Friday, 13 September 2013

In the Steps of Napoleon: The Fishers Valley

The Honorary French Consul and an abanoned Ford above the Fishers Valley

There is litle to bring most tourists to the Fishers Valley. We had not ventured here on our first visit to St Helena, but this time Michel Martineau, sometimes referred to, not entirely with his approval, as Napoleon's representative on earth, promised to show us the way.

Close to Longwood, and within the perimeter of the area in which Napoleon was allowed to ride unescorted, at the bottom of Fishers Valley is a narrow stretch of fertile land in which a number of poor farmers once lived and tried to scratch out a living.

There are still signs of cultivation in the valley, but not of human habitation.

Down here Napoleon and his companions could ride among the inhabitants, but were forbidden to comunicate with them.

Little now remains of the small farms that once were here.

Their rude architecture provides a great contrast with the country houses built at the same time by St Helena's elite.

The Nymph of the Valley

Riding in this rather depressing valley in January 1816 Napoleon and Las Cases came across Mary Ann Robinson, still only 16, maybe not as beautiful as the Longwood entourage, short of female company, found her.

Napoleon gave her some gold coins, named her "the Nymph of Las Cases", and the valley where she lived with her parents and sister as "the valley of silence".

Soon though for the Longword entourage, and for the whole island, she became "the nymph of the valley".

Both Gourgaud and Piontkowski coveted her affections, as did a number of soldiers, but their intentions were not entirely honourable, and she was looking for a more permanent commitment.

This she found in the person of Captain James Ives Edwards, whose ship Dorah arrived at St Helena on 5th July 1817 with the 53rd Regiment. The good Captain asked for her hand on 7th July, they were married on 17th and the nymph departed her valley and St Helena on the 29th.

A Fishers Valley Farm, often held probably mistakenly, to be the home of the "Nymph"

Before leaving, on July 26th, 1817, Mary Ann brought her new husband to say goodbye to Napoleon. According to Napoleon the Captain bore a resemblance to Prince Eugène.

That is about the last that was heard of "the Nymph". Unlike Betsy Balcombe she never tried to profit from her acquaintance with Napoleon. (1)

The husband, Captain John Ives Edwards, who evidently had some sympathy for Napoleon's plight, visited Mme Bertrand a few weeks before Napoleon died.

The Valley has its own beauty, but one can imagine how desolate Napoleon and his party must have found it, particularly amidst the mist and rain which are constant companions in the winter months.

It was ironic to find down here a few clumps of the Australian daisies, the gift of Lady Holland to the inhabitants of Longwood, which have now spread over the island and provide a permanent memorial to Napoleon's captivity.

Because of the construction of the airport it is at present not possible to complete the route Napoleon often took back behind Longwood.

We were also obstructed by a large amount of water, somewhat surprising in view of the shortages and the long period of drought that the island was going through at the time of our visit!

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1. There is a chapter on Mary Ann Robinson in Chroniques de Sainte-Hélène : Atlantique sud by Michel Martineau, pp 163-168.

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