Saturday, 11 March 2017

St. Helena 1813: Two Governors, One Execution and the Mistreatment of Slaves

St. Helena in the time of Governor Beatson

After too long a delay I have got back to my work on St. Helena's Judicial Records. My last entry was on St Helena in 1812, but now 1813 has been finished, and I am well into 1814. So Napoleon is on Elba, and he will soon be back in Paris en route to St. Helena.

1813 was notable on St. Helena for the change of Governor. The formidable Alexander Beatson was replaced by Mark Wilks, who was still Governor when Napoleon stepped ashore some two years later.

Governor Beatson

One of the last cases tried in the Court under the Presidency of Alexander Beatson involved William Balcombe, who in 1811 had named his youngest son, Alexander Beatson Balcombe.

In this case Balcombe was trying to get back some £650, a considerable sum in those days, which he had paid to Robert Leech in trust for the estate of Richard Lane, who had died at sea when the appropriately named "True Briton" foundered. Ironically another party to the affair, a sea captain who might have been able to shed light on Balcombe's claims, was also drowned when his own ship foundered.

This was a complex and sorry affair involving the alleged non-payment of a bill exchange by a third party. Balcombe lost the case. It must have been a big blow to his finances, and in some ways encapsulates his life.

Probably the last significant event under Beatson's Governorship took place on May 19th 1813. On that day a soldier,William Alexander was executed. Alexander had been found guilty of Grand Larceny for stealing eight pairs of boots and five pairs of shoes with a total value of £14. Beatson had in his view no choice but to hang the man.

"The daily instances that occur of Burglaries, depredations on Sheep and Poultry, on Gardens, and Washing Ground, and on Goods landed on the Quay, are so many proofs of the greatest depravity – It is but too evident that most of these flagrant Crimes have originated in an insatiable desire of gratification in a vice, that is disgraceful and degrading to the human character. I mean excessive intemperance in Drinking, - For the sake of this unmanly gratification, there are yet too many in this small place, who would run every hazard to attain it; without reflectin upon the consequences to which they expose themselves."

The very first case to be heard under the new Governor, Mark Wilks, was the trial of Mary Braid in October 1813 for "wilful murder" of one of her slaves. The defendant was acquitted both of murder and manslaughter, but the case revealed a horrific story of cruelty and wilful mistreatment. Mary Braid's husband was subsequently found guilty and fined £75 for neglecting to prevent the ill treatment of his slaves.

Governor Mark Wilks

Perhaps the new Governor's arrival signalled a new attitude towards the treatment of slaves, because in the first session of 1814 he hauled Aaron Lamb before the court, and gave him a public dressing down for having beaten a slave for having made a complaint about his treatment to the magistrates.

The punishment of offences has not only a reference to the offender himself, but is intended to operate as an example to others ; and adverting to the time and the place at which this public admonition is given I am disposed to hope that both these objects will be suitably attained. I am happy at being enabled to observe that the offence which has been described is rare indeed in this place. The Community seems generally to feel, and it is indispensable that you in future should distinctly understand that the act of punishing a slave for having complained, and even pending the trial of that complaint, approached the nature of a direct insult to public authority ; and it is proper for me to add that you are indebted to the lenity of the Magistrate whom you have insulted for being saved from the Consequences of a trial. If you have the feelings which ought to belong to your place in Society, you have already been sufficiently punished – and you are dismissed without a fine.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

St Helena Airport: Lord Ashcroft's Latest

Lord Ashcroft, Leading supporter of St. Helena Airport photographed on his recent visit

One thing which any follower of Conservative politics knows is that Lord Ashcroft is not a great fan of David Cameron. He spent a lot of money, 8 million is often quoted, on the 2010 election campaign, Cameron failed to win a majority, went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and failed to offer Lord Ashcroft a significant job. Some say that instead Ashcroft was offered his wish of an airport on St. Helena.

Lord Ashcroft and St. Helena Airport 2nd April 2012

Some ten months ago on this blogI pointed out the revelations of a former airline pilot, Brian Heywood, who had in 2010 written to David Cameron warning against building the airport. Lord Ashcroft has now taken to the pages of Conservative Home to attack the former Prime Minister for ignoring that letter.

I am not a great fan of David Cameron, but I do wonder if I was faced with pressure from a disgruntled, billionaire party donor to build an airport, and a letter from an unknown former airline pilot advising against doing so, which path I would have taken!

Sunday, 20 November 2016


Marianne “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” and Napoleon, “C'est moi!”, responding to the Mona Lisa

Aleksandr Sukov's Franconia provides an absorbing, meandering study of the history of the Louvre from its origins as a chateau up to the addition of François Mitterand's pyramid. At a deeper level the film is an exploration of the relationship between art, museums and power and of war and peace. There are frequent appearances by Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, and of Napoleon, whose wars were instrumental in creating the Louvre's great collections. At one point Napoleon suggests that that was the reason for the wars!

The film is centred on the relationship between the Louvre's war time director, Jacques Jaujard, and his German superior in occupied France, Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich. An art historian and a great admirer of French culture, Wolff-Metternich was quietly determined to safeguard the Louvre's collections from being plundered by his Nazi superiors.

After the war Jaujard helped Wolff-Metternich clear his name. Thoroughly rehabilitated in the Federal Republic of Germany, he received the Légion d'honneur from General De Gaulle himself in 1952.

German Officers in a Louvre shorn of most of its art

At a time when European civilization is in crisis, and mankind itself seems on the edge of an unknown and rather frightening future, the film's portrayal of the relationship between Jaujard and Wolf-Metternich symbolizes that between France and Germany that grew out of the ruins of 1945 and has been the cornerstone of Western Europe's seventy years of prosperity and peace.

As befits a Russian director, the film contrasts the Nazi determination to preserve French art with the total lack of respect for Slavic cultural artefacts, which were ruthlessly destroyed as the German armies moved east. As well as the clips of Hitler visiting a deserted Paris in 1940, there are numerous references to Sukov's native Russia: clips of Stalin, of Chekov and of Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, on his death bed.

The ghost of Napoleon looking at the painting of his coronation.

Throughout the film the director is engaged on an internet webcam link with the captain of a container ship carrying works of art. Periodically the link between ship and land is lost, and the ship is clearly in danger of losing its cargo and perhaps sinking. As Sean Nam points out, this is not a difficult metaphor to unpack.

.. the insinuation here is one of grim uncertainty about the prospect of a unified European culture today. Indeed, for all its congratulatory spirit, Francofonia has the persistent feeling of an elegy bidding adieu to a bygone time, when art and civilization were perhaps more closely intertwined and could similarly be thought of on more continuous terms.

In this post-Brexit, Trumpian centred world, it is noticeable that apart from a film clip of De Gaulle with General Eisenhower, there is no reference throughout the film to the Anglo-American world, which has from time to time intervened and then retreated from the European heartland.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Napoleon and the Weather: An Early Chaos Theorist?

Satellite image showing cloud formations over St. Helena.

There is a lot of weather on St Helena, and nowhere more perhaps than at Longwood, where Napoleon had plenty of time to dwell on it.

In the century before Napoleon's arrival there was much interest in meteorology, and there were "weather watchers" at a number of places in the British Empire, including St. Helena. (1)

Longwood in inclement weather

Some time ago I came across this interesting comment which Napoleon made to his doctor only a couple of weeks before he died:

in nature everything is linked together. The wind of today will, in a hundred years' time, cause a ship to founder off the coast of China. By this I mean to say that those who would know what the weather will be like through analysing what it has been in the past are mistaken. There is no such thing as a periodical return, and it is useless to seek to regularize the weather.(2)

This example of holistic thinking seems to me to be unusual in the Newtonian world in which scientists believed in providence and a clockwork universe of natural laws which it was their job to discover.

What Napoleon called a mistaken idea lasted for 130 years after his death. In the 1950's scientists still believed that it was posible to find regular weather patterns as with other natural systems such as tides and phases of the moon. (3)

Edward Lorenz was attempting to do this using computer models when he came to the realisation that the weather is inherently unpredictable. The father of chaos theory, Lorenz coined the term butterfly effect: a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could determine the occurrence of a tornado in Texas.(4)

Napoleon's belief in the impossibility of finding laws governing the weather was not a St. Helena epiphany. In 1809 the famous French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck presented to him a book on Natural History at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences. Napoleon thought it was a book about Lamark's classification of clouds, of which Napoleon disapproved, and he treated him very unkindly:

"Do something in Natural History and I should receive your productions with pleasure. As to this volume, I only take it in consideration of your white hairs."(5)

Apparently Lamarck tried to explain, but he was brushed aside. Not surprisingly he never forgave Napoleon for that treatment

Napoleon of course was a brilliant mathematician and was fascinated by science. He had taken scientists with him on his Egyptian campagn, and gave much attention to the promotion of science during his period in power. Had he been allowed to proceed to the United States after Waterloo it was his intention to pursue a scientific career. At Malmaison as the Prussians approached Napoleon was apparently reading Humboldt's Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent . He wrote to Gaspard Monge, a member of the Academy of Sciences

For me idleness would be the cruelest torture. Without armies or an empire, I see only science as influencing my spirit. But learning of the achievements of others is not sufficient. I want to embark on a new career, to leave worthy undertakings and discoveries behind me. I need someone who can speedily bring me up to date on the present situation of the sciences. After this, we shall travel through the New World from Canada to Cape Horn and, in the course of this long journey, we shall examine all the phenomena of physics and of the globe.(6)

1. John D Cox Storm Watchers, The Turbulent History of Weather Prediction from Franklin's Kite to El Niño (New Jersey 2002), Charles W.J Withers Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason (Chicago 2007), Jan Golinski British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment (Chicago & London 2007)
2. This comment was made to Dr Arnott, the British doctor who attended him in his final weeks, in response to the latter's assertion that enemas have no effect on the upper regions of the body.Memoirs of General Bertrand, Grand Marshall of the Palace, January to May 1821 (Cassel & Company, 1953) p. 180
3. John Higgs Stranger than We Can Imagine, Making Sense of the Twentieth Century (Weidenfield & Nicolson 2015) p 235
4. Higgs pp 235-7.
5.A.E.E. Mackenzie The Major Achievements of Science: Volume 1 (Cambridge 1960) p 158
6.Ines Murat Napoleon and the American Dream(English Edition, Baton Rouge & London, 1981) pp 17-18

Friday, 28 October 2016

St Helena Exhibition at Les Invalides: The Most Popular Ever at the Museum

In what seems like another age, before we realised that there were serious problems with St.Helena's new airport, I blogged about my visit to the exhibition at Les Invalides in Paris.

The exhibition of course had been planned to coincide with the airport opening, and was designed to promote tourism to the island! As part of this project the retiring Governor of St. Helena visited Ajaccio and Les Invalides and was received at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Anyway the good news is that 90,000 people visited the exhibition over a period of a little more than 100 days, and it brought the island to the attention of many who had barely any knowledge of it. This attendance far exceeded expectations.

Congratulations to all concerned, and let us hope that 2017 brings better news about the airport, and some hope for those who have invested heavily in tourism on the island, which of course includes the French Properties.