Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Images of Napoleon

Finding Napoleon Face to Face from Margaret Rodenberg on Vimeo.

Margaret Rodenberg and her husband Bert have put together this collection of 70 or so images of Napoleon, including an American impersonator who looks quite like him. I thought it was an interesting idea, and Margaret has kindly given me permission to put it on my blog.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Dr Archibald Arnott, Kirkconnel Hall and Salix Babylonica

Kirkconnel Hall, family home of the Arnott family (1838 and 1870)

On a recent visit to Scotland I decided to pull off the A74 and have a look at Kirkconnel Hall, the home of Dr Archibald Arnott (1772-1855), Surgeon of the 20th Regiment of Foot and the last doctor to attend Napoleon on St Helena.

Arnott was born in an older house which once stood on this site, and after his retirement he had it demolished and completed the relatively modest two-storey house to the right around 1838. It is now somewhat overshadowed by the larger three-storey building to the left.

Two-storey house built by Dr Arnott around 1838

Dr Arnott lived in his new house until his death and is buried in the nearby Ecclefechan churchyard, with the following inscription on his tombstone:

At St. Helena he was the medical attendant of Napoleon Bonaparte whose esteem he won and whose last moments he soothed.

The hall iself is now a hotel, and pictures either side of the fireplace in reception remind the visitor of its historical associations.

To the left a picture of Napoleon, to the right Dr Arnott

And on the mantelpiece, almost hidden by unrelated bric a brac, is to be found a plate bearing an easily recognised image.

A Plate bearing an image of Napoleon on mantelpiece

Curiously the current owner has created a corner dedicated to his own hero Winston Churchill. He was not aware of Churchill's admiration for Napoleon.

Churchill memorabilia, to the left plans of the house Arnott built

Perhaps most interesting of all is the willow tree to be found in the grounds of the hotel. This is claimed to have been grown from a cutting brought back from St Helena by Dr Arnott, of the famous willow that once grew on the site of Napoleon's grave.

Salix Babylonica in the grounds of Kirkconnel Hall

Apparently the original was destroyed when the A74 was upgraded in 1992, and the current tree was grown from a cutting taken from it.

Whilst I was in Scotland my friend John Grimshaw was on the other side of the world, photographing a tree in Sydney Botanical Gardens that is also claimed to descend from the famous St Helena willow.

Monday, 13 October 2014

"The pocket-sized Emperor" - letter to the Observer

letter to The Observer October 12th 2014

I cannot remember when I last wrote to newspaper, but a review of Andrew Roberts' recent biography of Napoleon moved me to do so. The propaganda about Napoleon's height, now some two centuries old, was discussed in Finding Napoleon almost a year ago. I imagine that Napoleon would be at least as surprised to find that his stature gave rise to a complex named after him as he was on St Helena to find that the English inappropriately nicknamed him "boney".

Anyway an uncharacteristically and perhaps appropriately short post from me on this occasion.

Monday, 8 September 2014

"Napoleon the Great" - new book by Andrew Roberts

"Napoleon the Great" - by Andrew Roberts

Biographies of Napoleon come thick and fast, and doubtless more will follow as we near the bicentenary of Waterloo. The latest is the work of the Conservative British historian Andrew Roberts, author of Napoleon and Wellington and Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble , who visited St Helena last year.

The publishers' blurb makes interesting reading:

It has become all too common for Napoleon Bonaparte's biographers to approach him as a figure to be reviled, bent on world domination, practically a proto-Hitler. Here, after years of study extending even to visits paid to St Helena and 53 of Napoleon's 56 battlefields, Andrew Roberts has created a true portrait of the mind, the life, and the military and above all political genius of a fundamentally constructive ruler. This is the Napoleon, Roberts reminds us, whose peacetime activity produced countless indispensable civic innovations - and whose Napoleonic Code provided the blueprint for civil law systems still in use around the world today.

Andrew Roberts at Longwood House in 2013

Anybody with any awareness of epistemology and/or the philosophy of history would be a little uncomfortable with claims to have produced "a true portrait", but nevertheless it will be interesting to read Roberts' work alongside Soldier of Destiny by Michael Broers, published earlier this year.

I also notice that on October 8th a debate is to take place in London between Roberts and Adam Zamoyski, author of 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow and Rites of Peace. The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna :

all mention of Napoleon as ‘great’, ‘hero’, ‘villain’ or ‘monster’ has Adam Zamoyski running for the hills, bemused why – in his opinion – this rather ordinary man excites such passion in otherwise level-head intelligent people.

The debate is to be chaired by Jeremy Paxman no less.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Byron, Churchill, Harrow & Napoleon

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, Jacques-Louis David, 1812

Wellington, himself an old Etonian, is often misquoted as saying that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.(1) It is strange that Harrow, Eton's strongest rival, has produced three of the biggest admirers of Wellington's opponent at Waterloo!

The David picture above, some seven feet high, was commissioned in 1811 by the first of our old Harrovians, Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852). Hamilton, a Scottish Whig politician, apparently had a tendency to emphasise the importance of ancient birth, but this curiously did not prevent him from supporting Napoleon, an upstart whose career and credo symbolised equality of opportunity. In 1882 the painting that Hamilton had commissioned was acquired by Lord Rosebery, like Hamilton a Scottish politician of Whig ancestry.

A Liberal Imperialist who briefly served as Foreign Secretary twice, and then Prime Minister(1894-1895), Rosebery's marriage to Hannah Rothschild (1878) enabled him to buy a priceless collection of art, including a number of valuable Napoleon memorabilia, to fill his twelve houses. (2) Rosebery was the author of an excellent study of Napoleon's exile which is still worth reading, and also commissioned the famous portrait of Napoleon by James Sant.

Rosebery was an old Etonian, but whilst the David painting was in his possession it caught the admiring gaze of the second of our old Harrovians, the young Conservative politician, Winston Churchill, a passionate devotee of Napoleon.

This was the first time that Churchill had been confronted by a large life-size picture of his hero. It made such an impression on him that the very next day he wrote to Rosebery about it:

I carried away quite a queer sensation from the Napoleon picture yesterday. It seems pervaded with his personality; and I felt as if I had looked furtively into the very room where he was working, and only just got out of the way to avoid being seen. (3)

I have written a number of posts about Winston Churchill's intense admiration for Napoleon, and a recent reading of Michael Sheldon's Young Titan, The Making of Winston Churchill, the only biography which has focused on his early political career, has shed further light on this:

In 1912, now a Liberal and First Lord of the Admiralty, travelling by train across the Alps to Naples to try to persuade the retired Lord Fisher to help the Government with its naval plans, Churchill waxed so eloquently about Napoleon's crossing the Alps that his wife in the next compartment thought he was reading aloud. (4)

Photograph Churchill sent to Gilbert Martineau in May 1961, now exhibited at Longwood House

In April 1915, critical of the performance of the Navy in the early stages of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign he quoted Napoleon to Admiral Fisher,

'We are defeated at sea because our Admirals have learned--where I know not--that war can be made without running risks' [Napoleon] (5)

Contemporaries were of course well aware of his passion for Napoleon. "He thinks himself Napoleon " said Lord Esher, his superior at the Colonial Office. His friend John Morley, Gladstone's biographer, when told that Churchill was reading another book on Napoleon commented,

He would do better to study the drab heroes of life. Framing oneself upon Napoleon has proved a danger to many a man before him. (6)

Letter from Winston Churchill to Gilbert Martineau May 1961, exhibited at Longwood House

Perhaps the strongest criticism came from a political opponent, Admiral Lord Charles Beresford who described him in a Unionist rally in Hyde Park in 1914 as an enemy of Ulster and a danger to the State, a "Lilliput Napoleon. A man with an unbalanced mind. An egomaniac ..!" (7)

The third of our old Harrovian aristocratic admirers of Napoleon was of course Lord Byron, from whom Churchill drew great inspiration. Both Byron and Churchill kept busts of Napoleon on their desks. Byron seemed in Churchill's mind to resemble his own father whose career had been tragically cut short, and to possess that combination of energy, action, vision and free thinking which he so admired.

Shelden's study suggests that as a young man Churchill very much saw himself as a Byronic romantic hero, a protagonist of domestic reform, determined to change the world for the better, and one whose political career looked to have come to an end with the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign. Churchill though did not perhaps quite look the part, and the book throws new light on his passionate if unsuccessful pursuit of three of the most beautiful women of his time. (8)

Churchill was a great lover of Byron's poetry and could recite long passages from it, and often drew on it as in his famous promise in 1940 of only "Blood Sweat and Tears" which echoed Byron's reference in his Age of Bronze to the war profiteering of the landed gentry who enriched themselves with their "blood, sweat and tear-rung millions". (9)


1. Others have claimed that what he actually said decades later when observing an Eton cricket match was "There grows the stuff that won Waterloo".

2. The David painting was bought by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1954 and now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

3. Churchill to Rosebery, 4th Sept 1901 p. 45 Michael Shelden, Young Titan, The Making of Winston Churchill, Great Britain, 2014.

4. Shelden pp. 278-9.

5. Winston, Churchill to Admiral Lord Fisher, April 8th 1815. Churchill Archives.

6. Shelden p. 92

7. Shelden pp. 195, 270.

8. Shelden pp 7-10.

9. Apparently when in 1941 Franklin Roosevelt suggested that the allies should call themselves the United Nations Churchill immediately quoted a verse from Byron, "Here, where the sword united nations drew .." Shelden pp 6-7.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Guns of St Helena

"Long Tom" being transported to Mundens 1903 (Not Ladder Hill - see postscript)

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the Friends of St. Helena's new Facebook page and the excellent collection of 1890-1930 photographs to be found there.

One that caught my eye was that of a large gun being wheeled up the main street in Jamestown. I asked then if anybody could tell me anything about it, and now Ian Bruce, the creator of the Facebook page has helped me out. An article he has written,to be published next year in The Wirebird, the Friends of St Helena magazine, provides the historical context about the island's garrison.

In 1902, at the end of the Boer War, the St. Helena garrison reached a peak of over 1500, and in 1903 two large modern guns were installed to guard the island. These "Long Tom" guns, were wrongly believed to have been French made Creuset guns captured from the Boers, which had done a great deal of damage during the war. (But see postscript below) Shortly after the guns arrived the garrison was run down to a little over 200 men, with predictable economic consequences for the island, similar to the rundown after the death of Napoleon.

In 1906 the new Liberal Government, elected on a platform of retrenchment, and doubtless aware of the declining military value of St Helena as a coaling station as the Royal Navy shifted to oil, decided to close the garrison altogether. Despite public outcry on St Helena, and the organisation of a Committee in the UK which bizarrely and futilely tried to gain compensation for St Helena's landowners, the Government held firm.

Winston Churchill, holding office for the first time as Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, defended the policy, arguing that they should await the results of an expert being sent to the island to investigate. This expert concluded that the establishment of a flax industry was the only possibility for avoiding economic depression. (1)

In 1907 Parliament voted a grant to set up the flax industry, and so another chapter in the island's precarious history began, to be ended, so legend has it, by another peremptory decision in the 1960's. (2)

Quite what happened to the redundant guns is a mystery to me.

POSTSCRIPT Since writing this post I have received the following from a highly respected source:

What you see in the Bruce photos is the barrel of a 6 inch Mark VII Elswick coastal defence wire gun, the type of gun you can see in situ today at Ladder Hill. The Bruce photos are probably from when the guns first arrived in 1903. Although four emplacements were built, two at LH and two on the top of Mundens, I don't think there were ever more than two guns. A former RA captain I knew years ago, long since dead, who was stationed on SH during WWII, once told me that to keep the chaps occupied, they used to strip down a gun, move it to the other side of JT, set it up and fire it, then reverse the process! The barrel alone weighs over 3 tons! They also used to do blind target practice, firing shells over the top of the Island, to hit targets on Prosperous Bay Plain. Airport construction has turned up some of the shells.

The Bruce photo captioned "Long Tom on its way to Ladder Hill fort" is clearly taken on the Mundens road.

Incidentally, the trolley you can see the guys using is the one still in use in the Star to display the veg!


1. "The First Dozen Years", draft article by Ian Bruce, kindly supplied by the author.

2. The conventional wisdom is that a decision at a fairly low level in the Post Office to abandon the use of flax for mail bags led to the shutdown of the flax industry. The explanation may be rather more complex, as Laurence Carter's blog suggests.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Napoleon: second only to Jesus Christ!

1. Jesus (Holman Hunt) 2. Napoleon 3. Will Shakespeare

It is always a pleasure to read Margaret Rodenberg's blog, Finding Napoleon. A knowledgeable, considered writer who eschews historical clichés and is well aware of the complexity of Napoleon's character, Margaret is writing a novel from Napoleon's point of view. This is a very different undertaking from the well researched novel Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin, another North American author, which I reviewed a few weeks back.

In 2011, as part of her research, Margaret visited Paris, Corsica and St Helena, which may well be more than any previous Napoleonic writer has achieved in the space of a single year! She has set herself a most difficult task, and I look forward to reading her book when it is published.

Her most recent post entitled Big Data Shows Napoleon Bonaparte is History’s 2nd Biggest Figure referred to a book recently published which has attempted to use quantitate methods to assess the importance of historical figures.

Who's Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank Steven Skiena & Charles B. Ward

Unsurprisingly, to me at least, Napoleon came second. A.J.P. Taylor, without the mathematical research, pointed out in 1969 that there were more books about Napoleon than any other human being,"(a phrase carefully chosen in order to rule out Jesus Christ)"

The reason for this is impossible fully to explain, but I like A.J.P. Taylor's explanation,

He [Napoleon] actually provides pleasure for those who write about him. It is very rare to pick up a book about Napoleon which has the air of being a hack job. Nearly every author seems to be in the game for the love of the thing.

What I found pleasing is that at number three came the man who would always get my vote as the greatest ever English man (or woman). I speak of course of William Shakespeare!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Theft from Briars Melbourne - Postscript

Sterling Silver Inkwell (Inset with three Gold Napoleons), Garrard and Co. London 1821-1822

Since publishing an account of the robbery from the Dame Mabel Brookes Napoleonic Collection, I have had further information from Sue Dale, who grew up in Australia about 15 miles from the Briars and knows it very well. Sue, who now lives in Congleton, has also visited St Helena, and is currently researching the life of Sir Thomas Reade who was born in Congleton in 1782.

Sue is particularly distressed by the theft of the silver inkwell, which has connections with Thomas Reade and Congleton and, in a curious way, with the Briars on St Helena. The inscription on the base of the inkwell reads:

These Napoleons, presented to Mrs Egerton by Sir Thomas Reade, Lieut. Gov. of St Helena, were found in the pocket of Napoleon Buonaparte after his death there, 5 May 1821

Now whether these gold coins were actually in Napoleon's pocket, and if so how Sir Thomas Reade came by them, is another matter! So far Sue is unable to trace who Mrs Egerton was, but it is a distinguished family name in Cheshire, and perhaps Garrard and Co will still have records of the commission.

What is to me even more interesting though is how it came to be in the hands of Dame Mabel Brookes: according to the 2010 catalogue it was presented to her on the occasion of receiving the Légion d'honneur. Dame Mabel, the great grand-daughter of William Balcombe, received that award in 1960 for saving the Briars Pavilion on St Helena and handing it over to the French nation. Apparently she visited St Helena in 1957 and the transfer was completed some two years later, at an extortionate price. One cannot begin to imagine the difficulties she would have encountered in making this purchase and transfer. It makes it all the more sad that this item, connecting the Briars in Melbourne with the original Briars on St Helena, has now been stolen. I do hope that it and the other items are recovered.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Theft of Napoleon Memorabilia from the Briars (Australia)

I am saddened to hear of a major theft from the The Briars Homestead at Mount Martha, Victoria, Australia. originally the home of William Balcombe, father of Betsy, and the owner of the Briars on St Helena when Napoleon stayed there in 1815.

Below I have posted images of the valuable objects stolen.

DMB 86 Book of Fate

DMB 183 Miniature of Napoleon

DMB 184 Miniature of Josephine

DMB 246 Inkwell with three Napoleon gold coins set into base

DMB 271 Lock of Napoleon’s hair sewn onto a piece of paper

DMB 249 Rosicrucian Medal

DMB 257 Gold ring set with pearls and emeralds set around a woven piece of Napoleon’s hair

DMB 274 Gold locket with floral design of lacquered hair from Napoleon

Small portrait of Napoleon

DMB 259 Horn snuff box with central gold medallion

It is important that information about this theft is circulated as widely as possible to aid the efforts to recover them, so I would encourage anyone who has a web page to publish these images.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Napoleon in America: "I should have stayed on St Helena"

Napoleon wrote a novel in his youth, in exile on St Helena described his life as one, and over the past two centuries inspired quite a few others. The latest Napoleonic novel, by the Canadian author Shannon Selin, provides an alternate history: instead of dying on St Helena in 1821 Napoleon escaped to America and continued his action packed life there.

The book's great strength lies in the depth of its research. The author claims to have consulted some 300 sources in order to tell "a plausible whopper", and at the end provides a list of over 100 major and minor historical characters whom she has to a greater or lesser extent researched. Inevitably in an alternate history some had their lives changed: one Napoleonic General's life was truncated by 40 years; the very young wife of another, in real life to live until 1880, succumbed to the ex-Emperor's rather clumsy advances.

The author presents a very broad historical canvas: London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Washington, New Orleans and numerous lesser places. St Helena, "a dark wart in the Atlantic", according to the racy blurb on the back cover, is dismissed in a single short chapter, which concludes poetically with Hudson Lowe staring at the ocean from a window in Longwood House, his career "splintering as rapidly as the silvery ripples that broke upon the shore." I am not convinced that it is possible to see the ocean from Longwood House, but a little literary license is excusable! One might also note that Hudson Lowe's future career was not much better in real life.

The author makes effective use of direct speech, letters and newspaper cuttings to set the contemporary scene and describe the events that unfold and the reactions to them. Here you will find the Bonaparte family on two continents, Francis 1st of Austria, Metternich, Wellington, Canning, John Quincy Adams, Monroe, Louis XVIII and the Count of Artois, Lafayette and the French opposition, Bonapartists and Liberals. Here too one can read about the machinations of the Holy Alliance, its members united in little except a fear of revolution and a hatred of Napoleon, the tensions within France's newly restored and somewhat precarious Bourbon monarchy and also within the British Government over France's invasion of Spain. Here too the author intelligently explores the concerns of the young American Republic, the ex-Emperor in its midst, desperate to avoid entanglement with the politics of the old world, still wary of British naval power which less than a decade earlier had burned down the White House under the command of the same Admiral who was later to escort Napoleon to St Helena, but with its own expansionist impulses and, like all the European powers, concerned about the fate of Spain's empire in the Americas.

The novel does not explore Napoleon's character in any great depth, this is thankfully no psychological novel, but it brings out his gaucheness towards women and his great love for the son whom he had not seen for a decade. The author has a lightness of touch and a sense of humour, most noticeable in her frequent references to Napoleon's sense of destiny. At one point she makes Napoleon say, "There is no role for me here. I should have stayed on St. Helena.", a reference to his comment that he should have stayed in Egypt, when he first saw the forbidding rock of St Helena in 1815. She also neatly captures the egotism of the Duke of Wellingon, who claimed that everything was turning out precisely as he had predicted: "How nice it would be, thought Dorothea [von Lieven, wife of the Russian Minister and Metternich's mistress], to one day meet a man who did not mind saying, "I was wrong.""

I am not a great reader of historical novels, and try to avoid counterfactual history, so had I not been volunteered by Simon Pipes of St Helena Online, I almost certainly would never have read Napoleon in America. To my surprise though I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the turbulent post Waterloo period.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Cabo Verde - the islands Napoleon never saw

Antique Map Cape Verde Islands

My recent holiday now means that I have at various times pretty well covered the whole of Napoleon's voyage to St Helena: Madeira, Tenerife and now the windswept, barren islands of Cabo Verde, some 350 miles off the west African coast, formerly part of the Portuguese Empire.

Boa Vista Landscape

When the Northumberland sailed past in the summer of 1815, it missed these islands, and Admiral Cockburn decided not to attempt to land. Count Las Cases gave a good account of this stage of the voyage.

1st September – The fleet is off the archipelago of Cape Verde ; strong winds
September 1st -- 6th. On the 1st of September we found from our latitude that we should see the Cape Verd Islands in the course of the day. The sky was, however, overcast, and at night we could see nothing. The Admiral, convinced that there was a mistake in the reckoning of our longitude, was preparing to bear westward to the right, in order to fall in with the islands, when a brig, which was a-head of us, intimated by signal that she had discovered them on the left. During the night the wind blew violently from the south-east, and if our mistake had been the reverse of what it was, and the Admiral had really borne to the right, it is not improbable that we should have been thrown out of our course; a proof that notwithstanding the improvements in science, mistakes are very apt to take place, and that the chances of navigation are very great.
Salt pans in volcano caldera, Pedro do Lume, island of Sal, opened since 1804

As the wind continued to blow strong, and the sea was boisterous, the Admiral preferred continuing his course, rather than waiting to take in water, of which he believed he had already a sufficient store. Every thing now promised a prosperous passage; we were already very far advanced on our course. Every circumstance continued favourable; the weather was mild, and we might even have thought our voyage agreeable, had it been taken in the pursuit of our own plans and in conformity with our own inclinations; but how could we forget our past misfortunes, or close our eyes on the future? (1)
The rather hazardous "Blue Eye", Buracona, Sal island

Apparently at this stage of the voyage Napoleon expressed a wish to learn English after Las Cases told him he was teaching his son.

"This did very well for two or three days; but the ennui occasioned by the study was at least equal to that which it was intended to counteract, and the English was laid aside. The Emperor occasionally reproached me with having discontinued my lessons; I replied that I had the medicine ready, if he had the courage to take it. In other respects, particularly before the English, his manners and habits were always the same; never did a murmur or a wish escape his lips; he invariably appeared contented, patient, and good-humoured." (2)

Barren landscape, Sal island

Las Cases also faithfully recorded a number of discussions they had on Napoleon's action packed life:

the siege of Toulon; the rise of Duroc and Junot; quarrels with the Representatives of the People; Quarrels with Aubry; Anecdotes relative to Vindemiaire; Napoleon General of the Army of Italy Integrity of his military administration; His disinterestedness; Nicknamed Petit-Caporal; Difference between the system of the Directory and that of the General of the Army of Italy

Las Cases also made some interesting observations on Admiral Cockburn's relations with Napoleon:

"The Admiral, who, I suppose, thought it necessary, on the strength of our reputation, to fortify himself well on our departure from England, gradually laid aside his reserve, and every day took greater interest in his captive. He represented the danger incurred by coming on deck after dinner, owing to the damp of the evening; the Emperor would then sometimes take his arm and prolong the conversation, which never failed to gratify him exceedingly."

A rather different perspective from that of the English on the Northumberland I think!

Whilst there I did quite a lot of reading, including a recently published historical novel about Napoleon, about which more in due course.


1. Las Cases, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène Vol 1 pp 91-92

2. ibid.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Napoleon as "careful pragmatist"

I read quite a lot of biography, but generally find biographies of Napoleon uninteresting: there are too many of them, they tend to be over long, few seem to me to get remotely close to the man, and too often they reveal more about the authors' own prejudices.

The latest biography by Oxford historian Michael Broers looks to have addressed the problem of externality: it is the first to have benefited from the publication of Napoleon's complete correspondence in 2004. This the publishers claim is "the first life in which Napoleon speaks in his own voice, but not always as he wanted the world to hear him."

According to the Financial Times it is a nuanced study and does not view Napoleon through the "prism of 20th-century totalitarianism."

The publisher's summary of the Napoleon revealed by the biography seems spot on to me: "a man of intense emotion, but also of iron self-discipline; of acute intelligence and immeasurable energy. .. the sheer determination, ruthlessness and careful calculation that won him the precarious mastery of Europe by 1807 .."

The FT reviewer picked out a number of points from the biography which seem eminently sensible judgements to me:

1. Only a positive optimistic mind would have thought about progressive reform to the degree Napoleon did all his life.

2. He had to work hard to try to hang on to what power he had won. Caution and self-discipline were necessary in the revolutionary climate in which he emerged to power.

3. He had a deep fear of popular assemblies. I always found it ironic that on St Helena, reading about the Peterloo Massacre, Napoleon showed no sympathy for Orator Hunt and the men and women who had assembled to demand parliamentary reform in Manchester in 1819. The radical reformers of course had great sympathy and admiration for Napoleon, and at previous meetings had expressly dissociated themselves from the British Government's action in imprisoning him on St Helena.

4. He relied greatly on committees to govern, recognising and promoting talent, and often deferring to the opinion of others.

5. Far from being a "paranoid psychopath", he took his revenge bloodlessly. The execution of the Duke of Enghien, "a stooge of the British ", was far from typical. His whole philosophy was one of ralliement and amalgame, atttempts to persuade reactionaries of the error of their ways and to promote cooperation between former reactionaries and revolutionaries in the new France.

6. A simple but obvious point: Napoleon's expansionism began as a riposte to the alliance of Britain, Russia and Austria, rather than from the megalomanic tendencies so beloved of many of his modern biographers.

Perhaps most important of all, the author recognises that never before in human history had anyone from outside the governing circles risen to such power. This to me is the key to the contemporary reaction towards him: to the loyalists he was an upstart whom they hated, feared, made fun of, and in whose fall from power and humiliating exile they delighted; to the radicals he was a romantic hero, a symbol of hope for a better world in which a man could rise to heights commensurate with his talents, an enemy and victim of hierarchy, heredity and privilege, as British seamen apparently used to sing Boney was an Emperor! Oh! Aye, Oh!.

I look forward to reading this biography, and even more to the second volume when it appears, to see what the author makes of Napoleon's decline and exile.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Auction of Napoleonic Decorative Arts

French Porcelain Bust of Napoleon

Chicago Auctioneers Leslie Hindman have announced the auction of an unusual and fascinating collection of Napoleonic Decorative Arts. The property of the late Mrs Ann Ross Stone of Shaker Heights, Ohio, this delightful collection was assembled with the aid of her husband and children over a number of years and countless visits to Paris.

Ann Ross Stone (1931-2012),with Leonard Stone

Representation of Napoleon on his deathbed on St Helena

Napoleon in his declining years on St Helena

It is rather sad that such a fine collection so lovingly put together over so many years is now being dispersed.

Sèvres Style Porcelain Plates with individual portraits of Napoleon

A unique collection, in its entirety it provides an excellent illustration of the wide range of artefacts inspired by the legend of Napoleon in nineteenth century France. It would I think have merited closer examination and analysis by an academic specialist before the items again go their separate ways.

Sèvres Style Gilt Metal Mounted Porcelain Garniture

It is a pity that it was not possible to mount an exhibition in a major museum or gallery before the collection was sold off, although the logistical problems and the time and costs involved in such an undertaking would I imagine have been prohibitive.

A Sèvres Porcelain Five-Piece Napoleonic Coffee Service

Many of the items seem to be modestly valued, there are as far as I can see no dubious historical claims, and few works by recognised artists. It will be interesting to see what they actually make. I am far from an expert, but I suspect that the piece by Emile Hippolyte Guillemin will attract a lot of interest.

A French Bronze Figure, Emile Hippolyte Guillemin (1841-1907)

My thanks to Corbin Horn of Leslie Hindman's for drawing this to my attention. I really wish I could get to Chicago to look at the collection before the sale, but at least I will be able to follow the auction online.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Maldivia Rock Fall

Bert Constantine surveying massive rock that has fallen into his banana plantation

I have written much on this blog about Maldivia, the area in the upper Jamestown Valley just below the Briars. For us it is a very special place with so many happy memories, and so much history: the Maldive Islanders who according to legend created the Maldivia Gardens, the fatal duel that took place near Chubbs Spring in 1809, and the visit of Napoleon Bonaparte to Maldivia House in November 1815.

The Briars Hill from the Maldivia Banana Plantation

Rock falls are always a danger on St Helena. Above Jamestown large metal mesh fences have been installed to protect the inhabitants. In the upper Jamestown Valley, beneath the Briars, signs warn of the dangers. More threatening though is the large mountain to the west, the unlikely location of what is still referred to as "cowpath".

The west side of the upper Jamestown Valley

Often last year we wondered whether the large rock detonations made by Basil Read, the airport contractors, in the east of the island, might trigger rock falls elsewhere.

Maldivia banana plantation from near Chubbs Spring

Last year, woken by the early morning sun, I regularly made my way to the banana plantation to weed the young banana trees planted beneath Chubbs Spring and in full view of the Briars. Every morning I walked through the place where the large rock has now fallen.

Weed free bananas

Anyway we are very relieved that nobody was hurt. A little piece of each of our hearts will always be in Maldivia, and we cannot wait to return to see our good friends the Constantines and to see how the bananas are fareing.

Maldivia House, one of the few houses that Napoleon visited

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Masons of St Helena: The Visit of Captain Cook

Journal of Captain Cook, May 1775

Following my recent post on Polly Mason, my friend John Grimshaw has pointed out that the Masons of St Helena entertained a very famous visitor, Captain Cook, long before Napoleon emerged on the world stage, let alone set foot in the Fishers Valley on St Helena.

In May 1775 Captain Cook landed on the island of St Helena for his second visit. Many locals had been upset by the description of the island given in the official account of his first voyage, compiled by John Hawksworth, which Cook had not seen, and which had drawn heavily on the journal of Joseph Banks.

All kinds of Labour is here performd by Man, indeed he is the only animal that works except a few Saddle Horses nor has he the least assistance of art to enable him to perform his task.  Supposing the Roads to be too steep and narrow for Carts, an objection which lies against only one part of the Island, yet the simple contrivance of Wheelbarrows would Doub[t]less be far preferable to carrying burthens upon the head, and yet even that expedient was never tried.  Their slaves indeed are very numerous: they have them from most parts of the World, but they appeard to me a miserable race worn out almost with the severity of the punishments of which they frequently complaind.  I am sorry to say that it appeard to me that far more frequent and more wanton Cruelty were excercisd by my countrey men over these unfortunate people than even their neighbours the Dutch, fam'd for inhumanity, are guilty of.  One rule however they strictly observe which is never to Punish when ships are there.

During his 1775 visit Captain Cook apparently visited the eastern part of the island where the Mason family had its property and where Napoleon was to spend his last years:

the two Mr Forsters and myself dined with a party at the Country house of one Mr Masons, at a remote part of the island, which gave me an oppertunity to see the greatest part of it, and I am well convinced that the island in many particulars has been misrepresented.

It is a pity that Captain Cook didn't give more information about Mr Mason and the location of the house in which he was entertained. Presumably the Mason referred to was Polly Mason's grandfather, Benjamin Mason, baptised in January 1725 who died in 1805. Polly Mason's father, Richard Mason, was only 22 in 1775. Richard and his wife Elizabeth then had only one daughter, Elizabeth. Interestingly "Polly", christened in 1780, was given the names Mary Elizabeth, which suggests that the first Elizabeth did not live long.