Saturday, 12 April 2014

Napoleon in America: "I should have stayed on St Helena"


Napoleon wrote a novel in his youth, in exile on St Helena described his life as one, and over the past two centuries inspired quite a few others. The latest Napoleonic novel, by the Canadian author Shannon Selin, provides an alternate history: instead of dying on St Helena in 1821 Napoleon escaped to America and continued his action packed life there.

The book's great strength lies in the depth of its research. The author claims to have consulted some 300 sources in order to tell "a plausible whopper", and at the end provides a list of over 100 major and minor historical characters whom she has to a greater or lesser extent researched. Inevitably in an alternate history some had their lives changed: one Napoleonic General's life was truncated by 40 years; the very young wife of another, in real life to live until 1880, succumbed to the ex-Emperor's rather clumsy advances.

The author presents a very broad historical canvas: London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Washington, New Orleans and numerous lesser places. St Helena, "a dark wart in the Atlantic", according to the racy blurb on the back cover, is dismissed in a single short chapter, which concludes poetically with Hudson Lowe staring at the ocean from a window in Longwood House, his career "splintering as rapidly as the silvery ripples that broke upon the shore." I am not convinced that it is possible to see the ocean from Longwood House, but a little literary license is excusable! One might also note that Hudson Lowe's future career was not much better in real life.

The author makes effective use of direct speech, letters and newspaper cuttings to set the contemporary scene and describe the events that unfold and the reactions to them. Here you will find the Bonaparte family on two continents, Francis 1st of Austria, Metternich, Wellington, Canning, John Quincy Adams, Monroe, Louis XVIII and the Count of Artois, Lafayette and the French opposition, Bonapartists and Liberals. Here too one can read about the machinations of the Holy Alliance, its members united in little except a fear of revolution and a hatred of Napoleon, the tensions within France's newly restored and somewhat precarious Bourbon monarchy and also within the British Government over France's invasion of Spain. Here too the author intelligently explores the concerns of the young American Republic, the ex-Emperor in its midst, desperate to avoid entanglement with the politics of the old world, still wary of British naval power which less than a decade earlier had burned down the White House under the command of the same Admiral who was later to escort Napoleon to St Helena, but with its own expansionist impulses and, like all the European powers, concerned about the fate of Spain's empire in the Americas.

The novel does not explore Napoleon's character in any great depth, this is thankfully no psychological novel, but it brings out his gaucheness towards women and his great love for the son whom he had not seen for a decade. The author has a lightness of touch and a sense of humour, most noticeable in her frequent references to Napoleon's sense of destiny. At one point she makes Napoleon say, "There is no role for me here. I should have stayed on St. Helena.", a reference to his comment that he should have stayed in Egypt, when he first saw the forbidding rock of St Helena in 1815. She also neatly captures the egotism of the Duke of Wellingon, who claimed that everything was turning out precisely as he had predicted: "How nice it would be, thought Dorothea [von Lieven, wife of the Russian Minister and Metternich's mistress], to one day meet a man who did not mind saying, "I was wrong.""

I am not a great reader of historical novels, and try to avoid counterfactual history, so had I not been volunteered by Simon Pipes of St Helena Online, I almost certainly would never have read Napoleon in America. To my surprise though I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the turbulent post Waterloo period.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Cabo Verde - the islands Napoleon never saw


Antique Map Cape Verde Islands

My recent holiday now means that I have at various times pretty well covered the whole of Napoleon's voyage to St Helena: Madeira, Tenerife and now the windswept, barren islands of Cabo Verde, some 350 miles off the west African coast, formerly part of the Portuguese Empire.

Boa Vista Landscape

When the Northumberland sailed past in the summer of 1815, it missed these islands, and Admiral Cockburn decided not to attempt to land. Count Las Cases gave a good account of this stage of the voyage.

1st September – The fleet is off the archipelago of Cape Verde ; strong winds
September 1st -- 6th. On the 1st of September we found from our latitude that we should see the Cape Verd Islands in the course of the day. The sky was, however, overcast, and at night we could see nothing. The Admiral, convinced that there was a mistake in the reckoning of our longitude, was preparing to bear westward to the right, in order to fall in with the islands, when a brig, which was a-head of us, intimated by signal that she had discovered them on the left. During the night the wind blew violently from the south-east, and if our mistake had been the reverse of what it was, and the Admiral had really borne to the right, it is not improbable that we should have been thrown out of our course; a proof that notwithstanding the improvements in science, mistakes are very apt to take place, and that the chances of navigation are very great.
Salt pans in volcano caldera, Pedro do Lume, island of Sal, opened since 1804

As the wind continued to blow strong, and the sea was boisterous, the Admiral preferred continuing his course, rather than waiting to take in water, of which he believed he had already a sufficient store. Every thing now promised a prosperous passage; we were already very far advanced on our course. Every circumstance continued favourable; the weather was mild, and we might even have thought our voyage agreeable, had it been taken in the pursuit of our own plans and in conformity with our own inclinations; but how could we forget our past misfortunes, or close our eyes on the future? (1)
The rather hazardous "Blue Eye", Buracona, Sal island


Apparently at this stage of the voyage Napoleon expressed a wish to learn English after Las Cases told him he was teaching his son.

"This did very well for two or three days; but the ennui occasioned by the study was at least equal to that which it was intended to counteract, and the English was laid aside. The Emperor occasionally reproached me with having discontinued my lessons; I replied that I had the medicine ready, if he had the courage to take it. In other respects, particularly before the English, his manners and habits were always the same; never did a murmur or a wish escape his lips; he invariably appeared contented, patient, and good-humoured." (2)

Barren landscape, Sal island


Las Cases also faithfully recorded a number of discussions they had on Napoleon's action packed life:

the siege of Toulon; the rise of Duroc and Junot; quarrels with the Representatives of the People; Quarrels with Aubry; Anecdotes relative to Vindemiaire; Napoleon General of the Army of Italy Integrity of his military administration; His disinterestedness; Nicknamed Petit-Caporal; Difference between the system of the Directory and that of the General of the Army of Italy

Las Cases also made some interesting observations on Admiral Cockburn's relations with Napoleon:

"The Admiral, who, I suppose, thought it necessary, on the strength of our reputation, to fortify himself well on our departure from England, gradually laid aside his reserve, and every day took greater interest in his captive. He represented the danger incurred by coming on deck after dinner, owing to the damp of the evening; the Emperor would then sometimes take his arm and prolong the conversation, which never failed to gratify him exceedingly."

A rather different perspective from that of the English on the Northumberland I think!

Whilst there I did quite a lot of reading, including a recently published historical novel about Napoleon, about which more in due course.

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1. Las Cases, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène Vol 1 pp 91-92

2. ibid.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Napoleon as "careful pragmatist"


I read quite a lot of biography, but generally find biographies of Napoleon uninteresting: there are too many of them, they tend to be over long, few seem to me to get remotely close to the man, and too often they reveal more about the authors' own prejudices.

The latest biography by Oxford historian Michael Broers looks to have addressed the problem of externality: it is the first to have benefited from the publication of Napoleon's complete correspondence in 2004. This the publishers claim is "the first life in which Napoleon speaks in his own voice, but not always as he wanted the world to hear him."

According to the Financial Times it is a nuanced study and does not view Napoleon through the "prism of 20th-century totalitarianism."

The publisher's summary of the Napoleon revealed by the biography seems spot on to me: "a man of intense emotion, but also of iron self-discipline; of acute intelligence and immeasurable energy. .. the sheer determination, ruthlessness and careful calculation that won him the precarious mastery of Europe by 1807 .."

The FT reviewer picked out a number of points from the biography which seem eminently sensible judgements to me:

1. Only a positive optimistic mind would have thought about progressive reform to the degree Napoleon did all his life.

2. He had to work hard to try to hang on to what power he had won. Caution and self-discipline were necessary in the revolutionary climate in which he emerged to power.

3. He had a deep fear of popular assemblies. I always found it ironic that on St Helena, reading about the Peterloo Massacre, Napoleon showed no sympathy for Orator Hunt and the men and women who had assembled to demand parliamentary reform in Manchester in 1819. The radical reformers of course had great sympathy and admiration for Napoleon, and at previous meetings had expressly dissociated themselves from the British Government's action in imprisoning him on St Helena.

4. He relied greatly on committees to govern, recognising and promoting talent, and often deferring to the opinion of others.

5. Far from being a "paranoid psychopath", he took his revenge bloodlessly. The execution of the Duke of Enghien, "a stooge of the British ", was far from typical. His whole philosophy was one of ralliement and amalgame, atttempts to persuade reactionaries of the error of their ways and to promote cooperation between former reactionaries and revolutionaries in the new France.

6. A simple but obvious point: Napoleon's expansionism began as a riposte to the alliance of Britain, Russia and Austria, rather than from the megalomanic tendencies so beloved of many of his modern biographers.

Perhaps most important of all, the author recognises that never before in human history had anyone from outside the governing circles risen to such power. This to me is the key to the contemporary reaction towards him: to the loyalists he was an upstart whom they hated, feared, made fun of, and in whose fall from power and humiliating exile they delighted; to the radicals he was a romantic hero, a symbol of hope for a better world in which a man could rise to heights commensurate with his talents, an enemy and victim of hierarchy, heredity and privilege, as British seamen apparently used to sing Boney was an Emperor! Oh! Aye, Oh!.

I look forward to reading this biography, and even more to the second volume when it appears, to see what the author makes of Napoleon's decline and exile.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Auction of Napoleonic Decorative Acts

French Porcelain Bust of Napoleon

Chicago Auctioneers Leslie Hindman have announced the auction of an unusual and fascinating collection of Napoleonic Decorative Arts. The property of the late Mrs Ann Ross Stone of Shaker Heights, Ohio, this delightful collection was assembled with the aid of her husband and children over a number of years and countless visits to Paris.

Ann Ross Stone (1931-2012),with Leonard Stone

Representation of Napoleon on his deathbed on St Helena

Napoleon in his declining years on St Helena

It is rather sad that such a fine collection so lovingly put together over so many years is now being dispersed.

Sèvres Style Porcelain Plates with individual portraits of Napoleon

A unique collection, in its entirety it provides an excellent illustration of the wide range of artefacts inspired by the legend of Napoleon in nineteenth century France. It would I think have merited closer examination and analysis by an academic specialist before the items again go their separate ways.

Sèvres Style Gilt Metal Mounted Porcelain Garniture

It is a pity that it was not possible to mount an exhibition in a major museum or gallery before the collection was sold off, although the logistical problems and the time and costs involved in such an undertaking would I imagine have been prohibitive.

A Sèvres Porcelain Five-Piece Napoleonic Coffee Service

Many of the items seem to be modestly valued, there are as far as I can see no dubious historical claims, and few works by recognised artists. It will be interesting to see what they actually make. I am far from an expert, but I suspect that the piece by Emile Hippolyte Guillemin will attract a lot of interest.

A French Bronze Figure, Emile Hippolyte Guillemin (1841-1907)

My thanks to Corbin Horn of Leslie Hindman's for drawing this to my attention. I really wish I could get to Chicago to look at the collection before the sale, but at least I will be able to follow the auction online.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Maldivia Rock Fall

Bert Constantine surveying massive rock that has fallen into his banana plantation

I have written much on this blog about Maldivia, the area in the upper Jamestown Valley just below the Briars. For us it is a very special place with so many happy memories, and so much history: the Maldive Islanders who according to legend created the Maldivia Gardens, the fatal duel that took place near Chubbs Spring in 1809, and the visit of Napoleon Bonaparte to Maldivia House in November 1815.


The Briars Hill from the Maldivia Banana Plantation

Rock falls are always a danger on St Helena. Above Jamestown large metal mesh fences have been installed to protect the inhabitants. In the upper Jamestown Valley, beneath the Briars, signs warn of the dangers. More threatening though is the large mountain to the west, the unlikely location of what is still referred to as "cowpath".

The west side of the upper Jamestown Valley

Often last year we wondered whether the large rock detonations made by Basil Read, the airport contractors, in the east of the island, might trigger rock falls elsewhere.

Maldivia banana plantation from near Chubbs Spring

Last year, woken by the early morning sun, I regularly made my way to the banana plantation to weed the young banana trees planted beneath Chubbs Spring and in full view of the Briars. Every morning I walked through the place where the large rock has now fallen.

Weed free bananas

Anyway we are very relieved that nobody was hurt. A little piece of each of our hearts will always be in Maldivia, and we cannot wait to return to see our good friends the Constantines and to see how the bananas are fareing.

Maldivia House, one of the few houses that Napoleon visited