Saturday, 24 October 2009

Napoleon Still Alive?

I understand that letters addressed to Napoleon still sometimes arrive at Longwood House.

Nevertheless, on re-reading Laurie Lee's story of his walk across Spain on the eve of the Civil War, I was somewhat surprised to read the following account of a meeting in a bar in Madrid.

Another man nearby suddenly spun round upon me and thrust his red butcher-face at mine.
'Long Live Spain and Germany" he said, raising his fist. 'Death to America! And long live Napoleon!'
'Napoleon's dead,' I said primly.
He gave me a cunning look.
'Oh, no; we believe he's alive.' He raised his fist again. 'But death to France too! and if you're a Frenchman, excuse me ..'

Others like the lady who blogs on The Emperor and I, accept that Napoleon is dead, but claim to have seen his ghost. I keep trying to resist the comparison with Elvis Presley, but wonder whether Elvis will "live" as long as Napoleon appears to have done. Or, to put it another way, will the King live as long as the Emperor?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Freedom of Press on St Helena

I was intrigued to read what the Government owned St Helena Herald had to say about the arrest of the Editor of the rival St Helena Independent, reported in my post of 10th October.

The answer is, not very much. But what it does and does not say is interesting.

Neither the particular incident nor the rival publication are mentioned.

Nevertheless the October 9th edition includes a press release from the Chief Executive of Solomon & Company revealing that she had asked the police to investigate how company information got into the hands of the media.

The paper begins with a rather oblique editorial which is worth examining.

It begins by pointing out that whilst the editor of the Herald is entitled to freedom of expression as every other Journalist, policy prevents the editor from commenting on matters that defame an individual or company so I will therefore leave it at that. But she doesn't. Later, after dealing with a totally unrelated issue she continues:

One might argue that there is a need for free press or free media and there is. But she notes that there are certain restrictions on a free press, and Defamation and Copyright, including using material before it has been released, are mentioned.

A few other comments caught my eye:

- Free press encourages journalists to keep the public informed to comment freely and expose wrongdoing but this does not mean the journalist has to do the wrong doing. I wonder to whom the Herald is referring?

- Is the required information of high public interest and not just what the public is interested in? One might wonder who decides what information is "high" public interest and what is not.

- Has it been released to the correct people before being published?

I can understand that being the editor of the Herald is not an easy job in circumstances such as this, and it is unwise for someone outside who does not know the full facts to comment, but if regret could not be expressed at the heavy handed action of the authorities (sledgehammers and nuts come to mind), it might perhaps have been better to have "left it at that."

Friday, 16 October 2009


Thank you to the St Helena Independent for reminding us of a forgotten anniversary. Spot the missing word!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Rev Boys, Armchairs, Death Masks and other matters

Some weeks ago (10th July) I did a piece on the armchair in Maidstone Museum which generated quite a lot of feedback and discussion.

I have now had a look at the extract from "Under Thirty-Seven Kings" by Lilian Boys Behrens, published in 1926, which claimed that Rev Boys was the first person that Napoleon spoke to on landing on St. Helena, and that Napoleon left Rev Boys a cane and an armchair.

I am a little sceptical about the first claim. My recollection is that virtually the whole of the population turned out to see Napoleon, who stepped ashore at dusk and walked between Bertrand and Admiral Cockburn to his lodging place. I am prepared to believe that Rev Boys may have been in prime position as Napoleon stepped on to the quay, but there is no supporting record that Napoleon spoke to anyone. All the accounts I have read indicate that there was complete silence.

The Armchair

The more I think about the Maidstone armchair the more confused I get. It seems to me we now have a number of competing versions:

1. The armchair was bought by Rev Boys after Napoleon's death, according to the documentation held by the museum, and passed into the museum's hands after the Rev Boys' death.

2. The armchair was bequeathed by Napoleon and was still in the family's hands in 1926 (Lilian Behrens) - so there must be two armchairs!

3. Most bizarre of all, according to the "local historian" interviewed by the BBC, Napoleon used to sit in the armchair when he visited Rev Boys! So the armchair never belonged to Napoleon!

At this point words fail me! I have had an email from Maidstone Museum. I don't think it is unfair to say that they have been unable to provide evidence corroborating the story given to the BBC about the alleged meetings between Rev Boys and Napoleon. I hate to think of people being misinformed in this way.

Death Masks

The information on death masks which also cropped up in discussion after my last posting is even more confusing as anyone who delves into the conflicting claims will find. Anyway I will cite again the article from the NY Times about the Rubidge death mask which ended up in the Boys family. This article is derived from the work by G.L. de St. M. Watson, the Wigan man who has made other appearances in this blog. A link to the article also appeared in an earlier entry on Cuba and Antommarchi.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

In The Footsteps of Napoleon - Cultural Voyage to St Helena

Good news for all those who are interested in Napoleon and wish to learn more about his final years on St. Helena.

The R.M.S. St Helena has just announced a 21-day cultural voyage from Cape Town on 21st October 2010.

There will be a programme of lectures on board given by Christopher Danziger of Oxford University. After the 5 day voyage from Cape Town, participants will then spend 12 days on St Helena, before returning on the R.M.S. to Cape Town. Whilst on St Helena a full programme of tours to the Napoleonic sites and other places of interest on the island has been organised.

Prices quoted vary greatly depending on the type of cabin selected. They range from £1768 per person for a very basic cabin shared by 4 people, up to £4519 for the best single cabin accommodation. The prices include:

      - return sea passage Cape Town/St Helena/Cape Town including all meals on board;

      - 2 nights accommodation in Cape Town;

      - bed and breakfast accommodation on St Helena;

      - programme of tours and events on St Helena;

      - activities and talks on board the RMS St Helena.

The RMS St Helena website has further information

As anyone who has ploughed through my early blogs will know, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our trip to the island, and were very sad to leave. It is a very special place - but not Paradise!

We also found the R.M.S. St Helena a delightful ship, and particularly enjoyed the food and the friendly informal atmosphere. Please note though that it is not a cruise liner - it is a working mail ship, the life line to the island, and therefore carries all manner of goods and indeed all manner of people.

This particular trip seems to me to offer the added advantage of grouping together people who share a similar interest. This was not the case when we visited!

Some Images of St Helena

The Company has issued some images of St Helena to whet your appetite. They are all subject to copyright.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

St Helena Newspaper Editor Arrested - and then Freed

Strange goings on on St Helena. Mike Olsson, the Editor of the Independendent, was apparently arrested and the offices of St Helena FM raided, because of a breach of confidentiality: Mike had revealed on air information from the accounts of Solomons and Company, one of the main companies that operates on the island. He was subsequently released, apparently without charge.

The Tristan Times describes this operation of the St Helena police as "comparable to going after a fly with a 0.22 rifle. Instead of obliterating the fly they managed to wound press freedom on St Helena - a small Island in the South Atlantic Ocean."

Whether this is simply an isolated heavy handed operation by an overbearing official or, as the Independent itself seems to claim, part of a more sinister pattern of suppression of freedom of the press, I am in no position to judge. The current edition of the Independent is certainly worth reading by anyone who cares about the people of St Helena.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Charles Darwin and St Helena

As almost everyone should know by now, this year marks the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150 year anniversary of On the Origin of Species . Today we took two grandsons to visit the Darwin exhibition at Manchester's wonderful John Rylands Library.

Whilst there I dipped into The Voyage of the Beagle, and read Darwin's account of his visit to St Helena in 1836.

"Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains" is one of those nineteenth century aphorisms which have stuck with me since my youth - and Darwin certainly exhibited that.

He stayed only four days, but with the aid of a guide, a former slave, walked in all directions from morning to night and acquired a detailed knowledge of the island.(1)

He obtained lodgings within a stone's throw of Napoleon's tomb, on which he commented with a rather sarcastic footnote:

After the volumes of eloquence which have poured forth on this subject, it is dangerous even to mention the tomb. A modern traveller, in twelve lines, burdens the poor little island with the following titles, -- it is a grave, tomb, pyramid, cemetery, sepulchre, catacomb, sarcophagus, minaret, and mausoleum!

He also made a few comments about the situation of Longwood, without actually mentioning Napoleon or the Captivity:

Viewed from a short distance, it appears like a respectable gentleman's country-seat. In front there are a few cultivated fields, and beyond them the smooth hill of coloured rocks called the Flagstaff, and the rugged square black mass of the Barn. On the whole the view was rather bleak and uninteresting.

Other than that Darwin showed little interest in the Napoleonic sites. Darwin of course was not a tourist, and presumably did not wish to enter into controversy about the treatment of Napoleon at a time when the latter's body still lay on St. Helena. In any case he was entirely focused on his geological study, which was to form the basis of a later publication on volcanic islands.

Comments about St Helena

- St Helena's vegetation had

a character decidedly British. .. When we consider that the number of plants now found on the island is 746, and that out of these fifty-two alone are indigenous species, the rest having been imported, and most of them from England, we see the reason of the British character of the vegetation. Many of these English plants appear to flourish better than in their native country; some also from the opposite quarter of Australia succeed remarkably well.

The "English" appearance of St Helena:

The English, or rather Welsh character of the scenery, is kept up by the numerous cottages and small white houses; some buried at the bottom of the deepest valleys, and others mounted on the crests of the lofty hills. .. On viewing the island from an eminence, the first circumstance which strikes one, is the number of the roads and forts: the labour bestowed on the public works, if one forgets its character as a prison, seems out of all proportion to its extent or value.

Darwin was pessimistic about the future of the people of St Helena, and this long before the building of the Suez canal:

There is so little level or useful land, that it seems surprising how so many people, about 5000, can subsist here. The lower orders, or the emancipated slaves, are I believe extremely poor: they complain of the want of work. From the reduction in the number of public servants owing to the island having been given up by the East Indian Company, and the consequent emigration of many of the richer people, the poverty probably will increase. The chief food of the working class is rice with a little salt meat; as neither of these articles are the products of the island, but must be purchased with money, the low wages tell heavily on the poor people. Now that the people are blessed with freedom, a right which I believe they value fully, it seems probable that their numbers will quickly increase: if so, what is to become of the little state of St. Helena?

Finally I noted some caustic comments about the game-laws that were such a part of England and apparently of St Helena also.

Partridges and pheasants are tolerably abundant; the island is much too English not to be subject to strict game-laws. I was told of a more unjust sacrifice to such ordinances than I ever heard of even in England. The poor people formerly used to burn a plant, which grows on the coast-rocks, and export the soda from its ashes; but a peremptory order came out prohibiting this practice, and giving as a reason that the partridges would have nowhere to build.

Clearly Darwin was not a High Tory!

When it was time to leave, he did so with some sorrow, having so much enjoyed my rambles among the rocks and mountains of St. Helena . I think I know how he felt.

1. He described his guide as a very civil, quiet old man, and such appears the character of the greater number of the lower classes. It was strange to my ears to hear a man, nearly white and respectably dressed, talking with indifference of the times when he was a slave. Darwin could not abide slavery, as even a cursory reading of the Voyage of the Beagle makes clear. e.g. On the 19th of August [1836] we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.