Friday, 29 February 2008

Longwood: A Temporary Residence for General Bonaparte

The house is certainly small .. I trust the carpenters of the Northumberland, ... will in a little time be able to make such additions to the house as will render it, if not as good a one as might be wished, yet at least as commodious as necessary.

- Admiral Sir George Cockburn to Mr Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty, 22nd October 1815

As a temporary residence it is, perhaps, as good as could have been found for him.
- Sir Hudson Lowe to Lord Bathurst, April 17th 1816. (1)

The Emperor has been established in a place called Longwood, exposed to every wind, a barren spot, uninhabited, without water or verdure. [This passage from Count Montholon's letter is absolutely true. ... Longwood is only a hovel, surrounded with gum-trees (a dreadful tree which gives no shade), and very windy. In general, the English treat Bonaparte very shabbily. His house, his people, his dress, all are mean. He has only the necessities. That enormous expense which so excited Parliament is wholly for the maintenance of the troops and guard-ships, and of a numerous and more or less useless staff.-Balmain.]

- Count Balmain, The Russian Commissioner, 1816.

I have been here a week, and still have not been inside the place which was the main purpose of my visit. I seem as reluctant as Napoleon was to step inside.

In my case it is not the smell of paint, or the fear that I shall have to spend the rest of my life here - simply that it looks better than it would have done in Napoleon's day, and I get a little irritated hearing people say how luxurious it is for a prison!

A previous visitor, an English writer, once expressed displeasure to the current curator because Longwood did not look dilapidated enough. The Royal Family had made the opposite criticism in 1947!

What is a Frenchman to do but shrug his shoulders, raise his eyes to the heavens, and murmur under his breath, "Les Anglais!".

So now we will go in. Before we do, a thank you to the charming lady in the picture above who showed us round - twice!

First stop is the Billiard Room. There is a good photo of it on Michel's blog. The Billiard Room This room was added in 1815 by the carpenters from the Northumberland. Napoleon never played billiards. The table was used for maps and documents. Later it was moved to the back of the house for the servants to use.

Next comes the drawing room,which was where Napoleon received his guests; these were very numerous in 1816 and 1817, but after March 1818, when the Balcombes came to say goodbye, and as the restrictions on him were tightened, he lived the life of a recluse, and virtually nobody outside his entourage saw him.

In this room he died; the bed was pulled out at a right angle so that people could gather round both sides. 16 were present, including the children of Mme Bertrand.(2)

Then you enter the dining room, with its single window, its very small dining table, and the candles which used to make it unbearably hot. In later years, after the arrival of the two priests sent by Napoleon's mother, mass was said in this room every Sunday.

Now you take a right turn and enter Napoleon's private suite. Three small rooms: a study, a bedroom and a bathroom. He had two small beds, identical to that already seen. One was in his study, so that if he couldn't sleep in the night, and he often couldn't, he could perhaps try the other room.

About the first thing he did when he arrived was to get in the bath. He had not had a proper bath since he left France in July.

This was possibly Napoleon's favourite place; he sometimes ate and read in here.

The bath itself has had a life of its own - in 1840 it was taken back to France, but has now been restored to its original place.

Backstairs Longwood

This is a part of Longwood House that few visitors bother to explore. The word ramshackle springs to mind.

Around this courtyard, which would have been muddy in Napoleon's day, the work of Longwood would have taken place. At any one time there were in excess of 25 people living here. In addition there were about 20 others employed around the house and garden.

It was not a peaceful place.

At night the numbers would increase; the servants would bribe the English soldiers with wine to get them to allow young lady visitors to evade the curfew.

The sanitary arrangements do not bear thinking about.

This section housed all the French Party(except the Bertrands who lived in a cottage nearby) , plus O'Meara, and including the two children of the Count and Countess de Montholon, and the English Duty Officer.

1. The Government's orders were that Napoleon should be treated as a General, and should have a house equivalent to that of an English Gentleman's country residence. Lowe pointed out to Lord Bathurst that only Plantation House fitted that description. On 17th May 1816 Sir Hudson Lowe told Napoleon that the materials necessary to build him a new house had arrived. This house was not begun until 1818; Napoleon watched it built, but never lived there. The delay was not entirely the fault of Sir Hudson Lowe. Napoleon himself was unwilling to discuss it: to have done so would have signalled an acceptance of the permanence of his position on the island; this he never did until the day in April 1821 when he wrote his will.
2. The bed was moved into the drawing room on 27th April 1821, about a week before he died; it was Napoleon's idea - his bedroom was too small; his servants were preparing to carry him. "No," he said, "not until I am dead."

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