Monday, 21 September 2009

The Briars - 50 Year Anniversary


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)


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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

Napoleon would have loved Google


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)
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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

Betsy Balcombe, Napoleon and the Briars

My life has been a chequered and a melancholy one ..- Betsy Balcombe (1802-1871)

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
old man.

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
trick.

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
foue.

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.

Postscript
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?
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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.