Monday, 14 February 2011

Napoleon's Poisoned Chalice

Among the half dozen books I recenty read on holiday was Napoleon's Poisoned Chalice: The Emperor and His Doctors on St Helena by Dr Martin Howard. It was the only one on Napoleon that I took with me. It seems to me to be by far the best of the recent books on the captivity produced by British authors. Dr Martin is largely free of nationalistic prejudice, provides a careful and considered evaluation of the evidence, and thankfully does not engage in wild speculation as to what was going on in the head of Napoleon or anyone else. Although highly readable, this is a scholarly study which deserves the attention of anyone interested in the captivity of Napoleon.

The book's judgement on Lowe, derived partly from Gorrequer's diary, seems apt:
.. he may be judged to be a fundamentally decent man who was promoted beyond his capacity and was then destroyed from within by his deficiencies.
Napoleon himself astutely described Lowe as a hyena caught in a trap - a trap presumably set by Lord Bathurst and the British Government.

Dr Martin also provides a succinct analysis of Barry O'Meara's conflicting loyalties as Napoleon's medical attendant, a British officer, and an admiralty informer. He suggests with some justification that Lord Rosebery might have been less dismissive of O'Meara's Voice of St. Helena and its allegations about Lowe had he been able to read Gorrequer's diary.

Dr Martin also brings out clearly the enmity between Lowe and the Admiralty, and the Navy's sympathy for the Emperor and his doctor which is the key to understanding the O'Meara affair and much that followed. He describes Napoleon's relationship with the British Navy as close to being one of mutual admiration.

The book also provides a thorough account of the harsh treatment of Dr Stokoe by Sir Hudson Lowe and the egregious Sir Thomas Reade, always sniffing around for a conspiracy. It notes the very selective treatment of the case by Lowe's apologist W. Forsyth. The comment on Stokoe's plight as a doctor is worth repeating, coming as it does from a medical practitioner:
He decided to see Napoleon; whatever the risks, this was the action one would have expected of a conscientious doctor.
The regulations extant on St Helena had been manipulated to render normal medical practice illegal.
Dr Arnott's diagnosis of Napoleon's illness as hypchondriasis as late as 22nd April 1821 was he concludes the result of the climate of fear created by the Governor rather than of incompetence. Dr Martin dismisses the poisoning theory in an uncharacteristic unscholarly phrase as, all mouth and no trousers.

I found the introductory pages a little less sure footed. The famous letter to the Prince Regent is claimed to have been written in Plymouth when in fact it was written before Napoleon went on board the Bellerophon. Pieter Geyl's Napoleon For and Against is inaccurately described as a double edged account of Napoleon's life , when in fact it is a study of French historiography on Napoleon, a very different animal. I also have some problems with his description of Napoleon at his peak as egotistical and brutal. I don't think anyone would cavil at the egotistical epithet, but by no stretch of the imagination was Napoleon a brutal ruler. Martin also suggests that Napoleon still believed himself to be the Messiah, a somewhat bizarre assertion, which perhaps refers to Napoleon's sense of destiny. These though are minor points which should not detract from the quality of the work.

The book inevitably invites comparison with Albert Benhamou's L'Autre St Hélène. Albert's book engages more directly with the primary sources, and contains many long extracts from them, which I personally found very useful. Dr Martin's book is largely a synthesis of secondary sources, and focuses more on the doctors and on Hudson Lowe and less on the inhabitants of Longwood. I feel that these are complementary studies, and still hope to see an English translation of L'Autre St Hélène. I am pleased to have both books on my shelves, each signed by its author.


albertuk said...

Hudson Lowe was somehow a mystery. In addition to Gorrequer's opinion, there are also those of Wellington and Bathurst. As Gorrequer put it right, Lowe was a "machine" in the sense that he had been conditioned (brain-washed)for the role he was placed into. He surely had some goodness of character, but was exceessively dominated by his line of duty which, at times, was getting ridiculous (cf the story of Young Napoleon's bust, or the prints of the same that he _never_ gave to the father, or the chess board sent by Elphinstone family, to name just a few). More unknown, he was also a corrupt man at St Helena (cf. his dispute over Breame's farm, his appropriation of furniture sent by Govt to Napoleon that he took for himself and for his followers, his way of granting promotion or not to individuals, etc). Hudson Lowe was feared at St Helena, while Thomas Reade was hated.

John Tyrrell said...

I don't recall reading about Bathurst's view of Hudson Lowe. Can you enlighten me?

Your point about the corruption of Hudson Lowe is an interesting one and as you say rather neglected, though perhaps not that unusual among colonial officials at the time, or even among those closer to home, certainly not if you believe William Cobbett.

Your comment also reminded me of a passage in Gorrequer dated December 1819 that I recently came across again: "The number of old trumpery things sent from Plantation House to our Neigbour's [Napoleon] as soon as Magnesia's No 1 [Dr O'Meara] book was published".

The distinction you draw between Lowe and Reade is spot on; I think I may well quote it in a future blog!

Thanks as always for your comments.