Ahead of the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death, Former Diplomatic Correspondent at The Times Michael Binyon reports from the island of St Helena where the exiled Emperor spent his final days
He conquered Moscow, held sway over much of Europe, was Britain’s greatest enemy and ended his days a prisoner on a remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic. On 5 May next year it will be 200 years since the death of Napoleon. And not only St Helena will be remembering the man who put the island on the map and with whom it is always associated: Britain, too, will be quietly commemorating – though perhaps not celebrating – the life of a man who changed the course of world history.
The British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust, launched online in September, is committed to restoring, repairing and publicising the many monuments, batteries and buildings associated with Napoleon’s six-year exile on St Helena. The island, the second most remote in the world, is a British overseas territory but has few natural resources and little money to preserve the installations set up all around its rocky coastline to guard Napoleon. The new airport – a costly £250 million runway on top of a windy cliff – is intended to bring in more tourists to boost St Helena’s weak economy, once the current Covid-19 ban on all incoming flights is lifted. And for most visitors, British and French especially, the main attraction is the house where the exiled emperor and his large French entourage eked out his days until Napoleon’s death from stomach cancer in 1821.
France, of course, will be making much of the anniversary. Longwood House, the converted farm provided for Napoleon’s house arrest, is French territory, having been donated to France by Queen Victoria, together with the site of his grave elsewhere on the island. A French honorary consul has done a magnificent job in the 20-year restoration of the house to how it looked on the day that the exiled emperor died: the furniture has been restored in Paris, the pictures, documents and memorabilia preserved in situ and the garden – where Napoleon and his aides used to cultivate while watched by the surrounding British troops – has been replanted according to his original design.
France has a thriving organisation, the Fondation Napoleon, and considerable funds to cherish the memory of the man still seen as a national hero. No such body exists in Britain and any attempt to varnish his memory would run into massive resistance – despite the admiration of some historians and Napoleon-watchers in this country. The new Trust is not attempting to glorify the exiled emperor but will focus on his huge historical significance and the row over his treatment on St Helena. In particular, it will stage a debate on whether Sir Hudson Lowe, the governor, was really as inflexible and brutish as Napoleon’s entourage – especially his Irish doctor – insisted to the outside world. Or was Lowe simply obeying government orders?
The public debate will be one of a series of events over the next eight months to rekindle interest in what happened to Bony following his surrender to the British after Waterloo. The Trust also hopes to commemorate with small plaques the graves of Hudson Lowe and all those involved in transporting and guarding Napoleon who are known to be buried in churches in Britain, France, the US and even Russia.
The main aim, however, is to raise money to repair some of the monuments and fortifications on St Helena that are still visible but crumbling away after two centuries. All around the coast, batteries were installed on the vertiginous cliff-tops, with guns and look-out points manned by some 2,000 British troops temporarily stationed on the tiny island. It was a massive and extremely costly operation to forestall any rescue attempt (a French plot was hatched to free Napoleon – though barely got as far as launching a ship). Britain also annexed the then uninhabited islands of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha to the north and south of St Helena, in an attempt to retain naval mastery over the Atlantic.
The focus will now be on stabilising the fortifications, adding signage and historical explanations for tourists and producing an audio guide ‘in the footsteps of Napoleon’ for use across the island.
There are two sites of particular significance for the Saints – as St Helenians are known – and the outside world. The first is Toby’s cottage. Toby was an old Malaysian slave, brought to the island and working with the Balcombe family, in whose house Napoleon was first stationed before being moved to Longwood. Napoleon was touched by the slave’s plight, and wanted to purchase his freedom, but was not allowed to do so. Toby was always grateful and after that always took fresh fruit to ‘Bony’ at Longwood. Many Saints are themselves descended from slaves forced to work on the island and subsequently liberated and their fate has wider emotional significance in view of the Black Lives Matter movement. Toby’s cottage is little more than a few ruined stones now, but the Trust’s aim is to have it repaired or reconstructed.
The other project is to repair one of the many batteries – variously known as Munden’s or Banks’s or other names – so that they can be reached on foot and inspected. The sums needed are large, amounting to several million pounds for proper restoration and conservation of the 15 or 16 sites associated with Napoleon’s six-year exile. Realistically, the Trust does not think a large fund-raising operation will be possible when the public will have other priorities for what needs help and funding in the wake of Covid-19.
St Helena is the poorest of Britain’s 14 overseas territories, and niche tourism, focusing on visitors with an interest in history or the environment, is seen as one of the few ways of earning money for the 4,500 inhabitants.
For the moment, tourism and planned talks and events to commemorate the anniversary have been put on hold because of the virus. St Helena, with only one hospital and limited medical facilities, has halted all incoming flights from South Africa, and insists that anyone arriving on the occasional cargo ships must go straight into quarantine for two weeks. So far there hasn’t been a single case of Covid-19. That makes tourism almost impossible for now. Nevertheless, the island will probably try to welcome French visitors next year, as traditionally few have made the visit there and the island’s tourist authorities are keen to open up this potentially lucrative market.
Napoleon was allowed to bring a surprisingly large entourage of former generals, aides and servants as well as a priest (whom he disliked) and an Irish doctor with him to St Helena. Most were housed at Longwood, with their wives, though a few lived in cottages nearby. The former emperor insisted on being treated still as though he commanded his court, dressing for dinner and addressed as ‘Your Majesty.’ One of his main complaints was that the Governor insisted on calling him ‘General Bonaparte’ – and so Napoleon refused to accept his letters. The emperor spent much of his time dictating his memoirs though in his final year he sat for hours in a tin bath of hot water to try to lessen the pains of his stomach cancer.
He was given an elaborate funeral when he died, with almost all the islanders and British soldiers lining the procession to his grave, in a secluded geranium dell. He lay in the tomb only 19 years however, before Queen Victoria granted his nephew, Emperor Napoleon III, permission to remove the body to France, where he was interred with full honours in Les Invalides.