THE TRAVELLING HISTORIAN -- ST. HELENA

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ST.HELENA

When we first saw St. Helena, we shared Napoleon's shock at seeing the rock on which he was to serve his life sentence..

St. Helena Island
a 122-square-kilometre island of volcanic origin about 1930 km off Africa's south-west coast with a population of 5,500 residents.
photo by
G. Wilson

"Death is nothing, but to live defeated is to die every day."
Napoleon

From Glory to Gloom


To mold Napoleon's memory myth and reality have joined hands.

Napoleon Across the years
1797 at 28 leading general of the Revolution
1802 First Consul and Master of France;
1813 after Russian Defeat, last days of power;
1813 on board ship to St. Helena leaning against cannon the British called "Emperor's Cannon"
last three depict him at St.Helena gaining weight as the end approached.
[from The Murder of Napoleon by Ben Weider and David Hapgood]

"The legend of Napoleon grew from his monologues at St. Helena where he was anxious to present himself as a man of peace eager to unite Europe in a confederation of self-governing nation-states. "

A cocky Little Corporal ate breakfast on silver plates with his officers at Caillou farmhouse on the morning of Sunday 18 June 1815. Napoleon was so certain of winning at Waterloo, he brought his robes of state to wear when he addressed the people of Belgium.

Le Caillou Farmhouse, Belgium

Napoleon was cautioned by his commanders to be wary of Wellington and expect a fiercesome fight, "Sire, l'infanterie anglaise en duel c'est le diable." (In a straight fight the English infantry are the every devil.) Napoleon brushed off their concerns. "Ce sera'affaire d'un dejeuner." (This will be a picnic.) Napoleon onsidered it wrong to praise the enemy "for to do so is to take away from oneself; in war morale is everything"

Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas York & Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte by Delaroche

Battle of Waterloo
by William Sadler
Waterloo is a small town a few miles south of Brussels, Belgium

On the afternoon of Sunday June 18, 1815 the Battle of Waterloo was at its height - a vast melee of dying and death.

Battlefield Chaos

Wellington

Napoleon met his doom at the hands of the Duke of Wellington's coalition army. The esprit de corps of the French collapsed and even the Old Guard faltered, failed and fled chaotically. "Sauve que peut." 'Save yourself' became the watchword.

Beating A Hasty and Hectic Retreat
by
Johann Lorenz Rugendas

Napoleon hollared to halt their flight, but the tumult took his words away and his figure was smothered by the smoke of battle. Napoleon joined the 40,000 rushing down the roads,he attached himself to one of the more orderly regiments, dismounted and walked along with his soldiers.

Seemingly unmindful of the fact that after fifteen years of war, he was considered the bane of Britain's existence, Napoleon wondered whether England, if he voluntarily surrendered, might treat him as a distinguished prisoner and permit him to have a modest plot of land on which he could live out his life as a peaceful squire. Hopeful of that happening, he turned himself in to the English and awaited word of his fate. His wars had cost the world the lives of between five and six million combatants and civilians.

On July 13, 1815 Napoleon addressed this letter to the Prince Regent.

"Royal Highness, Exposed to the factions which divide my country and to the enmity of the greatest Powers of Europe, I have terminated my political career and I come like Themistocles to throw myself on the hospitality of the British people. I place myself under the protection of their laws, which I claim from Your Royal Highness as the greatest, the most constant and the most generous of my enemies."

Shortly after six o'clock on 15 July 1815, a month short of his forty-sixth birthday, a boat was sighted coming from shore. A familiar-looking figure now a little fat could be seen standing in the stern. Napoleon boarded the English warship HMS Bellerophon which had fought him at the Nile and Trafalgar. The guard did not present arms, for he was received without the honours generally paid to persons of high rank. He wore an olive-coloured great coat over a green uniform with scarlet cape and cuffs, green lapels turned back and edged with scarlet, skirts hooked back with bugle horns and embroidered in gold, plain sugar-loaf buttons and gold epaulettes. He had a small cocked hat with a tri-coloured cockade, plain gold-hilted sword, military boots and white waistcoat and breeches.

Napoleon was received by Captain Frederick Maitland, who described his prisoner as he stepped aboard.

"He was a remarkably well-built man, about 5 feet 7 inches tall. His hands were small and had a woman's plumpness to them rather than the robustness of a man's. His eyes were light grey, teeth good and when he smiled his countenance was highly pleasing. His hair was dark brown, nearly approaching black with no grey." The ship became a tourist attraction as hundreds of small boats hovered about all hoping to catch a glimpse of so famous a prisoner. Napoleon appeared to enjoy the attention, appearing each day on deck wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Imperial Guard. At times he smiled and raised his hat to the ladies.

His naval escorts found him charming. He was keenly interested in the operation of the Bellerophon, questioning the officers and men about their duties. Some of the ship's complement spoke a little French and Italian and they found Napoleon to be charming. A midshipman later recalled the thrill of delight he being near enough to touch an emperor, "the great Napoleon." who smiled at him. The British fleet had determined his fate and Napoleon frankly admitted this to Bellerophon's captain. "If it had not been for you English, I should have been emperor of the East, but wherever there is water to float a ship, we found you in our way. In all my plans, I have always been thwarted by the British fleet."

Little did Napoleon think as he watched the shores of France recede from sight that it would be his last look at his beloved country. He stayed at the rail from dawn to dusk watching the coast fade away.

HMS Bellerophon
Painting by Q.W. Orchardson

The British government pondered long and hard about what to do with their distinguished but very dangerous prisoner. He deserved execution and should surely be grateful if they merely imprisoned him. Some mercy was due him for freely surrendering, but no matter, mercy would never permit him to flee and fight again. There must be no possibility of escape. It was decided his home would henceforth be a 42-square mile speck of lava located in the south Atlantic Ocean some 1200 miles from Africa known as St. Helena.

When informed of his fate, Napoleon was appalled and cried that he was to be "condemned to a living death." Napoleon always assumed that Wellington was the man behind the British government's decision to exile him to St. Helena. Wellington had visited the island in 1805 and he told a friend, "The interior of the island is beautiful and the climate apparently the most healthy that I have ever lived in."

In fact it was a civil servant who recommended "St.Helena as the place in the world best calculated for the confinement of such a person." Lord Liverpool, the prime minister, said that "the situation is particularly healthy and with luck Napoleon would very soon be forgotten." His prediction proved to be wide of the mark .

Napoleon's protestations fell on deaf ears and on August 4 the Bellerophon left Plymouth for Portsmouth where it surrendered its prisoner, his retinue of a handful of oddly assorted companions, five friends, their servants and their belongings, to a larger ship, the 74-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Northumberland. Napoleon was received on board the Northumberland only as a lieut.-general. It was noted by those observing his arrival that he had a bald spot at the back of his head and that his figure was full and legs were good. During the procedures "the most awful silence prevailed so that you could have heard a pin drop in the sea."

On August 8, 1815 Northumberland left Portsmouth for St. Helena. After two months at sea she dropped anchor off Jamestown, the capital city of St. Helena. Napoleon stared in silence at "the ugliest and most dismal rock conceivable, its rugged, splintered surface rising like an enormous black wart from the face of the deep." This hard hostile forbidding landscape, the appalling prison of Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte, was a far cry from the lush green fields of France and the haunting beauty of Elba on Napoleon's native Corsica. Here he was to spend the remaining six years of his life, gazing out to sea, re-writing history and placing on others the blame for all that had gone wrong.

At the time of Napoleon's arrival on the tiny spot in the Atlantic six kilometres long and 4 kilometres wide the population was some four thousand. This included a garrison of one thousand now tripled because of Napoleon's presence. Excitement mounted as the islanders awaited the arrival of their illustrious military leader. He finally came in on a small boat but it was too dark to distinquish his features. The Record Book of St. Helena on that date, October 17, 1815, records the arrival on the Northumberland of "General Napoleon Buonaparte and certain individuals as state prisoners."

Jamestown, St. Helena Island - THEN
from an engraving done in 1806 by J.Clark and J. Hamble

Jamestown, St. Helena Island - NOW
photo by
G. Wilson

Sign to Longwood House, St. Helena Island,
photo by
G. Wilson

The drive from Jamestown takes a half hour along very winding, narrow roads that are hardly wide enough to accommodate one let alone two of the small cars that speed up and down them. Sharp, nearly ninety-degree turns mean many blind spots that require a blast from the horn to warn any oncoming vehicle of one's approach. Hills and valleys abound on an island that has few flat stretches.

Hills and vales of St. Helena Island
photo by
G. Wilson

Longwood House, the home of Napoleon, served at various times as a stable for cows, a barn and later a summer residence for the lieutenant governor of the island. A wing was added and the structure converted into a living space for Napoleon. Today it is maintained as a museum which is visited by thousands of tourists, some of whom are rather famous, their photos scattered throughout various rooms in the building. The latest according to the visitors' book was one of Elizabeth II's grandsons.

Longwood House - THEN
from a sketch by Louis Marchand

Longwood House "where Napoleon eked out his exile on St.Helena." by Hulton Getty

Longwood House- NOW
Photo by
G.Wilson

Entrance of Longwood House

A Vista from Longwood House
photo by
G. Wilson

The house is located deep in a valley far removed from any anyone in beautiful surrounding with lovely outlooks all around of forests and fields, Surrounded by flower gardens it is very attractive and large containing a pool room, library, living and dining rooms, a big kitchen and a number of bedrooms, all encirling a courtyard. Very little of the furniture in the house was there at the time of Napoleon. The exception is a comfortable sofa that was his favourite resting place.

Napoleon's Original Sofa at Longwood House
photo by
G.Wilson

Bust of Napoleon's great love, Josephine
photo by
G.Wilson
In a note written by Napoleon that was recently discovered, he apologized for an argument they had the night before and said,
"I send a kiss for your eyes, your nose and your mouth."
[It is expected that it will be auctioned off for thousands of dollars.]

Napoleon's 'Incomparable' Josephine

Coins Bearing Napoleon's Likeness
photo by
G.Wilson

Napoleon's Death Mask
photo by
G.Wilson

In St. Helena Napoleon entered into a strange half world between freedom and prison. Despite his relative liberty in this isolated location, little chance was taken of his escape. Wherever he looked about him, he saw signs of his captivity. In full view of Longwood House, 500 soldiers of the 53rd Regiment were stationed. Red-coated sentries were posted all along the four-mile stone wall that enclosed Longwood. Lookouts kept watch on the surrounding heights and maintained contact with semaphore flags to relay news of Napoleon's whereabouts. The four possible island landing sites were heavily fortified. Five warships off Jamestown circled the island day and night. All this was supplemented by the ultimate safeguard to his sentence - the great, gray sea stretching away in all directions.

Shortly after Napoleon's arrival at Longwood House, a new governor, Lieutenant General Sir Hudson Lowe, arrived on the island. Lowe had served under the Duke of Wellington, who called him a "damned fool," rather sympathized with Napoleon and privately deplored his treatment at the hands of Lowe. Wellington thought Lowe, "a very bad choice for the job." Given his Lordship's prestige in England, the wonder is the Lowe retained the job.

Napoleon and Lowe got on badly from the start. "He has the most villainous face," said Napoleon after their first meeting. The two men met only six times. The spectre of Elba haunted Lowe, who was terrified Napoleon would somehow escape and set Europe afire again. His fantasized fears led to his bizarre behaviour towards Napoleon and the other exiles. This included keeping Napoleon under constant watch. That infuriated Napoleon and caused him to give up riding and largely remain indoors.

Hudson Lowe

Napoleon was a creature of habit, following basically the same routines evvery day. A horseback ride early in the morning began his day, followed by a stroll in the garden, where he was often heard humming an opera off-key. Next a mid-morning bath in scorching hot water in which he lolled for hours reading or talking in the tin-lined box. Lunch around noon was prepared by cooks he brought with him. It consisted of his favourite boiling-hot chicken soup, two meat dishes and vegetables. When he went out, he dressed in knee britches and green hunting jacket. Pinned on the jacket was the Legion of Honour, a distinguished award which he inaugurated to recognize meritorious individuals - like himself. Napoleon was the first to receive it. In his pockets he kept a spyglass, a snuffbox and a supply of licorice which he constantly chewed.

Napoleon's health began to fail in 1818, when ailments attacked him on a dozen fronts. He suffered from a diminished appetite, toothaches, headaches, vomiting, dysentery, an ulcer and the cancer revealed by a postmortem autopsy, which gave him unrelenting pain. He strongly believed the English wanted a slow death, was fearful of poison and suspected the wine contained more than grapes. A tourist guide at Longwood said that all those living at Longwood besides Napoleon, drank the same wine and never complained about its taste or any negative effect on them. He said Napoleon suffered from a kidney disease and had stomach ulcers.

Our guide attributed Napoleon's death to stomach cancer, a disease from which both Napoleon's father and brother died. He said the arsenic [*]found in strands of Napoleon's hair - which had been cut off in order to make his death mask - was prevalent in the hair of many others at that time. It was applied to Napoleon's hair to preserve it. It is said Napoleon died of internal disorders and from lack of exercise, both of which brought on old age when he was still in his forties. Others disgree and attribute Napoleon's death to poisoning by arsenic, which they maintain was found in large quantities in his hair. Napoleon agreed with the latter and six days before his death he issued the following directions to his doctor.

"After my death, which cannot be far off, I want you to open my body. I want you to remove my heart, which you will put in spirits of wine and take to Parma to my dear Marie-Louise .... I recommend that you examine my stomach particularly carefully; make a precise, detailed report on it and give it to my son.... I charge you to overlook nothing in this examination." Napoleon also charged that, "I die prematurely assassinated by the English oligarchy."

Death Watch
Dr. Antommarchi with hand on pillow; Louis Marchand, chief valet, holding towel; Bertrand, member of Napoleon's exile entourage, seated and his wife Fanny at foot with their three children; Montholon with arm outstretched, another member of Napoleon's exile entourage.

Napoleon died at 5:49 p.m. on May 5, 1821, murmuring, "A la tete de l'armee - at the head of the army."

Napoleon had asked a young Corisican doctor trained in pathology named Antommarchi to conduct the autopsy. It was done in the presence of sixteen, including six British surgeons. After cutting open the chest cavity to expose the vital organs, Dr. Antommarchi removed the heart and sealed it in an alcohol-filled, silver jar. Napoleon had ordered it sent to his widow, Marie-Louise, but the English governor later ordered it buried with the body. The stomach was removed and opened for the others to examine. When Dr. Antommarchi suggested he remove Napoleon's brain for "the state of that organ in a man like Napoleon would be of the greatest interest," the executors of Napoleon's estate denied permission, saying the body was not to be mutilated any more than necessary. Once the doctors had finished examining the organs, the chest cavity was washed out with an aromatic liquor and the incision sutured. The seven doctors handed in four reports. Their only agreement was that there was a ulcer in the stomach near the pylorus, the opening from the stomach into the intestine. This led to the commonly accepted belief that Napoleon had died of cancer of the stomach or pylorus, the latter having been the cause of his father's death. One ulcer had eaten a hole in the stomach, causing the spred of putrefaction throughout the body. The bladder containing tiny stones was small and the left kidney was malformed.

On May 9, 1821 accompanied by a considerable procession, Napoleon's casket was taken to a grave outside Longwood in the "Valley of the Geraniums," the location it was thought he would have chosen himself. On the coffin lay the mantle he had worn at Marengo and the sword which had been a proud part of his official costume and an emblem of his life. On arriving at St. Helena, when his sword had been requested by his captors, Napoleon's response indicated they would have to take it from him. He was allowed to retain it. [**]

Entrance to burial site of Napoleon's Tomb
photo by
G. Wilson

Napoleon's Tomb
photo by
G. Wilson

The Valley of the Geraniums is well-named because the narrow path from the entrance to the cemetery was very long and downhill all the way. Walking to the tomb was enjoyable; returning was a real chore! A steady stream of tourists made the walk and finally arrived at what to many was something of an anti-climax. Expecting to see a most impressive memorial to a man of great historical importance, we were surprised instead to see but a simple gravesite comprised of a concrete slab enclosed by a wrought iron fence. While some might have thought the tomb a bit tawdry, everyone was impressed with the beautiful surroundings which all belonged to France. The land along the path and around the gravesite had been granted by Britain in perpetuity to France making it as much a part of France as Paris.


Flowers around the Tomb
Photo by
G. Wilson


Flowers around the Tomb
Photo by
G. Wilson


Flowers around the Tomb
Photo by
G.Wilson

In 1815 Louis XVIII and the aristocrats of France were happy to be rid of the ruler who had brought France to its knees financially and whose military adventures had cost the country its youth. Little was heard of him and they were happy that was the case. On April 15, 1821 Napoleon made his will. It contained the following declaration. "It is my wish that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine in the midst of the French people whom I have loved so well."


Louis XVIII

"Let the Triumph of the Ashes," as it came to be called, redeem the shame of his dreary imprisonment. Request Great Britain to grant the removal of Napoleon's remains to France.

When these words reached France they were tantamount to an imperial command. First quietly here and there, then rising to a cresendo, an appeal was made to the nation, >

"Bring him home."

1.. [*] The Murder of Napoleon by Ben Weider and David Hapgood, Methuen, Toronto 1982 The title says it all. After analyzing Napoleon's hair and the Corsican doctor's notes, it is charged that he died from acute arsenic poisoning. Swedish researcher, Per Engstrom, studying a strand of hair purportedly from Napoleon, has found eight times the normal amount of arsenic.

2. [**]

Napoleon, whose biography Winston Churchill intended to write, still intrigues and fascinates the world, whose wealthy rush to acquire his possessions, no matter the kind nor the cost. Two examples have recently made the news.

1. CBC News June 9, 2007
Descendants of Napoleon sell his sword

The gold-encrusted sword used by Napoleon to drive the Austrian army from Italy will be on the block Sunday at an auction house in Paris. The ornate sword, with geometric designs in gold on the hilt and much of the blade, has been in Napoleon's family for more than 200 years. French auctioneer Jean-Pierre Osenat shows a gold-encrusted sword that Napoleon wore into battle and will be auctioned on Sunday. Auctioneer Jean-Pierre Osenat estimates its value at about $1.7 million. "It's at the same time a weapon of war and a very beautiful work of art," Osenat said. Because the sword has been declared a national treasure, the buyer must have a French address and keep the weapon in the country for at least five months a year. Napoleon, who was not emperor at the time, had the sword created for him with a curve in the blade after fighting in the Egyptian campaign. He noticed that the Arab swords which were curved were very effective in cutting off French heads. He wore it into the battle of Marengo in June 1800 and then gave the sword to his brother as a wedding present. It was passed down in the family and is now owned by eight direct descendants of Napoleon. It was purchased for in excess of $200,000.

3. Toronto Star
Conrad Black's Expensive Possessions

It was charged by the defence at the trial of Conrad Black. that the prosecution sought to disparage him to the jury because of his wealth, by revealing that he owned a a porcelain bottle that once belonged to Napoleon, purchased for the 'special price' of US$12,000.

4. The Guardian
Dec. 9, 2008
St Helena
St Helena smoulders as airport plan is frozen, Islanders fear for 100m scheme to fly in tourists.

Population 'gutted' by decision, says governor, Owen Bowcott The Guardian, Wednesday December 10 2008 Article history:

In Jamestown's 18th century castle, overlooking the churning South Atlantic, the governor of St Helena spoke of a "deep, smouldering anger" among the island's isolated population. Eric Benjamin, a councillor, who had just returned from a carol concert in St Paul's cathedral, described it as "a lousy Christmas present".

After seven years' detailed planning for a 100m airport and the promise of economic self-sufficiency, the remote British dependency was yesterday consumed with resentment about a sudden freeze imposed on its long-cherished project. Plans to fly in thousands of tourists, generate sustainable incomes and link the territory to the outside world, have become the latest victim of the global credit crunch.

The government announcement at Westminster was slipped out in a written parliamentary statement late Monday afternoon. The Department for International Development (Dfid) and the Treasury were "in continuing discussions about issues of concern regarding access to St Helena", the secretary of state, Douglas Alexander, revealed. "As a result, there will be a pause in negotiations over the St Helena airport contract." Many of the 4,000 residents of the 47-sq-mile volcanic outcrop believe "pause" means "cancelled". The governor, Andrew Gurr, said he had been told that the delay was due to "international financial unrest.Most of the people are very upset. Gutted was one word used. They feel very let down. All our planning and all our thinking has been towards the airport for some time. The cost of [travel] by sea is more expensive. It will almost be back to square one if we don't go ahead with the Italian contractor [Impregilo]. This will cost more for the British taxpayer if we don't have the airport."

St Helena was the last home of emperor Napoleon. During the 19th century, it was a Royal Navy base for operations against slave traders. The bodies of 10,000 slaves, who had died before they could be liberated, are buried on the island. St Helena has grown accustomed to being let down, Gurr added. The creation of the Suez canal diverted much of the seaborne trade 150 years ago. Over the past decade the population has dropped by almost a third as younger people have emigrated to the Falklands or Ascension island where wages are significantly higher.

The only way of reaching St Helena by a regular service is aboard the ageing RMS St Helena. The ship leaves Portland, Dorset, twice a year and calls at other remote Atlantic territories and at Capetown. There is no jetty and sometimes cruise ships which anchor off Jamestown cannot land their passengers.

"This decision is devastating," said Benjamin. "It is keeping the island in limbo." It has been made at a time when the UK government is submitting claims to the UN for extending control of the seabed around many of its Atlantic dependencies. A Dfid spokesman yesterday denied that the project has been cancelled: "There are a number of financial and economic questions to discuss, taking account of the changed economic climate."

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