Saturday 6 January 2024

Michael Broers on the Ridley Scott film

Having read so many bad reviews I decided not to bother with Ridley Scott's film, but I may be more interested in the four hour directors cut not yet released.

The film apparently focused very much on war and sex, or more particularly on Napoleon's relationship with Josephine. Phoenix is older than Napoleon was at the end of his career, and Josephine, in the film played by Vanessa Kirby, is portrayed as younger than Napoleon when in fact the reverse was the case.

Michael Briers who ironically was involved in the preparation for the film, indicates in a perceptive article that there was so much more to Napoleon than is revealed by the film.

Michael Broers Napoleon: The Decline and Fall of an Empire: 1811-1821 (Pegasus 2022)

Broers is for me the best of the historians of the Napoleonic period, and this interview about his latest book, Napoleon: The Decline and Fall of an Empire: 1811-1821 is also very much worth listening to. Broers offers an interesting perspective on Napoleon's relationship with Josephine, indicating that her aristocratic background was important to a young man who grew up in the ancien regime feeling socially very insecure.

Broers concludes that Waterloo was more important for the reputation and career of Wellington than it was for Napoleon. The 100 Days was a gamble with the odds stacked heavily against him. Even had he won that battle, the strength of the armies allied against him made his ultimate defeat almost inevitable. On Elba he very much feared that the only one of his enemies that would treat him fairly was Alexander with whom her personally got on well. So with very real fears that he might well end up on St Helena or worse, the decision to return to France was the last throw of the dice.

Elsewhere on my blog I have written about Waterloo and its importance for British nationalist mythology and also on the factors that seem to have made Napoleon decide to leave Elba.

Wednesday 7 June 2023

Kensal Green Cemetery, St Helena and Napoleon

Kensal Green Cemetery, founded in 1833, is the oldest and apparently the most prestigious private cemetery in Britain. The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery have just released an article by Henry Vivian-Neal about its Napoleonic and St Helena connections.

Tomb of Lt. Col. Gideon Gorrequer, 1780 – 1841

Here are to be found the remains of some of those who served under Hudson Lowe in guarding Napoleon on St Helena. Most well known is Colonel Gideon Gorrequer, whose diary revealed a deeply unsympathetic view of Sir Hudson and his wife. Less well known are General Wynyard, Lowe's military secretary, Alexander Baxter M.D., the doctor whose services Napoleon declined, and Lt Colonel John Ward who served with the 66th Regiment of Foot, made some sketches of Napoleon and assisted with the death mask.

Ward was also present at the exhumation in 1840, as was another inhabitant of the cemetery the Comte de Jarnac, a member of the expedition that returned Napoleon's body to France, who later became French ambassador to the UK.

The man who escorted Napoleon to St Helena in 1815, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, is also buried in the cemetery, as is the Lt Governor, General Skelton, who was on the island when Cockburn and Napoleon arrived. As the author notes, Longwood House was Skelton's summer residence, he and his wife were among the few senior British officials who got on well with Napoleon and frequently visited him.

Perhaps most interesting of all to followers of this blog is Lucia Abell, better known as Betsy Balcombe, whose story has been told and probably embroidered many times.

The most famous person mentioned, albeit with rather tenuous St Helena connections is the writer William Thackeray. Thackeray claimed as a child to have been taken to view Napoleon on St Helena. Although it is not mentioned by the author, Thackeray also attended Napoleon's second funeral about which he wrote a rather irreverent article.

Tomb of Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex 1773-1843

The Cemetery also has a few royal graves. The first to be buried was the Duke of Sussex, who strongly associated himself with Whig criticisms of the Government's treatment of Napoleon, and later gave Queen Victoria a book about Napoleon to give her a more favourable view of his achievements.

This is an very well researched piece of work. It is only 30 pages long but includes a very informative history of the cemetery, the background to Napoleon's imprisonment, portraits of the subjects discussed, a map identifying the location of each of their graves in the cemetery and an incredibly detailed index. There are a few very minor errors in it, for example Grand Marshall Bertand only lived at Hutts Gate in the early part of the captivity. He and his family soon moved in to a cottage specially built for them at Longwood, which still stands to this day. Like others the author says that the decision to send Napoleon to St Helena was taken while the Bellerophon waited in English waters, but by the time the Bellerophon arrived in Torbay the decision to send Napoleon to St Helena and to appoint Hudson Lowe as Governor had been made although not publicly announced.

The friends of the cemetery are in September 2023 organising a guided, costumed walk, "Napoleonic Stories at Kensal Green Cemetery."

Monday 30 January 2023

The Bulk Fuel Installation & "The Saint"

"The Saint" 12 January 2022

I rarely post about modern St Helena, but a recent edition of a new publication, The Saint reminded me of a story I came across when I visited a year ago.

To put it simply, some £80 million of British taxpayers money was spent on a bulk fuel installation in Upper Ruperts and a new gantry in Ruperts Bay, neither of which will probably ever be used.

The new fuel tanks

The airport was a DFID project, and the planning and management was ultimately in Whitehall hands, although "the Saint" seeks to put at least some of the blame on local officials.

The new fuel gantry

Also Ruperts is/was littered with vehicles used in the airport project now slowly rusting away.

Abandoned vehicles in Upper Ruperts

The airport contractors have apparently gone bankrupt, and nobody seems quite sure who the vehicles belong to. This state of affairs should not I think be laid at the door of the St Helena Government, and certainly not the current one which has only been in office for just over a year.

More vehicles
Close up of the fuel tanks
The Fuel Gantry now overshadowing Ruperts Bay

Friday 25 November 2022

Napoleon chez the Balcombes- A Review

Volume 3 of Michel Dancoisne-Martineau's series, Napoleon and St Helena, the end of an emperor.

This volume provides a very comprehensive account of Napoleon's debarquement from the "Northumberland", his single night in Jamestown at Porteous House, his stay at the Briars and of the people he met during his short time there.

The main character was William Balcombe, "a pathological liar, happy to let people on the island believe he was of royal descent, who because of friends in high places got the apparentlyly lucrative job of procuring supplies for the French and for a time was the host to Napoleon and some of his entourage at the Briars.

Amongst the many unsavoury things we learn about Balcombe is that he continued to import slaves to St Helena after it was illegal, and when he left in 1818 his "herd"" of blacks, as it was called, consisted of twenty males, nine under sixteen, and ten women, four under the age of thirteen.(1) There is much information here also about the whole family after their time on St Helena, including the story of Betsy and her short, disastrous marriage to Edward Abell. Here too is a full account of the life of the slave Toby whom Napoleon befriended and tried to free. A year or so after Napoleon's death Toby was robbed of what was left of the significant amount of money that Napoleon had given him. Fellow slave, Sam, was convicted of the robbery and duly executed in August 1823.

The biggest surprise of this volume was the background about Napoleon's decision to stay at the Briars. The usual version is that on his way back from Longwood to Jamestown Napoleon spotted the heart shaped waterfall and the pleasant property in front of it at the Briars, was taken down to it, and asked if he could stay rather than go back to Jamestown. The author suggests that this turn of events was in fact the culmination of a plan agreed between Balcombe and Admiral Cockburn, and perhaps originally the idea of former governor Alexander Beatson.

Cockburn had consulted Beatson before sailing for St Helena, and he had recommended Balcombe, "a respectable inhabitant" to him. Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, Balcombe's unfailing supporter was informed of this by Beatson, and wrote to Balcombe telling him that the choice of place to confine Napoleon would be left to the two commanders, Cockburn and Bingham, but that Beatson thought that "when this inspection has taken place, they will fix upon the Briars." This of course was before the decision to locate Napoleon at Longwood was thought of

In October 1815 Cockburn visited Balcombe while Napoleon was still on board the Northumberland to discuss Balcombe's role in procuring supplies for Longwood. On that visit Cockburn spotted the new pavilion at the Briars and agreed to hire it for a year for himself and for those admirals who would follow him. So when Napoleon arrived at the Briars on his return from Longwood, he asked if he could stay at the Pavilion, but was told by Balcombe that he had rented it to Cochburn the previous day. Cockburn,"feigning surprise " said that since it pleased "the general" he would give it up to him, and he himself would remain in Jamestown. (2)

This interpretation somewhat undermines the speculation of Anne Whitehead that Napoleon cultivated the Balcombes because of their connection to the Prince Regent through their benefactor Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt. On one minor detail though Anne Whitehead was right, Betsy's daughter was born in 1822, not 1825 as this book says. (3) Betsy was pregnant at the time of her ill-fated marriage, which perhaps explains her parents absence and relocation to France.

Anyone interested in Napoleon's time on St Helena or in the Balcombe family will find this an interesting and informative read. Like the other volumes of this bilingual series, it can be purchased from the online shop, with a relatively small charge for packing and postage. Unfortunately the two books on Napoleon's stay at Longwood, vols 6 & 7 are not yet available.

1. Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, The Briars, Napoleon's stay with the Balcombe family pp. 36, 42, 98, 100. 2. The Briars pp 50-58.
3.Ann Whitehead, The Emperor's Shadow, Bonaparte, Betsy and the Balcombes (London 2015)

Tuesday 15 November 2022

Elba 1814: Napoleon meets a man from Bungay.

John Barber Scott (1792-1862)

John Barber Scott was the much travelled son of a wealthy merchant from Bungay in Suffolk. His diaries, provide a fascinating glimpse of life in the Waveney valley in the first half of the nineteenth century from the perspective of the mercantile-gentry class. (1)

His early diary provides several accounts of his being in the presence of the great people of his day: Byron speaking in the House of Lords in support of the Luddites and again at the opening of the Drury Lane New Theatre; the exiled Louis XVIII speaking at Cambridge; a Bible Society meeting in Dover at which Lord Liverpool and Wilberforce were present; Madame de Staël at her booksellers in Bond Street; and accompanying 150 Cambride graduates with a petition to the Prince Regent congratulating him on the victories of 2013 in the presence of too many Dukes and Lords to mention.

Waveney House, Bungay

He was also outside the doors of Westminster Abbey on the day of George IV's coronation, and "saw the doings of the Queen Caroline." (2) He noted the coronation celebrations in Bungay, at which his father gave a feast to 300 of the poorer citizens of the town in front of Waveney House. He also noted

A Queen riot in the evening, when all the flags and laurels in the town were pulled down and destroyed, except those of my father, which were not touched.(3)

Probably the most memorable day of Scott's life occurred in 1814 when like a number of his countrymen, including future Prime Minister Lord John Russell, Scott made his way to a small island off the Italian coast, in the hope of seeing the legendary Napoleon Bonaparte, now for a short time Emperor of Elba.

Souvenir that Scott brought back from Elba

Initially Scott was unimpressed with Napoleon, "the figure that has awed emperors and kings, has gained victory on victory, and the sight of whom has been equivalent to ten thousand men on the field of battle ", now appeared a "graceless figure so clumsy and awkward" whose countenance seemed to "indicate stupidity", and who had " a very large corporation, and his thighs are large - out of all proportion." Scott did however, correctly estimate Napoleon's height,which was rather greater than British caricature and propaganda suggested "about five feet seven inches", about average height for his day. (4)

Like many who were to meet him on St Helena, Scott was soon charmed by Napoleon. He noted his constant half-smile, "which gives one a feeling of confidence and ease. His eyes are remarkably expressive and quick, his voice is deep, his entire manner indicates great talent and he certainly inspires respect" (5)

Napoleon spent 22 minutes talking to Scott and his companions, and betrayed his usual curiosity, peppering them with questions. To a Scottish artillery officer he said, "They say you don't have any trousers " and being told that Scottish soldiers did indeed wear "skirts" asked if the officer had them with him, and was disappointed that the answer was no:"Je voudrais bien les voir." (6) When it came to Scott's turn to be questioned he declared that as yet he had no profession but was a member of the University of Cambridge, which Napoleon had trouble pronouncing, "Quoi? Camerige" Camerige? " Napoleon then decided that one day Scott would become Lord Chancellor, and asked if "Skine - kini- Erskine" still held that position, to which the polite young Scott addressing Napoleon as "Sire " informed him that Lord Eldon was the Lord Chancellor, to which Napoleon characteristically replied, "ah yes, I remember."(7)

At the end of the conversation Napoleon took off his hat and bowed to them, which people who knew him claimed he had never done before. Scott and his companions, all army officers,

were so delighted with the reception he gave us that I must confess we drank "Napoleon" unanimously, in a bumper, on our return - a part of the afternoon on which, upon reflection I feel rather ashamed (8)

Apparently Napoleon invited them to meet him again the next day, but because of the slowness of one of their party, Major Maxwell at his toilette they were too late. Scott was convinced that had they arrived sooner they would have been invited to accompany Napoleon and his party on a three day trip to the island of Pianosa. From his boat Napoleon again took off his hat and bowed to them two or three times.

we have been so fortunate that we ought not to lament anything; yet we cannot help abusing Maxwell. .. We remained a long time on the shore looking at the boat which bore this wonderful man away. (9)

Scott speculated that Napoleon might escape from Elba, but "where to go?", perhaps to Italy to "erect her into an independent kingdom." On the return journey he conversed with a Frenchman who had told General Bertrand that he thought Napoleon would not remain long in Elba. Bertrand, who within a year was to faithfully follow Napoleon to St Helena, told him that Napoleon was content, and that he would always remain on Elba! (10)

Scott came from a Tory background, and had accompanied his father in campaigning against Coke of Holkham, the Foxite Whig and famous agricultural reformer, and would himself have gone into politics but for his father's loss of much of his wealth. Unsurprisingly then, for all his admiration of Napoleon, Scott's reaction to Waterloo and Napoleon's death was fairly conventional. On hearing of the Waterloo victory he recorded with characteristic Loyalist hyperbole, "the days of Agincourt and Cressy are come again." In his diary he wrote at some length on the news of Napoleon's death.

This extraordinary man is no more! He has closed his mortal career, leaving behind him but the name of one on whom the gaze of mankind was more intensely fixed than on any that has found a place in the pages of history. His end, however questionable the justice of his treatment in his latter days, is a fine lesson of the vanity of what has too often been called greatness.

He concluded with the hope that Napoleon's death

may do more to strip of their tinsel the Alexanders and Caesars of the world than any event that ever occurred.(11)

1. An Englishman at Home and Abroad 1792-1828 (London 1930) and An Englishman at Home and Abroad 1829-1862 (Bungay 1996)
2. Caroline, the estranged Queen of George IV was denied admittance to the coronation. There was much popular support for her in England, particularly among the radicals.
3. Diary 1792-1828 p. 190. Perhaps the generous feast given to the poor was the reason why Scott's decorations were spared.
4. Diary 1792-1828 pp 96-98.
5. Diary p. 102
6. "I would very much like to see them". Diary 1792-1828 p. 99
7. ibid
8. Diary 1792-1828 p. 102.
9. Diary 1792-1828 p.103 ,br> 10. Diary 1792-1828 p 107
11. Diary p 188-189