Thursday, 15 August 2019

British Napoleons


Past.com entries for people baptised Napoleon, 1803-5

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the grave of Napoleon I came across many years ago in a Suffolk church yard. At the time, with a very conventional view of the history of the early nineteenth century, I thought it amusing and rather odd. I know realise that it was a far from isolated occurrence.

The historian Katrina Navickas did the above search of Napoleons born in 1803-5, at the height of the invasion scare. Her search came up with over 5000 references, some of which were undoubtedly duplicates. My own search in the 1841 census found over 100 people with the name Napoleon, many of which were christenings in the decade before the census. To baptise a child with the name Napoleon at a time when he was the target of an unprecedented amount of state propaganda could not have been an easy matter. Before the introduction of civil registration in 1837 most births were registered in the Church of England, and it seems unlikely that the name "Napoleon" would have been welcomed by Anglican parsons, the very backbone of Loyalism. The incidence of so many cases seems to confirm what the folk songs of the nineteenth century suggest, that Napoleon was a surprisingly popular figure in the United Kingdom.

On the eve of the Peterloo bicentenary it is worth reflecting on the case of one of the Lancashire radical leaders, William Fitton a self proclaimed surgeon of Royton. Fitton came from a radical family, members of which had from time to time fallen foul of local Loyalist mobs. In 1816, at the age of 23, he founded in Royton what was the first "Hampden Club" outside London.(1) For the next three tumultuous years leading up to Peterloo he was very active in Lancashire radicalism. Sometime in 1819 William Fitton had a new baby son. On September 26th, just over a month after the Manchester Massacre, the boy was baptised with the name "Napoleon". The young Napoleon died in January 1820, but so determined were his parents, or at least his father, that a second son born in 1820 was duly given the same name.(2)

As a postscript:- Two years after Peterloo, the immortal memory of Napoleon Bonaparte was toasted by 300 people at a dinner in Manchester held to commemorate the massacre.
---------------------------------------------------
1. Hampden Clubs were formed to bring together radical and working class reformers. The movement was led by John Cartwrigth a London based radical leader. The clubs were named after John Hampden, a seventeenth century parliamentarian who played a leading role in the struggle against Charles I in the years leading up to the Civil War.
2.See this brief account of William Fitton.

Monday, 1 July 2019

The Emperor's Shadow : The Strange Story of the Balcombes


The Emperor's Shadow, London 2015

The author has done a tremendous amount of research, and has gathered together a large amount of information on the Balcombe family, much of which was unknown to me at least. Her basic thesis is that Napoleon, the calculating arch-manipulator, cultivated the Balcombe family because of their connection to the Prince Regent through their benefactor, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt.(1)

"He had no intention of adjusting to the situation; he would devise how best to escape from it - and the Balcombe family might just offer an avenue. Meanwhile, surprisingly, there was some pleasure to be had.(2)

And of course whilst Napoleon may have enjoyed himself, Mme de Staël's somewhat biased judgement of him is endorsed:

"doubtless there was calculation on his part even amid the fun and silly games. He knew the accounts of them .. made him seem sympathetic, humanised him." (3)

The author makes a good case for Betsy being several months pregnant at the time of her marriage to Edward Abell in 1822. This she suggests may be the reason the marriage took place at Exminster, rather than Chudleigh where the Balcombes had been living. The author also makes a good case for her daughter being born in St Omer in France, away from the gossip of London and Devon.(4)

As for the bridegroom Edward Abell, solid facts are a bit thin on the ground. He was an Indian Army Officer, about 11 years older than Betsy, and the author speculates that they may have met on St Helena four years earlier when his ship docked. The evidence suggests that he married Betsy because of her family's connections. The author speculates that he may have impregnated Betsy deliberately so that he could marry her, "maybe he heard stories that her father was the natural son of George IV." Abell soon deserted Betsy, but later followed her to Australia, intending to sue William Balcombe for keeping his wife from him. (5)

The book sheds light on the deal which Balcombe made with Hudson Lowe to support him in his case against O'Meara. This cleared the way for Balcombe's appointment as Colonial Treasurer in New South Wales, where he spent the remaining five years of his life, and some of his heirs were to prosper. (See the Melbourne Blogger for more information on the Australian connection.)

Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt (1762-1833)

Over all the manoeuvering on St Helena and off presided Balcombe's mysterious benefactor, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt. Tyrwhitt met Lowe in 1815 before he sailed to St. Helena and helped Balcombe secure his lucrative role procuring supplies for Longwood. It was he who came to Balcombe's aid when Lowe and Lord Bathurst began to have suspicions about his relations with Longwood. It was Tyrwhitt who strongly advised Balcombe to leave the island, whilst at the same time flattering Lowe with Royal gossip and making clear his lack of sympathy with the Whigs who were critical of Lowe's treatment of Napoleon.

Lord Holland is in a week or two to give us a Display upon Napoleon's Calamities; but as long as you keep him close, nobody cares for speeches.(6)

It was also probably Tyrwhitt who got the Times to retract a story that the Balcombes had been forced to leave St Helena, and it was Tyrwhitt who again met with Lowe and brokered the deal that removed Lowe's objection to Balcombe's subsequent colonial appointment. (7)

Balcombe, despite his association with Longwood House and Napoleon, was far better connected in London and better rewarded than Sir Hudson Lowe who had done the dirty business of the Liverpool Administration. On return from St Helena, Balcombe is to be found in the company of Sir Pulteney Malcolm and Admiral Sir George Cockburn, neither of them admirers of Sir Hudson Lowe. He is also interviewed three times by Lord Bathurst, who had to endure Lowe's endless long letters from St. Helena and perhaps was looking for an alternative source of information. Bathurst did however over-rule Balcombe's wish to return to St. Helena in 1819.

The author's conclusion about the famous relationship between Betsy and Napoleon is perhaps worth quoting, although it does overlook Napoleon's acknowledged love of children.

Betsy had brought out the best in Napoleon, that complex, brilliant, calculating and turbulent man, severely formal with others but always approachable for her. She had loved him and she would never recover from knowing him.(8)

Overall I have to admit that this book is really not to my taste. It meanders over some 400 pages, and includes material on Peterloo, the Cato Conspiracy, Queen Caroline, the Royal Divorce, the King's Coronation and much else besides. It includes a great deal of speculation and also gives an account of the the extensive travels the author undertook on her research. A more concise, factual treatment would have suited me far better, although I appreciate that I am a far from typical reader. Nevertheless it is a very useful source for anyone interested in the Balcombes and the story of their association with Napoleon,
------------------------------------------------------------------
1. Apparently the Prince Regent was unusually loyal to Tyrwhitt but he didn't take his advice on the Royal Divorce Bill and it was Tyrwhitt who had to present the divorce bill to Queen Caroline. Whitehead pp 257-259. Tyrwhitt had a number of nicknames among the royal family: ‘the Dwarf’, the ‘twenty third [sic] of June’ or ‘the shortest night’; ‘Saint Thomas’ from ‘the shortest day’, and so to ‘the Saint’.
2. Whitehead pp 54-55. The author says that says that Napoleon would have remembered Tyrwhitt's visit to Paris in 1801 as secretary and emissary of the Prince Regent.
3. Mme de Staël is uncritically quoted at some length in support of the author's view, concluding with, "he is a chess-master whose opponents happen to be the rest of humanity". She also quotes Philip Dwyer in claiming that Napoleon dispensed with people when they ceased to be useful. One does wonder about his tolerance of Talleyrand and Fouché in this respect! Anne Whitehead, The Emperor's Shadow, Bonaparte, Betsy and the Balcombes (London 2015) pp 49,62, 94
The author also exaggerates Napoleon's desire to escape, which was virtually non-existent, but which nevertheless understandably preoccupied Hudson Lowe and Lord Bathurst. For example the author comments on a conversation between Napoleon and Admiral Pulteney Malcolm in which the latter said had rowed around the island, that it was "useful information that a rowing boat could approach the cliffs." Whitehead p. 129.
4. Whitehead pp 281,300, 330.
5. The author and I disagree whether William Balcombe was actually at the wedding. I have a copy of the certificate and am pretty certain that the first signatory was Jane Balcombe, not William Balcombe. It could of course be Betsy's mother, but her mother although known as Jane was christened Emma Jane.
According to Betsy, Abell later admitted that he never had any affection for her, and that "he merely married under the hope of gaining something good thru my father and his exalted interests. " Letter from Betsy to Major-General Sir Henry Torrens, 10 August 1824, quoted in Whitead pp330-332.
6. Tyrwhitt to Hudson Lowe, Dec 8th 1817, quoted in Whithead p 191.
7. Whitehead pp 203-4, 282-4.
8. Whitehead p 197

Friday, 14 June 2019

Prince of Wales at Napoleon's Tomb, 1925


Visit of Prince of Wales to Napoleon's Tomb, 1925 (1)

Over the years there have been only a handful of Royal visits to St Helena. One of the earliest, perhaps even the first, was that of the Prince of Wales in 1925.

A willow tree being planted to commemorate the visit

The opening passage in the speech he had made on arrival on the island began with a glowing reference to Napoleon, although he was not mentioned by name.

I need not assure you of the deep interest with which I set foot on an Island whose name is so well known to all students of History, not only because it was here that were written the closing pages of a great and romantic life story – the story of the Emperor whose mortal remains now lie on the banks of the Seine, where many soldiers of France have found a resting place ... (2)

Delivered in the shadow of the horrific loss of life in the Great War, the speech evokes memories of a time when France was Britain's closest ally, and when Napoleon was looked on far more favourably in the United Kingdom than a half century later.

Commemoration of Centenary of Napoleon's death

Four years earlier there had been a joint Anglo-French commemoration of the centenary of Napoleon's death, with the Union Jack proudly displayed over Napoleon's tomb alongside the French tricolour.

Recent commemoration of Napoleon's death

In recent years the commemoration of Napoleon's death on St Helena has been revived. The emphasis is now far less imperial and euro-centric, and more focus is placed on involving local people in what is an important part of their heritage.

Plans are I understand already well underway for the commemoration of the bicentenary. Not everybody who wants to attend can find seats on the scheduled flights nor be accommodated on the island, so I believe two cruise ships are being hired.
------------------------------------------------------------
1. I acknowledge the Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France for use of the two photos of the Prince at Napoleon's tomb. The photo of the 1921 commemoration I found on Saint Helena Island Info which is a very useful source.
2. A copy of the speech was, or at least used to be on display at the castle in Jamestown. A friend faithfully transcribed it for me. As far as I am aware it is not available anywhere else on the internet, so I will include it here.

I am very grateful to the people of St. Helena for the welcome offered to me on landing at Jamestown this morning, and I much appreciate the good wishes contained in their address.

I need not assure you of the deep interest with which I set foot on an Island whose name is so well known to all students of History, not only because it was here that were written the closing pages of a great and romantic life story – the story of the Emperor whose mortal remains now lie on the banks of the Seine, where many soldiers of France have found a resting place – but for the fact that during the period of maritime development of our Empire, St. Helena formed one of the most important links in Britain’s chain of communications as an invaluable supply depot and an outpost of the East Indies.

To-day trade routes have changes with the times, and though the Island, finding that circumstances have deflected the main arteries of traffic, may at times feel somewhat remote from the outer busier world, I know full well that St. Helena still prides herself on her place in the Empire, and that the loyalty of her people to the Crown and to Britain ideals remain undiminished.

I am hoping in the time at my disposal to meet as many as possible of the people of the Island and to learn something of your interests and your activities.

This morning before leaving the Castle, I am to see an exhibit of your local domestic industry, that of lace-making, samples of which I know attracted the attention of the general public at Wembley and won commendation from the experts. And tomorrow I look forward to the opportunity of inspecting some of the flax mills and shall be interested to gain some first hand knowledge of this Industry which has been established in your midst and on which much of your material prosperity depends. You have my best wishes for your progress and welfare in the years to come.

In conclusion I will not fail to convey to the King your assurance of loyalty and devotion, and will at the same time tell His Majesty of the cordiality of the welcome which the people of St. Helena have given to me to-day.

Edward

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Rev Boys and Illegitimacy on St Helena


Rev. Boys,"l'homme que même Hudson Lowe craignait" (1)

Rev. Richard Boys MA (1785–1867) was appointed Junior Chaplin on St. Helena in 1811 and remained on the island until 1829. His stay, particularly during the Governorship of Hudson Lowe, was eventful to say the least.

The dubious claims made by his descendants about his alleged meeting(s) with Napoleon, furniture from Longwood, and death masks have appeared from time to time on this blog.

He also made an appearance in the Judicial Records, for testifying on behalf of a lady of somewhat dubious repute who was given shelter in his home until she left for some reason in the early hours of the morning!

Table supplied by Chris Hillman

The story of Rev. Boys' assault on the lax moral standards of the slaveowners of St. Helena is generally accepted by those who have written about St. Helena in the time of Napoleon. Whether the decline in the number of illegitimacies as shown in the table above was due directly to Rev. Boys is perhaps not quite as clear as the accepted narrative suggests. The probable source for most who have written about this is Arnold Chaplin's A St Helena Who's Who, now over a century old.

When, as it sometimes happened, Mr Boys was called upon to record the births of illegitimate children of slave women, begotten of men who were some of the highest and most trusted of Lowe's lieutenants, the chaplain in his righteous indignation did not hesitate to write in bold characters in the registers the titles and high positions of the sires. In these old registers, which have been inspected for me by Major Foulds, it is amusing to observe the frantic attempts that have been made by means of blots and pen-knife to obliterate the damaging evidence . But Mr Boys was determined to write for all time, and the precise titles and positions of the fathers, in spite of the attempted erasures, can still be plainly distinguished . This was probably the real reason for the ostracism of Mr Boys by the high St. Helena society, and the fear of his out-spoken tongue evinced by Sir Hudson Lowe. (2)

Chris Hillman, who with his wife Sheila, has been working through a set of registers microfilmed on St. Helena in 1989, has now led me to doubt the reliability of Chaplin's account. Chris informs me that the records they have worked on show "no apparent tampering", although as already indicated, it is indisputable that illegitimacy declined significantly in the course of Boys' time on the island. Chaplin as he admits never actually saw the registers nor any photographic images, and depended on the report of Major Foulds, whoever he was. I wonder if Major Foulds made it up, what was his motive? It would be great if someone could clear up this mystery.
------------------------------------------
1.Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, Chroniques de Sainte-Hélène (Perrin 2011) pp. 111-117.
2. Arnold Chaplin, A St Helena Who's Who (London 1919) p. 224

Friday, 5 April 2019

Longwood House Restoration 1950-1955


Royal Visit to Longwood House, 1947

The visit by the Royal family in April 1947 probably proved crucial in safeguarding the future of Longwood House and of the French properties on St. Helena.

New material on this has now come to light from the archives diplomatiques du ministère des Affaires étrangères on the Facebook page of the Domaines nationaux français à l'île de Sainte Hélène, Atlantique Sud .

Longwood House 1951 rebuilding commences

Apparently when Georges Peugeot took charge on 15 October 1945 he found Longwood House in such a bad state of repair, largely as a result of the depradations of the termites thought to have been introduced on the island from the 1840's, that he felt he had no choice but to close it to the public. On 12 November he informed the French Government that the house was in a lamentable state inside and out and would create a very bad impression on any tourists who visited. Peugeot tried to convince Paris that a full restoration was necessary.

18 months later, in April 1847, with Longwood House in an embarrassing state, resembling plus à une ruine qu’à la dernière résidence d’un empereur, M. Peugeot was faced with the prospect of a visit from the Royal Family, on their way back from South Africa. Somehow he managed to to get Longwood into a presentable state for the royal visitors. King George VI duly signed the visitor's book, and said he had found the visit very interesting. Nevertheless he noted the enormous damage the termites had done, and expressed the hope that the French Government would take the necessary steps to restore the historic house.(1)

1953, Rebuilding in progress

On returning to England the King summoned the French Ambassador, M. Massigli and informed him of the bad state of Longwood House. As he had done on St Helena, the King said that he hoped the French Government would quickly begin to take the necessary measures to preserve the building. (2)

This intervention perhaps saved Longwood House from suffering the same fate as New Longwood House and the Balcombes' house at the Briars. In March 1950 the project was approved, and over the next 5 years the house was restored.

Reopening, 27 March 1955

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1. Restauration 1950-1955 des appartements de Napoléon à Longwood, Domaines nationaux français à l'île de Sainte Hélène, Atlantique Sud
2.Letter from L. Roché, chargé d’affaires de France en Grande Bretagne, 2 septembre 1947.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

À la recherche du temps perdu


A school exercise book temporarily reprieved from the tip

I had always assumed that I had never studied Napoleon nor been the slightest bit interested in him until being lent a book by a friend less than 20 years ago. I was surprised therefore when clearing out clutter to find a long forgotten school exercise book which revealed that the last ever school essay I wrote on European history was on the question of whether Napoleon betrayed the French Revolution.

My essay seems to have pleased my teacher who described it as well written and gave it an alpha plus (80%)! I now find it rather less satisfactory! Nevertheless it provides an interesting insight into the views and prejudices of a 17 year old being educated in a conservative school in the UK half a century or so ago.

The final page

Amongst the gems I picked out was the “singularly French love of a dictator” and my judgement that Napoleon's success “transformed and sterilized the politics of Modern France.” My teacher liked that. It was of course written in the time of De Gaulle, although he had not yet made the first of his two vetoes of Britain's application to join the European Economic Community that were to make him so unpopular. At that time we were all very convinced of the superiority of our political system, and were busy exporting it to various former colonies.

When writing about Napoleon I talked about his " efficiency”, the “practical realism of the soldier ” and judged him "unoriginal but well organized". The career “open to talent” I opined injected “an element of equality into what was otherwise little more than a military dictatorship.” A more mature view would see it as intrinsic to the system and to Napoleon's post-Enlightement view of the world. My judgement was that his whole system depended “upon a policy of successful belligerency, and as such was bound eventually to collapse. ” There was no mention of course of the attempts by Britain to assassinate him and to restore the Bourbons to power, nor any awareness of the total lack of equality and justice for the lower orders in the UK at the time. Britain as everyone knew was on the path of moderation which led ineluctably to our almost perfect democracy!

My rather pompous opinion apparently was that “Napoleon’s crime is not that he pursued the war to the best of his ability, but that he lost sight of the true interests of France and allowed his own ambition to sway his judgement” and that he was "far more in love with France than with the Revolution.” But somewhat mysteriously I also decided that it was “he alone that safeguarded it” (the Revolution) and that “his work has outlasted numerous Revolutions.

I was of course totally convinced as many still are that Napoleon was solely to blame for the succession of wars that were later to bear his name.

“Napoleon’s faults were amplified by the importance of the part that he was called upon to play, and his false sense of values frustrated the greatness in his character, and condemned France to an era of war as disastrous as that of Louis XIV.”

If Napoleon's values were "false", then I wonder what true values were. I also wonder where all that came from, my teacher or the book(s) that I read!

At least though I recognised Napoleon's greatness and there was no nonsense about the Corsican Ogre or the invasion of Britain. Even at that age I could stick to a logical argument.

It does though make me wonder how my blog would read to me in another half century. One thing I can say with certainty is that I shall never know! Perhaps it is just as well.

Let the decluttering continue.