Sunday, 29 September 2013

In the Footsteps of Napoleon: Madeira, Henry Veitch and Winston Churchill

The 1792 "Napoleon Madeira"

A recent visit to Madeira made me look up the story of Napoleon's brief stay off shore on board HMS Northumberland in August 1815. I first heard of this from a friend who writes a wine blog.

The only person allowed to go on board the Northumberland and meet Napoleon was the then British Consul, Henry Veitch. A Scotsman, born in Selkirk, who spent most of his life on Madeira, Veitch played a very important part in Madeira's somewhat complex history in the first half of the nineteenth century. A man of liberal sympathies, who was also a strong supporter of Madeiran autonomy, Veitch served as Consul from 1809 until 1834.

Henry Veitch (1782-1857), British Consul-General on Madeira

He was suspended from duties in 1828, at the commencement of the Portuguese Civil War, but still retained some influence and was restored by Palmerston in 1831. At least one of the guide books eerroneously says that he was dismissed for calling Napoleon "your Majesty".

Veitch's visit on board was recorded at the time by Admiral Cockburn's Secretary, John Glover

Mr. Veitch, His Majesty's consul, visited the ship, of whom Bonaparte asked numerous questions with respect to the island, its produce, the height above the level of the sea, its population, &c. Mr. Veitch dined on board, and after dinner Bonaparte walked with him and the admiral a considerable time, conversing on general topics, when he retired at once to his bedroom without joining the card-table. (1)

As the story goes Veitch gave Napoleon some fruits and other gifts, and persuaded him to take a pipe of Madeira, a barrel containing around 600 bottles.

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Funchal

Veitch always claimed that he was never paid for the Madeira, but he was given some gold coins by Napoleon. According to the accepted story, these were buried beneath the foundation stone of the Anglican church in Funchal, the building of which was supervised by Veitch.

Napoleon's own reaction to Madeira was recorded by another Englishman on board the Northumberland, William Warden:

On our approach to Madeira, the hazy state of the atmosphere precluded the possibility of seeing the Island, until we got close between Puerto Santo and the Deserts. The latter rocky island is almost perpendicular; and has some slight resemblance to St. Helena. This circumstance I mentioned to De las Cases, and he instantly communicated it to Napoleon, who had quitted the dinner-table sooner than usual, and joined a few of us on the poop: but the comparison of what he now saw, with his gloomy notions of the place where he was shortly to abide, produced not a single word. He gave an energetic shrug, and a kind of contemptuous smile; and that was all. The sloping front and luxuriant aspect of the island of Madeira could not but excite an unpleasant sensation, when contrasted with the idea he had entertained of the huge black rock of St. Helena. (2)

The barrel of Madeira was never opened by Napoleon, and after his death was returned to the island where it remained with Blandy’s until 1840. Most of it was used to make the famous solera of 1792, but some 200 bottles were filled solely from Napoleon’s barrel. Such bottles are now very rare, and very valuable. One of these was given to that great admirer of Napoleon, Winston Churchill, when he holidayed at Reid's Palace on Madeira in 1950.

Winston Churchill painting at Câmara de Lobos, the small fishing village above which Henry Veitch built a fine house, now the Quinta Jardim Da Serra Hotel

Sir Winston insisted on pouring a glass for each guest, commenting "Do you realise that when this wine was vintaged Marie Antoinette was still alive?".


1. Napoleon's last voyages : being the diaries of Sir Thomas Ussher, (on board the "Undaunted"), and John R. Glover, secretary to Rear Admiral Cockburn (on board the "Northumberland") p 165

2. Letters written on board His Majesty's Ship the Northumberland and at St. Helena’ (1816), William Warden pp 73-4

Friday, 20 September 2013

Images of Napoleon on St Helena 1818-1821

NAPOLEON I two months before his death, sketched from the life by the English Naval Captain Maryat [sic]

I have in the past posted some images of Napoleon made after his death. I thought it might be interesting to display these lesser known images of him made made by Englishmen on the island in the later years of his captivity.

Napoleon 1820, from drawing made by Captain Henry Duncan Dodgin of 66th Regiment

I have serious doubts about the very unflattering portrait with the German inscription, allegedly painted by Captain Marryat in 1821. Napoleon ventured out so little in the weeks before his death that it would have been near impossible to have made an accurate sketch of him, and I would be surprised if he ever willingly posed for one of his captors.

Napoleon 1818, painting by Basil Jackson

I also wonder if there was not a certain amount of conscious or unconscious copying by the various artists.

Friday, 13 September 2013

In the Steps of Napoleon: The Fishers Valley

The Honorary French Consul and an abanoned Ford above the Fishers Valley

There is litle to bring most tourists to the Fishers Valley. We had not ventured here on our first visit to St Helena, but this time Michel Martineau, sometimes referred to, not entirely with his approval, as Napoleon's representative on earth, promised to show us the way.

Close to Longwood, and within the perimeter of the area in which Napoleon was allowed to ride unescorted, at the bottom of Fishers Valley is a narrow stretch of fertile land in which a number of poor farmers once lived and tried to scratch out a living.

There are still signs of cultivation in the valley, but not of human habitation.

Down here Napoleon and his companions could ride among the inhabitants, but were forbidden to comunicate with them.

Little now remains of the small farms that once were here.

Their rude architecture provides a great contrast with the country houses built at the same time by St Helena's elite.

The Nymph of the Valley

Riding in this rather depressing valley in January 1816 Napoleon and Las Cases came across Mary Ann Robinson, still only 16, maybe not as beautiful as the Longwood entourage, short of female company, found her.

Napoleon gave her some gold coins, named her "the Nymph of Las Cases", and the valley where she lived with her parents and sister as "the valley of silence".

Soon though for the Longword entourage, and for the whole island, she became "the nymph of the valley".

Both Gourgaud and Piontkowski coveted her affections, as did a number of soldiers, but their intentions were not entirely honourable, and she was looking for a more permanent commitment.

This she found in the person of Captain James Ives Edwards, whose ship Dorah arrived at St Helena on 5th July 1817 with the 53rd Regiment. The good Captain asked for her hand on 7th July, they were married on 17th and the nymph departed her valley and St Helena on the 29th.

A Fishers Valley Farm, often held probably mistakenly, to be the home of the "Nymph"

Before leaving, on July 26th, 1817, Mary Ann brought her new husband to say goodbye to Napoleon. According to Napoleon the Captain bore a resemblance to Prince Eugène.

That is about the last that was heard of "the Nymph". Unlike Betsy Balcombe she never tried to profit from her acquaintance with Napoleon. (1)

The husband, Captain John Ives Edwards, who evidently had some sympathy for Napoleon's plight, visited Mme Bertrand a few weeks before Napoleon died.

The Valley has its own beauty, but one can imagine how desolate Napoleon and his party must have found it, particularly amidst the mist and rain which are constant companions in the winter months.

It was ironic to find down here a few clumps of the Australian daisies, the gift of Lady Holland to the inhabitants of Longwood, which have now spread over the island and provide a permanent memorial to Napoleon's captivity.

Because of the construction of the airport it is at present not possible to complete the route Napoleon often took back behind Longwood.

We were also obstructed by a large amount of water, somewhat surprising in view of the shortages and the long period of drought that the island was going through at the time of our visit!


1. There is a chapter on Mary Ann Robinson in Chroniques de Sainte-Hélène : Atlantique sud by Michel Martineau, pp 163-168.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Wranghams and the Historic Country Houses of St Helena

Wranghams, one of St Helena's remaining colonial houses

Earlier this year I was taken to see Wranghams, a fine late eighteenth century house, secluded down a long drive above Sandy Bay, with a fine view of the hills to its front. It stands in three acres of now overgrown garden and orchards, sadly neglected by its owners, the St Helena Government.

Wranghams from the back garden

Having seen the state of some of the other country houses on the island its current neglect was a matter of some concern. Houses on St Helena deteriorate very fast.

Wranghams front view

I was interested therefore to read last week on St Helena online that the newly elected Councillors, have thrown out a Government proposal to downgrade it from a listed Grade III to a Grade II building.

Wranghams back garden

Wranghams has in the past had some unsympathetic alterations, but it could be restored to something approaching its original state, and it is encouraging that the new crop of Councillors are sensitive to such issues. I do hope that the means to save Wranghams will be found before it is too late.

St Helena's Country Houses

The country houses on St Helena mostly date from the latter part of the eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. They were built for the prominent, established families who held all the important positions during the days of the East India Company. At the apex was Plantation House, the country home of the Governor, the representative of the East India Company on the island.

Plantation House, late eighteenth century, the seat of the Governor of St Helena
Only slightly less grand were the houses of the members of the Council and their extended families, who intermarried, and often had houses in the town as well as in the country.

Oakbank, mid eighteenth century, built by the Dovetons, beautifully restored by the current owners

Wooden plaque in Oakbank dated 1843 with the name of Samuel Doveton, and also of C.R.G. Hodson, Sir William Doveton's son in law, dated 1824

These fine Georgian country houses, reflecting the aspirations, life styles and aesthetic tastes of St Helena's elite, are a vital part of the island's heritage, and an unique part also of British colonial history.

Oaklands, early nineteenth century, maybe older, once inhabited by some of the Brooke family.

Prospect House, early nineteenth century, once home of T.H. Brooke, Member of the Council, the nephew of a former Governor

Farm Lodge, early nineteenth century, now a fine country house hotel

Of the remaining houses Bamboo Grove and Bamboo Hedge seem, from photgrapic evidence, not in imminent danger, although I would be surprised if they were in as good a state as Oakbank.

Bamboo Grove 1808

Bamboo Hedge circa 1800

But Rock Rose, and sadly now Teutonic Hall, on which I have written before, look to be past the point of no return.

Rock Rose

Teutonic Hall
Inside Teutonic Hall

Then there is the sad story of Rose Cottage. Earlier this year I got permission from a representative of the Thornton Trust to visit this remote house above Sandy Bay, close to Mount Pleasant.

Rose Cottage, formely the home of Sir William Doveton's daughter, Mrs Greentree

Sad to say what remains of this once elegant house is not visible until you reach its walls. In fact you might miss it altogether, but for the statue of "The Man", the late G. A. D. 'Tony' Thornton, who was deported from the island by Governor Sir Thomas Oates in 1975.

"The Man", Statue of G.A.D. Thornton

During my stay this year I met two inhabitants who as children were taken to tea at this once fine house.

Rose Cottage returned to nature

The cellar opening at Rose Cottage

Wreath laid at base of Tony Thornton's statue

This provides a graphic illustration of what can happen quite quickly to houses that are neglected on St Helena.

This survey would not be complete without mention of Rosemary Hall on Francis Plain, perhaps the finest of them all, home of the Austrian and Russian Commissioners during the captivity of Napoleon.

Rosemary Hall

This imposing house was destroyed in the early 1930's, reputedly a victim of the termites that have done so much damage to the buildings on the island since the 1840's, and which are now said to be threatening Wranghams.

Part of the walls of Rosemary Hall
Adjoining house said to be the home of the butler, saved allegedly because it was constructed using red iron bark

A brief study of these houses, all built in a similar classical style, affords a unique insight into St Helena society at the height of East India Company rule. From the arrival of Napoleon things would never be the same again.

One final reflection is perhaps in order: clearly it would have been possible to have housed Napoleon in rather better circumstances than Longwood. Insofar as he ever expressed any preferences, Napoleon himself said he would wish to live in the more fertile part of the island, where of course most of the fine country houses were built. Clearly the inhospitable and isolated plain at Longwood was chosen for security reasons alone.

NOTE: Note: This blog has more photos than usual. I have decided to keep them small, but all may be enlarged if they are double clicked.