Saturday, 5 April 2014

Cabo Verde - the islands Napoleon never saw

Antique Map Cape Verde Islands

My recent holiday now means that I have at various times pretty well covered the whole of Napoleon's voyage to St Helena: Madeira, Tenerife and now the windswept, barren islands of Cabo Verde, some 350 miles off the west African coast, formerly part of the Portuguese Empire.

Boa Vista Landscape

When the Northumberland sailed past in the summer of 1815, it missed these islands, and Admiral Cockburn decided not to attempt to land. Count Las Cases gave a good account of this stage of the voyage.

1st September – The fleet is off the archipelago of Cape Verde ; strong winds
September 1st -- 6th. On the 1st of September we found from our latitude that we should see the Cape Verd Islands in the course of the day. The sky was, however, overcast, and at night we could see nothing. The Admiral, convinced that there was a mistake in the reckoning of our longitude, was preparing to bear westward to the right, in order to fall in with the islands, when a brig, which was a-head of us, intimated by signal that she had discovered them on the left. During the night the wind blew violently from the south-east, and if our mistake had been the reverse of what it was, and the Admiral had really borne to the right, it is not improbable that we should have been thrown out of our course; a proof that notwithstanding the improvements in science, mistakes are very apt to take place, and that the chances of navigation are very great.
Salt pans in volcano caldera, Pedro do Lume, island of Sal, opened since 1804

As the wind continued to blow strong, and the sea was boisterous, the Admiral preferred continuing his course, rather than waiting to take in water, of which he believed he had already a sufficient store. Every thing now promised a prosperous passage; we were already very far advanced on our course. Every circumstance continued favourable; the weather was mild, and we might even have thought our voyage agreeable, had it been taken in the pursuit of our own plans and in conformity with our own inclinations; but how could we forget our past misfortunes, or close our eyes on the future? (1)
The rather hazardous "Blue Eye", Buracona, Sal island

Apparently at this stage of the voyage Napoleon expressed a wish to learn English after Las Cases told him he was teaching his son.

"This did very well for two or three days; but the ennui occasioned by the study was at least equal to that which it was intended to counteract, and the English was laid aside. The Emperor occasionally reproached me with having discontinued my lessons; I replied that I had the medicine ready, if he had the courage to take it. In other respects, particularly before the English, his manners and habits were always the same; never did a murmur or a wish escape his lips; he invariably appeared contented, patient, and good-humoured." (2)

Barren landscape, Sal island

Las Cases also faithfully recorded a number of discussions they had on Napoleon's action packed life:

the siege of Toulon; the rise of Duroc and Junot; quarrels with the Representatives of the People; Quarrels with Aubry; Anecdotes relative to Vindemiaire; Napoleon General of the Army of Italy Integrity of his military administration; His disinterestedness; Nicknamed Petit-Caporal; Difference between the system of the Directory and that of the General of the Army of Italy

Las Cases also made some interesting observations on Admiral Cockburn's relations with Napoleon:

"The Admiral, who, I suppose, thought it necessary, on the strength of our reputation, to fortify himself well on our departure from England, gradually laid aside his reserve, and every day took greater interest in his captive. He represented the danger incurred by coming on deck after dinner, owing to the damp of the evening; the Emperor would then sometimes take his arm and prolong the conversation, which never failed to gratify him exceedingly."

A rather different perspective from that of the English on the Northumberland I think!

Whilst there I did quite a lot of reading, including a recently published historical novel about Napoleon, about which more in due course.


1. Las Cases, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène Vol 1 pp 91-92

2. ibid.


Unknown said...

A question. Are you quoting a translation of the memorial? I was never able to find one , not sure if it exists...

John Tyrrell said...

Yes, an English translation. I am pretty certain I found an online edition. I don't have a copy myself.