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Napoleon’s Last Home

Red dot showing the remote location of St. Helena off the coast of Africa.

In my earlier post this week I described Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and how it led him to St. Helena. After trying to evade the British forces and make his way to United States, Napoleon had to accept his punishment, which included a final sea voyage to his last place of exile.

Sketch of Napoleon onboard the Northumberland, on his way to St. Helena.

The trip down the African coast took about two months, and the ship didn’t reach St. Helena until October 15. According to contemporary accounts, Napoleon grew silent on the deck of the HMS Northumberland when he first spotted his future home.

St. Helena in 1815

At his initial sighting of St. Helena, I don’t think Napoleon was struck dumb with admiration. I imagine his heart sank when he saw the island’s forbidding cliffs rising out of the ocean.

On the globe, St. Helena looks like an isolated speck in the middle of the vast South Atlantic Ocean. It’s basically a rock, 1,200 miles west of Angola on the African continent, and 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janeiro.

It is a volcanic island, 47 square miles in area, attached to the ocean floor with only the tip visible above sea level. St. Helena’s nearest neighbor is Ascension Island, another volcanic island and British possession, about 800 miles northwest of St. Helena.

And on the uninhabited Ascension Island, as yet another precaution, a garrison of British soldiers was stationed, under the command of Sir Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines.

During his stay on St. Helena, Napoleon was guarded by 3,000 troops, and four ships constantly patrolled the coastline to prevent any escape attempts. The man in charge of the famous prisoner, Sir Hudson Lowe, was a harsh and ruthless jailor. Napoleon was not going to escape on his watch.

Death of the emperor

Longwood House, where Napoleon spent his last years in captivity.

Napoleon only lasted less than six years in exile. He spent most of his time in Longwood House, built especially for him. But the house and general location were described by Napoleon and his fellow exiles as humid, damp, and unhealthy – conditions which may have contributed to his death.

Napoleon had many health complaints, including liver problems, towards the end of his life, and he died May 5, 1821, at the age of 51. His doctor listed his cause of death as stomach cancer, but for years there was speculation that he was poisoned by arsenic, either deliberately or accidentally. Lately, though, the death-by-poison theory has been discredited.

The former emperor was buried on St. Helena, but in 1840 the French King Louis-Philippe arranged for Napoleon’s remains to be returned to Paris, where they were buried in splendor under the Dome of Les Invalides.

Napoleon spent much of his time on St. Helena dictating his memoirs. Of his contribution to France during the French Revolution, he said: “I have unscrambled Chaos. I have cleansed the Revolution, ennobled the common people, and restored the authority of kings.”

Following Napoleon’s death, the last of his 20 companions in exile left St. Helena. They departed at the end of May in 1821 and arrived back in Europe on August 2 – another summer cruise courtesy of the Royal Navy.

St. Helena today

Although it’s still remote (the internet didn’t reach the island until 2015) today St. Helena is becoming a tourist magnet for history buffs, hardy hikers, rock climbers, bird watchers, and anyone who enjoys an adventure.

The “Saints,” as the residents are called, encourage the tourist trade with charming restaurants and hotels. I’m sure the cuisine and the accommodations are a decided improvement over what Napoleon experienced over 200 years ago.

There is also much natural beauty on the island to enjoy, as well as boat tours that showcase the large pods of frolicking dolphins and scores of whale sharks in the surrounding sea. You can even visit a resident group of tortoises, one of which is almost 200 years old. And of course, there are many memorials to the island’s famous former resident.

The “world’s most useless airport” on St. Helena

The once-arduous trip has been made a little easier with the construction of an airport, although you may want to think twice about taking that route. Flights to the island are notoriously rough due to high winds and the dangerous effects of wind shear.

Before the airport began to offer regular flights in 2017, to get to the island a traveler had to fly to Cape Town, usually by way of Johannesburg, and then be prepared to embark on a 5-6 day boat trip aboard the cargo liner RMS St. Helena. Bad weather or other complications could make the trip even longer.

That puts Napoleon’s 2-month voyage from England to St. Helena into perspective.

Traces of Napoleon

Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena seems an inglorious end for someone who had a spectacular career, especially considering his meteoric rise from the lowly ranks of an artillery officer to becoming the Emperor of France. But even in 1802, over a decade before his final exile, Napoleon seemed aware of the risk that was inherent in an ambition like his, and he accepted it.

As he put it, “It would be better never to have lived at all than to leave behind no trace of one’s existence.”

Napoleon would no doubt be relieved to know that in St. Helena, Europe, and across the world, there are plenty of traces that attest to the existence of Monsieur Bonaparte.

Snuff box depicting Napoleon’s grave on St. Helena. Look for the trompe de oeil image of Napoleon in the trees.

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Sources:

  • “From Waterloo to the island of St. Helena,” by Joanna Benazet and Irène Delage,  October 2015 (translation Rebecca Young); Napoleon.org, the history website of the Fondation Napoleon
  • “Why You Should Visit St. Helena, home to the ‘world’s most useless airport’,” by Julia Buckley, Independent.co.us, Thursday, 28 December 2017

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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