Saturday, 31 October 2015

Flight No OR1502, Gatwick to St Helena: The Impossible Dream?

On Moday 2nd November at mid-day it will be possible to buy tickets for the first ever flight from Gatwick to St. Helena. The fares are cheaper than a combined flight via South Africa: £1299 economy class,£1799 economy plus; children £799. Prices are for the return ticket. This is a charter flight, and no single fares are available. Flight time is approx 11 hours, with a short refuelling stop in Banjul, Gambia.

The first flight leaves Gatwick on Sunday 20th March. Saints will be able to book a passage for departure from St. Helena on 21st March. The next flights will be two weeks later: Sunday 3rd April/Monday 4th April.

The charter flight programme is being provided by the fledgling Atlantic Star Airlines in collaboration with TUI-fly, which will operate a Boeing 737-800.

Experts on St Helena history will realise that the initial flight number recognises the date St. Helena was discovered. The return flight number will be OR2002, reflecting the date that Saints regained their British citizenship.

Of course the planned first flight depends on St. Helena airport being ready, and as all those who love the island will testify after a few drinks at the Consulate, everything always goes according to plan on St. Helena. Anyway hats off to the enterprising people at Atlantic Airlines who at considerable personal risk are trying to make this dream a reality.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

A Gift to the Emperor Napoleon by a British Admirer

Bust of Charles James Fox presented to Napoleon at the Elysee Palace on May 1st 1815

I have previously blogged about the Honorable Anne Seymour Damer, like so many Whigs a great admirer of Napoleon. As Napoleon hurriedly prepared for the oncoming battle against the formidable coalition raised against him, Mrs Damer, then in her 66th year, hastened over to France to present the above sculpture of Charles James Fox.

I am surprised that Napoleon found time to see her. I am also intrigued as to how and through whom the meeting was arranged.

I have now learned more about this remarkable lady from a recently discovered Facebook page and a website.

Mrs Damer had met Napoleon and members of his family in 1803 after the Treaty of Amiens, which allowed many English people to visit France after 14 years of revolution and war. At that meeting she had presented terracotta statues of Nelson whom Napoleon admired, and Charles James Fox, a Whig hero whom Napoleon often claimed in 1814-15 could have avoided war between Britain and France.

Apparently at the 1803 meeting Mrs Damer promised Napoleon a marble bust of Fox, and this was completed later and sent to France in 1812, but no opportunity for a formal presentation occurred until May 1815. In return Napoleon presented her with a diamond encrusted snuff box that now resides in the British Museum. Inside the box a gold plaque bears the following inscription:

'THIS BOX WAS GIVEN BY / The Emperor Napoleon of France / TO THE / HONORABLE ANNE SEYMOUR DAMER . / as a "souvenir" / (the word he used) / In consequence of her having presented him with / A Bust of Mr. Fox. executed in Marble by herself. / The Bust had been promised at the Peace of Amiens / was finished 1812. & sent to France where it remained / but was not presented till May 1st 1815 when by command of / His Imperial Majesty / ANNE SEYMOUR DAMER / had an audience for that purpose. / AT THE PALAIS ELYSÉE WHERE THE EMPEROR THEN RESIDED.'

Richard Webb has published a biography of this remarkable lady: Mrs D: The Life of Anne Damer (1748-1828) Hardcover – Sep 2013.

The bust of Fox was located in a cupboard at Malmaison. I am very grateful to the author for giving me permission to publish this rare photo of it.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo

Waterloo has long been a cornerstone of English/British nationalist mythology.(1) The dust had hardly settled on the field of battle and the bones buried before tourists started to arrive to witness the scene of the nation's great triumph over Napoleon.

.. the fame of all the past will for ever be overshadowed by the lofty image of Britain as she now exists, seated on the summit of an era destined to be supreme over all others in the world's annals. .. It would absolutely seem as if Bonaparte had returned from Elba only for the purpose of elevating still higher than it was the renown of Britain. (2)

In Went the Day Well David Crane has disassembled the mythology and provides a snapshot of a Britain which had "the most barbaric penal system in Europe" whose soldiers put up with "the gallows the lash and the firing squad" for "the freeborn Englishman's right to be hanged for stealing a sheep, and a Britain in which the great mass of people were worse off in 1815 than when the war had started in 1792." (3)

It was a Britain whose army officers were a caste, commissions were bought and there was an "atmosphere of privilege, deference and noblesse oblige," which contrasted with the French "liberty, equality and fraternity" (4) A surgeon who attended the wounded on the field of battle was struck by the "defiant, impenitent anger of the French wounded and dying". (5) The British army by contrast was driven less by patriotism and a defence of high ideals, but was "a world of its own, its own rituals, its own codes of honour, and its own loyalties" (6)

Crane devotes much attention to the fate of poor Eliza Fenning , a servant girl whose execution in June 1815 shortly after Waterloo became a cause célèbre, with 10,000 attending her funeral, and whose name was blackened by a Government which saw "every protest as part of a wider conspiracy". (8)

In June 1815 as the battle with France approached, thousands queued in Piccadilly to see Lefèvre's portrait of Napoleon. On the day that news of the victory arrived in London, Charles Grey, future Prime Minister, was apparently telling everyone who would listen that the world needed the genius of Napoleon. In public the Whigs who had been critical of Government conduct since the beginnings of the Peninsula war were silenced, although privately not reconciled to the restoration of the Bourbons and the defeat of the forces of liberalism on the continent.

Across the country celebration was subdued because of sorrow at the number of casualties. The soldiers themselves did not share the elation of the propagandists: "what three days have I passed, what days of glory, falsely so called and what days of misery to thousands" wrote one officer; another wrote regarding a query about the conduct of the cavalry in battle "I have not been able to collect all the particulars .. I am sure it will be said or sung by all the partisans of the British Government and all the Tories of the United Kingdom for months and years to come, for further details, therefore, I shall refer you to the Gazette. " (7)
Also here are opponents of the war: Hazlitt who hated Tories, their placemen and pensioners, and "the mental servitude into which the nation had sold itself"; John Cam Hobhouse, one of Napoleon's greatest admirers, waiting on the Swiss-French border for news of his brother, who as he feared was killed at Waterloo; the British soldier who thought it strange that "two of the most civilised nations, ranked foremost in every department of knowledge, science and art, found no other way of settling their differences." (9) Then there is the army officer serving in Paris after Waterloo, who wrote that the French people well knew that any who insulted their king would be bayoneted by the British army, "and this will account for the sudden change in their loyalty ..from their Idol Napoleon (properly named) the Great to an old bloated poltroon.(11)

Crane's final chapter provides a discussion of the myth itself:

A profoundly Protestant sense of 'election' had lodged deep in the English psyche for centuries, and Waterloo came as the ultimate confirmation of that belief, the triumphant demonstration .. of Britain and her Empire's special place in God's unfolding purpose .."

1 . In fact a later Briton might almost be forgiven for not realising that Blucher and the Prussians were even there, let alone that they made the decisive intervention in the battle. Only 36% of Wellington's troops at Waterloo were British (and that does not include the Prussians), and the majority of the British troops were Scottish and Irish. See The Independent article on the myths of Waterloo.
2. Chester Courant , 1st August 1815
3. David Crane Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo (London 2015) p. 94, 306
4. Crane pp 63
5. Crane p. 254.
6. Crane page 301
7. Crane pp. 229, 255
8.Crane p.288
9. Crane p. 113
10. Crane p. 309

Monday, 31 August 2015

Napoleon - buried in a Suffolk Churchyard

Not many people can say that their parents are buried close to Napoleon!

I first saw this grave at my mother's funeral in the same year that Napoleon, the Suffolk one, died. At the time I knew little about Napoleon Bonaparte, and nothing of his place in the popular imagination and memory of the inhabitants of these islands.

Some 20 years after the Suffolk Napoleon was born, in what at the time would have seemed far off Manchester, the future writer Anthony Burgess's father apparently wondered whether his son would be another Napoleon, but he didn't go as far as Mr Harper's parents, settling on the names John Anthony for his son.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Black Rock by Louise Hoole

The latest historical novel on Napoleon, by Louise Hoole

The daughter of a former Governor of St. Helena, Louise Hoole spent a number of her early years on the island, fell in love with it, and has subsequently done a great deal of research into the captivity of Napoleon.

The divide between "history" and "literature" is not as clear cut as many imagine, but having admitted that, I should declare that I am not a great fan of historical novels. I cannot fully understand why an author puts considerable effort into research, and then writes a book which contradicts the findings of that research! Despite that reservation I must admit that I enjoyed Black Rock . I particularly admire the economy and precision of Louise Hoole's writing. The first few pages convinced me that I would have to read further:

I staggered to my feet, wrapped a pillow around my head, and forced myself to suffer the appalling pain of movement. The shriek of the doorknob as I turned it was like that of a man losing a limb.
As I entered the billiard room, the dreadful noises seemed to die down as quickly as they had begun. I closed my eyes .. When I opened them again, I found myself looking down upon a body. I recognised immediately that it was my own.

The novel explores the motives and feelings of those who shared Napoleon's exile on St. Helena, and as the author admits in an appendix, she is persuaded by the research of Ben Wieder that Napoleon was poisoned by one of his own followers, perhaps because of their hidden Bourbon sympathies.

The novel also attempts to explore Napoleon's own feelings, by making him, or rather his ghost, the narrator of most of the chapters. This is a task beyond the capabilities of a mere historian: Napoleon kept no diary and confided in nobody; the voluminous first hand accounts of the captivity all take an external view of the main player. The only other very different attempt that I have come across was the journalist Jean-Paul Kauffman's The Dark Room at Longwood, which is among the secondary sources Louise Hoole cites in an appendix. Lord Rosebery's, Napoleon the Final Phase is also mentioned in the same place. Like Rosebery, Louise Hoole has a lot of time for General Gourgaud, perhaps because of his lack of deference to Napoleon, and she even extends Gourgaud's actual stay on the island by three years!

Appropriately perhaps for a former resident of Plantation House, Ms. Hoole implies that Governor Hudson Lowe's failed career and shattered reputation was all the design of Napoleon. I am persuaded that Lowe, an appropriate tool and a scapegoat for an unpopular British Government, had more than a hand in his own downfall. Napoleon's aim was to secure his own return to Europe from an exile that he thought was totally unjustified and a betrayal of the confidence he had shown in surrendering to the British Government. Within that framework Lowe was little more than an irritation, and his appointment an insult. But hey, this is a novel, and an enjoyable one at that! I look forward to hearing Louise Hoole's talk at the next meeting of the Friends of St Helena.