Sunday, 11 August 2013

In the Footsteps of Napoleon: The Beauty and the Legend of Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant

On our 2008 visit to Sandy Bay we viewed Mount Pleasant from a distance, but this time, with the kind permission of its owners, we were able to walk round the garden,

admire the wonderful views,

and sit on the very same steps that Napoleon used on his last sad outing from Longwood in 1820.(1)

On the steps at Mount Pleasant

We also learned some of Mount Pleasant's secrets.

Napoleon and Mount Pleasant: The Legend

After our visit to Mount Pleasant I was fortunate to meet Bernie Thomas, who was born at Mount Pleasant in February 1936. Bernie's family had lived as slaves/servants on the farm at least since the time of Napoleon. Bernie later accompanied me on a visit to Mount Pleasant and told me the stories about Napoleon that have been passed down through successive generations of his family.

Mr Bernie Thomas seated in "Napoleon's chair"

Historians of the captivity are prepared to concede that Napoleon may have visited Mount Pleasant once before his well documented visit at the end of 1820. But according to the legend passed down in Bernie's family, he actually visited five times, and used to sit in the chair named after him, made out of rocks set in the side of the hill just before the house.

Opposite "Napoleon's chair" are two large Norfolk pines. Until recently there were five: one was planted each time Napoleon visited, or so the legend would have it.

The Two Remaining Pines opposite Napoleon's chair

Close up of one of the pines, showing its wide girth

Moving on towards the house, Bernie explained that in his childhood the lawn was larger than now, and to the right of the house a bush formerly grew. He was told that it had been planted to mark the spot on which Napoleon's picnic table had been set up in 1820.

Bernie pointing out the position of Napoleon's picnic table

Finally, according to the story passed down through Bernie's family, one of his forefathers assisted Napoleon in mounting the steps to go into the house.

Bernie on the steps at Mount Pleasant, where one of his ancestors assisted Napoleon

The absence of folk memory about Napoleon on St Helena has hitherto been an accepted fact. I have always taken it to be a result of the dispersal of the white population from the middle of the nineteenth century. Visitors to the island before then, particularly to Napoleon's tomb, were certainly regaled with stories both apocryphal and true about the dead Emperor.

The slave and free black population, the ancestors of most who now live on the island were, from the very beginning, for security reasons, kept as far as possible from Longwood, and few had any contact with its occupants. So the lack of folk memory about Napoleon is hardly surprising. I would go further and say, from my admittedly limited experience, that apart from ghost stories, St Helena does not have a rich folk memory.

I felt it was important therefore to record these stories. The fact that these memories have been passed down, doubtless embroidered, from generation to generation in one family that did apparently have some contact with Napoleon, is of some significance. It certainly requires us to qualify the conventional view of the indifference of the St Helena population to their most famous inhabitant.

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1. An account of Napoleon's last outing when he breakfasted on the lawn at Mount Pleasant and was entertained by Sir William Doveton, has featured previously in this blog.

4 comments:

Hels said...

*Nod*. I don't think oral history will ever replace official records, but popular stories often add a new perspective. Now the question - why was there a dispersal of the white population from the middle of the nineteenth century? Who made the local population leave?

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Hels,

Economic decline of the island, particularly the opening of the Suez Canal, which meant far less shipping went via the Cape. Before that the takeove by the British Government from the East India Company in the 1830's diminished the wealth, status and prospects of the old families who had run the island since its settlement in the seventeenth century.

cheers

John

Ilya Murzin said...

This place is now trashed and abandoned, sadly. Do you know anything about the current owners?

John Tyrrell said...

I understood that it is being renovated. The owners live close by.