Friday, 25 November 2022

Napoleon chez the Balcombes- A Review


Volume 3 of Michel Dancoisne-Martineau's series, Napoleon and St Helena, the end of an emperor.

This volume provides a very comprehensive account of Napoleon's debarquement from the "Northumberland", his single night in Jamestown at Porteous House, his stay at the Briars and of the people he met during his short time there.

The main character was William Balcombe, "a pathological liar, happy to let people on the island believe he was of royal descent, who because of friends in high places got the apparentlyly lucrative job of procuring supplies for the French and for a time was the host to Napoleon and some of his entourage at the Briars.

Amongst the many unsavoury things we learn about Balcombe is that he continued to import slaves to St Helena after it was illegal, and when he left in 1818 his "herd"" of blacks, as it was called, consisted of twenty males, nine under sixteen, and ten women, four under the age of thirteen.(1) There is much information here also about the whole family after their time on St Helena, including the story of Betsy and her short, disastrous marriage to Edward Abell. Here too is a full account of the life of the slave Toby whom Napoleon befriended and tried to free. A year or so after Napoleon's death Toby was robbed of what was left of the significant amount of money that Napoleon had given him. Fellow slave, Sam, was convicted of the robbery and duly executed in August 1823.

The biggest surprise of this volume was the background about Napoleon's decision to stay at the Briars. The usual version is that on his way back from Longwood to Jamestown Napoleon spotted the heart shaped waterfall and the pleasant property in front of it at the Briars, was taken down to it, and asked if he could stay rather than go back to Jamestown. The author suggests that this turn of events was in fact the culmination of a plan agreed between Balcombe and Admiral Cockburn, and perhaps originally the idea of former governor Alexander Beatson.

Cockburn had consulted Beatson before sailing for St Helena, and he had recommended Balcombe, "a respectable inhabitant" to him. Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, Balcombe's unfailing supporter was informed of this by Beatson, and wrote to Balcombe telling him that the choice of place to confine Napoleon would be left to the two commanders, Cockburn and Bingham, but that Beatson thought that "when this inspection has taken place, they will fix upon the Briars." This of course was before the decision to locate Napoleon at Longwood was thought of

In October 1815 Cockburn visited Balcombe while Napoleon was still on board the Northumberland to discuss Balcombe's role in procuring supplies for Longwood. On that visit Cockburn spotted the new pavilion at the Briars and agreed to hire it for a year for himself and for those admirals who would follow him. So when Napoleon arrived at the Briars on his return from Longwood, he asked if he could stay at the Pavilion, but was told by Balcombe that he had rented it to Cochburn the previous day. Cockburn,"feigning surprise " said that since it pleased "the general" he would give it up to him, and he himself would remain in Jamestown. (2)

This interpretation somewhat undermines the speculation of Anne Whitehead that Napoleon cultivated the Balcombes because of their connection to the Prince Regent through their benefactor Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt. On one minor detail though Anne Whitehead was right, Betsy's daughter was born in 1822, not 1825 as this book says. (3) Betsy was pregnant at the time of her ill-fated marriage, which perhaps explains her parents absence and relocation to France.

Anyone interested in Napoleon's time on St Helena or in the Balcombe family will find this an interesting and informative read. Like the other volumes of this bilingual series, it can be purchased from the online shop, with a relatively small charge for packing and postage. Unfortunately the two books on Napoleon's stay at Longwood, vols 6 & 7 are not yet available.


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1. Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, The Briars, Napoleon's stay with the Balcombe family pp. 36, 42, 98, 100. 2. The Briars pp 50-58.
3.Ann Whitehead, The Emperor's Shadow, Bonaparte, Betsy and the Balcombes (London 2015)

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Elba 1814: Napoleon meets a man from Bungay.


John Barber Scott (1792-1862)

John Barber Scott was the much travelled son of a wealthy merchant from Bungay in Suffolk. His diaries, provide a fascinating glimpse of life in the Waveney valley in the first half of the nineteenth century from the perspective of the mercantile-gentry class. (1)

His early diary provides several accounts of his being in the presence of the great people of his day: Byron speaking in the House of Lords in support of the Luddites and again at the opening of the Drury Lane New Theatre; the exiled Louis XVIII speaking at Cambridge; a Bible Society meeting in Dover at which Lord Liverpool and Wilberforce were present; Madame de Staël at her booksellers in Bond Street; and accompanying 150 Cambride graduates with a petition to the Prince Regent congratulating him on the victories of 2013 in the presence of too many Dukes and Lords to mention.

Waveney House, Bungay

He was also outside the doors of Westminster Abbey on the day of George IV's coronation, and "saw the doings of the Queen Caroline." (2) He noted the coronation celebrations in Bungay, at which his father gave a feast to 300 of the poorer citizens of the town in front of Waveney House. He also noted

A Queen riot in the evening, when all the flags and laurels in the town were pulled down and destroyed, except those of my father, which were not touched.(3)

Probably the most memorable day of Scott's life occurred in 1814 when like a number of his countrymen, including future Prime Minister Lord John Russell, Scott made his way to a small island off the Italian coast, in the hope of seeing the legendary Napoleon Bonaparte, now for a short time Emperor of Elba.

Souvenir that Scott brought back from Elba

Initially Scott was unimpressed with Napoleon, "the figure that has awed emperors and kings, has gained victory on victory, and the sight of whom has been equivalent to ten thousand men on the field of battle ", now appeared a "graceless figure so clumsy and awkward" whose countenance seemed to "indicate stupidity", and who had " a very large corporation, and his thighs are large - out of all proportion." Scott did however, correctly estimate Napoleon's height,which was rather greater than British caricature and propaganda suggested "about five feet seven inches", about average height for his day. (4)

Like many who were to meet him on St Helena, Scott was soon charmed by Napoleon. He noted his constant half-smile, "which gives one a feeling of confidence and ease. His eyes are remarkably expressive and quick, his voice is deep, his entire manner indicates great talent and he certainly inspires respect" (5)

Napoleon spent 22 minutes talking to Scott and his companions, and betrayed his usual curiosity, peppering them with questions. To a Scottish artillery officer he said, "They say you don't have any trousers " and being told that Scottish soldiers did indeed wear "skirts" asked if the officer had them with him, and was disappointed that the answer was no:"Je voudrais bien les voir." (6) When it came to Scott's turn to be questioned he declared that as yet he had no profession but was a member of the University of Cambridge, which Napoleon had trouble pronouncing, "Quoi? Camerige" Camerige? " Napoleon then decided that one day Scott would become Lord Chancellor, and asked if "Skine - kini- Erskine" still held that position, to which the polite young Scott addressing Napoleon as "Sire " informed him that Lord Eldon was the Lord Chancellor, to which Napoleon characteristically replied, "ah yes, I remember."(7)

At the end of the conversation Napoleon took off his hat and bowed to them, which people who knew him claimed he had never done before. Scott and his companions, all army officers,

were so delighted with the reception he gave us that I must confess we drank "Napoleon" unanimously, in a bumper, on our return - a part of the afternoon on which, upon reflection I feel rather ashamed (8)

Apparently Napoleon invited them to meet him again the next day, but because of the slowness of one of their party, Major Maxwell at his toilette they were too late. Scott was convinced that had they arrived sooner they would have been invited to accompany Napoleon and his party on a three day trip to the island of Pianosa. From his boat Napoleon again took off his hat and bowed to them two or three times.

we have been so fortunate that we ought not to lament anything; yet we cannot help abusing Maxwell. .. We remained a long time on the shore looking at the boat which bore this wonderful man away. (9)

Scott speculated that Napoleon might escape from Elba, but "where to go?", perhaps to Italy to "erect her into an independent kingdom." On the return journey he conversed with a Frenchman who had told General Bertrand that he thought Napoleon would not remain long in Elba. Bertrand, who within a year was to faithfully follow Napoleon to St Helena, told him that Napoleon was content, and that he would always remain on Elba! (10)

Scott came from a Tory background, and had accompanied his father in campaigning against Coke of Holkham, the Foxite Whig and famous agricultural reformer, and would himself have gone into politics but for his father's loss of much of his wealth. Unsurprisingly then, for all his admiration of Napoleon, Scott's reaction to Waterloo and Napoleon's death was fairly conventional. On hearing of the Waterloo victory he recorded with characteristic Loyalist hyperbole, "the days of Agincourt and Cressy are come again." In his diary he wrote at some length on the news of Napoleon's death.

This extraordinary man is no more! He has closed his mortal career, leaving behind him but the name of one on whom the gaze of mankind was more intensely fixed than on any that has found a place in the pages of history. His end, however questionable the justice of his treatment in his latter days, is a fine lesson of the vanity of what has too often been called greatness.

He concluded with the hope that Napoleon's death

may do more to strip of their tinsel the Alexanders and Caesars of the world than any event that ever occurred.(11)

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1. An Englishman at Home and Abroad 1792-1828 (London 1930) and An Englishman at Home and Abroad 1829-1862 (Bungay 1996)
2. Caroline, the estranged Queen of George IV was denied admittance to the coronation. There was much popular support for her in England, particularly among the radicals.
3. Diary 1792-1828 p. 190. Perhaps the generous feast given to the poor was the reason why Scott's decorations were spared.
4. Diary 1792-1828 pp 96-98.
5. Diary p. 102
6. "I would very much like to see them". Diary 1792-1828 p. 99
7. ibid
8. Diary 1792-1828 p. 102.
9. Diary 1792-1828 p.103 ,br> 10. Diary 1792-1828 p 107
11. Diary p 188-189

Thursday, 7 April 2022

The Man on the Rock - Kenneth Griffith (1975)


On our recent visit to St Helena we were privileged to be able to watch this powerful performance by Kenneth Griffith on a large screen. It first appeared in 1975, but has long since been forgotten, and it was difficult to find a copy. We were surprised and pleased to find that it is now available on youtube

Click Here To View .

It was filmed on St Helena and one of my friends on the island remembers Griffith coming to the local amateur dramatic group on a number of occasions during his stay.

Griffith plays Napoleon's gaoler Sir Hudson Lowe as well as Napoleon, which is a remarkable achievement in itself. His portrayal of Lowe is at times rather amusing and after half a century and much scholarly activity still seems an accurate one.

Any recent visitor to St Helena will note how the presentation of the French Properties has greatly changed since the film was made.

It is very highly recommended viewing for anyone interested in the captivity of Napoleon.

Thursday, 17 March 2022

Sir Hudson Lowe and Antonomasia - A Review


Sir Hudson Lowe, Victime of St Helena by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau

This book, one of a series of 12, is only available from the Longwood House souvenir shop on the island of St Helena. It contains parallel French and English text, as well as numerous pictures, newspaper cuttings and historical documents. The author rivals Napoleon in his capacity for hard work, and has over the years done a tremendous amount of research on his subject, rather more than is normal for such a book, as the 369 footnotes testify.

From relatively humble origins, Lowe received the job of guarding the most illustrious person of his age, and probably of many ages, and this gave him an inflated sense of his own importance. He came to believe that he was at least Napoleon’s equal, and perhaps his superior. Rising from relatively humble origins, with an undistinguished military career, he had gained for himself a reputation for good foreign language and writing skills. His promotion was based on his abilities as an administrator and an observer, on his loyalism and obedience, and on the fact that nobody of suitable rank could be found to carry out such an assignment.

The author provides an apt judgement on why Sir Hudson Lowe was such a good choice for the Lord Bathurst and the British Government.

“.. the man Bathurst needed to subject Napoleon to the petty restrictions, even humiliations, he wished to inflict on him, without exposing himself to the opprobrium of opposition and history. Two centuries after the events, the appointment of a civil servant reputed to be meticulous, undiscerning, quarrelsome, vain, petty, zealous and stubborn looks like a fool’s bargain. If one had to decide who was to blame, one should probably look to those who invited him to the table of the great and powerful.”

Flier for Exhibition at Plantation House, St Helena, cut short by decision of the present Governor's wife!

The book reveals a sound knowledge of the British or more accurately English society from which Lowe sprang: a highly ordered, corrupt society dominated by a small oligarchy, ruthless in its suppression of dissent and desirous of turning back the ideas of the French Revolution of which Napoleon had become the symbol. It correctly identifies Lowe as an ultra-loyalist Tory, whose political views would have been reinforced by his association with the absolutist continental rulers to whom he was often attached during the wars against Napoleon. He was in short the most loyal of subjects of George III and the Prince Regent, and of the aristocratic world in which he thought he had secured a foothold. In his entourage on St Helena he sought people with similar views to himself, and was most suspicious of those known to be sympathetic to the Whigs and to Napoleon.

The study takes issue with those who see Lowe as a vindictive gaoler as well as those who see him as the victim of cruel manipulation by Napoleon and his entourage. It paints a picture of a well meaning but flawed man, appointed to a job for which he was not suited, who let his sudden promotion rather go to his head, and who was never able to free himself from the delusions acquired from his appointment. Much of the material is new, particularly for the period after his return from St Helena when Lowe was never able to get a senior position that matched the St Helena appointment, and had to withstand increasingly unpleasant and often public shows of unpopularity, which the author describes as “mobbing”.

The most astonishing revelation of this study was the amount of wealth that Lowe gained from his five years in charge of Napoleon, despite losing a significant amount from fraud. As this book explains, this helped reinforce the delusion which was a feature of his conduct both on St Helena and after. In 1824 he continually changed his mind as to whether to accept the post of Governor of Antigua, and his frequent changes often appeared to be related to decisions of the local Assembly to lower and then raise the salary. Despite not taking the job he still submitted an account for £302 for expenses, around £27,000 in 2018 money! The author also reveals Lowe’s attempts to get back-pay from the East India Company as well as pay for the year after he left the island. The Company resisted, but for some reason the British Government in the person of Lord Bathurst acceded to his wishes.

Perhaps the most telling and amusing part is the account of his ten months long ostentatious overland journey with his family from Paris to Ceylon to take up his appointment as Lieutenant Governor, in the forlorn expectation that he would shortly thereafter receive the appointment as Governor. During the whole of this trip Lowe basked in the temporary title the Govt had given him of Lieutenant General of His Gracious Majesty, but he was not always as well received as he wished in the capitals of Europe. In Vienna the Emperor Franz refused to see him, and Metternich encouraged him to leave the city where Napoleon’s son then resided!

Among the belongings auctioned after his death was a lock of the King of Rome’s hair, the subject of over 1000 pages of correspondence while he was on St Helena, which had supposedly been destroyed. There were also other articles bearing inscriptions “N” and “Emperor” which would have got anyone severe penalties had they been written by anyone on the island during Lowe’s term as Governor.

Finally, I have learned a new word from this book, antonomasia, the use of a proper name to describe the characteristics of a person. According to Hazlitt (1826) a “Sir Hudson Lowe” is someone who appears

“ so much the creatures of the head and so little of the heart, they are so cold, so lifeless, so mechanical, so much governed by calculation, and so little by impulse …”.
Such was Lowe’s reputation that the term was even used in the House of Commons during Lowe’s lifetime.

This is an important, well researched book. It is a pity that it is so difficult to obtain.

ps. I also learned that Sir Hudson Lowe was a couple of centimetres shorter than Napoleon! The British propaganda about Napoleon's height is a subject I have often referred to over the years!.

Saturday, 15 January 2022

Queen Victoria and the Empress Eugénie


Queen Victoria's portrait of Eugénie, May 1855

By the last decades of the nineteenth century the Bonaparte family had gained legitimacy among Europe's rulers. No longer identified with opposition to the British oligarchy and its absolutist allies on the continent, they had become part of the established order, allies against Republican and working class movements which increasingly put fear into the heads of Europe's ruling classes.

The Bonapartes themselves exhibited a certain sense of entitlement, all the more curious since their claims derived entirely from the upstart Emperor, exiled on St Helena and insultingly referred to as "General Bonaparte" by his British gaolers. At least one of the family, Mathilde Bonaparte (1820-1904), daughter of Napoleon's brother Jerome, recognised this, apparently telling Marcel Proust that if it weren't for her famous uncle she would be "selling oranges in the streets of Ajaccio, " but there is no evidence that it made her feel any less entitled.

One of the Bonapartes, Prince Louis-Lucien(1813-1891) was apparently devoted to Queen Victoria. She always addressed him as Imperial Highness although he had no right to the title. According to his cousin Caroline Murat he lived so long in England and had "became almost an Englishman", and a rather conservative one at that. (1) Having met Gladstone at Eugenie's he commented "I didn't know a Liberal could be a true gentleman". (2) The closest relationship though was between Queen Victoria and Eugénie, Empress of the French (1826-1920).


Franz Xaver Winterhalter's portrait of Eugénie, Empress of the French, copied by Mary Curtis in December 1855 for Queen Victoria

The world in which Victoria and Eugenie became friends was very different from that of the first Napoleon. Britain was at the pinnacle of its global power, and the centuries old struggle with France had come to an end, although not everyone had noticed it.(3) The Enlightenment ideas with which Napoleon was identified, the rights of property, secularism and legal equality had for the most part become mainstream among the English ruling class, and most of England's rulers still shared Napoleon's distrust of democracy.

Victoria and Albert with Napoleon III and Eugénie, London 1855

Queen Victoria had been told in 1850 by Lord Aberdeen that the future Napoleon III had good manners and was " very quiet, not at all French " (4), which perhaps reconciled her to the fall of King Louis Philippe, "the one person fitted to govern such an unmanageable people. " (5).

Over a decade earlier, before Napoleon's body had been brought back from St Helena she had been sent a book by her uncle the Duke of Sussex, a well known Whig supporter of Napoleon. The book had suggested to her the almost treasonous thought that "Napoleon's wars were good " and disabused her of the belief that he had been a coward. (6)

Initially opposed to Louis Napoleon's coup, in October Victoria recorded that the Govt formed was of "people who are nobody". By December though she rejoiced at the big majority that Louis Napoleon had gained in the French elections, "as a sign of moderation" and "a stepping stone to something better". (7)

Napoleon III, Eugénie and the Prince Imperial

Her soon to be friend, the Spanish Princess Eugénie de Montijo, had married Napoleon III in 1853, and their first meeting was in 1855 when she and her husband were guests in London during the Crimean War. Shortly after Victoria returned the visit and in Paris was taken to see the tomb of "the great Napoleon".

Franz Xaver Winterhalter's portrait of Eugénie, Empress of the French, copy by Johann Horrak.

In her diary of December 24th, 1857 commenting on her Christmas presents Queen Victoria singled out a gift by "Dearest Albert" of "a copy of Winterhalter's picture of the Empress Eugénie in a straw hat, which I am so particularly fond of, and which is charming."

After the overthrow of the Second Empire Victoria visited the Empress and her son in Kent where Eugénie "very thin & pale, but still very handsome", with "deep sadness in her face" and frequent tears in her eyes, spoke of her dreadful last hours in Paris as the populace stormed the Tuileries. (8)

After Napoleon III's death the Empress gave Victoria a photograph of him and his travelling clock which had accompanied him everywhere and was beside his bed when he died. Victoria showed it to Eugénie when the latter visited, and wrote in her diary: "Now it stands in my sitting room, & I shall always take it about with me, & leave it as an Heirloom to Windsor!!!" (9)

Most devastating of all was the tragic death of Eugenie's only child, the Prince Imperial, while serving with British troops in South Africa. Victoria heard the news before Eugénie, and may have felt some responsibility for it. She recorded that it haunted her all night "seeing those horrid Zulus constantly before me", and "thinking of the poor Empress who did not yet know it." (10) Her diary gives a very detailed account of the Prince Imperial's funeral where she met all the assorted Bonapartes, most of whom she seemed to have some knowledge of,

The Princes & Psse Matilde came in here, & the different Princes were presented by Pce Napoleon, who has very civil, & very subdued & embarassed. Psse Matilde, I found very little altered At the door, we were met by Ld Sydney Psse Matilde (whom I had not seen since 55, in Paris) Pce Napoleon, with his 2 sons Victor & Louis, Pce Lucien Bonaparte (the savant, who always resides in England) Pce Charles Napolén Bonaparte (his, nephew) Pce Murat, his daughter Psse Eugénie, & his brother Pce Louis, the Duc de Bassano & others. Pce Napoleon is aged, & grown balder, & more like to Napoleon I than ever. His eldest son Victor, is tall & nice & intelligent looking, very like the Italian family, but with the fine Bonaparte brow, & complexion. The 2nd, is much shorter & darker, & has quite the Bonaparte features. Pce Lucien, is grey & old looking, very pleasing, & gentlemanlike. He loved the dear young Prince dearly & feels his death acutely. He is the son of Napoleon I's eldest brother. He was present at the painful identification & said "Mais, je l'ai reconnu!" His nephew, Pce Charles, I had never seen before, a good looking elderly man, whose mother, was the daughter of Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain. Besides these, there was Pce Murat's handsome daughter Eugénie & his younger brother Pce Louis. — (11)

In her widowhood the Empress Eugénie, often referred to by Victoria as "dear Empress Eugénie" and sometime "poor Empress Eugénie ", was a frequent visitor to Osborne House, Balmoral and Windsor. Occasionally Victoria visited her, including a couple of visits to Eugénie's villa, "Cyrnos" in the South of France. Victoria sometimes lent Eugénie a cottage at Osborne house, and also another one in Abergele in the Scottish highlands. In Osborne House gardens were some violets brought back from St Helena in 1880. (12) Sometimes other members of the Bonaparte family accompanied Eugénie on her visits.

Eugénie at her villa, Cyrnos, in the South of France

On one occasion the two friends visited the Demidoff villa in Italy, former home of Anatoly Demidoff (1813-1870), and his wife Mathilde Bonaparte. Victoria noted that

there were busts of the Empr Napoleon & Empress Eugénie, also a bust of myself, which I cannot understand how he got. Took tea, which we had brought with us, in one of the small rooms, & afterwards went up into a magnificent drawing room, which was full of fine & interesting things, amongst others the clock, which had stood in the room at St. Helena, in which Napoleon I died. There was also death mask of him. (13)

Funeral in 1820, attended by King and Queen of England and the Queen of Spain

Bonapartism as a political force effectively ended with the death of the Prince Imperial in 1879. Thereafter the Orleanists became the better bet for the enemies of Republicanism. (14) Nevertheless Victoria's relationship with the Bonapartes remained unbroken. In 1886 she saw the "monstrous" proposal by the French Govt to expel the Orléans & Bonaparte Princes as directed at Prince Napoleon and his son Prince Victor. In the final months of her life she was visited by Prince Napoleon and his brother Princce Louis, who she noted had been serving for some time in the Russian army, which happened to be governed by another Emperor and another relative of hers. (15)

Eugénie lived to see Victoria's son and then grandson on the throne, and then through the First World War, which destroyed much of the old European order. She died in 1920 on a final visit to Spain, the nation of her birth. Like Napoleon I she had two funerals, one in Madrid, and then her body was returned for burial in England. Her English funeral was attended not only by assorted Bonapartes, but by the King and Queen of England and the Queen of Spain.
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1. My Memoirs The Princess Caroline Murat (New York 1910) p. 80
2. Murat p 24
3. There was a war scare in Britain after Napoleon III came to power.
4. Victoria Diary, 6th Feb 1850.
5. Victoria Diary 14 August 1839
6. Victoria Diary, 14 Aug 1839
7. Victoria Diary, 31st Oct & 14 Dec 1848.
8. Victoria Diary 30th November 1870
9. Victoria Diary Osborne House 26th January 1873.
10. Victoria Diary, Balmoral Castle, Friday June 20th 1879)
11. Victoria Diary, Windsor 12th July 1879
12. Victoria Diary, 22 December 1881.
13 Victoria Diary, Florence (Villa Palieri). 19th April 1888
14. "Courts in exile: Bourbons, Bonapartes and Orléans in London, from George III to Edward VII" Philip Mansel in A history of the French in London, ed Debra Kelly & Martyn Cornick, p 118. Institute of Historical Research (London 2013)
15. Victoria Diary 4th June 1886 & 22 November 1900.