Friday, 22 February 2008

Longwood St Helena: First Impressions

When I am no longer here, the English travellers will sketch this garden, made by Napoleon. Nobody will wish to leave without seeing it. - Napoleon

I have nothing new or interesting to communicate to the Imperial Ministry. Bonaparte's affairs are always the same. He leads a tranquil life, seems to enjoy good health, and is extremely busy with his garden. He is having big trees placed, and flowers planted, which he waters himself, in full view of every one. This morning the orderly officer wrote to Plantation House as follows:

I saw General Bonaparte this morning. He was amusing himself in one of his private flower gardens. His morning dress at present consists of a white gown, and straw hat with a very wide brim. In the afternoon he appears out in a cocked hat, green coat, and white breeches and stockings. He walks a good part of the afternoon in Longwood garden, accompanied by either Counts Montholon or Bertrand, and often pays a visit to the Bertrands in the evenings. Yesterday afternoon he walked around in the new garden and buildings.
- Count Balmain, Russian Commissioner, January 20, 1820

So to Longwood.

A sharp, almost un-negotiable right turn when you leave the Briars, through some more pastoral countryside around Hutts Gate, and on, through Longwood Gate, to the unshaded, windswept plain which was the site of Napoleon's home from December 1815 until his death on May 5th 1821.

A community has now developed around Longwood House. There is a shop and filling station, and a children's play park. To the rear of Longwood House is St. Helena's only golf course.

We arrive early. Today we are going to look at the outside of the house and the gardens only.

Let us look now at some old pictures. This print shows Longwood when it was used as a farm building after Napoleon's death, before it was transferred to the French Government.
The barn in the foreground was not there in Napoleon's time, and it is there no more.

What I had not fully appreciated is that Longwood is not really one house. The plan in Kauffmann's book had confused me. There are in fact two linked houses around a small courtyard.

Napoleon and his servants lived in the single storey house to the left and behind the barn. The two storey building to the right housed the Montholons and, for a time, O'Meara.(1) Until recently it was the home of successive French curators. At the time of our visit the First Secretary to the St. Helena Government was living there.

The mid-nineteenth century print, done after the restoration of the house in the reign of Napoleon III makes this clearer, although the second house looks as if it is single storey.

In the years after the above print was made, the termites took their toll. At the time the British Royal family visited in 1947 the French Government was considering demolishing it and replacing it with a memorial.

Happily it was decided to save it. It was carefully rebuilt using materials that would resist the termites. Of the original fabric, the stone steps alone remain.

Although I tend to imagine Longwood in sepia; which somehow better fits the mood of the place, I expected to see it looking like the pictures below. This must have been something like its appearance when the present curator arrived on the island some twenty years ago, and began the process of recreating the gardens.

Carefully sticking to the historical records, Michel has both restored and transformed the setting. I knew about this, but was still unprepared for its beauty.

I asked my wife for her reactions. "Very peaceful" was her comment. It is tempting to believe that in the short period in 1819-1820 when Napoleon was creating these gardens, and before his final illness started to take its toll, that he found a peace that had probably eluded him for most of his life.

All is perfectly tranquil and in good order at St. Helena. Bonaparte takes considerable exercise in his garden. His complexion is fresh and healthy, his air pleasant; in other words, quite another man. Count Montholon and Mme. Bertrand assure me that he is still having some trouble with his chronic disease, hepatitis, and often takes mercury, but that, thanks to the assiduous care of M. Antommarchi, it is no longer dangerous. - Count Balmain, April 18, 1820

Before we left we met a young man who has been tending these gardens for a decade. He told us that he loves his job.

The sun was shining when we were there. He said it had been raining earlier. He was philosophical about the constant changes in the weather for which Longwood is well known: it makes the plants grow better, he said.

He showed us the gum tree to the left, bent by the prevailing wind, one of the few remains from Napoleon's time.

(1) O'Meara (1786-1836) was an Irish doctor in the British Navy whom Napoleon met on the Bellerophon after he surrendered. When Napoleon's own doctor refused to go to St. Helena he agreed to accompany him. Unlike the French entourage he was given freedom of movement; in return he was expected to report back to Hudson Lowe on the goings on at Longwood. He finally fell out with Hudson Lowe and was expelled from the island in 1818. He later published an account of Napoleon's captivity which dealt a blow to Lowe's reputation from which he never recovered. In his will he asked for the following to be inscribed on his gravestone:
I take this opportunity of declaring that with the exception of some unintentional and trifling errors in the Voice from St. Helena, the book is a faithful narrative of the treatment inflicted upon that great man Napoleon by Sir Hudson Lowe and his subordinates, and that I have even suppressed some facts which although true might have been considered to be exaggerated and not credited.

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