonaparte’, because he believed that using only the first name would confer a royal status on Napoléon. Refusing to yield, de Montholon left the tombstone blank.
The story now moves forward 19 years to 1840, when Generals Bertrand and Gourgaud arrived back in James Bay on the ship La Belle-Poule to take Napoléon’s remains home to France. It is said they found the corpse almost perfectly preserved within its airtight coffins. The body arrived in Cherbourg in late November and was then taken down the River Seine by boat and barge towards its eventual resting place at the Hôtel National des Invalides. A tearful Bertrand placed Napoléon’s sword on the coffin. In Britain Sir Hudson Lowe, unpopular because of his perceived treatment of Napoléon, had seen his career peter out and never attained the high office that he craved. Napoléon had decisively won their ultimate battle of legacy.
According to Unwin, “it was a sadly squalid and miserable end to his life, but perhaps no more so than the agony and suffering of the hundreds of thousands who had died as a result of Napoléon’s pursuit of his destiny during the previous three decades.”
But Michel has a different take. “It’s a beautiful ending, like a movie where you end up crying. The story was already extraordinary for his life, but the way it ended was even more fascinating. Imagine you had to write it as a novel. You might say, ‘I would not go that far because it looks far-fetched’. To make him exiled on a rock in the middle of the ocean between two continents,” he laughed. “You cannot make up a story like that.”
The return sea fare from Cape Town in a twin-share cabin on RMS St Helena’s A-deck costs around £2,000 per person. International flights to and from Cape Town are not included.
Tel: 0207 575 6480
The ship’s exact departure and arrival times can vary according to sea conditions, so travellers are urged to book an overnight stay in Cape Town before and after the voyage to allow enough time to get the outgoing trip and their flight home.
In Cape Town
76 Orange Street
Tel: (RSA) 21 483 1000
Five-star colonial hotel in the Gardens district.
West Quay Road
Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Tel: (RSA) 21 410 7100
Stunning waterfront hotel near the departure port.
On St Helena
The Town House
Tel: (UK) 290 3030
Homely B&B. Doubles from £120, including breakfast.
Tel: (UK) 290 4040
Boutique plantation house. Doubles from £140, including breakfast.
Tel: (UK) 290 2529
Traditional, historic hotel. Doubles £80, including breakfast.
Terrible Exile: The Last Days of Napoleon on St Helena, by Brian Unwin, is published by I.B. Tauris, priced £20.