Thursday, 17 January 2013

Inside Longwood by Albert Benhamou

It is now several months since I previewed Albert Benhamou's latest book, Inside Longwood , the first full publication of the letters that Napoleon's doctor Barry O'Meara wrote to the Admiralty from 1815 until his dismissal in 1818. I felt I was too close to the work to write a review, certainly at the time of publication, but having recently re-read it, I feel it is time to flag up its value for anyone interested in the history of Napoleon's captivity on St Helena.

O'Meara was in a privileged albeit uncomfortable position: one foot in Plantation House the other in Longwood, his daily access to Napoleon inevitably invited the suspicion of Sir Hudson Lowe. His letters were long, although not perhaps as long as those Sir Hudson or his minions wrote, but full of fascinating accounts of Napoleon's views as well as the paranoia and caprice of Sir Hudson.

I found particularly amusing the image of Lowe fetching a copy of the Quarterly Review and making O'Meara read out aloud some observations on Napoleon's character

"he understands enough of mankind to dazzle the weak, to dupe the vain, to overcome the timid, and to make the wicked his instruments." (1)

This apparently to fend off the proposal that Sir Pulteney Malcolm should be called upon to mediate between Lowe and Napoleon. Malcolm apparently "was too open and too likely to enter into his [Napoleon's] views."

Among the issues discussed in the later chapters is why the Government did not remove Lowe. It is fairly clear that he had no real political support, as he was to find out when after Napoleon's death he found himself expendable, without a job and an all too useful scapegoat for a beleaguered Government.(2) Albert Benhamou seems to suggest that having made the appointment, against the advice of Lord Wellington who regarded him as a fool and had removed him from his own command, Lord Bathurst had no real choice but to battle it out, and to try to deny the version of events that O'Meara and others promulgated.

Beset by serious social and economic problems, the Government simply wanted the world to forget about Napoleon. Many Whigs and Radicals had serious reservations about his treatment, and the dismissal of Lowe would have added fuel to the fire. It made more political sense to tough it out and to try to discredit the witness.

There is also enough evidence to suggest that many in the Government, and doubtless among its supporters in the country, derived some amusement from the plight in which that upstart Napoleon found himself. Lord Wellington's letter to Sir Pulteney Malcolm is well known:

You may tell "Bony" that I find his apartments at the Elisee Bourbon very convenient, and that I hope he likes mine at Mr. Balcom's. It is a droll sequel enough to the affairs of Europe that we should change places of residence.

Less well known are the comments of the up and coming politician Sir Robert Peel,

George Cockburn is come back in good health and spirits; he gives us no hopes of Buonaparte's dying. He eats, he says, enormously but he drinks a little, takes regular exercise, and is in so very careful of his carcass that he may live twenty years. Sir Hudson Lowe is as strict as Cockburn, but without any of his liveliness, and little of his activity and talents. (3)

And of course, as this book reminds us, O'Meara was initially encouraged to write these letters to the Admiralty because of the amusement they provided to those in the highest circles.(4)

Albert Benhamou has done a great service in extracting these letters from the archives so that we may for the first time read them as a whole and judge for ourselves.


1 The Quarterly Review was a Tory journal set up by Croker, whom O'Meara knew was reading his letters, and who ultimately sealed O'Meara's fate. The passage came from a review of Miot's Expedition to Egypt . Albert Benhamou, Inside Longwood: Barry O'Meara's Clandestine Letters, Albert Benhamou Publishing 2012, pp 102-3
2. Hudson Lowe is "none of my child" was Foreign Secretary George Canning's pointed comment to Lord Bathurst when Lowe was causing some embarrassment by a protracted stay in Paris in 1825, "you would perhaps think it expedient to give him a little hint to be joggling onward." Geroge Canning to Lord Bathusrt, 18th November 1825,Inside Longwood, footnote p. 223
3. Inside Longwood, p. 202
4. Letter from Finlaison to O'Meara July 5th 1816 described O'Meara's recent letters as having "furnished a real feast to some very great folks here." Inside Longwood,p. 213

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Windsor Castle Part I: Marryat Prints of Napoleon on his death bed

Albert Benhamou, St George's Chapel Windsor Castle

Albert Benhamou and I were privileged to visit Windsor Castle recently, to look at the surprisingly extensive collection of Napoleonic prints apparently put together by the Prince Regent and added to by Queen Victoria, with a few later additions by Queen Mary in 1931.

Our main interest was in images of Napoleon on his death bed. Among the collection at Windsor we were intrigued to find a drawing "after" Captain Marryat, in black and white chalks, showing a reverse image of Marryat's original drawing.

Reverse Image of Napoleon on his death bed

On the back of this was an inscription indicating that the portrait had been made with the permission of Sir Hudson Lowe. Intriguingly, in the same handwriting were two lines of poetry by Lord Byron:

Before Decay's effacing fingers
Had swept the line where Beauty lingers.

We wondered who had produced the reverse image of the death bed scene, when it was done, and who had written the inscription on the back, particularly since the poetry was by Lord Byron, a well known admirer of Napoleon who had in 1815 been invited to Holland House in a forlorn attempt to charm Sir Hudson Lowe before the latter took up his appointment as Napoleon's gaoler.

After our visit we discovered that there are two versions of Marryat's drawing at the Royal Museums Greenwich. First there is what is described as the original framed drawing, with an inscription,"Napoleon Bonaparte as he appeared on Sunday morning on the 6th of May, 14 hours after his death, laying upon the bed that he died in".

Original drawing showing Napoleon with his head on the left

Then there is a graphite drawing showing Napoleon's head on the right, similar to the one in the Royal Collection at Windsor, with an inscription underneath indicating thst the drawing was made at the request of Sir Hudson Lowe and with the permission of Count Montholan (sic) and Count Bertrand.

The Greenwich Museum seems to have no further information on this drawing, and I am inclined to doubt if it was done by Marryat himself, and if he did do it, I am at a loss to explain the reverse image.

There are also at Windsor and at Greenwich prints showing Napoleon with his head on the right, attributed to Marryat and published by S.& J. Fuller, well known London Lithographers.

Lithograph of Napoleon on his death bed, dated 16 July 1821

This print is larger than the drawing, with the same inscription beneath, but with a less detailed image, in particular the crucifix on Napoleon's chest is barely visible.

Unfortunately we were unable to take photos inside the print room at Windsor that would have enabled us to make careful comparisons with the drawing and print at Greenwich. The similarity of the inscriptions suggests a common origin.

I have also discovered online a German version of the original print. This is an indication, if it were needed, of the intense interest at the time in the fate of the "martyr of St. Helena", an interest that, judging by the size of the collection at Windsor, extended also to the British Royal family.

Our thanks to the Curator of Prints and Drawings at Windsor for making our visit so pleasurable, and for unexpectedly showing us what must surely be, to Napoleonic anoraks at least, the most interesting of Windsor's treasures. More on that in a later blog.
1. "The Giaour" by Lord Byron, first published in 1813