Wednesday, 30 December 2009
I have recently been contacted by Roel Voss from the Netherlands, who told me about the web site he has been putting together in Dutch and in English. I found it interesting, and others may like to take a look at it.
I liked the idea of the section he has begun which lists place names associated with Napoleon taken from the(Guide Napoleon), with an alphabetic index.
I also highly recommend the video he has posted of his trip from Namibia to St Helena in 2009 - complete with music and other sound effects! It conveys the journey and the experience of the island very well. Don't be put off by the Dutch titles.
The main menu, although mainly in Dutch, is readily understandable by this lazy English speaker. It should pose no problems to those who are less linguistically challenged. I have also added a link to Roel's recently started blog along with other related blogs on the left side panel.
Saturday, 26 December 2009
On visiting Longwood House I was curious as to the identity of the distinguished looking couple in this picture. I was told it was Prince Napoleon, photographed with his wife on the occasion of their visit to St Helena. I didn't like to reveal my ignorance and so asked no further questions.
I gave it little further thought, but a recent post on "My Napoleon Obsession" about Marie Bonaparte (1882-1962) made me dig further.
Prince Napoleon turned out to be Louis Jérôme Victor Emmanuel Léopold Marie Bonaparte(1914–1997), a descendant of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jérôme Bonaparte (1784–1860). He was born in Belgium, as members of the French Royal families were banned from France from 1886. His mother was Princess Clémentine of Belgium, the daughter of Leopold II of Belgium (a cousin of Queen Victoria no less) and Marie Henriette of Austria.
As a small child he had spent some time in England where he stayed with the Empress Eugénie, the widow of Napoleon III. The UK seems to have a soft spot for Kings and Emperors, and they all seem related to Queen Victoria! As a young adult he joined the Foreign Legion, fought with the French resistance, and was officially allowed back into France by General De Gaulle in 1950.
His claim to the Imperial crown was derived in 1926 from his father, Napoléon Victor Jérôme Frédéric Bonaparte (1862–1926). The latter became Napoleon V on the death of Napoleon IV, who had died fighting for the British army against the Zulus in South Africa! His grandfather was Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte (1822-1891) who was Napoleon's nephew.
Who then is the current Prince Napoleon?
This is not an easy question, and I am not sure what authority a mere Englishman should turn to for an answer. Suffice it to say that it is either Napoleon VII , Charles Marie Jérôme Victor Napoléon Bonaparte (1950-), who was somewhat controversially disinherited in Napoleon VI's will, or his son, Napoleon VIII, (Jean-Christophe Napoléon (1986-).
Monday, 21 December 2009
St. Helena from the terrace of the Castle by George Hutchins Bellasis (1778-1822), soldier and amateur artist, from his Views of St Helena (1815)
Bellasis had been to St Helena twice, and he was probably trying to cash in on his knowledge of the island that had been chosen for Napoleon's exile.
this singularly romantic Island is the appointed residence of one of the most extraordinary men recorded in the annals of History.
As he was keen to point out, this particular view afforded a glimpse of the Briars:
the Briars, marked in this View, though not seen from the Roads ; this situation is the more interesting, as it is said to be the place intended for the residence of Buonaparte.
Presumably he was referring to the house just about visible at the base of the V shape made by the hills as you look up Jamestown valley.
I also found the dedication of this slender volume interesting.
I think we can safely say that Bellasis was not a Whig! (1)
Bellasis's second and final visit to St. Helena was in 1812. By the time of Napoleon's arrival, he had retired, and was living with his wife and 6 children in the villa he had built for himself in Bowness on Windermere in the English Lakes. Not a bad place to live!
(1) It turned out that Bellasis knew Wellington from his days as a soldier in India. When Bellasis arrived in India, Colonel Arthur Wellesley, as he was then, was apparently recuperating from a severe case of the 'Malabar Itch' (a kind of ringworm) which had prevented him from fighting in Egypt. He and Bellasis were close neighbours, and knew each other quite well.
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard During the Retreat from Moscow (1856, by Adolphe Yvon 1817-1893). From the Manchester Art Gallery.
Temperatures of below -25°C killed as many as the enemy, and by December 1812 only 13,000 of the Grand Army remained.
A very large painting, it looks much better in the original, and conveys the horror of that campaign all too well.
I have been meaning to post this for some time. I have put it on now to complement the thoughts by Miss Elizabeth (The Emperor and I) on snow in Holland, which seems a little rarer now than it was in the days of Brueghel.
It is about the only painting that I can recall from the Manchester Gallery that has any Napoleonic theme. Liverpool seems a little better in this respect.
Sunday, 13 December 2009
Stanley Kubrick's "Napoleon": The Greatest Movie Never Made, available from Taschen for a mere £450.
Actually it is not a book at all, it opens to reveal a hollow case containing ten books telling you everything you might want to know about the film that Kubrick never made.
Apparently Kubrick did two years of intensive research and amassed some 17000 slides of Napoleonic imagery.
His historical adviser was another Markham, the Oxford historian Felix Markham, whose study of Napoleon appeared in 1963.
As Alison Castle has commented, it offers a chance to experience the creative process of one of cinema's greatest talents as well as a fascinating exploration of the enigmatic figure that was Napoleon Bonaparte.
The movie itself was considered to be too big a commercial risk, and Kubrick had been beaten to the finishing line by the 1970 film, "Waterloo". Kubrick's film though would have had a far wider scope, tracing Napoleon from his childhood until his fall.
Included in the books are letters from his prospective Napoleons, Oskar Werner and Ian Holm, and a letter from Audrey Hepburn turning down the role of Josephine.
I doubt whether Father Christmas will be bringing this for me.
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
WOOD, Lieutenant George Horsley Wood (1793-1874), of Falcon Cliffs, Douglas, Isle of Man. (1)
A man of wide intellectual interests: poet, musician, elocutionist, philosopher. He wrote sonnets and critiques on metaphysical subjects.
A second lieutenant in the 20th Foot, he was posted to St Helena. There he was assigned to watch Napoleon from the vantage point of Mason's Stock House, the other side of Fisher's Valley from Longwood. (2)
Lieutenant Wood was one of many who filed past Napoleon's body at Longwood, and also provided an interesting description of Napoleon's funeral, about which he wrote a poem (See my blog of 7th March 2008).
Coincidentally he was also back on St. Helena for the exhumation in 1840, and wrote another poem:
What though lingering years had pass'd away,
That form remained untouch'd by fell decay
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..
And some who ne'er had seen that face before, Beheld, amazed, Napoleon slumbering there.
A very religious man, he and a number of other young Christians on St Helena used to meet nightly at Mason's Stock House and always prayed for the conversion of the Emperor Napoleon. The Governor, who had spies everyhwere, naturally heard of these activities, and was not entirely pleased with the form of words used to describe Napoleon to the Almighty.
A man of undoubted intellectual abilities, although perhaps not as great as he himself imagined, in later life he became rather an object of derision. He seems to have changed his religious affiliations quite a lot, and latterly had a brief flirtation with the Plymouth Brethren before the inevitable falling out.
He was always keen to tell anyone who would listen about his connection to Napoleon.
In 1853 he published a book of Poems, of which four were about Napoleon: Napoleon; Napoleon in Exile; On Revisiting St . Helena; On the Manner of Life and Death and Obsequies of Napoleon.
Lieutenant Wood and Napoleon III
In 1852 he was presented to Napoleon III at the Elysee Palace and gave the Emperor of the French the original sketch made by Rubidge after Napoleon's death.
He also apparently offered the Emperor a shaving-cloth blotched with Napoleon's blood. This gift was graciously declined, or so the story goes: Non-non-je vous remercie, Monsieur; gardez le je vous prie ! One wonders whether this story is really true!
Lt. Wood also became friendly with another of Napoleon's nephews, Prince Lucien Bonaparte, a keen linguistic scholar who was very interested in Celtic languages and once visited the isle of Man to study the etymology of the Manx Language. (3)
1. The son of Major General Wood and a grandson of the former Governor of the the Isle of Man, John Wood (1761-1777). Lieutenant Wood has appeared on this blog before. This entry has been inspired by an email from his great grandson who read my blog of March 8th 2008 on Napoleon's funeral. Lieutenant Wood's father, Major General Wood, was apparently the illegitimate son of the Governor according to my source.
2. Miss Mason lived at Orange Grove now known as Teutonic Hall. It is currently dilapidated. I am assuming that the Stock House was a smaller dwelling rather than the main house. Michel Martineau's blog of 11 Nov. 2008 entitled "Teutonic Hall ou MASON'S STOCK HOUSE", has some excellent photos of the poor state of the building now.
3. Louis Lucien Bonaparte (January 4, 1813 – November 3, 1891). The son of Napoleon's brother Lucien, he had been born in England during the brief period his father was detained by the British Government, and from the 1850's he settled in London. He was a British citizen, and in later life received a pension of £250 p.a. from the civil list for his philological achievements. Gladstone was once called upon to defend this grant in Parliament. He died in Italy but his body was brought back to England and he is buried in London. He is therefore one of at least four members of the Bonaparte family to be buried in England.
Sunday, 6 December 2009
Yet another book on the captivity - this time focusing on the last few days.
I will be very interested to see what he makes of it. As far as I know Brian Unwin is a journalist who writes largely for the Telegraph, and tends to specialise in birds. Wonder if I have got the right man? [No I hadn't! - see my comment February 15th 2010]
I don't recall any other secondary source which concentrates on such a short period, assuming that "last days" means just that.
For me the best although obviously partial, account I have read of the last few months is that in the Memoirs of General Bertrand Grand Marshall of the Palace, January to May 1821 (1)
This book is not due to be published until March 2010 though. I should by then have finished Lefebvre!
1. Bertrand's diaries were not deciphered until the 1940's. Only the ones for 1821 have been translated into English. (Cassell and Company, 1953).
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Not one of the best known images of Napoleon.
This picture of him with his nephews and nieces on the terrace at St Cloud was produced in 1810 by Louis Ducis (1775-1847), a student of Jacques-Louis David.
It is one of many reproduced in the Lefebvre book.
I was interested in it because I have a number of times commented on the pleasure which Napoleon derived from the company of children on St. Helena. Those interested should take a look at The Children of Longwood
Art historians would put the picture in a rather different context:
this gender-bent modern allegory of Charity was heart-warming, but also involuntarily somewhat sinister, since it radicalised the idea of the social non-existence of women found in the Code Napoleon - Philippe Bordes, Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile
However, if in reality Napoleon had in fact scarcely any free time to devote to his private life, one element remained to be settled: the future of the dynasty. The Empress Joséphine became sterile, it was necessary however for the Emperor to have an heir. The pictures of Ducis and Pauline Auzou interject then a kind of propaganda showing all the hopes placed by the French in the future of Napoleon. In this sense, they are more than simple scenes of intimacy .. - Jérémie Benôit
Quite coincidentally Napoleon may have enjoyed the company of children!
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
My Christmas present to myself has arrived: Georges Lefebvre's two books on Napoleon, From 18 Brumaire to Tilsit 1799-1807, and From Tilsit to Waterloo 1807-1815.
The author, a distinguished French Marxist scholar, wrote these before the war. They were translated into English in 1969, and have now been bound into a fine single Folio Society volume, with a new introduction by Andrew Roberts.
So far I have not got much beyond Roberts' introduction. I notice though that the period of exile on St Helena is dismissed by Lefebvre in a few telling lines:
His captivity was not only due to the terrifying effects of his very name; it was also an expression of vengeance against the upstart soldier who had presumed to take an archduchess to wife.
I was particularly interested to read his judgement on the breakdown of the Treaty of Amiens with England:
If Bonaparte's provocations are undeniable, nonetheless it is a fact that England broke the treaty and took the initiative to wage preventive war from the moment that she could hope for Russia's collaboration. Britain's justification was the preservation of the European balance of power, but this grave concern did not extend to the sea, since in her eyes God had created the oceans for the English. The conflict between Bonaparte and the English was in reality a clash between two imperialisms.Interesting that Roberts, a conservative British historian, quotes this passage in his introduction and says that it is probably not far off the truth.
I should perhaps warn potential readers that despite the title this is not a biography of Napoleon. Marxists don't really do biography and certainly don't indulge in trivia! It is as Lefebvre himself points out, a history of a period:
during the course of this period .. everything seemed to yield before him. It was he who dominated history. What then could be more natural than that this volume should bear his name?There are though a lot of beautiful pictures, many of which are new to me. Some 600 pages long, it should keep me busy for a day or two.
Tuesday, 24 November 2009
This time about Mount Pleasant, Sir William Doveton's fine home overlooking Sandy Bay, and the scene of Napoleon's last outing. (1)
Particularly interesting is the transcript from the Hudson Lowe papers which Michel describes quite justifiably as "un chef d'œuvre de bêtise et de vanité" ( a masterpiece of stupidity and vanity. ) The transcript includes those passages crossed out, which are every bit as revealing as those left in.
In this document, Sir William variously describes himself as"I", " the old gentleman" "Sir William" "the good knight" (crossed out!) and "Worthy Venerable Knight" ("Worthy" crossed out).
The visitor is of course usually referred to as "General", but also as "Napoleon" or "Bonaparte"; references to him as "Emperor" are enclosed in quotation marks to indicate that the term was used only by Napoleon's party. It is also noted that like Napoleon but unlike his companions, Sir William kept his hat on! These things were very important to Sir Hudson Lowe.
The report was written for Sir Hudson Lowe but also with an eye to posterity. After all, how many people could claim to have met both Napoleon and the King? The only defense is perhaps that at the advanced age of 67, Sir William had, as Gilbert Martineau put it, become "somewhat simple minded". (2) He was to linger on another 23 years! Apparently Napoleon tweaked his ear - something I thought that he did largely to children! (3)
Nevertheless it provides an interesting account of what turned out to be Napoleon's final social encounter with those outside his entourage. It notes Napoleon's appearance: his fat face and thighs, his paleness and Montholon's comment that he was suffering from a liver complaint.
For the anoraks among us the document does confirm that Napoleon had previously visited Mount Pleasant.
Anyway, this document which as far as I know has never been published in full, is well worth a read - and is of course in English!
1. This house and Sir William have featured on a number of previous posts that I have made. On my visit I described it as a sort of "dormer bungalow" and realised that it must have looked quite different when Napoleon visited. Sure enough, it was reconstructed by W.A. Thorpe in 1904. The Thorpe family, which has arrived on St Helena since Napoleon's time, is now probably the leading commercial family on the island.
2. Gilbert Martineau, Napoleon's St. Helena, John Murray 1968, p. 156
3. Clearly Sir William had heard differently: I have heard, that General Bonaparte’s custom of taking children by the nose, and grown persons by the ear is considered as a mark of in token of favour approbation . This passage from the document was clearly amended a number of times and then finally crossed out.
Friday, 6 November 2009
My youngest brother has sent me Flora Fraser's review in the Times of Clisson and Eugénie, Napoleon's short romantic novel which has recently been published in English.
The novel was written when he was only 26, after he had fallen in love and become engaged to Eugénie Desirée Clary, and had also already proved his worth as an artillery officer at the siege of Toulon.
The review is surprisingly favourable: "there is a wit and power about the writing and the characterisation that makes the reader regret that Napoleon Bonaparte did not write more fiction."
This sentiment was echoed by a neighbour of mine when I told him about it - "he might have done less harm had he stuck to novel writing!"
The review says that the novel "sheds light on how Napoleon saw himself at this time - as a man attracted by the life of reflection and that of action".
Like virtually every British person who writes on Napoleon, the reviewer cannot resist one barbed comment: "It shows a remarkable self-knowledge, a self-knowledge that later, one might be tempted to say, he lost ". For what it is worth I do not think that Napoleon lost his self-knowledge, certainly not on St Helena.
I often think of his comment to Gourgaud, who of all Napoleon's party proved the least able to cope with the rigours of exile on St Helena. "Do you not think that when I wake in the night I don't have bad moments, when I recall what I was and what I am now? " Such thoughts were private. Their absence in what he wrote or what he said is not proof that self-knowledge did not exist.
For Napoleon there was no person in whom he could confide, and no medium in which his innermost thoughts could be expressed. I do not think that he is as unusual in this as many imagine. I wonder how many autobiographies written by statesmen and lesser politicians really reveal their inner thoughts?
Monday, 2 November 2009
On taking up his post in 1808 Governor Beatson had found a population of 3600
living almost wholly upon the public stores; and obtaining most of the necessaries of life in profusion, at prices not exceeding one third of the prime cost.
The result was neglect of cultivation, a decline of industry, and a great increase in the costs of running the island, which had doubled between 1800 and 1808. He also claimed that he found
a garrison, as well as many of the inhabitants, immersed in the grossest intemperance .. from their excessive use of spirituous liquors.
From a perusal of the Judicial Records, 1811 seemed an uneventful year :
- a dispute over the property at Rock Rose Hill brought by Captain John Barnes against Major William Seale; the former appears to have been married at this time to the latter's widowed mother;
-one case of assault in which John Kay was awarded 5/- damages against John Knipe, rather less than the £500 he had asked for;
-William Balcombe and two others fined the sum of 40/- for not turning up for jury service;
- the usual reports by the wormers of cattle;
- a few coroners' verdicts, including one on "Peter a Slave. Verdict. Died by the Visitation of God".
Initial impressions were misleading. These were difficult times on the island.
Food, Spirits and a Not Very Happy Christmas
At one of the sessions of the court in 1811 the Governor tried to deal with profiteering from the sale of poultry. A Grand Jury was duly called and recommended to the court that the highest prices should be
Fowls 8s/- Geese 21s/- Ducks 10/- Turkeys 30/-
There were also shortages of flour and rice, and on December 11th a Proclamation was issued forbidding the sale of potatoes to ships, and restricting the price to 8/- a bushel.
These shortages triggered a major mutiny among the garrison on December 23rd. The Governor concluded that this was just a pretext:
the sole object of the late violent measures, was to compel this government to give spirits to the garrison; an object in which every drunkard on the island felt a deep and warm interest. (1)
The mutineers' harebrained plan was to seize the Governor and expel him from the island on a ship that was in port. Presumably this would have allowed them to drink themselves silly over Christmas before the inevitable retribution in the New Year. The Governor's reaction on hearing this was not to flee, but rather to order the ship to leave and to barricade himself and his family in Plantation House!
Prior to the mutiny a note was slipped under Mr Doveton's door presumably his house in Jamestown not Sandy Bay:
His it still your intension to percevere in your oppression and tyranney to wards the troops in this garrison, has hitherto you have done; if so you can expect nothing but an open rebellion.
I am autherized, by the troops of this island, to inform this Councel, if they do not immediately soply this garrison with liquor and provisions, in the same manner has Governor Brooks did (whose regulations you have voilated) you shall be made answerable for what will follow, except you make your escape good from this settlement.
It is in your power to prevent the impending vengeance which now hangs over your head's and save the lives of many poor souls, which will inevitably fall a sacrifice.
The mutiny, initially comprising some 250 soldiers, was soon put down, but not before the Lieutenant Governor, Colonel Broughton, had been seized by the mutineers at Longwood.
Among those commended by the Governor for their action against the mutineers was Major Hodson, later to be nicknamed "Hercules" by Napoleon. (2)
Nine of the ring leaders were court martialled and sentenced to death on Christmas Day. Six of them, Henry Sisell, Thomas Berwick, Archibald Nimmo, Robert Anderson, Arthur Smith, and Thomas Edgeworth were executed the same day at sunset on High Knoll; in what the Governor hoped would be seen as a manifestation of his mercy the remaining three, Peter Wilsey, John Seager and Richard Kitchen had their sentences remitted.
The court martial reconvened on 26th December, and convicted three more, of whom one only, named Hewitt, was executed before the whole garrison.
The Governor also detained a number of others, whom he determined to send off the island as soon as possible. (3) The remainder were granted amnesty. By the 31st December the Governor was satisfied that the mutiny was over.
Two Schools Created
On a more positive note was the creation of two separate schools " to improve the Religious and Moral Character of all Classes of the rising generation". The schools were apparently to be called "The Company's Upper School" and "The Company's Second School". The upper school which was to be open to " the Children of the Civil & Military Servants & of the most reputable inhabitants", was under the direction of our old friend, the Rev. Boys. The fees for the upper school were to be 3 guineas a quarter. An additional five shillings a quarter was to be charged for "Pens, Ink, Paper, Slate and Pencils – for those, only who learn writing and Arithmatick."
The lower school was under the direction of the Reverend Samuel Jones. The superintendent, Mr McDaniel, was to be paid £30 a year -enough to purchase 60 ducks or 20 turkeys at the prices previously quoted!
The children of the "lower classes of the inhabitants" were admissable to this school. The fees were to be 13s..6d, with 3 shillings for pens ink etc.
1. A very full account of the mutiny is given in Tracts relative to the Island of St Helena, Alexander Beatson, London 1816
2. Major Charles Robert George Hodson (1779-1858) of St Helena Regiment, and Judge Advocate. The son in law of William Doveton, he was Town Major in 1811. Napoleon called on him in 1815, and he and his wife dined at Longwood in 1816. He was at Napoleon's burial and again at his exhumation. He attained the rank of Lt Colonel, retired to England and died in Bath.
3. Those detained pending being sent off the island were R.Kitchen, S. Cahill and T. Williams ofCaptain Cole's Company of Artillery; Jacob Desney, John Finnerty, John Grant, James Clark, Andrew Clarke, James Small,E. Richardson and E. Randalls of the Grenadier Company; D. Frazer, T. Sullivan, J. Kennelly, M. Maroney, John Hall, Nich. Coote, P. McGuire of the Light Company and J. Mackle, J. Ward and D. Finn.
Saturday, 24 October 2009
I understand that letters addressed to Napoleon still sometimes arrive at Longwood House.
Nevertheless, on re-reading Laurie Lee's story of his walk across Spain on the eve of the Civil War, I was somewhat surprised to read the following account of a meeting in a bar in Madrid.
Another man nearby suddenly spun round upon me and thrust his red butcher-face at mine.
'Long Live Spain and Germany" he said, raising his fist. 'Death to America! And long live Napoleon!'
'Napoleon's dead,' I said primly.
He gave me a cunning look.
'Oh, no; we believe he's alive.' He raised his fist again. 'But death to France too! and if you're a Frenchman, excuse me ..'
Others like the lady who blogs on The Emperor and I, accept that Napoleon is dead, but claim to have seen his ghost. I keep trying to resist the comparison with Elvis Presley, but wonder whether Elvis will "live" as long as Napoleon appears to have done. Or, to put it another way, will the King live as long as the Emperor?
Monday, 19 October 2009
I was intrigued to read what the Government owned St Helena Herald had to say about the arrest of the Editor of the rival St Helena Independent, reported in my post of 10th October.
The answer is, not very much. But what it does and does not say is interesting.
Neither the particular incident nor the rival publication are mentioned.
Nevertheless the October 9th edition includes a press release from the Chief Executive of Solomon & Company revealing that she had asked the police to investigate how company information got into the hands of the media.
The paper begins with a rather oblique editorial which is worth examining.
It begins by pointing out that whilst the editor of the Herald is entitled to freedom of expression as every other Journalist, policy prevents the editor from commenting on matters that defame an individual or company so I will therefore leave it at that. But she doesn't. Later, after dealing with a totally unrelated issue she continues:
One might argue that there is a need for free press or free media and there is. But she notes that there are certain restrictions on a free press, and Defamation and Copyright, including using material before it has been released, are mentioned.
A few other comments caught my eye:
- Free press encourages journalists to keep the public informed to comment freely and expose wrongdoing but this does not mean the journalist has to do the wrong doing. I wonder to whom the Herald is referring?
- Is the required information of high public interest and not just what the public is interested in? One might wonder who decides what information is "high" public interest and what is not.
- Has it been released to the correct people before being published?
I can understand that being the editor of the Herald is not an easy job in circumstances such as this, and it is unwise for someone outside who does not know the full facts to comment, but if regret could not be expressed at the heavy handed action of the authorities (sledgehammers and nuts come to mind), it might perhaps have been better to have "left it at that."
Friday, 16 October 2009
Thursday, 15 October 2009
Some weeks ago (10th July) I did a piece on the armchair in Maidstone Museum which generated quite a lot of feedback and discussion.
I have now had a look at the extract from "Under Thirty-Seven Kings" by Lilian Boys Behrens, published in 1926, which claimed that Rev Boys was the first person that Napoleon spoke to on landing on St. Helena, and that Napoleon left Rev Boys a cane and an armchair.
I am a little sceptical about the first claim. My recollection is that virtually the whole of the population turned out to see Napoleon, who stepped ashore at dusk and walked between Bertrand and Admiral Cockburn to his lodging place. I am prepared to believe that Rev Boys may have been in prime position as Napoleon stepped on to the quay, but there is no supporting record that Napoleon spoke to anyone. All the accounts I have read indicate that there was complete silence.
The more I think about the Maidstone armchair the more confused I get. It seems to me we now have a number of competing versions:
1. The armchair was bought by Rev Boys after Napoleon's death, according to the documentation held by the museum, and passed into the museum's hands after the Rev Boys' death.
2. The armchair was bequeathed by Napoleon and was still in the family's hands in 1926 (Lilian Behrens) - so there must be two armchairs!
3. Most bizarre of all, according to the "local historian" interviewed by the BBC, Napoleon used to sit in the armchair when he visited Rev Boys! So the armchair never belonged to Napoleon!
At this point words fail me! I have had an email from Maidstone Museum. I don't think it is unfair to say that they have been unable to provide evidence corroborating the story given to the BBC about the alleged meetings between Rev Boys and Napoleon. I hate to think of people being misinformed in this way.
The information on death masks which also cropped up in discussion after my last posting is even more confusing as anyone who delves into the conflicting claims will find. Anyway I will cite again the article from the NY Times about the Rubidge death mask which ended up in the Boys family. This article is derived from the work by G.L. de St. M. Watson, the Wigan man who has made other appearances in this blog. A link to the article also appeared in an earlier entry on Cuba and Antommarchi.
Sunday, 11 October 2009
Good news for all those who are interested in Napoleon and wish to learn more about his final years on St. Helena.
There will be a programme of lectures on board given by Christopher Danziger of Oxford University. After the 5 day voyage from Cape Town, participants will then spend 12 days on St Helena, before returning on the R.M.S. to Cape Town. Whilst on St Helena a full programme of tours to the Napoleonic sites and other places of interest on the island has been organised.
Prices quoted vary greatly depending on the type of cabin selected. They range from £1768 per person for a very basic cabin shared by 4 people, up to £4519 for the best single cabin accommodation. The prices include:
- return sea passage Cape Town/St Helena/Cape Town including all meals on board;
- 2 nights accommodation in Cape Town;
- bed and breakfast accommodation on St Helena;
- programme of tours and events on St Helena;
- activities and talks on board the RMS St Helena.
The RMS St Helena website has further information
As anyone who has ploughed through my early blogs will know, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our trip to the island, and were very sad to leave. It is a very special place - but not Paradise!
We also found the R.M.S. St Helena a delightful ship, and particularly enjoyed the food and the friendly informal atmosphere. Please note though that it is not a cruise liner - it is a working mail ship, the life line to the island, and therefore carries all manner of goods and indeed all manner of people.
This particular trip seems to me to offer the added advantage of grouping together people who share a similar interest. This was not the case when we visited!
Some Images of St Helena
The Company has issued some images of St Helena to whet your appetite. They are all subject to copyright.
Saturday, 10 October 2009
Strange goings on on St Helena. Mike Olsson, the Editor of the Independendent, was apparently arrested and the offices of St Helena FM raided, because of a breach of confidentiality: Mike had revealed on air information from the accounts of Solomons and Company, one of the main companies that operates on the island. He was subsequently released, apparently without charge.
The Tristan Times describes this operation of the St Helena police as "comparable to going after a fly with a 0.22 rifle. Instead of obliterating the fly they managed to wound press freedom on St Helena - a small Island in the South Atlantic Ocean."
Whether this is simply an isolated heavy handed operation by an overbearing official or, as the Independent itself seems to claim, part of a more sinister pattern of suppression of freedom of the press, I am in no position to judge. The current edition of the Independent is certainly worth reading by anyone who cares about the people of St Helena.
Tuesday, 6 October 2009
As almost everyone should know by now, this year marks the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150 year anniversary of On the Origin of Species . Today we took two grandsons to visit the Darwin exhibition at Manchester's wonderful John Rylands Library.
Whilst there I dipped into The Voyage of the Beagle, and read Darwin's account of his visit to St Helena in 1836.
"Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains" is one of those nineteenth century aphorisms which have stuck with me since my youth - and Darwin certainly exhibited that.
He stayed only four days, but with the aid of a guide, a former slave, walked in all directions from morning to night and acquired a detailed knowledge of the island.(1)
He obtained lodgings within a stone's throw of Napoleon's tomb, on which he commented with a rather sarcastic footnote:
After the volumes of eloquence which have poured forth on this subject, it is dangerous even to mention the tomb. A modern traveller, in twelve lines, burdens the poor little island with the following titles, -- it is a grave, tomb, pyramid, cemetery, sepulchre, catacomb, sarcophagus, minaret, and mausoleum!
He also made a few comments about the situation of Longwood, without actually mentioning Napoleon or the Captivity:
Viewed from a short distance, it appears like a respectable gentleman's country-seat. In front there are a few cultivated fields, and beyond them the smooth hill of coloured rocks called the Flagstaff, and the rugged square black mass of the Barn. On the whole the view was rather bleak and uninteresting.
Other than that Darwin showed little interest in the Napoleonic sites. Darwin of course was not a tourist, and presumably did not wish to enter into controversy about the treatment of Napoleon at a time when the latter's body still lay on St. Helena. In any case he was entirely focused on his geological study, which was to form the basis of a later publication on volcanic islands.
Comments about St Helena
- St Helena's vegetation had
a character decidedly British. .. When we consider that the number of plants now found on the island is 746, and that out of these fifty-two alone are indigenous species, the rest having been imported, and most of them from England, we see the reason of the British character of the vegetation. Many of these English plants appear to flourish better than in their native country; some also from the opposite quarter of Australia succeed remarkably well.
The "English" appearance of St Helena:
The English, or rather Welsh character of the scenery, is kept up by the numerous cottages and small white houses; some buried at the bottom of the deepest valleys, and others mounted on the crests of the lofty hills. .. On viewing the island from an eminence, the first circumstance which strikes one, is the number of the roads and forts: the labour bestowed on the public works, if one forgets its character as a prison, seems out of all proportion to its extent or value.
Darwin was pessimistic about the future of the people of St Helena, and this long before the building of the Suez canal:
There is so little level or useful land, that it seems surprising how so many people, about 5000, can subsist here. The lower orders, or the emancipated slaves, are I believe extremely poor: they complain of the want of work. From the reduction in the number of public servants owing to the island having been given up by the East Indian Company, and the consequent emigration of many of the richer people, the poverty probably will increase. The chief food of the working class is rice with a little salt meat; as neither of these articles are the products of the island, but must be purchased with money, the low wages tell heavily on the poor people. Now that the people are blessed with freedom, a right which I believe they value fully, it seems probable that their numbers will quickly increase: if so, what is to become of the little state of St. Helena?
Finally I noted some caustic comments about the game-laws that were such a part of England and apparently of St Helena also.
Partridges and pheasants are tolerably abundant; the island is much too English not to be subject to strict game-laws. I was told of a more unjust sacrifice to such ordinances than I ever heard of even in England. The poor people formerly used to burn a plant, which grows on the coast-rocks, and export the soda from its ashes; but a peremptory order came out prohibiting this practice, and giving as a reason that the partridges would have nowhere to build.
Clearly Darwin was not a High Tory!
When it was time to leave, he did so with some sorrow, having so much enjoyed my rambles among the rocks and mountains of St. Helena . I think I know how he felt.
1. He described his guide as a very civil, quiet old man, and such appears the character of the greater number of the lower classes. It was strange to my ears to hear a man, nearly white and respectably dressed, talking with indifference of the times when he was a slave. Darwin could not abide slavery, as even a cursory reading of the Voyage of the Beagle makes clear. e.g. On the 19th of August  we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.
Monday, 21 September 2009
It is now 50 years since the Briars was added to the French properties on St. Helena.
I had forgotten this, but on return from a short internet-free holiday in Turkey was surprised to find a number of new postings commemorating this event on Michel Martineau's blog.
I know this property means a great deal to Michel, and he has devoted a large part of his life to it so that it can be enjoyed by future generations. I have provided a short synopsis on each of the postings. An English translation of all the French quotations is in the notes at the bottom.
The postings I have previously made on the Briars and the Balcombe family are as follows:
20th February 2008 - The Briars, Napoleon's 1st Home on St. Helena
2nd March 2008 - Maldivia to Francis Plain, St Helena
2nd September 2009 - Betsy Balcombe, Napoleon and the Briars
Together with Michel's postings these should provide a fairly complete guide for anyone who is interested in this part of St Helena, and in Napoleon's short and rather surreal stay with the Balcombe family.
17th September - from the beginning to the time of Napoleon
This covers the early history of the Briars: its various owners until it was bought by William Balcombe in 1811; the acquisition of its name because of the wild roses that grew there; the favourable climate,
A vrai dire, le climat y est idéal : très rarement les températures excèdent 35°C et fort peu souvent passent sous la barre des 18°C. Les pluies sont rares et les brouillards exceptionnels. (1)
which is contrasted with that of Longwood.
Nous pouvons, sans trop nous avancer, dire que les Briars sont le contraire de Longwood ; ils ne semblent n’exister que pour mieux souligner l’inconfort et l’insalubrité du plateau choisi pour loger l’Empereur. (2)
16th September - The Briars in Napoleon's Time
This covers the well known story followng Napoleon's arrival: his first two nights on board the Northumberland because no accommodation had been prepared for him; his first night ashore at Porteous's lodging house in Jamestown; his visit the next day to Longwood; his request to stay at the Briars when he caught sight of it on his return journey.
Napoleon's stay at the Briars is portrayed in dramatic terms as a mere interlude in which nothing of consequence happens, before the final act of the drama which is to unfold at Longwood.
Les espiègleries d’une des enfants, Elisabeth – plus connue par son diminutif Betsy – deviennent les seuls tracas d’un homme fatigué par plus de deux mois passés en mer. L’épisode des Briars est, dans la vie de Napoléon, un entracte où rien ne se joue et où tout est prétexte à la détente avant d’entamer le dernier chapitre, celui durant lequel le drame final va se dénouer. (3)
18th September - The Briars after Napoleon
This provides an account of the Briars after the Balcombe family had left.
For those who would like to visualise the setting in which Napoleon played with the Balcombe children, there is an excellent photograph of the Balcombes' home.
The house itself no longer exists. It was neglected, became unoccupied after December 1913, continued to deteriorate, and was finally demolished in 1947.
The pavilion in which Napoleon lived would also have disappeared in the 1950's had not one of William Balcombe's descendants, Dame Mabel Brookes, come to its rescue.
14th September - The Acquisition of the Briars
This provides an account of the intervention of Sir Norman and Dame Mabel Brookes who visited in 1957 and were shown the Briars by Gilbert Martineau.
His account is quoted in this posting:
Cette visite, et la nouvelle que je leur avais communiquée sur la disparition du Pavillon, allaient faire naître chez eux le désir de sauver le bâtiment et de l'offrir en France. Pour en devenir propriétaire, Dame Mabel s'entremit activement, mettant à contribution ses relations au Foreign Office et au Colonial Office et dut payer un prix élevé, sans rapports avec la valeur réelle de la propriété, attaquée par les termites. (4)
So ironically, much of the property which Betsy Balcombe claimed that Napoleon wished to purchase but was prevented from doing so for political reasons, now came into French hands. (5)
15th September - The Restoration of 1990
This posting provides information which was totally new to me.
There are pictures and a description of the total rebuilding of the Pavilion in 1990-1992, after the original building had become too dangerous to be opened to the public.
Michel accounts with justifiable pride the ongoing efforts to safeguard the Briars for future generations, and makes a dig at the unsightly Cable and Wireless site which adjoins the Briars.
Nous sommes parvenus à y replacer le mobilier mis à la disposition de Napoléon par les Balcombe. Les Briars retrouvent peu à peu leurs jardins en terrasses. La vallée qui va de la cascade en forme de cœur jusqu’à Gordon Post est maintenant protégée et ne subira aucune nouvelle implantation immobilière. Seule ombre à ce tableau : les visiteurs doivent encore traverser l’entrepôt – et dépotoir – de la compagnie de télécommunication "Cable & Wireless" pour accéder au musée. Toutefois ce hideux spectacle de rouleaux de câbles téléphoniques laissés à l’abandon et d’un entrepôt en ruine ne fait qu’accentuer la beauté et le charme de la propriété française. (6)
Finally as he notes,
Même si l’allée de banians que Napoléon empruntait n’existe plus, la magie des Briars est intacte et opère toujours. (7)
1. To tell the truth, the climate there is ideal: the temperature rarely gets above 35°C and very seldom goes below 18°C. Rain is rare and fog is exceptional.
2. We can, without getting too far ahead of ourselves, say that the Briars is the opposite of Longwood; it seems to exist only the better to underline the discomfort and the insalubrity of the plateau chosen to house the Emperor.
Perhaps it should be pointed out that the weather at Longwood can be a matter of controversy. Some of Napoleon's strongest critics have been known to claim that it is the healthiest place on the island. It should be pointed out that Michel Martineau has lived at Longwood and from choice now lives at the Briars - in fact he has lived considerably longer at both places than Napoleon did - so he seems uniquely placed to comment on this issue!
3. The pranks of one of the children, Elisabeth - better known by her Betsy diminutive - become the only annoyances of a man tired by more than two months spent at sea. The episode of Briars is, in the life of Napoleon, an interval where nothing happens and where there is a pretext of relaxation, before the last chapter begins, in which the final drama unfolds.
4. This visit, and the news that I had communicated to them about the disappearance of the House, were going to give birth in them the desire to save the building and to offer it to France. To become owner, Lady Mabel lobbied actively using her relations with the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office, and she had to pay a high price which bore no relation to the real value of the property, attacked as it was by termites.
5. Smaller additons have been made in recent years, and larger amounts surrounding the Briars have been donated to the St. Helena National Trust.
6. We managed to replace there the furniture placed at the disposal of Napoleon by Balcombe. The Briars finds little by little its terraced gardens. The valley which goes from the heart shaped waterfall until Gordon Post is now protected and will not suffer any new building. The only shadow on this picture: the visitors must still cross the warehouse - and dump - of the telecommunication company " Cable & Wireless" to reach the museum. However this hideous spectacle of rolls of telephone cables left abandoned and a warehouse in ruins simply accentuates the beauty and the charm of the French property.
7. Even if the avenue of banyan trees that Napoleon used does not exist any more, the Briars is intact and always works its magic.
Tuesday, 8 September 2009
About the only thing Bill Gates and I have in common is that we both underestimated the significance of the internet. On a visit to CERN in 1993 I was underwhelmed when shown the world's first web browser developed by a man I now know to be Tim Berners Lee. The excellent meal in the staff cafeteria made far more impression on me!
Anyway I digress. Following my last posting on Betsy Balcombe and Napoleon's surprising ability to relate to children, I have been reading Captain Basil Hall's account of a meeting with Napoleon at Longwood.
This has got me thinking about another side of Napoleon that may surprise those brought up with a one-dimensional view of him - namely his amazing memory, his curiosity, and his ability to absorb and synthesise large amounts of information on all manner of subjects. Hence the title of this piece!
The French historian Lefebvre, a stern critic of the Emperor, probably put it as well as anybody :
His brain is among the most perfect that have ever been. His ever ready attention seizes indefatigibly upon facts and ideas, which his memory registers and classifies. His imagination plays with them freely, and a state of incessant secret tension enables it tirelessly to produce those political and strategic theses which reveal themselves to him as sudden intuitions comparable to those of the mathematician and the poet." (1)
His thirst for knowledge continued almost to the end, as is indicated in the secret diary kept by the faithful Bertrand. (2) As he lay dying Napoleon questioned doctor Arnott at great length about London and England, and discussed the different characteristics of England and France. He also enlisted his entourage to research information for him.
April 3rd 1821 The Emperor passed a bad night. He felt, so he said, as "though he had the tunic of Deianira on his back." He then asked someone to find out exactly what was meant by the tunic of Deinara.
April 12th Napoleon complained about the delay in receiving the 500 volumes he had asked Lady Holland to send him.
April 20 The Grand Marshall [Bertrand] who had been doing some research for the Emperor, went to his home for a short time while Marchand was reading to the Emperor. The Emperor then asked for the Grand Marshall, and in the evening he made him explain why "he had not returned as he had been asked for an account of the Saracen Kings of Corsica."
April 29th The Emperor could only be recognised by the multitude of incessant questions he asked.
The Meeting with Captain Basil Hall, August 1817
Hall put in to St Helena on his way home from Asia, where had visited the island of Loo-Choo. (3) He was very pleased to be allowed a meeting with Napoleon, which he was to report in the book published on his return. (4) He seems to have addressed Napoleon in a manner that Hudson Lowe would not have approved of.
Napoleon first questioned Captain Hall at length about the career of his father, whom Napoleon remembered from the time when they were both at Military College at Brienne. Apparently he was the first Englishman Napoleon had ever met. Napoleon then questioned him at considerable length about the island of Loo-Choo. This was fairly typical of such meetings. It was a bit like a viva voce examination.
Having settled where the island lay, he cross-questioned me about the inhabitants with a closeness — I may call it a severity of investigation — which far exceeds everything I have met with in any other instance. His questions were not by any means put at random, but each one had some definite reference to that which preceded it or was about to follow. I felt in a short time so completely exposed to his view, that it would have been impossible to have concealed or qualified the smallest particular. Such, indeed, was the rapidity of his apprehension of the subjects which interested him, and the astonishing ease with which he arranged and generalized the few points of information I gave him, that he sometimes outstripped my narrative, saw the conclusion I was coming to before I spoke it, and fairly robbed me of my story.
Several circumstances, however, respecting the Loo-Choo people, surprised even him a good deal ; and I had the satisfaction of seeing him more than once completely perplexed, and unable to account for the phenomena which I related. Nothing struck him so much as their having no arms. " Point d'armes !" he exclaimed, " c'est a dire point de cannons — ils ont des fusils ?" Not even muskets, I replied. " Eh bien donc — des lances, ou, au moins, des arcs et des fleches ?" I told him they had neither one nor other. " Ni poignards ?" cried he, with increasing vehemence. No, none. " Mais!" said Buonaparte, clenching his fist, and raising his voice to a loud pitch, " Mais ! sans armes, comment se bat-on ?
1 could only reply, that as far as we had been able to discover, they had never had any wars, but remained in a state of internal and external peace. " No wars !" cried he, with a scornful and incredulous expression, as if the existence of any people under the sun without wars was a monstrous anomaly.
In like manner, but without being so much moved, he seemed to discredit the account I gave him of their having no money, and of their setting no value upon our silver or gold coins. After hearing these facts stated, he mused for some time, muttering to himself, in a low tone, " Not know the use of money — are careless about gold and silver." Then looking up, he asked, sharply, " How then did you contrive to pay these strangest of all people for the bullocks and other good things which they seem to have sent on board in such quantities ?" When I informed him that we could not prevail upon the people of Loo-Choo to receive payment of any kind, he expressed great surprise at their liberality, and made me repeat to him twice, the list of things with which we were supplied by these hospitable islanders.
He then required me to tell him where the diflferent parts of these dresses were manufactured, and what were the different prices — questions I could not answer. He wished to be informed as to the state of agriculture in Loo-Choo — whether they ploughed with horses or bullocks — how they managed their crops, and whether or not their fields were irrigated like those in China, where, as he understood, the system of artificial watering was carried to a great extent. The climate, the aspect of the country, the structure of the houses and boats, the fashion of their dresses, even to the minutest particular in the formation of their straw sandals and tobacco pouches, occupied his attention.
He asked many questions respecting the religion of China and Loo-Choo, and appeared well aware of the striking resemblance between the appearance of the Catholic Priests and the Chinese Bonzes ; a resemblance which, as he remarked, extends to many parts of the religious ceremonies of both. Here, however, as he also observed, the comparison stops ; since the Bonzes of China exert no influence whatsoever over the minds of the people, and never interfere in their temporal or external concerns. In Loo-Choo, where everything else is so praiseworthy, the low state of the priesthood is as remarkable as in the neighbouring continent, an anomaly which Buonaparte dwelt upon for some time without coming to any satisfactory explanation.
With the exception of a momentary fit of scorn and incredulity when told that the Loo-Chooans had no wars or weapons of destruction, he was in high good humour while examining me on these topics.
" What do these Loo-Choo friends of yours know of other countries?" he asked. I told him they were acquainted only with China and Japan. " Yes, yes," continued he ; " but of Europe ? What do they know of us ?" I replied, " They know nothing of Europe at all ; they know nothing about France or England ; neither," I added, " have they ever heard of your Majesty." Buonaparte laughed heartily at this extraordinary particular in the history of Loo-Choo, a circumstance, he may well have thought, which distinguished it from every other corner of the known world.
It should be recorded that Napoleon was right to be sceptical! (5)
1. Quoted in Pieter Geyl, Napoleon For and Against (London 1965) p. 377
2. Memoirs of general Bertrand Grand Marshall of the Palace January to May 1821 (London 1953)
3. The Ryukyu Islands until the mid 20th century called Luchu, Loochoo, or Lewchew,
4. Hall was captain of the Lyra, one of ships taking members of Lord Amherst's Mission to China.
5. The ex-emperor indeed was in the right, for subsequent accounts have shown that the Loo-Chooans must have cunningly imposed both upon Hall and Captain Maxwell, by whom the Alceste was commanded in the expedition, and that these gentle islanders used not only weapons and money, but were among the most merciless pirates in the Yellow Sea. Note on Basil Hall
Wednesday, 2 September 2009
Napoleon never ceased to be the preoccupation of my mother's life..suddenly thrown into close proximity with the most dramatic figure of the age, she was ill-prepared to withstand the resultant repercussions: glamorous, disturbing, intimate, even sinister . - daughter of Betsy Balcombe
Whilst still a baby Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe (known as Betsy) and her elder sister Jane were brought to St. Helena by her parents William and Jane Balcombe, and lived on the family's small estate at the Briars.(1) In subsequent years three brothers were born. Then, in 1815, when she was still only 13, Napoleon came to stay in the pavilion in the garden, and for her things would never be the same again.
Napoleon stayed a couple of months until his new home was ready. Living in close proximity to the Balcombe family was to be his happiest time on the island. He left with great reluctance, his modest temporary home surrounded by troops in a gesture designed to give him a message that he was in no position to ignore. Betsy was heartbroken, but was comforted by Napoleon's insistence that she should come and visit him at Longwood.
William Balcombe (portrait below) acted as a purveyor for Napoleon's household, and so the family were able to make frequent visits to Longwood House and to Mme Bertrand. In 1818 however, they left the island, ostensibly because of Mrs Balcombe's health, but at least in part because of Hudson Lowe's suspicions about William Balcombe's dealings with Napoleon. (2) Betsy was again in tears. For Napoleon this was one of a number of departures which increased his isolation. In saying goodbye he told them that he would surely die on the island he hated.
Balcombe's subsequent efforts to return to St. Helen were frustrated, and the family lived in very straitened circumstances in England. Finally, after agreeing to testify on Hudson Lowe's side in the anticipated court case with O'Meara (Napoleon's doctor), Lowe removed his objections to Balcombe's preferment, and he obtained a government post as Colonial Treasurer in New South Wales in 1823.
Betsy herself married Edward Abell at Exminster in May 1822 and they had a daughter. (3) Her husband soon deserted her and she left with her family for Australia. On the journey her sister Jane died.
William Balcombe remained in Australia until his death in 1829.
Her mother (portrait left) briefly returned to England with Betsy and Betsy's daughter, to petition the Government for a settlement; she was rewarded with £250 and promised government posts for her children. The three then returned to Australia.
Betsy and her daughter finally returned to England in 1834, but her mother and her three brothers remained in Australia for the rest of their lives.
The second son, Thomas Tyrwhitt Balcombe (b.1810) became a distinguished artist, but took his own life in October 1861 in his house in Paddington, New South Wales, which was appropriately named Napoleon Cottage. Betsy's youngest brother, Alexander Beatson Balcombe (b 1811), named after the governor of St Helena, became a successful landowner and gave the name "The Briars" to his house at Mount Martha near Melbourne.(3)
For Betsy the rest of her life was to be a struggle. She met Napoleon's brother Joseph and his nephew (soon to become Napoleon III), and in 1844 published her Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon . (5) She was later given a grant of land in Algeria, which she never visited, and died in gentile poverty in London.
The Recollections is a delightful read, although not a completely accurate historical record. I have included a number of extracts in the next section.
Betsy Balcombe and the Emperor
Those who have a preconceived view of Napoleon are likely to be as surprised by Betsy Balcombe's account of her friendship with Napoleon, as she herself was surprised when he failed to live up to the advance billing.
The name of Bonaparte was still associated, in my mind, with every thing that was bad and horrible.
I had heard the most atrocious crimes im-
puted to him ; and if I had learned to
consider him as a human being, I yet still
believed him to be the worst that had ever
existed. Nor was I singular in these feelings;
they were participated by many
much older and wiser than myself; I might
say, perhaps, by a majority of the English
nation. Most of the newspapers of the
day described him as a demon; and all
those of his own country who lived in Eng-
land were of course his bitter enemies ; and
from these two sources alone we formed our
opinion of him.
Over a quarter of a century later she reflected
I think his love of children, and the delight
he felt in their society, — and that,
too, at the most calamitous period of his
life, when a cold and unattachable nature
would have been abandoned to the indul-
gence of selfish misery, — in itself, speaks
volumes for his goodness of heart. After
hours of laborious occupation, he would
often permit us to join him, and that
which would have fatigued and exhausted
the spirits of others, seemed only to recruit
and renovate him. His gaiety was often
exuberant at these moments; he entered
into all the feelings of young people, and
when with them was a mere child, and, I
may add, a most amusing one.
Among her recollections is her brother Alexander sitting on Napoleon's knee and calling him "boney".
One day Alexander took up
a pack of cards, on which was the usual
figure of the Great Mogul. The child
held it up to Napoleon, saying, " See, Bony,
this is you." He did not understand what
my brother meant by calling him Bony.
I explained that it was an abbreviation —
the short for Bonaparte, but Las Cases inter-
preted the word literally, and said it meant
a bony person. Napoleon laughed and
said,. " Je ne suis pas osseux,"
She also recalls the story of old Huff:
This old man, since the arrival of Napo-
leon, had taken many strange fancies into
his brain ; among others, that he was des-
tined to restore the fallen hero to his pris-
tine glory, and that he could at any time
free him from thraldom. All argument
with this old man upon the folly of his
ravings was useless; he still persisted in
it, and it soon became evident that old
Huff was mad, and, though strictly watched,
he found an opportunity one fatal morning
to destroy himself. An inquest was held
on him .. and his body was ordered to be
interred in the spot where three cross roads
met. The nearest to the scene where the
act was committed was the road leadingr
to the Briars, and there they buried the
I had amongst many other follies a ter-
ror of ghosts, and this weakness was well
known to the emperor, who, for a consider-
able time after the suicide of poor Huff,
used to frighten me nearly into fits. Every
night, just before my hour of retiring to my
room, he would call out, " Miss Betsee, ole
Huff, ole Huff." The misery of those nights
I shall never forget ; I used generally to
fly out of my bed during the night, and
scramble into my mother's room, and re-
main there till morning's light dispelled
the terrors of darkness.
One evening, when my mother, my sis-
ter and myself were quietly sitting in the
porch of the cottage, enjoying the coolness
of the night breeze, suddenly we heard a
noise, and turning round beheld a figure in
white — how I screamed. We were then
greeted with a low gruff laugh, which my
mother instantly knew to be the emperor's.
She turned the white covering, and under-
neath appeared the black visage of a little
servant of ours, whom Napoleon had insti-
gated to frighten Miss Betsee, while he
was himself a spectator of the effect of his
The stories about Napoleon's romping with Betsy got back to Europe, inspired largely by reports by the French Commissioner, about whom nobody seems to have had a kind word to say:
After Napoleon had been on the island
a few months, some newspapers arrived
containing anecdotes of him, and all that
occurred during his stay at the Briars.
Amongst other sottises, was a letter written
by the Marquess de Montchenu, in which he
described all the romping games that had
taken place between Napoleon and our fa-
mily, such as blindman's buff, the sword
scenes, and ending his communication by
observing, that "Miss Betsee" was the
wildest little girl he had ever met ; and ex-
pressing his belief, that the young lady was
Napoleon offered her a present if she revenged herself by applying caustic to a pigtail on Montchenu's wig, a suggestion forbidden by her mother. On being told that she had followed her mother's advice Napoleon pinched her ear, and said, " Ah, Miss Betsee, tu commences à être sage ", and he gave her the present anyway.
One well known episode shows Betsy mocking Napoleon for his fall from power
I recollect exhibiting to Napoleon a cari-
cature of him in the act of climbing a ladder,
each step he ascended represented some
vanquished country ; at length he was seat-
ed astride upon the world. It was a famous
toy, and by a dexterous trick Napoleon ap-
peared on the contrary side tumbling down
head over heels, and after a perilous de-
scent, alighting on St. Helena. I ought
not to have shewn him this burlesque on
his misfortunes, but at that time I was
guilty of every description of mad action,
though without any intention of being un-
kind ; still I fear they were often deeply felt.
For this Betsy's father decided she should spend a week in a dark cellar:
the excavation swarmed with rats, that leaped
about me on all sides. I was half dead
with horror, and should most certainly
have been devoured alive by the vermin,
had I not in despair seized a bottle of
wine, and dashed it amongst my assailants;
finding that I succeeded in occasioning a
momentary panic, I continued to diminish
the pile of claret near me, and kept my
enemies at bay. As the first faint light of
morning dawned through my prison bars, I
was startled to perceive what my victory
would cost my father, for I was surrounded
by heaps of broken bottles, and rivulets of
wine, and either from exhaustion, or the
exhalation from the saturated ground of
the cellar, I was found by the slave who
brought me my breakfast in the morning,
in a state of stupor from which I was with
difficulty aroused. My father was too happy
at my escape to blame me for the means I
resorted to to preserve myself from my
hungry foes ; and I was forgiven my ill-
judged pleasantry to the emperor.
Today Mr Balcombe would surely have received a visit from a Social Worker! At least it is pleasing to know that Napoleon judged the punishment too harsh.
The latter [Napoleon] expressed regret at my severe punishment for so trifling an offence, but was much amused by my relation of the battle with the rats;
And so those of us with regard for historical truth await the forthcoming film of Betsy and the Emperor with some trepidation, although it will be interesting to see how Al Pacino plays Napoleon.
Did William Doveton really take a coffin made of St Helena wood with him when he visited London in 1818 - just in case? And was the decision to give him a Knighthood only taken by the Prince Regent after a meeting with him? Or was Mrs Abell's memory letting her down in this case?
1. There seems to be some uncertainty as to when the Balcombes arrived on St. Helena. usually it is put as 1807, but one recent source suggests he was there by 1805.
2. There was a lot of speculation that Balcombe was the natural son of a member of the Royal Family. Dame Mabel Brookes , great grandaughter of William Balcombe, suggests that although he and his brother spent a lot of time at Carlton House in their youth, they were actually sons of a naval officer lost at sea. Whatever the truth, William Balcombe was obviously well connected.
3. The date of this marriage is sometimes given as 28th May 1821, but a search of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints genealogical site gives the year as 1822. Her husband was apparently a former officer in the Madras Army, who had left in 1816. I have been unable to find out anything else about him.
4. The Briars is now a National Trust property and houses a museum of Napoleonic and early Australian history, See also Briars Park Mornington Peninsula. For useful information on the Balcombe family see Australian Dictionary of Biography
5. Mrs Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon is available online. The modern version, To Befriend an Emperor , edited by J. David Markham, has been reviewed by Tom Holberg for the Napoleonic Society. In the same series is an account of Napoleon's relationship with children on St Helena, which puts the friendship with Betsy in its proper context.
Saturday, 29 August 2009
No sooner had I done the last entry regarding Michel's blog than a new entry appeared, and then another. I have a number of topics I wish to develop, but they can wait. In the meantime I feel I must draw attention to these posts since they tie in so much with my own interests.
I have always found Mme Bertrand perhaps the most interesting of Napoleon's entourage, and was concerned on my visit at the neglect of the cottage. It is very pleasing to find that its importance in the story of the Captivity and therefore in St. Helena's history, is now being recognised.
Anyway Michel's posting of 28th August reproduces an important document by Bertrand's faithful servant Etienne Bouges, which provides a unique perspective on life in this cottage during the captivity: Napoleon rarely visited; Bertrand went to Longwood House every day; Madame Bertrand cried a lot. Don't rely on my summary, read it for yourself, there is an English translation with it!
The very latest gives an account of Michel's speech (in English) at the ceremony marking the lease of the cottage to the National Trust.
I have reproduced the last paragraph, which I think exemplifies the philosophy which Michel brings to his work.
This house is a resume in its own right. In this house, the present, the future are not opposed to the past, they are made from the same faith and vision. We are here because we all share this faith in St. Helena, in its past without shame. St. Helena with its prisoners, its slaves, its misery and also its glory … is St. Helena we respect. … we love and to which we are faithful. This house is no judge. This House is - a patient – a silent – witness. May she look upon us kindly tomorrow for what we do today. Together .
Wednesday, 26 August 2009
This blog would never have started but for Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, whose suggestion it was. One of my aims was to provide an occasional commentary about his blog, which began around the same time as mine and is of course largely in French.
As indicated in my previous posting, his blog has what I think is probably now the best collection of photographs of St Helena online - as well as a tremendous amount of material about the Napoleonic sites on the island. Anyway I digress.
Today Michel has announced news about Bertrand's Cottage, the background of which was first covered in my blog in March 2008.
Bertrand's Cottage is the property of the St. Helena Government, and in recent years has been empty and sadly neglected. Following a blog by Michel raising concern about this, the Government has agreed to lease the property to the St. Helena National Trust. The new director of the National Trust, Jamie Robs, will live there with his family. This is excellent news, and offers hope that one piece of St. Helena's heritage will be preserved through these straitened times.
Michel's entries on Bertrand's Cottage can be accessed by clicking here. The latest one has an English translation.