It is now several months since I previewed Albert Benhamou's latest book, Inside Longwood , the first full publication of the letters that Napoleon's doctor Barry O'Meara wrote to the Admiralty from 1815 until his dismissal in 1818. I felt I was too close to the work to write a review, certainly at the time of publication, but having recently re-read it, I feel it is time to flag up its value for anyone interested in the history of Napoleon's captivity on St Helena.
O'Meara was in a privileged albeit uncomfortable position: one foot in Plantation House the other in Longwood, his daily access to Napoleon inevitably invited the suspicion of Sir Hudson Lowe. His letters were long, although not perhaps as long as those Sir Hudson or his minions wrote, but full of fascinating accounts of Napoleon's views as well as the paranoia and caprice of Sir Hudson.
I found particularly amusing the image of Lowe fetching a copy of the Quarterly Review and making O'Meara read out aloud some observations on Napoleon's character
"he understands enough of mankind to dazzle the weak, to dupe the vain, to overcome the timid, and to make the wicked his instruments." (1)
This apparently to fend off the proposal that Sir Pulteney Malcolm should be called upon to mediate between Lowe and Napoleon. Malcolm apparently "was too open and too likely to enter into his [Napoleon's] views."
Among the issues discussed in the later chapters is why the Government did not remove Lowe. It is fairly clear that he had no real political support, as he was to find out when after Napoleon's death he found himself expendable, without a job and an all too useful scapegoat for a beleaguered Government.(2) Albert Benhamou seems to suggest that having made the appointment, against the advice of Lord Wellington who regarded him as a fool and had removed him from his own command, Lord Bathurst had no real choice but to battle it out, and to try to deny the version of events that O'Meara and others promulgated.
Beset by serious social and economic problems, the Government simply wanted the world to forget about Napoleon. Many Whigs and Radicals had serious reservations about his treatment, and the dismissal of Lowe would have added fuel to the fire. It made more political sense to tough it out and to try to discredit the witness.
There is also enough evidence to suggest that many in the Government, and doubtless among its supporters in the country, derived some amusement from the plight in which that upstart Napoleon found himself. Lord Wellington's letter to Sir Pulteney Malcolm is well known:
You may tell "Bony" that I find his apartments at the Elisee Bourbon very convenient, and that I hope he likes mine at Mr. Balcom's. It is a droll sequel enough to the affairs of Europe that we should change places of residence.
Less well known are the comments of the up and coming politician Sir Robert Peel,
George Cockburn is come back in good health and spirits; he gives us no hopes of Buonaparte's dying. He eats, he says, enormously but he drinks a little, takes regular exercise, and is in so very careful of his carcass that he may live twenty years. Sir Hudson Lowe is as strict as Cockburn, but without any of his liveliness, and little of his activity and talents. (3)
And of course, as this book reminds us, O'Meara was initially encouraged to write these letters to the Admiralty because of the amusement they provided to those in the highest circles.(4)
Albert Benhamou has done a great service in extracting these letters from the archives so that we may for the first time read them as a whole and judge for ourselves.
1 The Quarterly Review was a Tory journal set up by Croker, whom O'Meara knew was reading his letters, and who ultimately sealed O'Meara's fate. The passage came from a review of Miot's Expedition to Egypt . Albert Benhamou, Inside Longwood: Barry O'Meara's Clandestine Letters, Albert Benhamou Publishing 2012, pp 102-3
2. Hudson Lowe is "none of my child" was Foreign Secretary George Canning's pointed comment to Lord Bathurst when Lowe was causing some embarrassment by a protracted stay in Paris in 1825, "you would perhaps think it expedient to give him a little hint to be joggling onward." Geroge Canning to Lord Bathusrt, 18th November 1825,Inside Longwood, footnote p. 223
3. Inside Longwood, p. 202
4. Letter from Finlaison to O'Meara July 5th 1816 described O'Meara's recent letters as having "furnished a real feast to some very great folks here." Inside Longwood,p. 213