Thursday, 31 March 2011

"Veritas" and "Sultana" or How Lady Lowe Almost Met Napoleon : A Case Study in Flattery?

MONTHOLON, Charles Tristan, Comte de (1783-1853), despite the departure of his wife Albine, he remained with Napoleon until his death and was, the servants apart, the only resident of Longwood House to do so.

Nowadays he is the prime suspect for poisoning Napoleon among those who subscribe to that theory.

For Gorrequer he was simply "Veritas", suggesting that he was plausible but also that what he said should not perhaps always be taken at face value.

LOWE, Susan DeLancey, Lady (1781-1832). The widow of Colonel William Johnson who died in battle in 1811, she had two teenage daughters, Susanna and Charlotte, of whose beauty she was very proud. Her father was Colonel Stephen DeLancey, a New York Loyalist who had moved to England after the American Revolution. With that background it is hardly suprising that she disliked Napoleon and all he was deemed to stand for.

Susan Johnson had married Sir Hudson shortly before they came to St Helena. For Lowe, who was over 10 years older (he was the same age as Napoleon) it was the first experience of matrimony, although he had had a mistress in Genoa who bore him two children.

Unfortunately there do not seem to be any images available of Lady Lowe, so we shall have to make do with a verbal picture given by Sir Henry Russell:
"a large, showy-looking woman of about forty, who has been handsome, with an air of fashion about her, but who is too highly rouged and too décolletée."
To Gorrequer she was "Sultana": a lady who considered herself at the apex of St Helena society, was never shy of voicing her opinions, and made life difficult for most of those who shared Plantation House with her, including Sir Hudson Lowe and most certainly Gideon Gorrequer. According to Russell again: " [she] had a great deal to say and very little reserve in saying it". (2)

Apparently whilst on St Helena she took to the bottle, which in the circumstances is perhaps understandable, and there were rumours also of a lover, Captain Den Taaf, although one gets the impression that not to be suspected of having a lover might almost have been considered an insult on the island at that time.

Lady Lowe of course never met Napoleon, although towards the end of Napoleon's life she had some limited social contacts with Mme Bertrand.

Anyway, on re-reading Gorrequer's diary I was struck by the following revealing entry, made after the death of Napoleon when there was a degree of amity between the residents of Longwood and those of Plantation House.

"Sultana boasted that Veritas [Montholon] had told her that our Neighbour [Napoleon] was once prepared and dressed on purpose to go out and meet her, when she went up in consequence of Veritas having promised her at the races to show her the grounds."

Lady Lowe blamed the orderly officer and then the Bertrands (particularly Madame Shrug as Gorrequer referred to her) for not telling Montholon that she had arrived and thus depriving her of the opportunity to meet their neighbour:
".. Veritas said that had he known she was there, he would have gone immediately to receive her and procure her a sight of Neighbour. That he added had she seen and conversed with him, she would easily have brought about everything and restored a good understanding between Mach and him. In fact her meeting Neighbour was all that was wanted .

The idea of Lady Lowe as a peacemaker is shall we say an interesting one. Perhaps Montholon really believed it, but he was not finished.
Veritas told her also that Neighbour had been looking at Cadetta [Lady Lowe's daughter] through the window, and admired her much, saying she was very pretty (all this was said before Cadetta). She believed she said that Madam Shrug prevented her meeting Neighbour for fear she might supplant her. She was jealous of her being introduced to him, and feared he would be making a present to herself and figli, which would be depriving Madame Shrug and her figli of them. It was in fact her apprehension that Sultana would put her (Mme Shrug) nose out of joint. Veritas had begged her permission to send her presents from Paris, bonnets etc., and pressed her to pay them a visit at Paris, and to consider him entirely at her commands for any commission she might desire to have executed there.

Then came Montholon's coup de grace:
That he said that he understood Mach was to go out as Governor General to India, and that he thought it very likely etc. This made Mach cock up his ears, and a suffusion of self complacency and consciousness of meriting it spread over his countenance, and he appeared quite delighted at the prospect. "

Quite how Montholon would have been privy to British Government thinking on colonial appointments is far from clear, but the gullible Sir Hudson, never to get another post of similar standing to that held on St Helena, was all too ready to believe him.

Gorrequer concluded with a comment about the inconsistencies of Lady Lowe:
Sultana was quite in rapture at Veritas' politeness, he was so pleasant, so amiable, so clever and gentlemanly, after all the abuse she had so frequently lavished on him!!(3)

Gorrequer's diary is full of such gems. Had he been prepared to tidy it up and publish it in his lifetime he would have made a fortune, at a cost probably of time and money spent in the Law Courts and of being outcast from polite society.

I often think what a pity it was that that distinguished scholar of the captivity, Arnold Chaplin was never able to get his hands on the diary. He knew about its existence and in A St Helena Who's Who quoted extracts from the judgement in the Court of Chancery which at that time prevented anyone from reading it. He concluded that it was doubtful that its contents would ever be revealed. (4) Little over a decade after his death the judgement of the Court was overturned by Act of Parliament.
1. Arnold Chaplin, A St Helena Whos Who (London 1919) pp 95-7.
2. Ibid .
3. 26 May 1821, St Helena During Napoleon's Exile, Gorrequer's Diary, pp 240-241
4. Chaplin p. 78-9

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Other St Helena Blogs

On Michel's blog there is an update about progress with the construction of a rest area and toilets on the approach to Napoleon's tomb. The island is slowly but surely gearing itself up for the expected increase in tourists when the airport is built.

Michel's blog also has a picture taken at his much loved Briars, showing the garden in front of the Balcombes' pavilion with the heart shaped waterfall in full flow in the background.

Also there is a new blog on St Helena history, written by John Grimshaw, whose photographs of the island have previously featured on here. John's latest post is about the murder at Prosperous Bay Signal Station in 1904, including the report of the execution of the two convicted murderers behind the customs shed and their burial in quick lime coffins. I wonder if John can tell me when the last execution took place on St Helena?

How strange to have two St Helena bloggers both Johns and both living in Greater Manchester!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Wirebird: Photos of St Helena

This is I think the first time that St Helena's emblematic wirebird has made an appearance on this blog. Unfortunately I did not manage to get a decent photograph of one on my visit, but I found this among the excellent photographs of St Helena taken by John and Pauline Grimshaw on their visits to the island in 2006 and 2010.

John and Pauline live close by, and although we have never met, John and I exchange fairly frequent emails on matters relating to this blog. Both are obviously keen photographers, and I am sure their collection will be of interest to anyone who has visited or wishes to visit St Helena.

St Helena Photos: 2006

St Helena Photos: 2010