Sunday, 11 January 2009

Napoleon & St Helena - A Review

I have been reading Napoleon & St Helena, On the Island of Exile (London 2008) by Johannes Willms. Willms, a German journalist currently based in Paris, is the author of two books on Napoleon. He visited St Helena in 2000. This work was first published in German in 2007, and translated into English in 2008.

Willms provides generally unflattering views of St Helena, of Napoleon, of the efforts of those who have tried to conserve the French properties on the island, and of those who take a different view of Napoleon from him. Supporters of Napoleon's gaoler, Sir Hudson Lowe, will also find that the tattered reputation of their man is not rescued by this author.

The introduction looked promising - full of irony, paradox and memorable phrases:

the island would long ago have lapsed into oblivion had it not been for his [Napoleon's] enforced presence there.

St. Helena the world's best-known, least-known island.

.. the sheer adventurousness of his long voyage to the island will compensate him [the traveller] for much of what his imagination has led him to expect, but which is not altogether fulfilled by the reality of what he finds there.

St Helena is a thoroughly old fashioned place, a remote and bizarre vanishing point ... In short St Helena is a philosophy of life. That is at once the great advantage and disadvantage of this singular island, with its kind and friendly inhabitants, which Napoleon abhorred primarily because it sentenced him to a fate he had always successfully avoided hitherto: a quiet life in a fixed abode.

Unfortunately the rest of the work does not really fulfill the early promise. It is neither a guide to St Helena nor a balanced or well documented historical account of the captivity. It contains no footnotes, no bibliography and no index. It is particularly disappointing in its coverage of the author's experiences on the island, and it lacks the reflection which is the hallmark of Kauffman's Dark Room at Longwood which the author dismisses as hagiography. I wonder if Willms ever read Kauffman's exploration of Napoleon's reaction to the carnage of the battle of Eylau?(1).

Kauffman and Willms of course had totally different aims: the former was trying to penetrate beneath the surface to try to understand what Napoleon really felt in the endless hours on St Helena as he tried to come to terms with his loss of empire, family and freedom. For Willms that is not an interesting question; he has made up his mind before he even steps on St Helena.

Is There Honey Still for Tea?

As the title indicates, the main focus of the work is on Napoleon and the French properties. There are a few pages on present day St Helena, including comments about the paucity of goods available in the shops on the island and the lack of fresh produce.

The author recounts meeting the widow of a former Governor on the RMS St Helena. Her husband had died after falling off a cliff in England, and she was returning to the island with his ashes. She told him to be sure to buy some local honey: it was the only local produce worth buying. Willms comments ironically:
Although there were plenty of cliffs from which one could have fallen to one's death, this abundance did not extend to the island's famous honey, none of which could be found in any of Jamestown's shops.

The author appears unable to understand how Saints could say that they prefer their home to any place on earth:
perhaps a state of not unduly perceptible collective poverty, coupled with the joys of colonial tutelage and freedom from the cares of existence, create a happiness hard to convey to outsiders.

The French properties: A Monument to French Historical Propaganda?

The author observes that
the cultivation of Napoleon's memory on St Helena is an exclusively French preserve. In the British version of the island's history, the defeated Emperor's enforced presence plays only a very subordinate role ..

Against this, the role of King George VI in spurring the French to restore Longwood after World War II is dutifully noted, as is the generally favourable treatment accorded to Napoleon by most British writers in the century after his death.

Willms describes Longwood as "an antimuseum": an attempt to restore rooms to their original condition, rather than to fill them with lots of memorabilia. He is however very sceptical of the end results:

Today the highland plateau of Longwood presents a thoroughly deceptive appearance to the beholder, and so do the rooms in which Napoleon lived and died. These possess no more authenticity than a carefully arranged stage set. Nothing is as it really used to be; all is designed to accord as much as possible with the visitor's presentiments and foreknowledge. Longwood House is now, in its remoteness and heroic absurdity, a positively touching monument to French historical propaganda.

Elsewhere he appears to contradict himself by noting that the Martineaus, like their predecessors, have been clever in searching for household items and reinstalling them where they were in Napoleon's day. He notes however, that the iron beds displayed in Longwood are contemptible replicas. (2)

Among a number of questionable statements is his claim that Longwood House was the largest and most imposing building on the island other than Plantation House. It may have had a large number of rooms by the time the ramshackle extensions to it had been built - but imposing it never was! Even the modern traveller can see a number of architecturally more imposing buildings scattered round the island that existed in Napoleon's day. He claims also that the current Longwood complex is now only half its original size - which is presumably a French conspiracy to exaggerate the poor conditions which Napoleon and his entourage endured! I have incidentally seen no evidence myself to back up this claim and am inclined to doubt its veracity. I wonder if anyone else could comment on it?

For me the most informative part of the book is its account of the somewhat strange history of the properties and their curators after their acquisition by the French Government in 1858. This is probably of little interest to many potential readers however. The book is perhaps most disappointing in its sparse and generally downbeat coverage of St Helena itself. For those interested in the captivity there is still no better starting point than Lord Rosebery's Napoleon: The Last Phase (London 1900).

I have also been reading a more satisfactory book, The Road to St Helena, Napoleon After Waterloo (Pen and Sword, 2008) by J. David Markham, of which more later. Meanwhile I am off to visit a much larger island in the Caribbean, which entirely coincidentally happens to have a more conventional Napoleonic museum.


1. Kaufmann's book is covered at length in my entry of February 11th 2008.
2. Napoleon's original bed is displayed at Les Invalides in Paris,