Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Guns of St Helena



Some time ago I wrote a blog about the Friends of St Helena's new Facebook page and the excellent collection of 1890-1930 photographs to be found there.

One that caught my eye was that of a large gun being wheeled up the main street in Jamestown. I asked then if anybody could tell me anything about it, and now Ian Bruce, the creator of the Facebook page has helped me out. An article he has written,to be published in the Friends of St Helena magazine next year, The Wirebird, fills in all the historical context about the garrison on the island.

In 1902, at the end of the Boer War, the island's garrison reached a peak of over 1500, and in 1903 two large modern guns were installed to guard the island. These guns had been captured from the Boers, and had done a great deal of damage during the Boer War. The "Long Tom" in the photograph was one of these. Shortly after these guns arrived the garrison was run down to a little over 200 men, with predictable economic consequences for the island, similar to the rundown after the death of Napoleon.

In 1906 the new Liberal Government, elected on a platform of retrenchment, and doubtless aware of the declining military value of St Helena as a coaling station as the Royal Navy shifted to oil, decided to close the garrison altogether. Despite public outcry on St Helena, and the organisation of a Committee in the UK which bizarrely and futilely tried to gain compensation for St Helena's landowners, the Government held firm.

Winston Churchill, holding office for the first time as Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, defended the policy, arguing that they should await the results of an expert being sent to the island to investigate. This expert concluded that the establishment of a flax industry was the only possibility for avoiding economic depression. (1)

In 1907 Parliament voted a grant to set up the flax industry, and so another chapter in the island's precarious history began, to be ended, so legend has it, by another peremptory decision in the 1960's. (2)

Quite what happened to the redundant guns is a mystery to me.

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1. "The First Dozen Years", draft article by Ian Bruce, kindly supplied by the author.

2. The conventional wisdom is that a decision at a fairly low level in the Post Office to abandon the use of flax for mail bags led to the shutdown of the flax industry. The explanation may be rather more complex, as Laurence Carter's blog suggests.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Napoleon: second only to Jesus Christ!



1. Jesus (Holman Hunt) 2. Napoleon 3. Will Shakespeare

It is always a pleasure to read Margaret Rodenberg's blog, Finding Napoleon. A knowledgeable, considered writer who eschews historical clichés and is well aware of the complexity of Napoleon's character, Margaret has written a novel from Napoleon's point of view. This is a very different undertaking from the well researched novel Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin, another North American author, which I reviewed a few weeks back.

In 2011, as part of her research, Margaret visited Paris, Corsica and St Helena, which may well be more than any previous Napoleonic writer has achieved in the space of a single year! She has set herself a most difficult task, and I look forward to reading her book when it is published.

Her most recent post entitled Big Data Shows Napoleon Bonaparte is History’s 2nd Biggest Figure referred to a book recently published which has attempted to use quantitate methods to assess the importance of historical figures.

Who's Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank Steven Skiena & Charles B. Ward

Unsurprisingly, to me at least, Napoleon came second. A.J.P. Taylor, without the mathematical research, pointed out in 1969 that there were more books about Napoleon than any other human being,"(a phrase carefully chosen in order to rule out Jesus Christ)"

The reason for this is impossible fully to explain, but I like A.J.P. Taylor's explanation,

He [Napoleon] actually provides pleasure for those who write about him. It is very rare to pick up a book about Napoleon which has the air of being a hack job. Nearly every author seems to be in the game for the love of the thing.

What I found pleasing is that at number three came the man who would always get my vote as the greatest ever English man (or woman). I speak of course of William Shakespeare!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Theft from Briars Melbourne - Postscript


Sterling Silver Inkwell (Inset with three Gold Napoleons), Garrard and Co. London 1821-1822

Since publishing an account of the robbery from the Dame Mabel Brookes Napoleonic Collection, I have had further information from Sue Dale, who grew up in Australia about 15 miles from the Briars and knows it very well. Sue, who now lives in Congleton, has also visited St Helena, and is currently researching the life of Sir Thomas Reade who was born in Congleton in 1782.

Sue is particularly distressed by the theft of the silver inkwell, which has connections with Thomas Reade and Congleton and, in a curious way, with the Briars on St Helena. The inscription on the base of the inkwell reads:

These Napoleons, presented to Mrs Egerton by Sir Thomas Reade, Lieut. Gov. of St Helena, were found in the pocket of Napoleon Buonaparte after his death there, 5 May 1821

Now whether these gold coins were actually in Napoleon's pocket, and if so how Sir Thomas Reade came by them, is another matter! So far Sue is unable to trace who Mrs Egerton was, but it is a distinguished family name in Cheshire, and perhaps Garrard and Co will still have records of the commission.

What is to me even more interesting though is how it came to be in the hands of Dame Mabel Brookes: according to the 2010 catalogue it was presented to her on the occasion of receiving the Légion d'honneur. Dame Mabel, the great grand-daughter of William Balcombe, received that award in 1960 for saving the Briars Pavilion on St Helena and handing it over to the French nation. Apparently she visited St Helena in 1957 and the transfer was completed some two years later, at an extortionate price. One cannot begin to imagine the difficulties she would have encountered in making this purchase and transfer. It makes it all the more sad that this item, connecting the Briars in Melbourne with the original Briars on St Helena, has now been stolen. I do hope that it and the other items are recovered.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Theft of Napoleon Memorabilia from the Briars (Australia)


I am saddened to hear of a major theft from the The Briars Homestead at Mount Martha, Victoria, Australia. originally the home of William Balcombe, father of Betsy, and the owner of the Briars on St Helena when Napoleon stayed there in 1815.

Below I have posted images of the valuable objects stolen.


DMB 86 Book of Fate

DMB 183 Miniature of Napoleon

DMB 184 Miniature of Josephine

DMB 246 Inkwell with three Napoleon gold coins set into base

DMB 271 Lock of Napoleon’s hair sewn onto a piece of paper

DMB 249 Rosicrucian Medal

DMB 257 Gold ring set with pearls and emeralds set around a woven piece of Napoleon’s hair

DMB 274 Gold locket with floral design of lacquered hair from Napoleon

Small portrait of Napoleon

DMB 259 Horn snuff box with central gold medallion

It is important that information about this theft is circulated as widely as possible to aid the efforts to recover them, so I would encourage anyone who has a web page to publish these images.

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.