Monday, 31 August 2015

Napoleon - buried in a Suffolk Churchyard

Not many people can say that their parents are buried close to Napoleon!

I first saw this grave at my mother's funeral in the same year that Napoleon, the Suffolk one, died. At the time I knew little about Napoleon Bonaparte, and nothing of his place in the popular imagination and memory of the inhabitants of these islands.

Some 20 years after the Suffolk Napoleon was born, in what at the time would have seemed far off Manchester, the future writer Anthony Burgess's father apparently wondered whether his son would be another Napoleon, but he didn't go as far as Mr Harper's parents, settling on the names John Anthony for his son.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Black Rock by Louise Hoole

The latest historical novel on Napoleon, by Louise Hoole

The daughter of a former Governor of St. Helena, Louise Hoole spent a number of her early years on the island, fell in love with it, and has subsequently done a great deal of research into the captivity of Napoleon.

The divide between "history" and "literature" is not as clear cut as many imagine, but having admitted that, I should declare that I am not a great fan of historical novels. I cannot fully understand why an author puts considerable effort into research, and then writes a book which contradicts the findings of that research! Despite that reservation I must admit that I enjoyed Black Rock . I particularly admire the economy and precision of Louise Hoole's writing. The first few pages convinced me that I would have to read further:

I staggered to my feet, wrapped a pillow around my head, and forced myself to suffer the appalling pain of movement. The shriek of the doorknob as I turned it was like that of a man losing a limb.
As I entered the billiard room, the dreadful noises seemed to die down as quickly as they had begun. I closed my eyes .. When I opened them again, I found myself looking down upon a body. I recognised immediately that it was my own.

The novel explores the motives and feelings of those who shared Napoleon's exile on St. Helena, and as the author admits in an appendix, she is persuaded by the research of Ben Wieder that Napoleon was poisoned by one of his own followers, perhaps because of their hidden Bourbon sympathies.

The novel also attempts to explore Napoleon's own feelings, by making him, or rather his ghost, the narrator of most of the chapters. This is a task beyond the capabilities of a mere historian: Napoleon kept no diary and confided in nobody; the voluminous first hand accounts of the captivity all take an external view of the main player. The only other very different attempt that I have come across was the journalist Jean-Paul Kauffman's The Dark Room at Longwood, which is among the secondary sources Louise Hoole cites in an appendix. Lord Rosebery's, Napoleon the Final Phase is also mentioned in the same place. Like Rosebery, Louise Hoole has a lot of time for General Gourgaud, perhaps because of his lack of deference to Napoleon, and she even extends Gourgaud's actual stay on the island by three years!

Appropriately perhaps for a former resident of Plantation House, Ms. Hoole implies that Governor Hudson Lowe's failed career and shattered reputation was all the design of Napoleon. I am persuaded that Lowe, an appropriate tool and a scapegoat for an unpopular British Government, had more than a hand in his own downfall. Napoleon's aim was to secure his own return to Europe from an exile that he thought was totally unjustified and a betrayal of the confidence he had shown in surrendering to the British Government. Within that framework Lowe was little more than an irritation, and his appointment an insult. But hey, this is a novel, and an enjoyable one at that! I look forward to hearing Louise Hoole's talk at the next meeting of the Friends of St Helena.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Plymouth Remembers Napoleon's 1815 Visit

"Napoleon on HMS Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound" by Jules Girardet (1)

"It was known that he always appeared on deck towards five o'clock. A short time before this hour, all the boats collected along-side of each other; there were thousands, and so closely connected, that the water could no longer be seen between them; they looked more like a multitude assembled in a public square than anything else." (2)

I find, to my surprise that it is almost seven years since I wrote about Napoleon on the Bellerophon and the reaction of the crowds who turned out to try and catch a glimpse of him in Torquay and Plymouth. This bicentenary year I have largely ignored these events, instead focusing on the background to the Government decision to exile Napoleon to St. Helena.

The City of Plymouth is currently mounting an exhibition Napoleon in Plymouth Sound, 1815, the centre piece is the romantic Girardet painting of the crowds that surrounded the "Bellerophon". A member of the Bonaparte family has even been to see the exhibition. In its description of the exhibition the Museum says Napoleon was a folk-hero to the lower classes of all nations, even those he fought against. An interesting judgement, which even I find rather sweeping.

Apparently the City intends to build some kind of memorial commemorating its Napoleonic association. The structure will incorporate a stone that came originally from Longwood House on St. Helena, and will bear a plaque relating the circumstances of Napoleon's arrival.(3) The idea of the French Consul, designed to be a celebration of two centuries of Anglo-French amity, the proposal has raised the ire of a few patriotic Englishmen who have complained that there is no memorial of Nelson in the city. I am cynical enough to imagine that Plymouth is happy to cash in on its Napoleonic association!
1. Jules Girardet(1856 to 1938), a French historical painter, produced a number of pictures of Napoleon, often showing him in a domestic setting. The picture of him on the Bellerophon is in the possession of the Plymouth City Council. It was of course painted long after the events it depicts.
2. Memorial de Sainte Helene - Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by the Count de las Cases, Volume 1 page 29
3. The Plymouth Herald is wrong to claim that Napoleon was held in Plymouth Hoe whilst his fate was decided: the Government had decided to send him to St Helena before the Bellerophon had even arrived in Torquay. It was the implementation of the policy, and the readying of the Northumberland , which had just returned from a long voyage, which took the time.

Friday, 17 July 2015

not only one, but two or three Buonapartes

Richard Whately(1787-1863),Professor of Political Economy at Oxford and Archbishop of Dublin

Napoleon's career divided contemporaries as it still divides scholars.(1) Perhaps the first to recognise, or at least to write about conflicting Napoleon narratives was Richard Whately, an Oxford academic, later to become Archbishop of Dublin.

A defender of a literal reading of the Bible, the aim of his Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte, first published anonymously in 1819, was to demonstrate that if one applied the critical methods used by David Hume to challenge the probability of biblical miracles one would come to doubt Napoleon's very existence.

.. those on whose testimony the existence and actions of Buonaparte are generally believed, fail in ALL the most essential points on which the credibility of witnesses depends: first, we have no assurance that they have access to correct information; secondly, they have an apparent interest in propagating falsehood; and, thirdly, they palpably contradict each other in the most important points.

To Whately it was doubtful whether any history (exclusive of such as is confessedly fabulous) ever attributed to its hero such a series of wonderful achievements compressed into so small a space of time, and even the scale of his defeats stretched the bounds of improbability:

Another peculiar circumstance in the history of this extraordinary personage is, that when it Is found convenient to represent him as defeated, though he is by no means defeated by halves, but involved in much more sudden and total ruin than the personages of real history usually meet with; yet, if it is thought fit he should be restored, it is done as quickly and completely as if Merlin's rod had been employed.

As an example of the contradiction of the accounts of Napoleon's career Whately highlighted the battle of Borodino,represented as one of the greatest ever fought and unequivocally claimed as a victory by both parties:

We have official accounts on both sides, circumstantially detailed, in the names of supposed respectable persons, professing to have been present on the spot; yet totally irreconcilable. Both these accounts may be false; but since one of them must be false, that one (it is no matter which we suppose) proves incontrovertibly this important maxim: that it is possible for a narrative—however circumstantial—however steadily maintained—however public, and however important, the events it relates—however grave the authority on which it is published—to be nevertheless an entire fabrication!

Whateley then moved on to conflicting views of Napoleon himself:

According to some, he was a wise, humane, magnanimous hero; others paint him as a monster of cruelty, meanness, and perfidy: some, even of those who are most inveterate against him, speak very highly of his political and military ability: others place him on the very verge of insanity. But allowing that all this may be the colouring of party-prejudice, (which surely is allowing a great deal,) there is one point to which such a solution will hardly apply: if there be anything that can be clearly ascertained in history, one would think it must be the personal courage of a military man; yet here we are as much at a loss as ever; at the very same times, and on the same occasions, he is described by different writers as a man of undaunted intrepidity, and as an absolute poltroon.

So Whateley suggested, tongue firmly in cheek,

What, then, are we to believe? If we are disposed to credit all that is told us, we must believe in the existence not only of one, but of two or three Buonapartes; if we admit nothing but what is well authenticated, we shall be compelled to doubt of the existence of any.

1. One recent academic reviewer admitted to his loathing of the little corporal and his review brought an apt rejoinder from one of the authors he was reviewing: Every Napoleonic scholar is familiar with Geyl’s Napoleon: For and Against ... In many respects .. Geyl did the field an enormous disservice. The subtitle stuck. Ever since scholars of the period (and especially biographers of Napoleon) have been categorised as either being ‘for’ or ‘against’ the man. As a biographer of Napoleon, I struggled with this concept for a long time. I am at pains, moreover, to find another historical figure whose biographers fall so neatly into that black and white dichotomy. Personalities like Alexander, Caesar, Hitler, or Mao continue to fascinate because they are larger than life, powerful characters that resonate with modern readers. And yet biographers of those individuals are not conveniently divided into ‘for’ or ‘against’. Philip Dwyer, Reviews in History.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Guest Blog: Visit to the Isle d'Aix by Margaret Dyson

Napoleon 1st Clock in Napoleon Museum, l'île d'Aix

Napoleon Who? Margaret Dyson reports on a visit to the Isle D’Aix where Napoleon last set foot on French soil

On arriving on the Isle d'Aix (located off Rochefort) after a short ferry trip from the mainland, we were expecting a splash of publicity about the Emperor but there is none. The only sign of historic significance was a dedication to the Acadians (after whom the quay was named “Quai de l’Acadie”), descendants of early French settlers of North America.

Rue Napoleon, l'île d'Aix

As we left the ferry a replica of the 18 century frigate Hermione, which took 17 years to build, could be seen anchored off the coast, causing some excitement.

We followed the footpath to the nearby village and did the tourist "thing", looking round the shops, before taking the coastal footpath. This led us to Fort Liédot (completed in 1812) built on the orders of Napoleon as a defence against an English invasion This is now a museum depicting all periods of French history.

Fort Liédot, l'île d'Aix

Returning to the village it would be easy to miss the Musée Napoléon - the house that, in 1808, on a visit to the Isle, Napoleon ordered to be built for the island's Governor, little knowing that this was where his terminal incarceration was to begin ten years hence. Careful observers might notice two nearby street names "Rue de Marengo " (Napoleon's horse) and "Rue de Napoleon" (the Emperor himself).

Napoleon Museum, l'île d'Aix

The house is at the end of "Rue de Napoleon". Above the front door, close to the roof, is carved "a la mémoire de notre immortel Empereur Napoléon Ier, 15 juillet 1815. Tout fut sublime en lui : sa gloire, ses revers. Et son nom respecté plane sur l’univers" {to the memory of our immortal Emperor Napoleon 1st, 15 July 1815. Everything was sublime in him - his glories, his setbacks, and his name hovers throughout the universe}.

Front door of Napoleon Museum, l'île d'Aix

Close to the front door is a plaque indicating that Napoleon stayed in the house from 12th to 15th July 1815 before embarking on the Bellerophon for England. We entered the house via the small back garden.

Rue Marengo, l'île d'Aix

A notice ("Aux Visiteurs") inside the front door describes the events which brought Napoleon to this house. It states that he had wanted to go to America but was unable to do so because the English government refused to allow it, so he decided to surrender, adding that these were the most tragic moments of his life. The names of those who also stayed here with him are listed. A copy of the surrender document is displayed in Napoleon's bedroom. Also, in his bedroom, is a copy of the letter that Napoleon wrote to the Prince Regent (later King George IV) on 13th July, 1815 The bedroom is sparsely furnished now, with just a table, chairs, his bed and a few mementos.

The Bed which Gourgaud slept in on St Helena, 1815-1817 l'île d'Aix

There are many artefacts in other rooms, some of which were brought from Malmaison, the house that Napoleon built for his first wife, Josephine. There is a large bust and paintings of her and of his second wife (Marie Louise), hung either side of a large window. Also present is the bed that Gourgaud (Napoleon's Maréchale de Camp) used whilst on St Helena and in another room Bagetti's painting of "The Entrance of French Troops into Rome" plus busts of the Emperor, Josephine and others.

There are magnificent clocks one of which was made of gold and marble in the reign of Louis-Philippe. It has an adjoining statue of the Emperor with a ball symbolising the world surrounded by laurel leaves. Unfortunately most of the displays are under glass which does not make for good photography.

The bed in which Napoleon spent his last night on French soil, l'île d'Aix

In 1928 the house opened as a museum having been bought in 1926 by Baron Napoleon Gourgaud, the great grandson of Gaspard Gourgaud. Apart from Napoleon's residence the museum holds items from all parts of his life - his coronation, his battles (lost and won), through to his death on St Helena in May 1821.

We left on the evening ferry with some regret as the isle is now, largely, a weekend retreat with little acknowledgement of its most famous "visitor".
From St Helena Connection No 18, publication of the Friends of St Helena. Reproduced with the permission of the author and the Editor of the St. Helena Connection.