Monday, 13 October 2014

"The pocket-sized Emperor" - letter to the Observer

letter to The Observer October 12th 2014

I cannot remember when I last wrote to newspaper, but a review of Andrew Roberts' recent biography of Napoleon moved me to do so. The propaganda about Napoleon's height, now some two centuries old, was discussed in Finding Napoleon almost a year ago. I imagine that Napoleon would be at least as surprised to find that his stature gave rise to a complex named after him as he was on St Helena to find that the English inappropriately nicknamed him "boney".

Anyway an uncharacteristically and perhaps appropriately short post from me on this occasion.

Monday, 8 September 2014

"Napoleon the Great" - new book by Andrew Roberts

"Napoleon the Great" - by Andrew Roberts

Biographies of Napoleon come thick and fast, and doubtless more will follow as we near the bicentenary of Waterloo. The latest is the work of the Conservative British historian Andrew Roberts, author of Napoleon and Wellington and Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble , who visited St Helena last year.

The publishers' blurb makes interesting reading:

It has become all too common for Napoleon Bonaparte's biographers to approach him as a figure to be reviled, bent on world domination, practically a proto-Hitler. Here, after years of study extending even to visits paid to St Helena and 53 of Napoleon's 56 battlefields, Andrew Roberts has created a true portrait of the mind, the life, and the military and above all political genius of a fundamentally constructive ruler. This is the Napoleon, Roberts reminds us, whose peacetime activity produced countless indispensable civic innovations - and whose Napoleonic Code provided the blueprint for civil law systems still in use around the world today.

Andrew Roberts at Longwood House in 2013

Anybody with any awareness of epistemology and/or the philosophy of history would be a little uncomfortable with claims to have produced "a true portrait", but nevertheless it will be interesting to read Roberts' work alongside Soldier of Destiny by Michael Broers, published earlier this year.

I also notice that on October 8th a debate is to take place in London between Roberts and Adam Zamoyski, author of 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow and Rites of Peace. The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna :

all mention of Napoleon as ‘great’, ‘hero’, ‘villain’ or ‘monster’ has Adam Zamoyski running for the hills, bemused why – in his opinion – this rather ordinary man excites such passion in otherwise level-head intelligent people.

The debate is to be chaired by Jeremy Paxman no less.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Byron, Churchill, Harrow & Napoleon

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, Jacques-Louis David, 1812

Wellington, himself an old Etonian, is often misquoted as saying that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.(1) It is strange that Harrow, Eton's strongest rival, has produced three of the biggest admirers of Wellington's opponent at Waterloo!

The David picture above, some seven feet high, was commissioned in 1811 by the first of our old Harrovians, Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852). Hamilton, a Scottish Whig politician, apparently had a tendency to emphasise the importance of ancient birth, but this curiously did not prevent him from supporting Napoleon, an upstart whose career and credo symbolised equality of opportunity. In 1882 the painting that Hamilton had commissioned was acquired by Lord Rosebery, like Hamilton a Scottish politician of Whig ancestry.

A Liberal Imperialist who briefly served as Foreign Secretary twice, and then Prime Minister(1894-1895), Rosebery's marriage to Hannah Rothschild (1878) enabled him to buy a priceless collection of art, including a number of valuable Napoleon memorabilia, to fill his twelve houses. (2) Rosebery was the author of an excellent study of Napoleon's exile which is still worth reading, and also commissioned the famous portrait of Napoleon by James Sant.

Rosebery was an old Etonian, but whilst the David painting was in his possession it caught the admiring gaze of the second of our old Harrovians, the young Conservative politician, Winston Churchill, a passionate devotee of Napoleon.

This was the first time that Churchill had been confronted by a large life-size picture of his hero. It made such an impression on him that the very next day he wrote to Rosebery about it:

I carried away quite a queer sensation from the Napoleon picture yesterday. It seems pervaded with his personality; and I felt as if I had looked furtively into the very room where he was working, and only just got out of the way to avoid being seen. (3)

I have written a number of posts about Winston Churchill's intense admiration for Napoleon, and a recent reading of Michael Sheldon's Young Titan, The Making of Winston Churchill, the only biography which has focused on his early political career, has shed further light on this:

In 1912, now a Liberal and First Lord of the Admiralty, travelling by train across the Alps to Naples to try to persuade the retired Lord Fisher to help the Government with its naval plans, Churchill waxed so eloquently about Napoleon's crossing the Alps that his wife in the next compartment thought he was reading aloud. (4)

Photograph Churchill sent to Gilbert Martineau in May 1961, now exhibited at Longwood House

In April 1915, critical of the performance of the Navy in the early stages of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign he quoted Napoleon to Admiral Fisher,

'We are defeated at sea because our Admirals have learned--where I know not--that war can be made without running risks' [Napoleon] (5)

Contemporaries were of course well aware of his passion for Napoleon. "He thinks himself Napoleon " said Lord Esher, his superior at the Colonial Office. His friend John Morley, Gladstone's biographer, when told that Churchill was reading another book on Napoleon commented,

He would do better to study the drab heroes of life. Framing oneself upon Napoleon has proved a danger to many a man before him. (6)

Letter from Winston Churchill to Gilbert Martineau May 1961, exhibited at Longwood House

Perhaps the strongest criticism came from a political opponent, Admiral Lord Charles Beresford who described him in a Unionist rally in Hyde Park in 1914 as an enemy of Ulster and a danger to the State, a "Lilliput Napoleon. A man with an unbalanced mind. An egomaniac ..!" (7)

The third of our old Harrovian aristocratic admirers of Napoleon was of course Lord Byron, from whom Churchill drew great inspiration. Both Byron and Churchill kept busts of Napoleon on their desks. Byron seemed in Churchill's mind to resemble his own father whose career had been tragically cut short, and to possess that combination of energy, action, vision and free thinking which he so admired.

Shelden's study suggests that as a young man Churchill very much saw himself as a Byronic romantic hero, a protagonist of domestic reform, determined to change the world for the better, and one whose political career looked to have come to an end with the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign. Churchill though did not perhaps quite look the part, and the book throws new light on his passionate if unsuccessful pursuit of three of the most beautiful women of his time. (8)

Churchill was a great lover of Byron's poetry and could recite long passages from it, and often drew on it as in his famous promise in 1940 of only "Blood Sweat and Tears" which echoed Byron's reference in his Age of Bronze to the war profiteering of the landed gentry who enriched themselves with their "blood, sweat and tear-rung millions". (9)


1. Others have claimed that what he actually said decades later when observing an Eton cricket match was "There grows the stuff that won Waterloo".

2. The David painting was bought by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1954 and now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

3. Churchill to Rosebery, 4th Sept 1901 p. 45 Michael Shelden, Young Titan, The Making of Winston Churchill, Great Britain, 2014.

4. Shelden pp. 278-9.

5. Winston, Churchill to Admiral Lord Fisher, April 8th 1815. Churchill Archives.

6. Shelden p. 92

7. Shelden pp. 195, 270.

8. Shelden pp 7-10.

9. Apparently when in 1941 Franklin Roosevelt suggested that the allies should call themselves the United Nations Churchill immediately quoted a verse from Byron, "Here, where the sword united nations drew .." Shelden pp 6-7.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Guns of St Helena

"Long Tom" being transported to Mundens 1903 (Not Ladder Hill - see postscript)

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 next year in The Wirebird, the Friends of St Helena magazine, provides the historical context about the island's garrison.

In 1902, at the end of the Boer War, the St. Helena garrison reached a peak of over 1500, and in 1903 two large modern guns were installed to guard the island. These "Long Tom" guns, were wrongly believed to have been French made Creuset guns captured from the Boers, which had done a great deal of damage during the war. (But see postscript below) Shortly after the 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.

POSTSCRIPT Since writing this post I have received the following from a highly respected source:

What you see in the Bruce photos is the barrel of a 6 inch Mark VII Elswick coastal defence wire gun, the type of gun you can see in situ today at Ladder Hill. The Bruce photos are probably from when the guns first arrived in 1903. Although four emplacements were built, two at LH and two on the top of Mundens, I don't think there were ever more than two guns. A former RA captain I knew years ago, long since dead, who was stationed on SH during WWII, once told me that to keep the chaps occupied, they used to strip down a gun, move it to the other side of JT, set it up and fire it, then reverse the process! The barrel alone weighs over 3 tons! They also used to do blind target practice, firing shells over the top of the Island, to hit targets on Prosperous Bay Plain. Airport construction has turned up some of the shells.

The Bruce photo captioned "Long Tom on its way to Ladder Hill fort" is clearly taken on the Mundens road.

Incidentally, the trolley you can see the guys using is the one still in use in the Star to display the veg!


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 is writing 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!