Monday, 11 February 2008

Some reading and a strange encounter on R.M.S St. Helena

My preparatory reading in the two years or so before I went to St Helena was extensive, maybe even obsessive.

It included the account of Napoleon's captivity by a former Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, (Napoleon: The Last Phase (1900)), which I read twice - and I now feel a third reading may be imminent. It is probably still the best account of the captivity, and I may discuss it again later. For the moment though I will recall one passage which has stayed with me.  

         ".. it is peculiarly painful for an Englishman to read. He must regret that his Government ever undertook the custody of Napoleon, and he must regret still more that the duty should have been discharged in a spirit so ignoble and through agents so unfortunate. If  St. Helena recalls painful memories to the French, much more poignant are those that it excites among ourselves." (p. 57)

I also dipped into another book written in the same period (pre World War I) - Sir Walter Runciman's polemical Tragedy of St. Helena (1911).  Reading the preface - I confess I have not ever completed the whole book -  was for me an early eye-opener.  Runciman had run away to sea at the age of 11 (in 1858), and he recounted the stories told him by fellow sailors for whom Napoleon had become a romantic hero:

              "Some of their most engaging shanties were composed about him, and the airs given to them, always pathetic and touching, were sung by the sailors in a way which showed that they wanted it to be known that they had no hand in and disadvowed the crime that was committed.  As an example I give four verses of the shanty "Boney was a Warrior" as it was sung in the days I speak of ...

             They sent him to St Helena! Oh! Aye, oh!  They sent him to St. Helena,
                                                     John France Wa! (Francois)
             Boney was ill-treated! Oh! Aye, Oh! Boney was ill-treated,
                                                     John France Wa!
             Oh Boney's heart was broken! Oh! Aye, Oh!  Oh! Boney's heart was broken
                                                    John France Wa!
             But Boney was an Emperor! Oh! Aye, Oh! But Boney was an Emperor!
                                                    John France Wa!

I also read  Betsy Balcombe's (Mrs Abell's) account of Napoleon's stay at the Briars: To Befriend an Emperor (republished 2005), and a great deal else.  

Of all my reading however, I found Jean-Paul Kauffman's Dark Room at Longwood: A Journey to St Helena, the most absorbing, and I would recommend it to anyone planning a visit to St. Helena. It is beautifully written and translated. I confess to reading it three times before I went, and  I lent my copy to two fellow passengers on the R.M.S..  Both read it as avidly as I had.  

The Dark Room is the only book I have come across which goes beneath the surface and tries to explore how Napoleon must have felt about his imprisonment. Kauffman is able to bring a unique perspective on Napoleon's misfortune - he himself was a hostage in Beirut for three years. This helps him to understand the psychological anguish which Napoleon went through: time is the enemy of all prisoners, particularly a prisoner with the mental and physical energies that Napoleon had always exhibited.

Alongside Kauffman's visits to Longwood and the attempts to explore the meaning of exile and imprisonment for Napoleon, I also liked the way in which he used the supporting characters he met on the island: the complex French representatives Gilbert and Michel Martineau, who mysteriously had chosen to live on their remote rock in the South Atlantic; two ageing English ladies whom he keeps running into on the island, one of whom provides a constant irritation in her questioning of his interest in Napoleon; finally, and in a strictly non-speaking role, but vital to Kauffmann's exploration of captivity, is the Dutch captain found guilty of drug smuggling. Kauffmann observes him and other prisoners down by the sea shore; like all prisoners held on St. Helena they are able to move around but are still not free - unsurprisingly the English lady had a point of view about that as well.   We are informed in a postscript to the book, that the captain later escaped to South America, the only person ever to do so.

Further information about the Dutch Captain's escape was gained later in our visit to the museum in Jamestown where a cutting from the Daily Mail (is there no escape from that?) is exhibited.  This indicates that the Dutch captain had slipped away late on a saturday night - presumably whilst many of the inhabitants were drinking at Donny's bar down by the sea shore. He sailed away in a boat made for him for £100 by a local - and lived to tell the tale, escaping first to South America and then back to Holland.  His boat was apparently named "Napoleon's Revenge"!  One wonders what happened to his accomplice.  At the time of the captivity, helping Napoleon to escape was punishable with death without benefit of clergy!

Anyway I digress.

Armed with my prior reading, and my well thumbed copy of Kauffmann, after a long wait standing with our luggage outside the Seafarers Mission in Cape Town, and then what seemed an even longer wait in a minibus whilst a security official ticked all the boxes on a form whose significance escaped us, and then watching whilst our luggage was weighed and labelled "heavy" or "very heavy", we were deposited on the quayside, and finally got on board R.M.S. Helena.   
On our first day, before we had even left port - during life-jacket drill to be precise - I happened to ask a man in the Sun Lounge whether the seat next to him was taken.  Never lacking in inquisitiveness, I soon established that the person to whom I had addressed the question was someone whom I had read about in Kauffmann's book.  No not the Dutch Captain, but Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, honorary French Consul and curator of the French Properties on the island.

He was much younger than I had imagined, and somewhat amused, or maybe embarrassed by my reference to him as one of the stars of Kauffmann's book.  For the rest of the journey, and whenever I met him on the island (and you do keep running into people on St. Helena), I plagued him with questions about the captivity.  He however, got his own form of "Napoleon's Revenge" on me - of which perhaps more later.

Apart from his roles as curator and honorary consul, and his career as an artist, about which he is far too modest, Michel is also building up a major collection of virtual source materials for scholars who wish to do research on the captivity.

On his official web site and his own blog there is a rather formal, even austere picture of him;

 In fact he looks rather like a captive himself - and perhaps he is.  St. Helena is a hard place to escape from!

Anyway, I prefer to think of him like this:

    or like this

I think his dog Mpho, which I am told means little gift, should also be included:

1 comment:

Michel Dancoisne-Martineau said...

OK OK John... now the presentation have been done... it's time you talk more about the Judicial's... before the letters to & from London...