From Jamestown, Napoleon was moved to The Briars, a cottage belonging to the Balcombe Family. He had seen the Briars when riding and chosen as a pleasant place to stay while Longwood House was prepared for as the permanent place for Napoleon and his retinue. At the Briars, Napoleon was relatively content, and formed a close friendship with the family’s daughter, Betsy, which has inspired writers ever since.
Napoleon and the Balcombes
On 18th October 1815, the day after his arrival on St Helena, Napoleon was taken to visit Longwood, and on the return journey the party stopped at The Briars to visit the Balcombes. Napoleon spotted the Briars Pavilion, and requested he be moved there, lower Jamestown already being too hot and too full of curious spectators for his liking. William Balcombe agreed and Napoleon moved in immediately. He remained at the Briars Pavilion until he moved to Longwood House on 10th December 1815. By a remarkable coincidence, the Duke of Wellington had also stayed with the Balcombes, during his visit in 1805.
Having established good relations with the Emperor during his stay at the Pavilion, William Balcombe managed to manoeuvre to provide services to Napoleon and his entourage. In addition, William’s 13/4-year-old daughter Elizabeth Lucia (‘Betsy’) Balcombe was the only family member who spoke French and she became the Napoleon’s translator (the relationship between Napoleon and Betsy Balcombe has subsequently been the subject of much comment.) For all of these reasons, Governor Hudson Lowe became suspicious of the Balcombes (as he was too of Saul Solomon), and in 1818 the Balcombes were forced to leave St Helena and return to England.
A deep friendship quickly developed, with Betsy being allowed to claim that all Frenchmen ate frogs (which she even illustrated with a cartoon) without apparently enraging the former Empereur des Français, and when Napoleon’s companion Les Cases took offence at Betsy’s antics Napoleon admonished him, not her. It seems Napoleon was particularly indulgent with children because when Betsy’s younger brother Alexander referred to him as ‘Bony’ Napoleon was simply curious (being amused the child perhaps thought he was thin) rather than annoyed at the diminutive.
He even allowed, with no sign of protest, Betsy to play-threaten him with a real sword until her sister Jane intervened. Napoleon played at blindman’s buff with Betsy and entered into the spirit of the game as heartily as a child. He pleaded with her father on Betsy’s behalf that she be allowed to attend a ball being given at Briars House; successfully
Napoleon presents flowers to Betsy and her sister. Source:
The Briars. Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
On Sunday 10th December 1815 Napoleon moved to Longwood House. While this meant that he and Betsy were no longer constantly together, they remained in contact, Napoleon having extracted a promise from William Balcombe that Betsy and her sister be allowed to visit him. On New Year’s Day 1816 Napoleon sent Betsy a present of some sweets made by his own confiseur, M. Piron, in crystal baskets covered with white satin napkins and laid on expensive decorated plates.
In 1818 Mrs Balcombe began suffering from ill health. Eventually it was decided that the only solution was for her to return to England, and naturally her family would accompany her. This was the official explanation. However it is more likely that their departure was occasioned by Governor Hudson Lowe’s suspicion of the close relationship the Balcombes had with Napoleon. Eventually Lowe began investigating William Balcombe for supposedly passing letters from Napoleon to European destinations, which could have led to a charge of treason. It seems probable that the Balcombes fled St Helena to avoid any risk of Lowe pressing charges.
Betsy records in her account the tearful farewell, with Napoleon:
Soon you will be sailing away towards England, leaving me to die on this miserable rock. Look at those dreadful mountains - they are my prison walls. You will soon hear that the Emperor Napoleon is dead.
At Betsy’s request Napoleon presented her with a lock of his hair, which she kept until her death in 1871. The Balcombes left St Helena on 18th March 1818.