Thursday, 3 April 2008

Holland House and Hudson Lowe: Sir Hudson, may I have the pleasure of introducing you to Lord Byron?

Saw Sir Hudson Lowe to-day in the streets. Micheli and an Italian had stopped me. Micheli's friend had sailed with and knew him. We all walked by, and then turned, and had a d--d good stare. He turned and looked fiercely at us, and gave us a good opportunity by crossing. A meaner face no assassin ever had. He answered Napoleon's description to a T. (Oct 14th 1832) - Memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon

Sir Hudson Lowe

Napoleon's gaoler when he first arrived on St. Helena in 1815 was Admiral Cockburn, who had taken charge of him when he was transferred from the Bellerophon to the Northumberland.

The then Governor was Colonel Mark Wilks, an employee of the East India Company, not the Crown. Wilks was due to leave in 1816.(1)

To replace both Wilks and Cockburn the Government selected Sir Hudson Lowe. Lowe was born in Ireland, and had had a successful military career, which included leading a Corsican Regiment. He was a man who could be relied upon to carry out orders to the letter.

The Governorship of St. Helena was the best job he had ever had, but it ruined the rest of his life, and his reputation.

After Napoleon's death, the Government distanced themselves from him, content for him to take the criticism about Napoloeon's treatment. Lord Wellington privately accepted Lowe's unsuitability:
a very bad choice; he was a man wanting in education and judgement. He was a stupid man, he knew nothing at all of the world, and like all men who knew nothing of the world, he was suspicious and jealous. (2)

Napoleon felt that putting such a man in charge was an insult to him.

Count Balmain, the Russian Commissioner captured the situation perfectly:
a man who only knows how to command is at the mercy of one who only knows how to obey .

As soon as it was known that Sir Hudson Lowe was to be the Governor of St. Helena the Hollands began a private campaign to influence him.

The Motives of the Hollands

According to Paul Johnson the aim was to get Hudson Lowe to relax his guard so that Napoleon could escape. I have not seen any evidence of this, and am inclined to doubt it. The Hollands were more sensible than Johnson would like us to believe.(3)

I am also not convinced that Napoleon had any interest in escaping, although his supporters in America did certainly hatch plans to rescue him. When Montholon and Bertrand later visited Holland House, they were asked about this. They said that he could easily have escaped and had many opportunities, but was "a man never to attempt anything where concealment or disguise or bodily exertion were required." They said he would only have gone with his hat on his head and his sword by his side. (4)

A similar impression comes from the report of the Russian Commissioner, Count Balmain (5).

Undoubtedly the Hollands still hoped that the British Government could be persuaded to move Napoleon from St. Helena, and Lord Holland worked behind the scenes to try and achieve this. In the meantime they wished to do all they could to ensure that he was treated with consideration and respect, and Lady Holland tried to tie Lowe down regarding her wish to be free to communicate with Napoleon.The bottom line I suppose was that they wished to try to convert Lowe to their way of thinking. An impossible task!

Sir Hudson Comes to Dinner

It is a strange fact that Hudson Lowe spent more time with Lord and Lady Holland than he was ever to spend with Napoleon.

He went to Holland House about 8 times between August 1815 and his departure for St. Helena early in 1816. He was to meet Napeolon 6 times only.

Although he lacked the qualifications of birth, intellect or talent necessary for admission to Holland House, Lady Howe treated him with the greatest respect, failing to show him her imperious side. In the course of his 8 visits he was introduced to 40 or so of the social and political cream of London society.

Lowe undoubtedly felt honoured to be courted by such distinguished people. It must have confirmed to him what the Colonial Minister, Lord Bathurst, had intimated. Whilst joking about Holland House, Bathurst let him know that his appointment as Governor of St. Helena could be the starting point of an even greater career.

Amongst Lowe's fellow guests at Holland House were a number of Peers of the Realm (including Auckland, Ullswater and Alvanley), the Duke of York ( brother of the Prince Regent and commander in chief of the Armed Forces), Lady Holland's son, Henry Webster, who had fought at Waterloo, Sir Henry Bunbury, a member of the Government, who had informed Napoleon of his fate on the Bellerophon, Captain Hesse (son of the Duke of York by a German Lady), Lord John Russell who had met Napoleon on Elba just before his escape, and a number of Whig stalwarts such as Francis Horner, and a few distinguished foreign guests.

The most interesting fellow guests were Lord Byron and and Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland.

Byron and his wife had to be invited to Holland House for a dress rehearsal to ensure that Byron confined his remarks to his admiration for Napoleon rather than expressing his regret about the outcome of Waterloo! At the dinner, in response to questions by Byron, Lowe made it clear that he was not impressed by Napoleon's military prowess!

Captain Maitland was a distant relative of the Hollands, and like the Hollands had been presented to Napoleon in 1802. In accepting Napoleon's surrender on the Bellerophon, Maitland had treated him as a distinguished guest, and Napoleon had made himself very popular with the ship's crew. Maitland was criticised for this by the Admiralty, which made it clear to Admiral Cockburn that Napoleon should be treated very differently on the Northumberland. Lowe asked Maitland a number of questions about this. Clearly Lowe was not going to allow Napoleon to rival his own authority on St. Helena.

From the Hollands' point of view the courting of Sir Hudson Lowe was a total failure.

Before Lowe left for St. Helena he wrote to the Government regarding a Bill to clarify the legal basis on which Napoleon was to be held on St. Helena "to dispel the doubts of factious or opposing individuals regarding him." (6)


Soon after his return to London following Napolon's death, Hudson Lowe called to see Lady Holland without announcement. He was not received. Lady Holland sent him a letter explaining that she had been out
I was in London when you were good enough to call .. but am not sorry at an opportunity of acknowledging your attentions by writing, as I confess I should have some difficulty in conversing with you on subjects connected with them, being one of that numerous class you describe in your letter of 5th March as seeing in the late great man chiefly, if not exclusively,'talents to admire'.

Sir Hudson's call was indeed as crass in its own way as his invitation to "General Bonaparte" to attend a reception at Plantation House, which had been met with a similar rebuff. He was out of his depth. An early example of the Peter Principle perhaps!

1. Col. Mark Wilks(1759-1831) A resident of the Isle of Man, and a member of the House of Keys. Governor of St. Helena 1813-1816. Napoleon liked and respected Wilks.
2. Lord Rosebery, Napoleon: The Last Phase, London 1900, pp.68-69.
3. E. Tangye Lean, The Napoleonists, A Study in Political Disaffection 1760/1960 (Oxford University Press, 1970) p. 199
4. Johnson, in the midst of a tendentious review, notes that British support for Napoleon was surprisingly wide and deep. Johnson The Hollands represented the tip of a surprisingly large iceberg.
5. In 1818 General Gourgaud told Balmain that Napoleon might escape - and that he had had at least ten opportunities. When the sceptical Balmain asked why he hadn't done so already, Gourgaud replied: "We have all given him that advice, but he has always rejected our arguments. However unhappy he is here, he secretly enjoys the sense of importance which is evident in his being guarded so closely and the constant interest which all the European Powers take in him. Several times he has told us: ‘I cannot live as a private personage. I would rather be a prisoner than to be free in the United States.' "
6. Lean, p. 171


Judith Shipstad said...

I went to St. Helena a couple of times myself, in 1979 and 1983.

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Judith,
I think you would find it is much changed with the exodus of young people since British citizenship was restored, and now the development of the airport.