Thursday, 19 March 2009

Markham: The Road to St Helena - A Review

At long last I have been able to put together a few thoughts on this book.

After a long and generally uneventful voyage, the ship dropped anchor in the harbor of Jamestown, St. Helena.

On the evening of the 17th, Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, now outrageously styled General Buonaparte by the British Government set foot on his last island and walked forward to meet his ultimate destiny.

J. David Markham, The Road to St Helena (Pen and Sword, Great Britain, 2008).

It is interesting to compare this with Gilbert Martineau's Napoleon Surrenders which was completed over 40 years ago. Martineau's conclusion was somewhat more embellished :
By exiling him in the middle of the ocean, England presented him with a fresh conquest. Held prisoner on a rock for 6 years, contemplating the world, his career and his dreams with a philosopher's gaze, he succeeded in giving meaning to the hurricane he had let lose upon the old world, he transformed his thirst for adventure and conquest into a crusade for liberty, and his boundless arrogance into a European nationalism carrying all before it.

Whereas Martineau devoted a number of chapters to the period on board the Bellerophon and the Northumberland , Markham's book concentrates almost totally on the period leading up to the surrender. Perhaps there is a sequel still to come?

His focus is on French politics in the chaotic post Waterloo period, in particular on the machinations of Fouché, Napoleon's treacherous Minister of Police, who not only ensured that the allies knew all about Napoleon's plans for Waterloo, but delayed issuing passports for Napoleon's party to go to America, and left the allies in no doubt as to Napoleon's location.

There is also comprehensive coverage of the debate and indecision among Napoleon's entourage at Rochefort and the Isle of Aix, which ultimately left Napoleon with little choice but to surrender to the British. As always it is impossible to know what was going on in Napoleon's own mind - only hostile historians seem to be able to do that! As I read it I kept thinking of Johannes Willms who expressed the view that Napoleon never had any intention of going to America! (1) Among the useful appendixes is an account written by one of his party, Baron Lallemand, albeit with the benefit of hindsight: the Emperor became much too indifferent as to his personal consideration and left everything up to the men who were with him to take care of the situation. He could not have left this in more loyal hands, but guided by less clear-sightedness.

Among the things I noted was the extent to which Napoleon's plans for Waterloo had been compromised before the battle, first by Fouché, and then by General Louis Bourmont and other officers who defected. The book also reports from a little known source that Napoleon may have taken poison on 21st June, and then have taken an antidote.(2) Another interesting if rather trivial piece of information is the revelation that Napoleon's mistress, Mademoiselle George, later offered to join him on St. Helena. Presumably this would have prevented her serving in a similar role to the Duke of Wellington while he was in Paris. Fact is often stranger than fiction.

The book has a number of illustrations, including photos taken by the author of Napoleon's last home on the Isle of Aix and a commemorative plaque later erected by Baron Gourgaud on the beach from which Napoleon left the mainland for the last time.

Among the illustrations is one of Captain Maitland which has the following annotation: Captain Frederick Maitland received Napoleon aboard his ship and gave the Emperor his last decent treatment by the British. I don't think there can be a great deal of argument about that - although much depends on one's understanding of the word decent ! (3)

I enjoyed this book. It has an index, footnotes and a bibliography, and makes good use of a great deal of contemporary materials. There is not too much doubt which side Markham is on. He would have liked the Emperor to overcome his enemies in France and at Waterloo, or at least to have made his escape to America and to have avoided falling into the hands of perfidious Albion, but his sympathies do not stand in the way of a scholarly treatment of the subject.

(1) See my blog of January 11th 2009.

(2) Markham p.83, his source is The Memoirs of Baron Thiébault (Late Lieutenant-General in the French Army) New York 1896. The druggist Cadet Gassicourt apparently feared that the poison may have hastened Napoleon's death on St Helena.

(3) "Napoleon was an emperor defeated, yet still regarded as emperor by his followers, treated by them as such, and accustomed to the servility due to one. To check his pretensions, reduce him to submission and control his conduct - all without losing his co-operation - demanded a confidence amounting to an insurmountable sense of superiority from the first .. " This extract from a British naval historian gives a useful insight into how the British establishment saw their task. Morris, "Mastering the General"


HMI400 said...

David Markham is brilliant and deserves the aclaim and recognition for his devotion to the life of Napoleon. As an author he gets better with age.

David said...

Thanks for the great review, John, and thanks to you, Howard, for your kind post. Its always nice to be recognized. I especially appreciate the comment about my objectivity in research, which is very important to me. As to getting better with age, will someone please tell that to my wife! ;-)