Saturday, 19 April 2014

Theft from Briars Melbourne - Postscript

Sterling Silver Inkwell (Inset with three Gold Napoleons), Garrard and Co. London 1821-1822

Since publishing an account of the robbery from the Dame Mabel Brookes Napoleonic Collection, I have had further information from Sue Dale, who grew up in Australia about 15 miles from the Briars and knows it very well. Sue, who now lives in Congleton, has also visited St Helena, and is currently researching the life of Sir Thomas Reade who was born in Congleton in 1782.

Sue is particularly distressed by the theft of the silver inkwell, which has connections with Thomas Reade and Congleton and, in a curious way, with the Briars on St Helena. The inscription on the base of the inkwell reads:

These Napoleons, presented to Mrs Egerton by Sir Thomas Reade, Lieut. Gov. of St Helena, were found in the pocket of Napoleon Buonaparte after his death there, 5 May 1821

Now whether these gold coins were actually in Napoleon's pocket, and if so how Sir Thomas Reade came by them, is another matter! So far Sue is unable to trace who Mrs Egerton was, but it is a distinguished family name in Cheshire, and perhaps Garrard and Co will still have records of the commission.

What is to me even more interesting though is how it came to be in the hands of Dame Mabel Brookes: according to the 2010 catalogue it was presented to her on the occasion of receiving the Légion d'honneur. Dame Mabel, the great grand-daughter of William Balcombe, received that award in 1960 for saving the Briars Pavilion on St Helena and handing it over to the French nation. Apparently she visited St Helena in 1957 and the transfer was completed some two years later, at an extortionate price. One cannot begin to imagine the difficulties she would have encountered in making this purchase and transfer. It makes it all the more sad that this item, connecting the Briars in Melbourne with the original Briars on St Helena, has now been stolen. I do hope that it and the other items are recovered.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Theft of Napoleon Memorabilia from the Briars (Australia)

I am saddened to hear of a major theft from the The Briars Homestead at Mount Martha, Victoria, Australia. originally the home of William Balcombe, father of Betsy, and the owner of the Briars on St Helena when Napoleon stayed there in 1815.

Below I have posted images of the valuable objects stolen.

DMB 86 Book of Fate

DMB 183 Miniature of Napoleon

DMB 184 Miniature of Josephine

DMB 246 Inkwell with three Napoleon gold coins set into base

DMB 271 Lock of Napoleon’s hair sewn onto a piece of paper

DMB 249 Rosicrucian Medal

DMB 257 Gold ring set with pearls and emeralds set around a woven piece of Napoleon’s hair

DMB 274 Gold locket with floral design of lacquered hair from Napoleon

Small portrait of Napoleon

DMB 259 Horn snuff box with central gold medallion

It is important that information about this theft is circulated as widely as possible to aid the efforts to recover them, so I would encourage anyone who has a web page to publish these images.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Napoleon in America: "I should have stayed on St Helena"

Napoleon wrote a novel in his youth, in exile on St Helena described his life as one, and over the past two centuries inspired quite a few others. The latest Napoleonic novel, by the Canadian author Shannon Selin, provides an alternate history: instead of dying on St Helena in 1821 Napoleon escaped to America and continued his action packed life there.

The book's great strength lies in the depth of its research. The author claims to have consulted some 300 sources in order to tell "a plausible whopper", and at the end provides a list of over 100 major and minor historical characters whom she has to a greater or lesser extent researched. Inevitably in an alternate history some had their lives changed: one Napoleonic General's life was truncated by 40 years; the very young wife of another, in real life to live until 1880, succumbed to the ex-Emperor's rather clumsy advances.

The author presents a very broad historical canvas: London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Washington, New Orleans and numerous lesser places. St Helena, "a dark wart in the Atlantic", according to the racy blurb on the back cover, is dismissed in a single short chapter, which concludes poetically with Hudson Lowe staring at the ocean from a window in Longwood House, his career "splintering as rapidly as the silvery ripples that broke upon the shore." I am not convinced that it is possible to see the ocean from Longwood House, but a little literary license is excusable! One might also note that Hudson Lowe's future career was not much better in real life.

The author makes effective use of direct speech, letters and newspaper cuttings to set the contemporary scene and describe the events that unfold and the reactions to them. Here you will find the Bonaparte family on two continents, Francis 1st of Austria, Metternich, Wellington, Canning, John Quincy Adams, Monroe, Louis XVIII and the Count of Artois, Lafayette and the French opposition, Bonapartists and Liberals. Here too one can read about the machinations of the Holy Alliance, its members united in little except a fear of revolution and a hatred of Napoleon, the tensions within France's newly restored and somewhat precarious Bourbon monarchy and also within the British Government over France's invasion of Spain. Here too the author intelligently explores the concerns of the young American Republic, the ex-Emperor in its midst, desperate to avoid entanglement with the politics of the old world, still wary of British naval power which less than a decade earlier had burned down the White House under the command of the same Admiral who was later to escort Napoleon to St Helena, but with its own expansionist impulses and, like all the European powers, concerned about the fate of Spain's empire in the Americas.

The novel does not explore Napoleon's character in any great depth, this is thankfully no psychological novel, but it brings out his gaucheness towards women and his great love for the son whom he had not seen for a decade. The author has a lightness of touch and a sense of humour, most noticeable in her frequent references to Napoleon's sense of destiny. At one point she makes Napoleon say, "There is no role for me here. I should have stayed on St. Helena.", a reference to his comment that he should have stayed in Egypt, when he first saw the forbidding rock of St Helena in 1815. She also neatly captures the egotism of the Duke of Wellingon, who claimed that everything was turning out precisely as he had predicted: "How nice it would be, thought Dorothea [von Lieven, wife of the Russian Minister and Metternich's mistress], to one day meet a man who did not mind saying, "I was wrong.""

I am not a great reader of historical novels, and try to avoid counterfactual history, so had I not been volunteered by Simon Pipes of St Helena Online, I almost certainly would never have read Napoleon in America. To my surprise though I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the turbulent post Waterloo period.

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.