Monday, 30 May 2011

Missing Images of St Helena

I have recently come across Cédric Villain's short film about Napoleon's exile, death and exhumation.

I would be less than honest if I didn't admit that at times it challenges my comprehension of spoken French, but that doesn't seem to matter too much! I loved its graphics, its unemotional commentary and its abstract, matter of fact treatment of a subject which has generated millions of words and so much passion.

If I have missed any factual errors hopefully my French reader(s) will inform me!

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.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Sir Thomas Reade - "the noisiest filibuster of them all" (Walter Runciman)

Reade, Sir Thomas, (1782-1849). Deputy Adjutant-General in St. Helena.

The only son of William Reade, a surgeon of Congleton Cheshire, and Hannah, his second wife.

His mother died when he was two and his father when he was eleven. He was articled to a Congleton Attorney, but ran away and enlisted at the age of 16 (1799). Within a few days he received a commission, probably purchased by a member of his family.

He served in Holland, Egypt, Malta, Naples, Sicily, Spain, in the almost forgotten campaign in America (1814), and finally under the command of Hudson Lowe in Genoa. He was knighted in 1815 at the age of 33.

St Helena and The Captivity of Napoleon

Reade was a faithful supporter of the policies of Sir Hudson Lowe towards Napoleon, and indeed, as Arnold Chaplin commented, "he often thought Lowe too lenient in his administration." Apparently Lady Lowe, not the most supportive of wives perhaps, frequently referred to him as "the real Governor."

Among his many tasks was that of monitoring the letters between Dr Verling and Mme. Betrand. Chaplin was critical of his and the British Government's conduct in this matter:
But although the British officials in St. Helena rightly blamed O'Meara for making Madame de Montholon's illness the occasion of jokes in letters to Sir Thomas Reade, they did not, apparently, see any indelicacy in Sir Thomas reading and commenting on gynaecological details concerning Madame Bertrand's illness.(1)

Sir Thomas appears to have met Napoleon only three times: April 17th, May 27th, and October 4th, 1816. He is most probably better remembered for a most famous failed meeting when in September 1819 he turned up at Longwood demanding proof that the reclusive ex-Emperor was indeed still in residence. In one of the most absurd episodes among many contenders, Sir Thomas banged on the door bellowing at the top of his voice, "Come out, Napoleon Bonaparte. We want Napoleon Bonaparte." Suffice it to say that Sir Thomas failed to carry out the implied threat to break the door down, and retreated without having seen the Emperor.

On an earlier occasion Napoleon refused to see Sir Thomas Strange with the riposte, "Tell the Governor that those who have gone down to the tomb receive no visits, and take care that the judge be made acquaintance with my answer."
The redoubtable Sir Thomas Reade responded,
If I were Governor, I would bring that dog of a Frenchman to his senses; I would isolate him from all his friends, who are no better than himself; then I would deprive him of his books. He is in fact nothing but a miserable outlaw, and I would treat him as such. By G--! it would be a great mercy to the King of France to rid him of such a fellow altogether. It was a piece of great cowardice not to have sent him at once to a court martial instead of sending him here." (2)

The generally negative picture of Sir Thomas which emerges from reading Chaplin, Runciman and Watson is confirmed by Gorrequer's diaries, to which they did not have access. Gorrequer clearly disliked him greatly, and gave him the nickname Nincumpoop, which requires no elaboration. The following extracts, absent from the best known narratives of the captivity and, allowing for Gorrequer's prejudices, do not show Sir Thomas in a very favourable light.

"His encouraging Mach to persevere in sending felucca [the ship] to Ethiopia in the present state of its crew, and the consequences notwithstanding his advice of the contrary. But even the lives of men were of no consequence to him, Nincumpoop, as long as he could only carry his point and show his influence over Mach. That fellow did not care a damn about men's lives to attain his object. His telling such downright lies the preceding evening about Major B------" (3)

"Ninny [Reade] wrote to Mach: 'My opinion is still that he [Napoleon] will get better.' Though Medico 20th [Dr. Arnott], the great oracle, had the preceding day reported him dangerously ill. His opinion, indeed!" (4)

"Sultana and Ninny endeavoured to make the public believe the followers were delighted at Bony's death, affecting to say they were delighted." (5)

"Tresorier of ship coming home told Ego that he never heard a man so abused as he heard Ninny; he seemed to have made an immense number of enemies; he had been at a party of 8 or 9 persons, every one of whom had some heavy complaint against him, and who seemed to be exasperated against him; so bad indeed that he at last took Ninny's part." (6)

Albert Benhamou probably summed it up nicely in a comment made on one of my recent blogs: "Hudson Lowe was feared at St Helena, while Thomas Reade was hated."


A bachelor during his time on St Helena, it appears that he fathered a child by a slave. This was not unusual among the leading families on St Helena, as we know from the efforts of the Rev Boys to shame them by entering the names of the fathers of such children in the church baptismal records,

The child, a boy named John, lived only a few months.

On September 8th 1824 Sir Thomas married Agnes Clogg of Longsight Lodge, Manchester in the Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral). He was in the same year appointed His Britannic Majesty's Agent and Consul-General in the Regency of Tunis, a post he held until his death in Tunisia in 1849. A memorial was erected to him in Congleton Church.

During his time in Tunisia he became involved in the excavation and study of Carthage and other Roman antiquities, and he assembled a valuable collection of objects.
Presumably Sir Thomas would have become acquainted with the Bey's Palace:
"On the walls were portraits of Napoleon and paintings of his battles. On his book shelves figured a book on Napoleon’s reign the Bey had ordered to be translated into Arabic." (7)

One wonders what he made of that.
1. Chaplin, A St Helena Whos Who London 1919, pp 97, 117-118. To another scholar of the Captivity, George Leo de St. M. Watson, he was simply " undistinguished Captain in a foot regiment (via the Lancashire Militia), pitchforked for the time being into a local Lieutenant-Colonelcy .." Polish Exile with Napoleon p 32. Watson also commented that "everybody at St. Helena was 'on the make' .. Lowe was the exception : he entertained too freely. But his D.A.G. made up for it. Reade had a talent for stepping into snug little berths - like that of 'Vendue Master" (whatever it may be) at £300 a year in October 1818 - when their occupants were invalided home; and he was never averse from huckstering in horseflesh and the like. " pp 67-8, and finally he commented ironically on Reade's unpopularity: "Alarm House, where Reade cultivated rurally that prime Doric way which made him such a favourite with English and French alike" p. 32
2. Hazlitt, commenting on a similar speech by Sir Thomas was scathing: "Oaths, malignity, meanness, abuse, right, and duty are blended in as fine a confusion as one would wish. Such were the persons sent out to represent the boasted heroism and generosity of the English nation and government!" Hazlitt, Life of Napoleon Vol IV, 2nd Edition, p. 261
3 28th August 1818, Gorrequer p. 87
4. 27th April 1821,Gorrequer p. 226
5. Gorrequer p. 260
6. Gorrequer p. 262
7. Abolition of Slavery in Tunisia

Kubrick, Burgess and Napoleon

In December 2009 I posted a note on Stanley Kubrick's film about Napoleon, which of course was never made.

I was surprised to hear today that among the large collection of unpublished materials left by prolific Manchester born author Anthony Burgess, most famous for A Clockwork Orange, is a script for Kubrick's Napoleon film no less. Burgess did of course write a novel about Napoleon, a largely forgotten one, Napoleon Symphony: A Novel in Four Movements, so titled because it was designed to follow the structure of Beethoven's Eroica symphony. Burgess's novel was published in 1974, some years after the Napoleon film that never was. Interestingly it was dedicated to Kubrick.

Whether Kubrick intended to use this script or not is another matter. My understanding is that he didn't use Burgess's script for A Clockwork Orange. Anyway, Burgess's Napoleon script now resides among the voluminous collection in the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

190 Years Later, the Death of Napoleon is Commemorated on St Helena

Napoleon's Tomb, with two wreaths laid today by the Honorary French Consul, Michel Dancoisne Martineau, and the Governor of St Helena, Andrew Gurr

This is the first time that the death of Napoleon has been publicly commemorated on the island. In the past there have been occasional private ceremonies for French visitors, but never before has there been a formal ceremony in which the island authorities and ordinary Saints have been invited to participate. I would guess that the last formal ceremony commemorating Napoleon took place in 1840 when his body was exhumed, solemnly transported to Jamestown, and with much fanfare taken on board the Belle Poule for his final journey back to France.

Organised in conjunction with the St Helena Tourist Office, this is a long overdue recognition of the importance of the captivity of Napoleon to St Helena's past and to its future, as well as a mark of respect to a great man whom the British Government treated rather shabbily in his last days.

Congratulations again to Michel who has worked tirelessly for 25 years to bridge the divide between the French properties and the lives of the island's inhabitants. Hopefully this will become a regular event.

How wonderful too that modern technology allows us to see photographs of the ceremony on the same day. How different from the world of 1821 when the only images were those of amateur artists, and when news of Napoleon's death took several weeks to arrive in Europe.