Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Georges Lefebvre: Napoleon

My Christmas present to myself has arrived: Georges Lefebvre's two books on Napoleon, From 18 Brumaire to Tilsit 1799-1807, and From Tilsit to Waterloo 1807-1815.

The author, a distinguished French Marxist scholar, wrote these before the war. They were translated into English in 1969, and have now been bound into a fine single Folio Society volume, with a new introduction by Andrew Roberts.

So far I have not got much beyond Roberts' introduction. I notice though that the period of exile on St Helena is dismissed by Lefebvre in a few telling lines:
His captivity was not only due to the terrifying effects of his very name; it was also an expression of vengeance against the upstart soldier who had presumed to take an archduchess to wife.

I was particularly interested to read his judgement on the breakdown of the Treaty of Amiens with England:
If Bonaparte's provocations are undeniable, nonetheless it is a fact that England broke the treaty and took the initiative to wage preventive war from the moment that she could hope for Russia's collaboration. Britain's justification was the preservation of the European balance of power, but this grave concern did not extend to the sea, since in her eyes God had created the oceans for the English. The conflict between Bonaparte and the English was in reality a clash between two imperialisms.
Interesting that Roberts, a conservative British historian, quotes this passage in his introduction and says that it is probably not far off the truth.

I should perhaps warn potential readers that despite the title this is not a biography of Napoleon. Marxists don't really do biography and certainly don't indulge in trivia! It is as Lefebvre himself points out, a history of a period:
during the course of this period .. everything seemed to yield before him. It was he who dominated history. What then could be more natural than that this volume should bear his name?
There are though a lot of beautiful pictures, many of which are new to me. Some 600 pages long, it should keep me busy for a day or two.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Mount Pleasant: Napoleon's last outing

Another interesting post by Michel (November 23rd 2009).

This time about Mount Pleasant, Sir William Doveton's fine home overlooking Sandy Bay, and the scene of Napoleon's last outing. (1)

Particularly interesting is the transcript from the Hudson Lowe papers which Michel describes quite justifiably as "un chef d'œuvre de bêtise et de vanité" ( a masterpiece of stupidity and vanity. ) The transcript includes those passages crossed out, which are every bit as revealing as those left in.

In this document, Sir William variously describes himself as"I", " the old gentleman" "Sir William" "the good knight" (crossed out!) and "Worthy Venerable Knight" ("Worthy" crossed out).

The visitor is of course usually referred to as "General", but also as "Napoleon" or "Bonaparte"; references to him as "Emperor" are enclosed in quotation marks to indicate that the term was used only by Napoleon's party. It is also noted that like Napoleon but unlike his companions, Sir William kept his hat on! These things were very important to Sir Hudson Lowe.

The report was written for Sir Hudson Lowe but also with an eye to posterity. After all, how many people could claim to have met both Napoleon and the King? The only defense is perhaps that at the advanced age of 67, Sir William had, as Gilbert Martineau put it, become "somewhat simple minded". (2) He was to linger on another 23 years! Apparently Napoleon tweaked his ear - something I thought that he did largely to children! (3)

Nevertheless it provides an interesting account of what turned out to be Napoleon's final social encounter with those outside his entourage. It notes Napoleon's appearance: his fat face and thighs, his paleness and Montholon's comment that he was suffering from a liver complaint.

For the anoraks among us the document does confirm that Napoleon had previously visited Mount Pleasant.

Anyway, this document which as far as I know has never been published in full, is well worth a read - and is of course in English!

1. This house and Sir William have featured on a number of previous posts that I have made. On my visit I described it as a sort of "dormer bungalow" and realised that it must have looked quite different when Napoleon visited. Sure enough, it was reconstructed by W.A. Thorpe in 1904. The Thorpe family, which has arrived on St Helena since Napoleon's time, is now probably the leading commercial family on the island.

2. Gilbert Martineau, Napoleon's St. Helena, John Murray 1968, p. 156

3. Clearly Sir William had heard differently: I have heard, that General Bonaparte’s custom of taking children by the nose, and grown persons by the ear is considered as a mark of in token of favour approbation . This passage from the document was clearly amended a number of times and then finally crossed out.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Napoleon's Novel published in English

My youngest brother has sent me Flora Fraser's review in the Times of Clisson and Eugénie, Napoleon's short romantic novel which has recently been published in English.

The novel was written when he was only 26, after he had fallen in love and become engaged to Eugénie Desirée Clary, and had also already proved his worth as an artillery officer at the siege of Toulon.

The review is surprisingly favourable: "there is a wit and power about the writing and the characterisation that makes the reader regret that Napoleon Bonaparte did not write more fiction."

This sentiment was echoed by a neighbour of mine when I told him about it - "he might have done less harm had he stuck to novel writing!"

The review says that the novel "sheds light on how Napoleon saw himself at this time - as a man attracted by the life of reflection and that of action".

Like virtually every British person who writes on Napoleon, the reviewer cannot resist one barbed comment: "It shows a remarkable self-knowledge, a self-knowledge that later, one might be tempted to say, he lost ". For what it is worth I do not think that Napoleon lost his self-knowledge, certainly not on St Helena.

I often think of his comment to Gourgaud, who of all Napoleon's party proved the least able to cope with the rigours of exile on St Helena. "Do you not think that when I wake in the night I don't have bad moments, when I recall what I was and what I am now? " Such thoughts were private. Their absence in what he wrote or what he said is not proof that self-knowledge did not exist.

For Napoleon there was no person in whom he could confide, and no medium in which his innermost thoughts could be expressed. I do not think that he is as unusual in this as many imagine. I wonder how many autobiographies written by statesmen and lesser politicians really reveal their inner thoughts?

Monday, 2 November 2009

St Helena 1811 - not a good year

I have been working through the Judicial Records for 1811 and also doing some background reading. It turned out to be a demanding year for the Governor, Alexander Beatson (1759-1830).

On taking up his post in 1808 Governor Beatson had found a population of 3600
living almost wholly upon the public stores; and obtaining most of the necessaries of life in profusion, at prices not exceeding one third of the prime cost.

The result was neglect of cultivation, a decline of industry, and a great increase in the costs of running the island, which had doubled between 1800 and 1808. He also claimed that he found
a garrison, as well as many of the inhabitants, immersed in the grossest intemperance .. from their excessive use of spirituous liquors.

From a perusal of the Judicial Records, 1811 seemed an uneventful year :
- a dispute over the property at Rock Rose Hill brought by Captain John Barnes against Major William Seale; the former appears to have been married at this time to the latter's widowed mother;

-one case of assault in which John Kay was awarded 5/- damages against John Knipe, rather less than the £500 he had asked for;

-William Balcombe and two others fined the sum of 40/- for not turning up for jury service;

- the usual reports by the wormers of cattle;

- a few coroners' verdicts, including one on "Peter a Slave. Verdict. Died by the Visitation of God".

Initial impressions were misleading. These were difficult times on the island.

Food, Spirits and a Not Very Happy Christmas

At one of the sessions of the court in 1811 the Governor tried to deal with profiteering from the sale of poultry. A Grand Jury was duly called and recommended to the court that the highest prices should be

Fowls 8s/- Geese 21s/- Ducks 10/- Turkeys 30/-

There were also shortages of flour and rice, and on December 11th a Proclamation was issued forbidding the sale of potatoes to ships, and restricting the price to 8/- a bushel.

These shortages triggered a major mutiny among the garrison on December 23rd. The Governor concluded that this was just a pretext:
the sole object of the late violent measures, was to compel this government to give spirits to the garrison; an object in which every drunkard on the island felt a deep and warm interest. (1)

The mutineers' harebrained plan was to seize the Governor and expel him from the island on a ship that was in port. Presumably this would have allowed them to drink themselves silly over Christmas before the inevitable retribution in the New Year. The Governor's reaction on hearing this was not to flee, but rather to order the ship to leave and to barricade himself and his family in Plantation House!

Prior to the mutiny a note was slipped under Mr Doveton's door presumably his house in Jamestown not Sandy Bay:
His it still your intension to percevere in your oppression and tyranney to wards the troops in this garrison, has hitherto you have done; if so you can expect nothing but an open rebellion.
I am autherized, by the troops of this island, to inform this Councel, if they do not immediately soply this garrison with liquor and provisions, in the same manner has Governor Brooks did (whose regulations you have voilated) you shall be made answerable for what will follow, except you make your escape good from this settlement.

It is in your power to prevent the impending vengeance which now hangs over your head's and save the lives of many poor souls, which will inevitably fall a sacrifice.

The mutiny, initially comprising some 250 soldiers, was soon put down, but not before the Lieutenant Governor, Colonel Broughton, had been seized by the mutineers at Longwood.

Among those commended by the Governor for their action against the mutineers was Major Hodson, later to be nicknamed "Hercules" by Napoleon. (2)

Nine of the ring leaders were court martialled and sentenced to death on Christmas Day. Six of them, Henry Sisell, Thomas Berwick, Archibald Nimmo, Robert Anderson, Arthur Smith, and Thomas Edgeworth were executed the same day at sunset on High Knoll; in what the Governor hoped would be seen as a manifestation of his mercy the remaining three, Peter Wilsey, John Seager and Richard Kitchen had their sentences remitted.

The court martial reconvened on 26th December, and convicted three more, of whom one only, named Hewitt, was executed before the whole garrison.

The Governor also detained a number of others, whom he determined to send off the island as soon as possible. (3) The remainder were granted amnesty. By the 31st December the Governor was satisfied that the mutiny was over.

Two Schools Created

On a more positive note was the creation of two separate schools " to improve the Religious and Moral Character of all Classes of the rising generation". The schools were apparently to be called "The Company's Upper School" and "The Company's Second School". The upper school which was to be open to " the Children of the Civil & Military Servants & of the most reputable inhabitants", was under the direction of our old friend, the Rev. Boys. The fees for the upper school were to be 3 guineas a quarter. An additional five shillings a quarter was to be charged for "Pens, Ink, Paper, Slate and Pencils – for those, only who learn writing and Arithmatick."

The lower school was under the direction of the Reverend Samuel Jones. The superintendent, Mr McDaniel, was to be paid £30 a year -enough to purchase 60 ducks or 20 turkeys at the prices previously quoted!

The children of the "lower classes of the inhabitants" were admissable to this school. The fees were to be 13s..6d, with 3 shillings for pens ink etc.
1. A very full account of the mutiny is given in Tracts relative to the Island of St Helena, Alexander Beatson, London 1816
2. Major Charles Robert George Hodson (1779-1858) of St Helena Regiment, and Judge Advocate. The son in law of William Doveton, he was Town Major in 1811. Napoleon called on him in 1815, and he and his wife dined at Longwood in 1816. He was at Napoleon's burial and again at his exhumation. He attained the rank of Lt Colonel, retired to England and died in Bath.
3. Those detained pending being sent off the island were R.Kitchen, S. Cahill and T. Williams ofCaptain Cole's Company of Artillery; Jacob Desney, John Finnerty, John Grant, James Clark, Andrew Clarke, James Small,E. Richardson and E. Randalls of the Grenadier Company; D. Frazer, T. Sullivan, J. Kennelly, M. Maroney, John Hall, Nich. Coote, P. McGuire of the Light Company and J. Mackle, J. Ward and D. Finn.