Friday, 14 June 2019

Prince of Wales at Napoleon's Tomb, 1925

Visit of Prince of Wales to Napoleon's Tomb, 1925 (1)

Over the years there have been only a handful of Royal visits to St Helena. One of the earliest, perhaps even the first, was that of the Prince of Wales in 1925.

A willow tree being planted to commemorate the visit

The opening passage in the speech he had made on arrival on the island began with a glowing reference to Napoleon, although he was not mentioned by name.

I need not assure you of the deep interest with which I set foot on an Island whose name is so well known to all students of History, not only because it was here that were written the closing pages of a great and romantic life story – the story of the Emperor whose mortal remains now lie on the banks of the Seine, where many soldiers of France have found a resting place ... (2)

Delivered in the shadow of the horrific loss of life in the Great War, the speech evokes memories of a time when France was Britain's closest ally, and when Napoleon was looked on far more favourably in the United Kingdom than a half century later.

Commemoration of Centenary of Napoleon's death

Four years earlier there had been a joint Anglo-French commemoration of the centenary of Napoleon's death, with the Union Jack proudly displayed over Napoleon's tomb alongside the French tricolour.

Recent commemoration of Napoleon's death

In recent years the commemoration of Napoleon's death on St Helena has been revived. The emphasis is now far less imperial and euro-centric, and more focus is placed on involving local people in what is an important part of their heritage.

Plans are I understand already well underway for the commemoration of the bicentenary. Not everybody who wants to attend can find seats on the scheduled flights nor be accommodated on the island, so I believe two cruise ships are being hired.
1. I acknowledge the Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France for use of the two photos of the Prince at Napoleon's tomb. The photo of the 1921 commemoration I found on St Helena Island Info which is a very useful source.
2. A copy of the speech was, or at least used to be on display at the castle in Jamestown. A friend faithfully transcribed it for me. As far as I am aware it is not available anywhere else on the internet, so I will include it here.

I am very grateful to the people of St. Helena for the welcome offered to me on landing at Jamestown this morning, and I much appreciate the good wishes contained in their address.

I need not assure you of the deep interest with which I set foot on an Island whose name is so well known to all students of History, not only because it was here that were written the closing pages of a great and romantic life story – the story of the Emperor whose mortal remains now lie on the banks of the Seine, where many soldiers of France have found a resting place – but for the fact that during the period of maritime development of our Empire, St. Helena formed one of the most important links in Britain’s chain of communications as an invaluable supply depot and an outpost of the East Indies.

To-day trade routes have changes with the times, and though the Island, finding that circumstances have deflected the main arteries of traffic, may at times feel somewhat remote from the outer busier world, I know full well that St. Helena still prides herself on her place in the Empire, and that the loyalty of her people to the Crown and to Britain ideals remain undiminished.

I am hoping in the time at my disposal to meet as many as possible of the people of the Island and to learn something of your interests and your activities.

This morning before leaving the Castle, I am to see an exhibit of your local domestic industry, that of lace-making, samples of which I know attracted the attention of the general public at Wembley and won commendation from the experts. And tomorrow I look forward to the opportunity of inspecting some of the flax mills and shall be interested to gain some first hand knowledge of this Industry which has been established in your midst and on which much of your material prosperity depends. You have my best wishes for your progress and welfare in the years to come.

In conclusion I will not fail to convey to the King your assurance of loyalty and devotion, and will at the same time tell His Majesty of the cordiality of the welcome which the people of St. Helena have given to me to-day.


Thursday, 13 June 2019

Rev Boys and Illegitimacy on St Helena

Rev. Boys,"l'homme que même Hudson Lowe craignait" (1)

Rev. Richard Boys MA (1785–1867) was appointed Junior Chaplin on St. Helena in 1811 and remained on the island until 1829. His stay, particularly during the Governorship of Hudson Lowe, was eventful to say the least.

The dubious claims made by his descendants about his alleged meeting(s) with Napoleon, furniture from Longwood, and death masks have appeared from time to time on this blog.

He also made an appearance in the Judicial Records, for testifying on behalf of a lady of somewhat dubious repute who was given shelter in his home until she left for some reason in the early hours of the morning!

Table supplied by Chris Hillman

The story of Rev. Boys' assault on the lax moral standards of the slaveowners of St. Helena is generally accepted by those who have written about St. Helena in the time of Napoleon. Whether the decline in the number of illegitimacies as shown in the table above was due directly to Rev. Boys is perhaps not quite as clear as the accepted narrative suggests. The probable source for most who have written about this is Arnold Chaplin's A St Helena Who's Who, now over a century old.

When, as it sometimes happened, Mr Boys was called upon to record the births of illegitimate children of slave women, begotten of men who were some of the highest and most trusted of Lowe's lieutenants, the chaplain in his righteous indignation did not hesitate to write in bold characters in the registers the titles and high positions of the sires. In these old registers, which have been inspected for me by Major Foulds, it is amusing to observe the frantic attempts that have been made by means of blots and pen-knife to obliterate the damaging evidence . But Mr Boys was determined to write for all time, and the precise titles and positions of the fathers, in spite of the attempted erasures, can still be plainly distinguished . This was probably the real reason for the ostracism of Mr Boys by the high St. Helena society, and the fear of his out-spoken tongue evinced by Sir Hudson Lowe. (2)

Chris Hillman, who with his wife Sheila, has been working through a set of registers microfilmed on St. Helena in 1989, has now led me to doubt the reliability of Chaplin's account. Chris informs me that the records they have worked on show "no apparent tampering", although as already indicated, it is indisputable that illegitimacy declined significantly in the course of Boys' time on the island. Chaplin as he admits never actually saw the registers nor any photographic images, and depended on the report of Major Foulds, whoever he was. I wonder if Major Foulds made it up, what was his motive? It would be great if someone could clear up this mystery.
1.Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, Chroniques de Sainte-Hélène (Perrin 2011) pp. 111-117.
2. Arnold Chaplin, A St Helena Who's Who (London 1919) p. 224

Friday, 5 April 2019

Longwood House Restoration 1950-1955

Royal Visit to Longwood House, 1947

The visit by the Royal family in April 1947 probably proved crucial in safeguarding the future of Longwood House and of the French properties on St. Helena.

New material on this has now come to light from the archives diplomatiques du ministère des Affaires étrangères on the Facebook page of the Domaines nationaux français à l'île de Sainte Hélène, Atlantique Sud .

Longwood House 1951 rebuilding commences

Apparently when Georges Peugeot took charge on 15 October 1945 he found Longwood House in such a bad state of repair, largely as a result of the depradations of the termites thought to have been introduced on the island from the 1840's, that he felt he had no choice but to close it to the public. On 12 November he informed the French Government that the house was in a lamentable state inside and out and would create a very bad impression on any tourists who visited. Peugeot tried to convince Paris that a full restoration was necessary.

18 months later, in April 1847, with Longwood House in an embarrassing state, resembling plus à une ruine qu’à la dernière résidence d’un empereur, M. Peugeot was faced with the prospect of a visit from the Royal Family, on their way back from South Africa. Somehow he managed to to get Longwood into a presentable state for the royal visitors. King George VI duly signed the visitor's book, and said he had found the visit very interesting. Nevertheless he noted the enormous damage the termites had done, and expressed the hope that the French Government would take the necessary steps to restore the historic house.(1)

1953, Rebuilding in progress

On returning to England the King summoned the French Ambassador, M. Massigli and informed him of the bad state of Longwood House. As he had done on St Helena, the King said that he hoped the French Government would quickly begin to take the necessary measures to preserve the building. (2)

This intervention perhaps saved Longwood House from suffering the same fate as New Longwood House and the Balcombes' house at the Briars. In March 1950 the project was approved, and over the next 5 years the house was restored.

Reopening, 27 March 1955

1. Restauration 1950-1955 des appartements de Napoléon à Longwood, Domaines nationaux français à l'île de Sainte Hélène, Atlantique Sud
2.Letter from L. Roché, chargé d’affaires de France en Grande Bretagne, 2 septembre 1947.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

À la recherche du temps perdu

A school exercise book temporarily reprieved from the tip

I had always assumed that I had never studied Napoleon nor been the slightest bit interested in him until being lent a book by a friend less than 20 years ago. I was surprised therefore when clearing out clutter to find a long forgotten school exercise book which revealed that the last ever school essay I wrote on European history was on the question of whether Napoleon betrayed the French Revolution.

My essay seems to have pleased my teacher who described it as well written and gave it an alpha plus (80%)! I now find it rather less satisfactory! Nevertheless it provides an interesting insight into the views and prejudices of a 17 year old being educated in a conservative school in the UK half a century or so ago.

The final page

Amongst the gems I picked out was the “singularly French love of a dictator” and my judgement that Napoleon's success “transformed and sterilized the politics of Modern France.” My teacher liked that. It was of course written in the time of De Gaulle, although he had not yet made the first of his two vetoes of Britain's application to join the European Economic Community that were to make him so unpopular. At that time we were all very convinced of the superiority of our political system, and were busy exporting it to various former colonies.

When writing about Napoleon I talked about his " efficiency”, the “practical realism of the soldier ” and judged him "unoriginal but well organized". The career “open to talent” I opined injected “an element of equality into what was otherwise little more than a military dictatorship.” A more mature view would see it as intrinsic to the system and to Napoleon's post-Enlightement view of the world. My judgement was that his whole system depended “upon a policy of successful belligerency, and as such was bound eventually to collapse. ” There was no mention of course of the attempts by Britain to assassinate him and to restore the Bourbons to power, nor any awareness of the total lack of equality and justice for the lower orders in the UK at the time. Britain as everyone knew was on the path of moderation which led ineluctably to our almost perfect democracy!

My rather pompous opinion apparently was that “Napoleon’s crime is not that he pursued the war to the best of his ability, but that he lost sight of the true interests of France and allowed his own ambition to sway his judgement” and that he was "far more in love with France than with the Revolution.” But somewhat mysteriously I also decided that it was “he alone that safeguarded it” (the Revolution) and that “his work has outlasted numerous Revolutions.

I was of course totally convinced as many still are that Napoleon was solely to blame for the succession of wars that were later to bear his name.

“Napoleon’s faults were amplified by the importance of the part that he was called upon to play, and his false sense of values frustrated the greatness in his character, and condemned France to an era of war as disastrous as that of Louis XIV.”

If Napoleon's values were "false", then I wonder what true values were. I also wonder where all that came from, my teacher or the book(s) that I read!

At least though I recognised Napoleon's greatness and there was no nonsense about the Corsican Ogre or the invasion of Britain. Even at that age I could stick to a logical argument.

It does though make me wonder how my blog would read to me in another half century. One thing I can say with certainty is that I shall never know! Perhaps it is just as well.

Let the decluttering continue.

Monday, 5 November 2018

THE REAL NAPOLEON - John Tarttelin

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Napoleon in Egypt(1868)

John Tarttelin is a Fellow of the International Napoleonic Society, and a recipient of the society's Legion of Merit. THE REAL NAPOLEON, The Untold Story (GB 2013) is dedicated to the memory of Ben Weider, the founder of the society, and it should perhaps come as no surprise to find that John is no fence sitter. The book's cover with its capitalised title and modified painting of Napoleon demands our attention.

Even before the preface a quote from Napoleon sets out the author's intent

The great works and monuments that I have executed, and the code of laws that I formed, will go down to the most distant ages, and future historians will avenge the wrongs done to me by my contemporaries.

Sunburst representing the Englightenment added by the author

The book puts much emphasis on Napoleon as an Englightenment figure, and reminds us that 177 scientists accompanied him on his Egyptian campaign. There is also a useful checklist of Napoleon's attributes that are too often overlooked by those keen to paint a negative portrait.

  • a phenomenal memory and capacity for concentration and hard work
  • kindness to his servants and people of all ranks
  • his approachability to his soldiers
  • the only ruler who promoted careers open to talent
  • tolerance of people who were disloyal to him - Fouche, Talleyrand and Bernadotte
  • passion for intellectual enquiry- he sought out the great minds of his time
  • voracious reader of history and literature
  • support of the rights of Jewish people

The author reminds us of the support the British Government gave to Royalist attempts to assassinate Napoleon. He also correctly disputes the conventional British view which holds Napoleon personally responsible for all the wars that were later to bear his name. As he points out, the Liverpool Government and its allies were determined to "snuff out equality and restore privilege." After the wars Britain actively encouraged Louis XVIII to use far more severe repression against Bonapartists than any Napoleon had carried out against his opponents, but such repression was of course common place in the United Kingdom at the time.

Ultimately of course the struggle with Napoleon was not just about the threat that the ideas of the Englightenment and the French Revolution posed to the established order. Britain's payrolling of all the coalitions against France over two decades was the climax of its century long struggle for European and World domination. In this contest the continental land wars were to some extent a sideshow. The real victory was being forged in the cotton mills of Lancashire, but that is another story, and outside the terms of reference of this book!

I have to admit that I find the book a little disjointed and bitty, and the language is very unacademic, perhaps as befits the times in which we live. I do not have a taste for polemicism, nor for hero worship, and on Napoleon in particular I have been a fence sitter, as I indicated some eight years ago when I thought my blogging was nearing its end! But I do share John's revulsion at the treatment of Napoleon by many historians and particularly by the British press, so maybe he has finally got me off the fence.

Over the past decade I have covered the views of a number of Whigs and Radicals who refused to accept Government propaganda about Napoleon, admired much of what he had achieved, and compared the UK unfavourably with contemporary France. On any rational basis of comparison they were right to do so.

John's quote from one British academic historian, Clive Elmsley is worth reproducing

there's no dispute that Napoleon launched modern Europe. He completely redrew the map, he swept away ramshackle governments, modernized administrations, and he didn't just do this in France, but in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and .. in what is now Belgium."

I may add that when coming across British or more exactly English chauvinists I always find it ironic to remember that Napoleon was the hero of the man who not long ago was voted the greatest ever Englishman, Sir Winston Churchill no less.