Thursday, 26 May 2011

Chroniques de Sainte-Hélène Atlantique Sud

I am very pleased to have received a copy of Michel Dancoisne-Martineau's recently published book, Chroniques de Sainte-Hélène Atlantique Sud (Perrin 2011).

Based on extensive research accumulated during Michel's twenty five years on St Helena, this collection of vignettes provides a rich human backdrop to the captivity of Napoleon. It reminds us that whilst a drama at times bordering on farce was being played out at Longwood and Plantation House, ordinary people were, in extraordinary circumstances, trying to live their lives as best they could.

In here are accounts of relatively well known personages: Saul Solomon, the founder of the company that still bears his name on the island who profited greatly from the captivity of Napoleon; Robert Grant who prayed for the Emperor's soul with others at Mason's Stock House; Rev Boys, "the man whom even Hudson Lowe feared", in permanent conflict with the island authorities; Betsy Balcombe, whose familiarity with Napoleon was the envy of the other young girls.

There are also some lesser known characters: Mary Anne Robinson, Napoleon's Nymphe de la vallée ; Catherine Younghusband whose rumour mongering ultimately forced her and her husband off the island; Madame La Admiral, the mysterious companion of Admiral Plampin, whose identity may remain forever unknown, but who apparently openly plied her trade among the sailors in Portsmouth before accompanying the Admiral to St Helena, and continued to do the same on the ship going out!

Here also are accounts of the experiences of female slaves such as Flora, the mistress of a soldier, George Rushford, who in his absence came under the influence of James Williams the gaoler cum pimp, and was killed by the enraged, drunken Rushford, for which he was fined 10 pounds. Also the strange story of Fanny, a slave employed in the prison by James Williams to perform sexual favours for the inmates. Williams was convicted of procurement, fined 5 pounds and returned to his old job, as apparently did Fanny. It appears that Sir Thomas Reade, the year before having added chief of police to his multifarious and highly profitable duties, and having we are told, "a peculiar and not solely professional interest" in such matters, had some rather shadowy connection to this affair. Then there is the case of Lucy, a slave beaten and mistreated by her master, Robert Wright, a captain in the St Helena Regiment, who, thanks to the intervention of General Bingham, was eventually brought to some kind of justice.

Poignant too is the case of Mary Ellis, the wife of a captain in the 66th regiment. Pregnant in 1821, and not allowed to accompany her husband when he sailed for England with his regiment after Napoleon's death, so with about a dozen other women and their husbands she remained on the deserted camp at Deadwood. Just over two months later she died in child birth, and was buried with her dead child on 22nd August.

For anyone interested in the history of St Helena, this is a fascinating study which complements and enhances the general picture that emerged from Gilbert Martineau's Napoleon's St Helena. From reading it one can understand why a cleric as strait laced as Rev Boys was so outraged by the behaviour of large sections of the community on the island.

Inevitably there are omissions. I had hoped to learn more about Miss Mason, the rich landowner who always bowed effusively whenever she encountered Napoleon, and was there in 1840 to greet those of Napoleon's companions in exile who returned to reclaim his earthly remains. That though is a very minor complaint.

Curiously to English eyes at least, the book has its list of contents where one would have hoped to find an index! I should add in case there is any confusion that it is of course written in French! It would repay translating into English to give it the wider audience that it deserves.

No comments: